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September 14, 2007


Melissa Chase


I had a strong reaction to your post. First, I’d like to preface my following comment by saying at the outset that I am not very “politically-minded” and therefore self-admit that I lack some of the political saavy and more “technical” knowledge cited in your statement, however, I feel like I have a good enough sense of socio-economic-cultural piece from which the following comments are based. Having said that, my reaction to your comments are based more on the tone and the overall message that I surmised than the technical references that you made. When reading your post, it felt to me like the government was to blame…for everything. I guess, my challenge to you and something that I think is worthy of reflection is- who is “the government”? It seems to me that as long as the “government” is a faceless entity, it is in fact quite easy to lay blame there; however, if we look at the government as a group of representatives of citizens, then in fact the blame falls on the citizens that legitimize the government.

While I am very aware of the disparities that exist in access to power and leadership in this country delineated by socio-economic status, race, etc., I am also cognizant of the lack of ambition to mobilize politically by disenfranchised groups for those very reasons. Therefore, to state that the government “…exploited in the context of national disasters to quell public outrage and foster complacency. Cloaked behind the call for patriotism is the message: silence your protests, forget about the government’s indifference toward the safety of the public, don’t worry about its prioritization of the needs of big economic interests over the needs of the general citizenry” is founded on the assumption that the “general citizenry” is actively invested in the process. This is an assumption that is just not true in the majority of the cases. The reason why I appreciate this campaign and endorse it, is because I believe it works to empower people through education to get involved in the political process. I feel that a more effective and ultimately lasting message, in lieu of blaming the government, is one of empowering disenfranchised folks to advocate for themselves rather than modeling an ideology that only serves to facilitate the cycle of blame.



Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
I do not intend to assert that the government is to blame for every social ill that plagues our country—perhaps in my fervor that came across. I believe in the distinction between governmental accountability and personal responsibility and agree that “the blame falls on the citizens that legitimize the government.” In fact, it is precisely because we lend legitimacy to these decision-makers and decision-making bodies, that we have to hold them accountable for acting in the public’s interest.

What's the government and what's its function in the context of my post? Gov't encompasses agencies like FEMA, entities like Congress, people like our President, who as representatives of the people are supposed to act in the public’s interest. The government’s responses to both Katrina and 9/11 have severely fallen short of what we should expect, and for that reason, my frustration and outrage certainly do involve elements of blaming and shaming. When it is well founded, this is productive and is what patriotism is about.

My main point of my blog was that the call for “patriotism” often amounts to a call for silence, when what we need is more people willing to express their outrage when the government falls short of its function.

I do have to disagree with your assessment about the “lack of ambition to mobilize” among the disenfranchised. If you look at peoples’ responses to Katrina, you see mass mobilization. If you look at the recent efforts surrounding the Jena 6, you see mass mobilization as well. I think as a whole our nation can tend to be a little politically disengaged, but actually I’d argue that it’s at moments like Katrina, 9/11, and other crises that people awaken and come to appreciate the value and necessity of organizing and mobilizing. This is especially true for disenfranchised communities who have more experiences that give occasion for this awakening.

As we in the social justice community continue to work to empower people to get involved in the political process, we also have to ready ourselves for the critique they’re going to bring with that involvement. If this critique is that the government tends to neglect the interests of some and cater excessively to those of others, we have to be prepared to consider honestly and w/ an open mind whether or not more than finger-pointing is going on.

Melissa Chase

Wow! Great response- I take to heart your points addressing my comments. Indeed, I agree that as citizens we legitimize the government and in doing so that requires that we hold the government responsible when we perceive shortcomings. However, it would appear that in both instances (9/11 and Katrina) mechanisms were put in place to hold the government responsible. By this I’m referring to the response to FEMA and the 9/11 report- whether or not it is the outcome that we would like is a different story. Upon further reflection, it seems to me that your definition of patriotism is narrow in that it only speaks to domestic issues. One could argue, and in fact I believe that many did, that the decision to go to war was an act of patriotism rather than a “call for silence”. It seems to me that we both agree that a byproduct of the governments call to action, in both instances, is that the sensationalism generated by the action, displaces attention from the follow through (or lack thereof) on the domestic front. I guess I would have framed it differently; for example, I think I would have recognized the government’s responses, perhaps critiqued them, and then stated that the job is far from complete. However, it is only through this discourse that I am able to generate such a frame, so I thank you for that.

Regarding your disagreement with my assessment about the “lack of ambition to mobilize” among the disenfranchised, I think that this is to do in part with our personal bias that comprises our worldview. Among your examples of people who mobilize (with the exception of 9/11- which in my mind dealt a greater blow to the countries psyche at large) the race variable is a common denominator in both Katrina and the Jena 6. The issue of racial disparity is highly contentious and as such, one that has become easier to “mobilize”. For me, poverty is often the common denominator and race is a covariate. I recognize that this is a strong statement and please don’t misunderstand me. To be clear, I am aware that it is difficult to disentangle race from socio-economic status and I do not view these two variables in a casual relationship; however, in many instances poverty is the common denominator. Based on this assessment and congruent with my worldview of disenfranchised folks being in poverty, I stand by my claim about their “lack of ambition to mobilize”. In my experience, it is often the case that before people take political action, they take action to meet their basic needs.

Kia (TortDeform.Com)

Thanks for your comments and thoughtful points, this is a really interesting dialogue.

I agree that the definition of patriotism should reflect both domestic and international issues, but I definitely don't think the decision to go to war was an act of patriotism. The fact that almost all of the democrats and a substantial and growing number of republicans now oppose the war and regret there ever being a war shows that it's not what's best for the country, and never has been. It certainly isn't doing any good in Iraq.

About community mobilizing--yes, race is a common variable in the Jena stuff and the Katrina stuff, but I believe you can also use poverty as the common denominator and come to the same conclusion that people are politically engaged and invested in the process and that they don't suffer a lack of ambition to mobilize. The issues around which low-income communities organize are often extremely local in nature, and as these groups are undervalued by mainstream society, these efforts don't get much attention. The struggles these communities face are struggles that we as a general public don't want to hear anything about because its embarassing that anyone in our country would have to go through it.

But where there is a lack of mobilization, I don't think it stems from a lack of ambition. I would argue that it stems from the fact that many forms of political activism and political engagement are themselves a luxury that everyone can't have. While middle income and wealthy Americans are signing on-line petitions or attending rallies or city council meetings, many low income people are trying to pay their bills and feed their kids and make sure their kids get actual books (from after the 1990s) instead of photocopies. Many low-income people simply don't have the time to give to a political cause unless it's a local one that directly affects their daily life, or unless there's some creative way to do it without a big time commitment. Given the correlation between education level and income, many who are civically engaged in more traditional means just don't feel like they're an accepted part of the process, and their presence may not be being noticed.

I'm not saying that poor communities are drafting legislation while the middle class sits on its butts--I just think there are more things going on, and that even given those intervening factors, there's a good level of engagement going on in these communities. Of course it wouldn't hurt to see more disenfranchised communities getting civically engaged, but that's not to say that they're any less typical than the rest of the country.

Cristobal Josh

Melissa and Kia, you two are great debaters! I'm going to take you both out for a beer when Melissa comes to NYC.

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