From OWS to despots and in-between: Some brief thoughts on political expression

Back on an earlier post, Lynn T said:

Bud, you are right. Some may not like this form of expression as much as a Rotary meeting, but it is as legitimate. I went by the State House, and I didn’t notice any more crudeness or noise than is common in Rotary-type settings. I don’t recall Rotary being designated as an arm of our government either, just a bunch of self-selected folks doing their thing, and assigning it importance in their lives. Good for them, may they live long and prosper. I do a good bit of what Brad regards as legitimate working through the system. I write letters to representatives and get thank-you-for-sharing letters back, or worse, outright snideness in response to civil letters. I’m glad these folks are out there on the State House grounds, tilting the apple cart a little to side, if not upsetting it.

In response, I wrote this:

Something got confused somewhere… when did anyone suggest Rotary as “an arm of our government” or anything remotely like that. Who held it up in any way? I mean, I write about speakers I hear there, people ask me questions about Rotary, and I answer them. I don’t remember holding it up as some exclusive repository of legitimacy [nor is it a means of political expression — only recently, gauging their questions during Q and A of a string of political figures, have I come to have an idea of the political leanings of much of the club] …

Then… I also don’t recall declaring the illegitimacy of the Occupy Columbia people, either. I have never suggested that they should not be allowed to do what they’re doing. I HAVE suggested that it’s a waste of time, and not helping anything.

I believe that when people have something to say, they should think it through, refine it to some extent, discuss it with others, refine it some more, then clearly state what they mean — something that can’t be done with a sign in a demonstration. I also have a general abhorrence of mob demonstration, because of the way it subsumes the individual’s ability to think and express himself as a rational being.

To speak as a large crowd, each person has to surrender much that he or she would have to contribute as an individual, and settle for a lowest common denominator. Otherwise, it’s impossible for the crowd to speak with ANY coherence (which is where we are with the “Occupy” protests). Worse, a crowd often communicates no thought at all, but a vague, shared sentiment. (Again, we’re talking “Occupy.”)

I don’t like crowds of football fans, or worshipful rock ‘n’ roll fans, either. Much less when people try to express themselves politically through mass demonstration in the street — generally speaking (as I’ve said, I believe there are instances in which a rational, moral objective is clear enough to be effectively communicated in this way).

This may sound odd coming from a (more or less) communitarian, but only if you think my community orientation is that of a crowd of people singing “Kum-ba-ya” together. No, I believe people should come together in groups small enough to achieve a synthesis of rational deliberation — or, if the group is too large, through representation to make the size of the group manageable — to arrive at solutions to common challenges that are neither the will of a despotic individual nor the lowest-common-denominator, vague urges of a mob.

Call it the Goldilocks principle, if you like: neither too big nor too small, but just right.

Not all that much, but I thought it worth posting separately.

12 thoughts on “From OWS to despots and in-between: Some brief thoughts on political expression

  1. bud

    So Rotary is just the right size assembly?

    Brad and I are looking at the same thing and seeing something very different. It probably comes down to upbringing as others have mentioned before. I saw the Vietnam protests as a remarkable excercise of our rights as Americans to bring about a positive change in something that was clearly wrong on many levels. The sense of accomplishment I witness in that movement has engendered in me a sense of pride and respect for movements aimed at fighting injustice, wherever it exists. The OWS is clearly a movement that embodies the good fight against economic injustice that is ruining the middle and working classes of this country. Like all grassroots movements going back to women’s sufferage, slavery, Jim Crow )and even movements I would disagree with like prohibition) there is a uniquely American quality about mass demonstrations. Heck, even the current misguided Tea Party movement has a certain appeal to it.

    But to Brad these are just “mobs” who refuse to operate withing the system as he sees it. To him it’s better to write letters and attend board meetings and government hearings as a way to make a difference. The problem with that is there really isn’t a useful outlet to protest economic injustice that fits the civil model that Brad finds so appealing. Perhaps some day Rotary will have an OWS speaker present his/her thoughts on what they want to do. But until the movement coelesces a bit I’m sure Rotary would prefer to distance itself from what it considers “mob” rule.

  2. Karen McLeod

    I think that the OWS movement is performing a positive function even though it doesn’t have a focused statement. They are balancing out the TEA partiers, and they are saying very clearly to our legislators (the ones who respond to our letters with,at best, non-answers) that many people have noticed how disfunctionally they are behaving, and are not happy about it. OWS may not be able to enunciate its dissatisfaction with our current lawmakers clearly, but it at least makes it clear that more than Tea partiers are unhappy.

  3. Elliott

    When I first read Lynn T.’s remarks, I thought she was responding to your first criticism of the Occupiers, and her remarks made sense to me. I understand that you take exception to the word “legitimate. ” I reread your criticism, and you said,” I consider such demonstrations to be waste of time.” Try replacing the word “legitimate” in Lynn’s post with “a wise use of time.” This was the meaning I took from it. I think Lynn is asking why are the Occupiers wasting their time if the Rotarians are not. Maybe I have misunderstood Lynn’s meaning, but I wonder about your response to my question.
    I think both assemblies are examples of civic-minded people doing their duty. Neither assembly is a waste of time. I do not in any way mean this as criticism of Rotarians.

