Bullshit and Bathrobes: The State of Our Civic Discourse
I have never been more appalled and felt more uncomfortable in a public meeting than I did during city council last Tuesday. At many points I felt like I needed to pinch myself because the sheer depravity of it all seemed more like satire than reality. There were people yelling at each other, talking out of turn, openly insulting each other, and even people coughing “bullshit” into their hands after someone made a point they disagreed with. (Come on, what are you 12?) And to think this was all over a pair of ordinances regulating the number of square feet street performers can have, and extending a “smoke free” zone half a block… Really? The experience left such a sour taste in my mouth that I almost proclaimed the death of civic discourse in it’s entirety, but held off, that is until I started reading about Congress.
At this point I feel I am ready, it’s over, civic discourse is dead, or is at least in it’s final throes. And perhaps this is a good thing, perhaps it really needs to get worse before it can get any better. And if what I saw last week, at both a local and national level, becomes the norm, then others will be hard pressed to disagree with me.
Strangely enough, I have written about this before. Last summer, during another city council meeting, I remember watching the debate about the Pogonip multi-use trail. Both sides vehemently denounced each other, organized supporters, and flooded the inbox of every city council member there, expending so much effort to derail one another without even considering the act of compromise. And yet somehow it got worse…
I am not sure exactly when it was that I cracked, or what caused it. Maybe it was Robert Norse, bounding around in a bathrobe, making side comments to anyone who would listen, or maybe it was when council member Mathews proceeded to label those in the crowd as “idiotic” for their take of the first amendment (yea, like that’s really going to help), or maybe even, it was the final clearing out of the chambers by police while a crowd booed and screamed bloody murder. But somewhere in there I really second guessed why I would ever want to be a part of this process. This, coming from someone who has worked and dedicated his entire life to local civics and politics thus far. But when an episode of Parks and Recreation seems more tame and ideal a process than what actually happens in real life, it’s hard not to throw your hands up and begin to consider living alone off the grid somewhere, devoid of human contact.
But then again, the whole ordeal is quite comical, and only serves to reinforce my perspective about what needs to change. After all, my friends and I joke that it’s not a real Santa Cruz city council meeting until someone gets compared to Hitler or Stalin. (First they banned smoking on just Pacific Avenue, and I said nothing…)
Though here is my real question, if I can barely stomach attending these meetings, then how can we expect the average person to? It’s not just inconvenient to become civically engaged, it’s downright unpleasant. This, in spite of there being a clear path forward. As my colleague Esther Kim described in her blog last week, if we as citizens, en masse, really work to fix the system, we can. The tools are there. If we can bombard each other with millions of cat videos everyday than surely we can take the time click “yes” or “no” on something like a local smoking ban. And if even 5% of our community had bothered to do so, then maybe those meetings wouldn’t be so awful. Maybe the vocal minority wouldn’t feel so compelled toward political theatre had they been given more channels to participate, and god forbid, discuss and compromise.
So what’s it going to take, what’s going to cause normal, rational people to have a “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore” moment? When are we going to make the conscious effort to take our system back from those who have hijacked it? When are we going to realize that we don’t have to do it this way anymore, that the current system is antiquated, structurally deficient, and – surprise, surprise – not capable of reforming itself?
I’m not sure when it will happen or what is going to do it, and, in all honesty, it probably won’t happen at some peak moment, but rather gradually. And as like minded individuals slowly come to realize that there are alternatives, their momentum will compound and the pendulum will swing back toward sanity.
So let me know when you have that moment for yourself. Let me know when it is, that you as an individual start to look for an alternative, when you read that one article, or hear that one person speak… When that blood vessel in your eye finally pops, let me know, because I have an online voting site to show you : )