August 14th, 2009

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When Activism Isn't

The following article caught my eye today:

Howl

If you've ever wondered what lurks at the very bottom of the American political barrel, look no further than the scenes that have been playing out in health care town hall forums across the nation over the last couple of weeks. Members of Congress who favor President Obama's health care reform program returned to their districts to speak to their constituents about the details of the president's plan, and were greeted with howls, screams and shrieks from right-wing protesters bent on blowing the whole process to pieces.

No debate. No conversation between intelligent parties. Just yelling.

I've been watching the scare tactics used in town halls that are trying to discuss health care. The Republicans claim that these protests are part of a respected American political tradition. (Yes, activism is; funny how they don't seem to feel that way about other peoples' protests.) The Democrats say that these protests are aimed at shutting down the whole process, which is happening in some cases as multiple meetings have been cancelled (or not scheduled in the first place under circumstances that normally call for such) for fear of disruption, and that this is a problem.

This got me thinking ... what is activism all about? What is the purpose behind it? Activism is what you do to make people pay attention. It's all about driving a message home when the mainstream has decided to stick its fingers in its ears, sing LA-LA-LA, and pretend that you and your inconvenient truth don't exist. You do something they simply can't ignore. But at the core, activism is about opening communication.

These protests are about shutting down communication. Town hall meetings are a fundamental democratic process for giving locals a chance to discuss important issues with their representatives and each other. People are going into these meetings and simply screaming so that other people cannot hold a discussion. That's not activism. It's not aimed at convincing others that the speaker's stance is better. It's aimed at making communication impossible. That is not a respected American tradition.

You have a right to your opinion. More specifically, you have a right to your informed and articulated opinion. You do not have the right to prevent discussion of the issue on which you have an opinion -- not just because people on the other side have a right to their opinion, but because some people on your would like to try convincing people on the other side that your side makes more sense.


By the way, I want to thank all the folks (on various sides) who have been working hard to carry on a rational discussion of health care reform here with representation of arguments for and against it, pros and cons, challenges, problems that we all agree need to be solved but don't all agree on exactly what would achieve that, wildly divergent personal experiences, and all. The more perspectives we get, the more things we uncover that one or two people thought of that others haven't and the media isn't discussing either. We're trying to find common ground, where we can work together on stuff we agree about instead of fighting over stuff we disagree about. We're fielding a lot more options than the government is considering. Even if Washington drops all the eggs it's trying to juggle, we have ideas for some individual aspects of health care that can be worked on at lower, smaller levels.

Even though this is a topic that I normally prefer to avoid like the plague, it's important enough for me to make the effort to manage a discussion of it as long as I can, with as broad an array of articulate positions as I can gather. I'm proud of you-all for contributing to that effort, because explaining your reasoning over and over again to people who don't share it is 10 times harder than just screaming. Whether you're passing me links to articles on some aspect of the debate that I haven't covered yet, or defining your terms in comments, or pointing out "Yeah, but ..." pitfalls, or sharing stories of what has or hasn't worked in your experience, or looking up references to support your arguments -- THIS is what makes a democracy work. Not the tantrums in the town halls or the baksheesh in Washington. This. The point where "I disagree" is not the end of the debate but the beginning: what comes out of that equation is democracy.