Let's work together toward solutions
Published 11:32 am, Thursday, October 7, 2010
Editor's note: Jonathan Steinberg, deputy moderator of Westport's Representative Town Meeting, delivered the following invocation at the Oct. 5 meeting.
As those of you who have heard me offer invocations in the past know, I'm often reading a book that I find has some relevance to our deliberations on the RTM. Tonight is not an exception.
In reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent book on the Lincoln presidency, Team of Rivals -- which I thought was very appropriate reading during this election season -- I came across a quote she included from de Tocqueville.
Alexis Charles Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was a nineteenth-century French historian and political thinker who traveled to America in the 1830s to observe our peculiar brand of democracy. His famous work, Democracy in America, is oft-quoted for its candid observations and insights regarding American government and politics, commerce, religion, social interactions and, most importantly, Americans themselves.
De Tocqueville writes, "Citizens assemble with the sole goal of declaring that they disapprove of the course of government. To meddle in the government of society and to speak about it is the greatest business and, so to speak, the only pleasure that an American knows..."
These comments seem as apt today as when he wrote them over 170 years ago! We Americans love to complain about our government! No matter who
is in power, they're no good and we ought to throw them out. Nowadays, it's almost accepted wisdom that government itself, as an institution, is bad and
all its actions a cause for suspicion and distrust. If we could only find some way to get rid
of it altogether!
Well, as someone who has labored in local government for close to seven years, I beg to differ. Whether performed by part-time, unpaid volunteers such as we on the RTM or by full-time "professionals" in Washington, government is not the problem. So, who is to blame for the fact that Americans usually feel unheeded and disenfranchised, abused and taken-for-granted?
That feeling seems to be
much in the air these days. People are very emotional, dare I say angry, about how government has let them down, meddled where it shouldn't, or botched the job even where it should. There may be some justification for some complaints, but I submit that such judgments are in the eye of the beholder. We all seem to agree that government has done poorly by us, but often disagree vehemently as to what was done wrong. Regardless, we all vow to start over, out with the old and in with the new, until we become disgruntled with the new bunch we put in place. Will we ever learn?
Well, you've heard me admonish you on occasion to do your due diligence on the issues brought before us, do your homework -- before voting. For the most part, I believe we all do the best we can on that score. But I think that advice is pertinent to voters as well.
So I urge all the citizens out there, in the audience, watching on TV, or totally oblivious to tonight's proceedings or of the RTM in general, to make the effort to become better informed about the issues and about those they've elected to decide on them. I'd suggest that you not base your research on campaign ads or press conferences, but to make at least some effort to grasp the essentials of the issue -- based on real facts, not the propaganda of many cable television or radio shows. I believe we'd all be more discriminating and constructive if we paid enough attention to understand what's going on, instead of accepting at face value the manufactured sound bites that seem to confirm our worst suspicions.
Secondly, I'll recommend, as I have in the past, that the best way to make government responsive and effective is to become involved in some fashion. No, you don't have to run for the RTM, God forbid, but there are many ways to participate -- on boards and commissions, appointed committees or citizen action groups. Yes, we're all busy and it's hard to put such community interests before that of family and friends. But try! Another de Tocqueville quote, "The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens."
Ultimately, it's pretty easy to criticize others, particularly when you don't trouble yourself to really fathom any of the complexities of an issue. In my experience, it's much harder to find solutions but, when successful, it's so much more gratifying than complaining.
I'm here to tell you that we need government, and we always will, so we better get crackin' at making it more responsive and effective, transparent and accountable, yes, smaller and more efficient -- although we'll probably never make it likable!
So, as we approach the end of another RTM session, let us resolve to spend less time complaining about what we don't like and much more time devoted to becoming part of the solution -- as participants in the messy process of government -- to the benefit of ourselves and others.
As de Tocqueville also said, "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."
Jonathan Steinberg can be reached at jpsteinberg@opt