Monday, March 20, 2006

Ain't no "they" there. Just us chickens

When I first started writing in college, one of my newspaper commentaries referred to "them." Ken Olcott, the advisor, asked me who "they" were.

"Oh, you know - them. The powers-that-be."

"The ubiquitous they who get blamed for everything?" he asked. "In that case, "they" don't exist."

It was a good lesson, one I'm still trying to adopt.

Surely such a demarcation line really does exist, regardless of what Ken (rest his soul) told me. They cannot be we. If we are they, then we are hella fucked-up in the head, and everything bad has our name on it. And in the abstract, that's true. Directly? Not really. Obviously, we are to some extent not them. But they are truly us, if you get my drift. Everything our government's doing, we own. We either voted for them, didn't vote hard enough in numbers large enough against them, or didn't vote at all. Saving our ever-important civic duty for American Idol, one supposes.

In many ways, though, we aren't them. Obviously we don't set fiscal policy, start wars, garner millions and small groups of us don't make decisions that impact the entire nation. But let's put that aside and focus instead on the fact, in the broader sense, there really is no "they."

Such delineation strips us of power, for one thing. As long as we're speaking academically about government, the media, even the economy our powerlessness is inherent and assumed. "What can you do?" we say with resigned sighs. "They run things."

But. . .we own them, as a governing body. That's our grandparents and great grandparents democracy speaking. The number one civics lesson all of us seem to have forgotten. Their workings should not be mysterious and shadowed; if we hired them, we have rights to see their output, both in volume and content. When we fail to demand our rights, we lose them. Simple as that, in some ways.

The same goes with the media. While I do rail on the media nearly daily in real life, I recognize that we no longer really own them. That's the problem. Their purpose as defined - to inform the general public of what's actually happening - is no longer operable. We stopped reading; they stopped being beholden to us and became corporate lackeys. Not the reporters, per se: they're trying to make a living. But the editorial staff, and most importantly, publishers. Still, it's not that hard to find good media. One need only look a bit farther, or a bit closer, than the WaPo and NYT. Your local papers still try to represent your interests. If not, their free weekly counterparts do. Add the media view from outside the US - The Guardian, IndyMedia, etc. and a picture emerges, ground more in reality than corporate profit.

Ultimately, though, media is made of people. No monolithic entity that breathes, types and thinks in lockstep. (Well, maybe Fox News - but who doesn't recognize those biases?) So when you hear "liberal media" or "conservative media" it's best to realize this group's thinking is heterogenous and therefore varied. Smaller groups of right-leaning and left-leaning organizations do exist - more online than any other media outlet - but they're easily recognizable. And it is up to us, we the discerning readers, to recognize and assess bias.

When people talk to me about economics, a common refrain is that it's "too hard" to understand. Bush cheerleaders tell me the economy is doing good, and the ubiquitous they - media, economists, concerned individuals - are either lying or wrong.

But we don't need such assessments, really. And we don't need no stinking graphs, or Laffer Curves or economic theories to really know the truth. Each of us lives the economy. We are the economy. Our job markets are either shrinking or expanding; we either have more or less discretionary income; housing, food, clothing, gasoline, college: they're either more affordable or becoming unprocurable. Our debts - both personally and nationally - are either becoming more manageable or out of control. So, you tell me: is the "liberal" media making these things up, or is our economy tanking?

In order to seize back our control of this democracy, we need to stop delineating between us and them, and not allow our own perceived limitations derail common sense. You and me: we're the government, the media and the economists. With or without specific education in these areas, we have enough knowledge, and access to more knowledge, to sift the truth from the lies. But until we stop seeing these groups as somehow divorced from our lives, or too complex, we hand our power, and our democracy, to bad stewards whose best interests are vastly different than our own.

As the quote goes: You may not take an interest in politics, but politics takes an interest in you.
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