Tuesday, April 28

The Good Wife and democracy in America

In Episode 19 of The Good Wife, Alicia Florrick thought she had won the election for State's Attorney. Whatever. I didn't like that plot line and wondered about the trajectory of the show if she actually was in the SA's office, but I was not expecting Season 6, Episode 19 to cause me such ojida, such nausea.

In my opinion, Alicia has tried to be the good soldier. While she is not St. Alicia, she mostly strives to err on the side of ethics and integrity. What I witnessed in Season 6, Episode 19 left me wondering how we can call ourselves a democracy. And why, with SuperPacs and lobbyists, any of us bother to vote.

In a critical scene [spoiler alert!], Alicia is told by the Chair of the Democratic National Committee to stand down, that "the party" will find her a role and will take care of her. She was told her sacrifice was for the good of The Party, that they could not afford to lose the majority or call attention to other elections. Then she was betrayed by a party lawyer who previously had claimed to be for ethics and integrity but who, in front of the election board, claimed Alicia had been lying to him. Why? "Two-thirds majority." In other words, her individual role, integrity, worth, etc. was sacrificed to and for The Party.

I wanted to throw up.

Today I read this article about our stunted democracy. It echoes some of what I was thinking the other night as I wondered how our elections and electoral machinations really look to the rest of the world, and I wondered why anyone would want to replicate the US-style of democracy.

Every year Americans complain about robo-calls, emails, direct mail, and incessant radio and TV ads. Every year Americans complain about candidates who campaign dirty and that, because of SuperPacs and lobbyists and what we think we learn by watching The West Wing and The Good Wife, we are all being manipulated by half-truths and spinning so it's a wonder the candidates can remember what they think they stand for. . . today. . .this ten minutes.

Meanwhile the professional media people and amateurs are eager to find something that gives them the opportunity to point a finger and shout "Aha!" and chortle that they "found out" something suspicious or whatever about a candidate.

Our democratic system is seriously messed up. State and federal not-really civil servants are too busy protecting their legacies, their potential libraries, and their re-elections to do anything that might be meaningful. They don't want to make the hard decisions because they might not be re-elected. That's like saying you won't buy a new car or computer because you want the latest and greatest features. Ain't gonna happen. So failing to make hard decisions to get re-elected means failing to do the job for which you were elected. The irony is appalling.

What isn't messed up is that I have the freedom to say this. I also have the freedom to try to change things, but, like many others, I'm perplexed how to go about that. The laws favor the people who are running for election not those who want to vote. Lobbyists will also be closer to my representatives and better able to "leverage" their interests and inclinations. All I have is a vote. And we've shown that voting the current bums out of office seems to mean we only get different bums.

And yet, the power of the American system is that we can keep voting and we have more than one choice and as long as The Party allows people to practice democracy, we can exercise our right to vote. On the other hand, if The Party spends much of its time making sure its preferred candidate gets and stays in power, well then, we're a complete failure at democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, Volume II (1835):
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described, might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom; and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people. Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite; they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain. By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.
So much has changed; so little has changed.

Sunday, April 26

Be so good

It's been making the Facebook rounds. Yes, I shared it, but with stated mixed emotions. I like the concept that when someone is really good at something it's hard to ignore that skill or talent or ability.

I don't like the idea of striving to be really good at something just to garner attention. I get that. I get wanted to be recognized and wondering what else I can do so others can't or won't ignore. I get feeling defeated because I am being ignored or I'm not being recognized. Believe me, I've lived this and live it.

But here's the thing: it's really dangerous for me to attach my self-worth to what others think about me. And maybe I like working in the shadows, which, interestingly, is often true. I like being the power behind the scene. Sure, I get annoyed when people take all of the glory for something they didn't do, when they don't acknowledge my work and that of others. But you know, that's going to catch up with them sooner or later.

Most days I am confident in my knowledge and my abilities. Most days.

Some days I am not. Some days I pound myself to an emotional pulp. Some days I wonder why I bother trying because there is someone better than I am at whatever it is. Heads up! Someone is always going to be better at something than I am. While there are still many unbroken records and streaks in athletics, most have been surpassed by another generation of athletes. Will some remain unbroken? Sure, but that won't stop people from trying to break them.

