Performing citizenship

I’m in line at the elementary school. I am, whenever its snaking brings me to the door, going to perform my citizen’s right; I pay taxes and in return, I vote to decide where and how that money is spent. This is the most basic definition of citizenship, as I understand it, the people sustain the government with taxes and in return the government provides them with services; education, roads, security (laws, judges, police officers, armies), to name a few. The republic allows us to then contribute by voting, we are allowed to decide how the government will be run, by electing those who are running it. In theory. Today, before going to vote, I read a piece in Harper’s Magazine about fraud in the voting system. (It made waiting for the election results very stressful.)

I’ve been thinking long and hard about voting; all the Facebook statuses leading up to the election that talked about which candidate you should vote for and the people here at UMass that expressed to me that they wouldn’t share their political opinions in mixed company for fear of being shouted down by the liberal majority. I asked myself what kind of atmosphere we were fostering for political discourse in our community.

John Dewey (who is mentioned briefly in The Elements of Journalism, see page 21), education philosopher and rebel thinker (he and a bunch of other professors got kicked out of NYU for their ideas and they established the New School), believed that education should be freely available to all. He felt that the best way to combat black propaganda (think “Nazi”) was to keep the public well informed and thinking. To that effect, easily available education and a good press system were important to him.

John Dewey is at the top of my list of Favorite Dead White Guys. The idea that people are capable and able to make sound decisions when they are provided with all the facts and given the tools to think critically about what they’re being presented with is one of the things that has brought me to journalism.

In Harper’s (August 2011) there was an article called Visible Man, ethics in a world without secrets which talked about the kind of transparency that comes with new technologies. We open ourselves up to surveillance and data collection through our usage of social networking, cellphones, email, and search engine usage. But something else is also happening: Wikileaks, Anonymous, among others, seek to flip that surveillance on its head.

Steve Mann, from Wikipedia

Steve Mann, sousvaillance pioneer

The article brings up Steve Mann of the University of Toronto who came up with the idea of sousvaillance which is the practice of recording the structures of power, and the rest of your life, for the purpose of gathering information about them, the same way they gather information about you.

He’s gotten in trouble a few times for wearing the contraptions he’s constructed that allow him to record his day-to-day interactions, because the structures of power he’s been engaging with are possibly more uncomfortable with the idea of being recorded than the average individual.

In Page One, the discussion of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, and the difference between hacktivism and journalism were briefly discussed. The Harper’s article discusses what Assange holds to be true about transparency in government and the structures of power. In a December 2006 blogpost he wrote:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

He feels that the only way to run a responsible government is to allow the public, and if we can strive to remember that our government is, at least in theory, by the people, for the people, access to the inner workings of said government. He is essentially asking; “How are people supposed to make informed decisions if they are either ignorant of the facts or misinformed?”

That question is the same one John Dewey and Walter Lippmann were asking. As they said in Page One, it’s the same basic question that drives journalism, except that with journalism there is an added layer: the journalist tries to create a full picture of the facts: if Julian Assange creates the means to access information that was previously concealed by those in power, the journalist creates a context to place that information within: why do you care? what does it actually say? how does it affect you?

Activism is largely about getting a response: it’s about raising awareness for something. Wikipedia defines it, Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social political, economic, or environmental change.” The point of activism is that it is a directed action moving towards a political or social goal, it has an existential drive on it’s own.

Journalism is about informing the public; it’s about raising awareness in a general sense. Wikipedia defines it, Journalism is the investigation and reporting of events, issues and trends to a broad audience. Though there are many variations of journalism, the ideal is to inform the intended audience about topics ranging from government and business organizations to cultural aspects of society such as arts and entertainment. The point of journalism is to create some sense of balance. The public needs information, but raw, unprocessed information is usually completely useless to your average citizen who has a job, and a family, and other responsibilities.

The original definition of a citizen was a white male who owned a certain amount of land. This often meant that you had a relative amount of freedom to devote to your civic duties and keeping up with the issues of the time and the discussions surrounding them. Our system, having been founded on such assumptions, continues to function as if this were the case; that rhetoric has a place of prominence because everyone is already informed on the issue, that information is both available and that people have the time to devote to finding, reading, and understanding it. Most of these things are not true.

We have a right and a duty to go out and vote, among other things, because to not do so is to allow the state (and the nation) to get away with only its side of the bargain (your money, mostly) to be used to the benefits of those people who do take the time to get involved. The journalist exists to make sure that you can vote responsibly. The state needs citizens to function, the citizens need information to be able to participate in the system to the best of their ability.

I would like to apologize for whatever nonsense is contained in this post. I bit off more than I could chew and spent, clearly, a month coming and going with the writing of this post. So, it’s messy and not very well structured and probably touches on more points than is reasonable, and some day, I will come back and I will write 3 posts to explain the various ideas I touch on in this one. (FINISHED DEC 2, 2012)

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