Friday, August 22, 2008
Democracy and Citizenship
Having just returned from my studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, I must say that I have developed a new outlook on both democracy and citizenship. Benjamin Barber, in Strong Democracy (1984), describes the challenges of forging a participatory politics in a consumer driven and technological sophisticated new age. With over one-third of internet traffic driven by access to inappropriate sexual content, Barber outlines a position that technology is driven by capitalistic impulses and runs quite contrary to a democratic mission. Seeing the internet as another potent technology to get people to consume, the author's words encourages one to re-examine the possibilities of using new technologies for democratic discourse.
When people access the internet do they do so to expand their political and cultural horizons or to narrow them? For instance, do citizens only turn to one conservative blogg or news source (much like my grandfather that loves to watch TV but never strays from the History Channel and Fox News). Even though these technologies hold the potential to expand minds and promote a new form of participatory politic, are they transformative? Postman and Barber both would urge us to look at the agendas and interests affixed to new technologies before we advocate their uncritical usage to students.
One final story from my summer in London. Having had the opportunity to interact with an MP at a local cafe in London, I was drawn to the difference in constituent accountability between the states and the UK. Everyday to and from work, MP's (Members of Parliament) ride bikes, walk, and take the Underground (subway) to and from Westminster. This means that everyday these government officials must interact with and listen to the views of the people. This MP was quick to describe an interaction with a grieving mother that had lost a son in the UK assisted war in Iraq. After listing to this MP’s story, I was a bit disillusioned at the fact that most U.S. Congressional members fail to have this 'in-your face' type of public interaction.
With chauffeurs, interns that field e-mails and phone calls, suburban houses, and security that limit the degree of public interaction, maybe this is a problem in getting Congress to open their eyes and ears to the American people. In fact, it seems like the only time one gets to interact with their elected officials on a face-face level is around election time. Just a point to consider: Should we begin to mandate Congressional members walk, ride their bike, or take public transportation to work? If this argument doesn't suffice, just think how great it would look as part of an eco-friendly campaign platform!