  4. Lynn T

    Yes, Elliott, you understood me correctly, and “a wise use of time” is better than legitimate. Thank you. I’ll also apologize for saying “arm of government.” I should have said something on the order of “responsible and productive way for citizens to communicate with one another.”

  5. Brad

    Bud: “So Rotary is just the right size assembly?”

    NO. No, no, no, no, no, no, no! Does anyone understand the words that I am typing?

    NO ONE said Rotary is some sort of governing body, or even an entity of any sort for political action!

    But answer your irrelevant question, NO. It’s too big. There are close to 200 people every week, and I think close to 300 members — too big to be deliberative. So if it WERE supposed to be a governing body, it would be too big for Columbia.

    And I don’t think of Rotary as being about “civic-minded people doing their duty” during meetings, Elliott. Maybe when we go out and ring bells for Salvation Army and other stuff. About the only thing we do DURING the meeting (other than pay attention to the speakers and become more knowledgeable about our community) is toss a buck or whatever into the Alzheimer’s research buckets.

    How did we get on this Rotary kick anyway?

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    You argued that OWC is a waste of time. Others have argued that Rotary is a waste of time. The waste-of-time-ness of either does not depnd on the other, but I think we are arguing that both have their legitimacy and usefulness.

    I think some of us [ahem] believe in the “service above self” stuff more than others. Rotary is a service organization, and while the Columbia Rotary chapter seems to have defined that heavily as check-writing in exchange for hob-nobbing, the standard model is a bit more hands on.

    I think JT’s choce of speakers might lead some to wonder if there isn’t some politicization going on–but I guess he’s just reflecting the choices of the voters and his choice to book pack ’em in celebrities–if you are going to book celebrity politicians instead of a cross-section of viewpoints, it does start to look like Fox “News”…

  7. Brad

    I don’t even know how it was that we got to comparing the two. (I’d have to go read that other thread to remember, and I’m too busy.) It wouldn’t occur to me to compare them…

  8. Brad

    The important part, to me, of what I was saying starting with the graf that begins, “I believe that when people have something to say…”

    I was trying the dismiss the Rotary reference as neither here nor there, not hold it up for comparison…

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    Sure, it wouldn’t occur to you to call yourself a hypocrite, but I believe that was what was behind the comparison….not that the comparison is particularly valid.

  10. bud

    I may have been the first to bring up Rotary. My only point was that there are many ways to exercise our right to freely assemble and redress for grievances. Rotary is a formal way to do so and the members have a great deal of access to the inner workings of the political system. It’s not a governing body in any sense of the word but it does seem to hold some sway over the political discourse in our community.

    OWS is another outlet for those to assemble and express their opinion. Few of these people could have access to Rotary or other “conventional” avenues of connecting with politicians. The best the OWS people could do is attend a town hall meeting event. And that hardly carries the same weight as rotary.

    But in concert with thousands of others the issue of economic injustice can be communicated. At first crudely then eventually as a more refined movement. That’s how women’s sufferage began along with the other movements we’ve discussed here. It took a while but finally in 1920 all women in the US were given the right to vote.

  11. martin

    RE: Rotary. I don’t know nothing ’bout no Rotary, but, it seems to want to put itself in the middle of politics. It certainly did not impress me when it allowed a politician who had disgraced himself, his family and his state to use it as a forum in towns across the countryside to “apologize” for his failings.

    The other day, you had something about J. T. Gandolfo being in charge of arranging the political types that have been speakers lately. He is the guy who gave/loaned Will Folks the Corvette that was an early Sanford scandal, right? I may be confused. But, it leads back to earlier topic about business lobbying and influencing politicians. That’s obviously what Gandolfo is doing. He’s getting points with the pols for setting them up in an upscale, pretty much on their own terms press conference. He probably expects to get something in return for doing that, if nothing but further access. They will take his call when he needs something.

  12. Brad

    Hey, we even let the womenfolk into Rotary nowadays…

    I fully take Bud’s point about access. If you’re not a Rotarian, though, it’s a little hard to imagine how that works.

    The reason we’ve had a string of speakers lately who cause the media to come out and cover our meetings is that this year the guy in charge of scheduling speakers is J.T. Gandolfo, the car dealer with a penchant for promotion. J.T. has been going all-out to fill the seats and draw attention, and it’s been working.

    That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another, and it fits better with Bud’s assumptions: Before the meeting started, Alan Wilson worked the room a bit. I had just sat down to start eating when he came over to me, and we exchanged pleasantries. I’ve always gotten along cordially with Alan.

    Of course, Alan was working the Rotarians, but he only had time to hit a few that he recognized. He chose me because I’m me. Once, I would have said it’s because I was EPE of the state’s largest newspaper. But now, whether it’s because such people respect me or feeling sorry for me for being canned, it’s more because it’s me. (I’m not sure how my having one of the better-read blogs fits in.)

    If only I could make a few bucks off each time someone comes up to talk to me because they recognize me that way. But to paraphrase something Mark Twain once wrote about seeking the Holy Grail, “there’s worlds of reputation” in being me, but little money…


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