Even so, I don't think it's always about breaking the record or being so good you can't be ignored. I think the everyday reality for most of us is just doing our best. For most of us, our goal might be learning something new or learning how to do something better. Most of us are grateful for the opportunity to stretch a little, to find a better or more creative ways of doing what we do, to hone our crafts and refine our skills, and to help others get their footing and find their way should they be in the same line of work or the same profession.

In his autobiography, Ben Franklin stated he asked himself these two questions every day. In the morning he asked, "What good shall I do this day?" and in the evening he asked, "What good have I done this day?"

It occurs to me that being so good others can't ignore me is profoundly selfish. Yes, I want to be recognized for my abilities and talents. But I also want to use my knowledge and skills to help others in whatever ways make sense. And, at the end of the day, I want to know that I did what I could to make my world, my small spheres of influence a better place. At some point in my day, someone will acknowledge, even if only to themselves, something I did that mattered. In that way, perhaps, I won't really be ignored even though I won't be publicly recognized either. I can live with that.

Thursday, April 23

The power of the shush

I'm being facetious. I've been sitting in an office area adjacent to a school library for most of the morning and, for most of the morning, I've heard people "ssshhh" others.

What's funny to me is that the ssshhh-ing is often louder than the murmuring of the students. It's not like the kids are taking a test, but they are supposed to be working on something. And, apparently, in absolute silence. High school students. Absolutely quiet. Okay, well, I'm all for wishful thinking and optimism.

I've been at other schools in which teachers have sought to master the power of "ssshhh," or the power of the shush. With little success. Mostly with no success, to be honest.

In one situation, I was able to witness the escalation of the "ssshhh." The teacher began with the short, quick exhaled "ssshhh." Fine. That worked with the group of elementary students for about, mmmm, 30 seconds.

Then the murmuring began again and the volume increased ever so slightly. The teacher exhaled a slightly longer and slightly louder "ssshhh" accompanied by the raised eyebrow. Near silence for several heartbeats.

The student noise moved quickly to chatter. The "ssshhh" came sooner and louder followed by the teacher getting up and walking purposefully around the room, stopping to whisper to select students, generally the provocateurs of the disruption.

The teacher returned to the table to work again with the small group of students and had barely begun when the chatter erupted and a bit louder. The teacher stood up and executed a "ssshhh" accompanied by spittle and a general classroom-scanning stinkeye. Most students quieted, a few giggled.

The room remained quiet for a few minutes except for the flipping of pages and scratch of pencils. Then a student asked another a question and it was like the top popped off shaken bottle of pop (or soda, if you prefer). Whoosh! Chatter, though, mostly about the work at hand. Even so, the teacher really, really, REALLY wanted quiet so the teacher stood up and practically screamed "You need to be quiet!!"

Stunned silence. The minute hand on the wall clock clicked. Students put their heads down to work and finished their work in relative silence but that's because they started passing notes. I did not giggle but I did struggle not to smile because, in my wanderings around the room, the kids were asking each other clarifying questions or to borrow something. In other words, they were mostly on task.

I still wonder if they would have stayed on task had the teacher allowed them to talk quietly or if the teacher knew even quiet talking would lead to the students going off task.

I've been in meetings and movie theaters when others have tried to shush offending talkers around them. I think the talkers do what they do for a couple of reasons. First, they believe that whatever they have to say is Vitally Important and Cannot Wait. Second, if what they have to say could wait, they don't realize how loudly they whisper or that speaking softly often is louder than they realize. Third, as they try to have their quiet conversations, regardless of the situation, they don't realize that they start to speak louder to talk over what's background noise to them.

Recently I was in a workshop and the people at the back table were talking about a point made by the presenter. The presenter was still presenting, of course, and she was speaking loudly so the back table started talking a little more loudly to hear themselves so the presenter started talking a bit more loudly, and so on. The back table was shushed by another table caught between the speaker and the back table. I've been in situations in which the loud talkers looked embarrassed or mortified and others in which the loud talkers looked annoyed they'd been shushed. This group seemed a bit embarrassed and got quiet so the speaker was able to modulate her own volume.

All in all, I know there is some power in the shush, even if fleeting, depending on the situation and those who are being reprimanded for being noisy--and their belief in their right to be noisy.