Sunday, April 11, 2010

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Experiments in Apathy Busting

I've been trying an experiment lately to see if I can get some traction with my apathy busters theme without having a high profile platform from which to make my voice heard (nor the time to devote to creating and promoting a full time daily blog). So I've been posting some fairly lengthy comments on major blogs -- on pieces about democracy and the internet that have proliferated since the YouTube/CNN debate. I'm trying to provoke some counter-response, like the one from Jake Brewer.

Have a look and see if you feel like adding your two cents.

(p.s. Several of my comments are under my own name, Jeffrey Abelson -- one or two are signed: citizenslacker -- and the ones on Huffington Post pieces are signed: jrpanther).

Jake Brewer - Huffington Post
"What YouTube (and Starbucks) Should Do After the Presidential Debates"

Joshua Levy -
"Walking the Walk: techPresident Video"
(response by Micah Sifry)

Jeff Jarvis - BuzzMachine
"Debating The Debate"

Daniel Glover - Air Congress
"PoliticsTV: Top 10 YouTube Debate Videos"

Bill Scher - Huffington Post
"Why The Dems Are Going To YearlyKos"

Nicholas Kristof - New York Times
"The Voters Speak: Baaa!"

Jose Antonio Vargas - Washington Post
"YouTube Twists On Politics"

Naomi Wolf - Huffington Post
"Time for a Democracy Movement"

Saturday, July 21, 2007

YouTube/CNN Debates

Here's a link to a video question I created for the first YouTube debate.

It's about the sensitive subject of civic apathy, and the dangerous ignorance that flows from it -- a subject rarely discussed in our national political conversation, but must be lest we want to kiss off democracy as we know it.

For what is the proper role of the citizen in modern times? How informed and engaged do we really need to be? For some bleak statistics on the state of the American civic mind, check out the recent Pew study on "Public Knowledge of Current Affairs"

This study, along with a July 2 Newsweek survey, are just the latest statistical verifications of the dirty little secret in American politics -- the rampant civic ignorance among the vast majority of America's citizens. And the dismal test scores obtained in these surveys were in response to simple civics 101 type questions, like identifying the name of the Vice President or Speaker of the House. One can only imagine the scores if respondents were asked about the critical differences between competing energy policies or foreign policy strategies, or anything that actually tested a sufficient baseline of knowledge necessary to make truly informed votes for our political leaders.

So I thought I'd ask the candidates for president who among them has the courage to flip the mirror -- to challenge us, the people -- the citizen slackers -- and ask why so many of us are unwilling to invest the time and effort necessary to perform the full measure of our citizen responsibilities? And what the candidates might do to try to reverse the curse of civic apathy in America.

I don't expect to get an answer from them anytime soon. But I ask anyway.

What do you think should be done?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

You Say You Want A Revolution?

You Say You Want A Revolution?

by Jeffrey Abelson

The new precinct captains of cyberspace are in perpetual high five mode these days over the key role the internet is playing in the 2008 presidential campaigns. And understandably so, as websites, blogs, and YouTube videos have become a powerful two-way megaphone for candidates and voters alike. And that's exciting. And it's becoming more so on a daily basis for a certain subset of politically engaged, web-savvy citizens.

But outside the new media choir, the vast majority of Americans still sing themselves to sleep.

Civic apathy runs rampant in the home of the brave, and it's smothering our democracy. Not just in terms of low voter turnout, but in terms of the quality of thought that goes into the act of voting -- and the degree of disengagement in between elections. The result is a massive level of ignorance about the big issues, and the policies that allegedly address them. And if that purple haze doesn't lift soon, there'll be no way to keep this nation healthy and thriving -- regardless of who the next president is, or which party controls Congress.

America faces a litany of increasingly complex crises. That was true even before terrorism and climate change emerged to threaten us to the core. But breakthrough solutions are few and far between. Power swings left, then right, then back again -- but our chronic problems just sit and fester. Yet every four years, we act like hypnotized sheep in our self-deluded search for a new savior to help unravel this mess. As if we, the people, have no greater responsibility in the matter.

But we do. And we must. Because in this day and age, no president or party can be wise enough, on their own, to solve America's many problems. And that's when they're acting virtuously. Which is not easy in the environment we place them in. For even well-intentioned politicians become corrupted or stymied by the special interests that fill the power vacuum created by a nation of absentee civic landlords.

Will we wait for another September 11 to jolt us out of our stultifying civic slumber? Or is there some other way we can be inspired to invest in a radical upgrade of the operating system of democracy?

"You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world"
-- Lennon/McCartney --

Before you change a thing, you need to be able to identify it.

We all know the sad story about how many of our fellow Americans thought (probably still think) that Saddam and Osama were fraternity brothers, and other astonishing examples of ignorance about current events and national affairs -- but consider, and really reflect on, these less sensational but equally frightening results of recent surveys assessing only rudimentary knowledge levels:

-42% of all Americans failed to name all 3 branches of government. Forty-two percent!
-More than half don't know how many U.S. Senators we have.
-More citizens can name "American Idol" judges than can name the 1st Amendment rights.
-31% of us don't know the name of the Vice President. Of this Vice President!
-America is 49th in the world in literacy. How is that possible?
-65% of 12th graders are not proficient in reading. Think about the implications.
-31 million adults have trouble reading basic prose. Forget about analyzing the news.

Report cards like these are just incredible in a nation that claims to value education so highly. And let's not even get into foreign affairs. Recently told that Shia was one key Muslim group in Iraq, 68% of us couldn't name Sunni as the other. But, hey, we support the troops!

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,
it expects what never was, and never will be."
-- Thomas Jefferson --

The latest exclamation point on this national embarrassment comes in a new survey by the Pew Research Center which says that the average American's knowledge of national and international affairs is not only dismal, but that it hasn't improved one iota in the twenty years since the emergence of 24-hour cable news and the internet. This is true for all age groups, though it appears that young people know the least.

No surprise there, as civics education in our schools has been in free fall for a long time. And that insanity clearly needs to be healed in a hurry. But even if that were achieved tomorrow, it'll be 20-30 years before those kids are running the society. Can we afford to wait that long?

Making matters even worse for American democracy is that even among the well-educated, too many fail to set aside enough time every day to stay fully up to speed on matters of national import.

We're not just in Kansas anymore.

"You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world"

We the snoozers need a powerful and sustained wake-up call -- to lead us to a new understanding that our civic responsibility goes well beyond the simple act of voting -- especially if that vote is influenced by little more than spin-tested slogans oozing out of emotionally manipulative TV spots.

We need to be encouraged to accept the fact that 21st century citizenship requires a dedication to keeping oneself fully informed, and to conscientiously monitoring the performance of those elected to manage our collective affairs. And these tasks need to be done on a near daily basis.

Otherwise we can kiss this thing goodbye -- and have no one to blame but ourselves.

But who will dare speak to the country like that? You sure won't see any pols or pundits or mainstream news figures poking their fingers in the eye of the voter/viewer/consumer. And the soapbox is too often a counter-productive platform for music and movie stars of conscience.

There's only one sector of influence that can immediately pick up the torch from America's founding revolutionaries -- and that's the political blogosphere -- if they would choose to use their distributed power and collaborative intelligence to help spark a comprehensive civic renewal campaign. A ruggedly non-partisan, long term effort to virally infect all key nodes of the culture -- the schools, the churches, the workplace, the dinner table, the social networks, and by all means the mainstream news and entertainment media.

The internet is the enabling tool. Potentially, a miracle tool. But if we really want a revolution, then we need a message worthy of the medium. A bottom-up, culture-wide, multi-generational message that urges a new definition of patriotism -- and what it means to be a responsible citizen in these trying times.

A compelling and soulful message that helps ordinary Americans recognize that it's in their own self-interest to stay informed and engaged -- because that's how we ultimately learn how to shape national priorities, rather than be shaped by them.

In a recent speech at Occidental College, Bill Moyers remarked that when Woodrow Wilson spoke of democracy releasing the energies of every human being, "he was declaring that we cannot leave our destiny to politicians, elites, and experts; either we take democracy into our own hands, or others will take democracy from us."

But before we take it back, we first need to get a lot smarter about how to run it. Because there are no white knights are coming to save us. We really must retire that fantasy once and for all.

Yes, elections matter. Subpoena power will soon testify to that. And we surely cannot survive another disaster-in-chief. So working passionately to elect your preferred candidates is clearly noble and necessary. But on a big picture level, we need to focus not just on winning elections -- but on winning back the very idea of America -- without which we're lost no matter who sits in the Oval Office, or on Capitol Hill.

"You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You'd better free your mind instead"

There's only one way we're going to keep the American dream alive for future generations. We-the-peeps have to step up. Commit an hour or more a day to reading serious newspapers, magazines, blogs, and websites. Everybody. Every day. And that's just for starters.

Idealistic? Yes. But what's the alternative? More zero sum game, ping-pong politics-as-usual? More "trust us pros to run things?" How's that been working out for us lately?

Something revolutionary needs to happen. And it needs to rise from the roots -- from the virtual to the real world. From the Self to the Governing.

"The future does not belong to those who are content with today,
apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike,
timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas.
Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in
a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals of American society."
-- Robert F. Kennedy --

We've reached a point where it's no longer enough for disgruntled voters to simply criticize or complain about politicians, or the media, or big business and their arm-twisting lobbyists who thrive only because the owners of America aren't minding the store. It's time to flip the mirror around -- to offer some long overdue constructive criticism of ourselves -- to try to inspire ourselves to reclaim our roles as true citizen patriots.

And the internet is where that conversation can and should start -- where the seed can be planted, where the meme can be manufactured.

"You say you've got a real solution
Well, you know
We'd all love to see the plan"

It's axiomatic. If we want wiser and more effective government, we need wiser and more effective citizens. It's a simple syllogism for a self-governing society, but pols and pundits won't discuss it.

Who will then?

Political bloggers are fearless, and their voices are being heard and echoed by more and more of the mainstream press, and in turn the general public.

So imagine what might happen if -- between now and November 2008 -- the netroots were to use their increasingly loud megaphone, and almost limitless creativity, to help ignite a sea to shining sea conversation among the American people. By the people. For the people.

Imagine what might happen if masses of bloggers and videomakers and other new-media opinion shapers put down their partisan swords for a few minutes each day, and helped launch a truly revolutionary civic renewal campaign worthy of our founding ideals.

And not just for this election, but ongoing.

Want to use the wisdom of the crowd? Use it to challenge -- not just those running for president -- or those running major news outlets -- but also challenge us, the people. The citizen slackers.

Help us connect the dots -- between rights and responsibilities -- between the individual and the collective -- between civic apathy and political corruption, and all that flows from that.

Help us make all the critical connections you can think of to demonstrate that the personal is political. Never more so than today.

Blog about it. Make an endless stream of YouTube videos about it. Start a "Take The Pledge" campaign ("I pledge allegiance to the idea that I will take my job as a citizen seriously").

In short, become a tidal wave of Tom Paines -- encouraging your audience to not only adopt a new citizenship manifesto, but to fire up their friends and family as well.

Reverse the curse of civic apathy and ignorance. That’s a revolution worthy of the word.

A revolution of the American mind.

"It just isn’t worthy of us, is it Toby?
(No, sir).
It isn’t worthy of us, it isn’t worthy of America.
It isn’t worthy of a great nation.
We’re gonna write a new book,
right here, right now,
this very moment today.
You know what?
Break’s over."
-- Aaron Sorkin/"The West Wing" --