I spent a couple of years, a very long time ago, in state government. When I left, I wondered if it had been ego or naivete that made me feel I have actually made a difference. I've been thinking about this for a few days after my old friend, who grew up with me, blew into town for lunch on Friday. Paul is now retired, after serving without passion for 25 years as a government lawyer in Washington, DC. He's glad to be done with it and gladder for the pension that allows him to spend most of his time getting serious with his passion with photography,
Paul lived in government for a long time. It s the dominating culture of where he lived most of his life. He knew the people whose passion was like mine when I went into government, who believed that they really could change a system; that they really could serve people and make the lives of citizens better. As years went by, and those that stayed, got promoted, they started acting and thinking like the elders they had replaced. Government got bigger and less effective and they grew more apathetic and their purpose was the inevitable pension rather than helping people in a democratic system.
That's one thread of four that I'm braiding in my mind. The second is the very cynical voices I am hearing from American voters on Twitter, where I talk politics far more often than I do here. I've often chatted with LizWebPage , who is usually optimistic and even more frequently funny in her 140-character missives. But when it comes to this imminent presidential campaign, Liz has a dark and frightened view of how it will come out. I asked others if they felt the way she did and the majority--particularly among voters under age 35 seemed to share the feeling that this voting stuff was just a game engineered by Carl Rove and equally dark manipulators.
At lunch, I told this to Paul, who nodded his agreement. The system, he said, was hopelessly corrupted, and he no longer saw a way to fix it.
The first place that I visited that was governed by what I considered to be less than a Democracy was Singapore, in 2004. I went, expecting to encounter an oppressed people under the powerful thumbs of an uncaring government. I wonder, once again, if it was ego or naivete that set my expectation. I met some incredibly capable people in government, who displayed great passion about education, technology and well-being of Singaporeans. I met quite a few citizens who seemed overall happy about their lives under the existing (unopposed) president and his regime. They had their complaints, but they were no greater and perhaps less than those I hear from Americans on Twitter. And they spoke freely about them, with polite requests that I do not cite them in my writing. My dialog with several has continued for four years.
One recently observed that people anywhere will fight back if you repress them beyond a certain point, but it hasn't happened in Singapore because the basic human priorities are met -- safety,
As an American, the word "Katrina" rolls through my brain. Sometimes our democracy doesn't even try to meet those same requirements. It is one of many examples where our democracy, which is elected to serve the needs of its people failed to provide basic servers to people who had fallen into harm's way.
I go to China in six weeks. I started writing about the world's largest country only six months ago, when I cited a UN report that said China had lifted 300 million people out of poverty in a generation. I was surprised by the hostility and factual inaccuracy of some of the people who commented about China, it's policies and the government that has evolved in the 32 years since Mao's death.
I too had misconceptions about the relationship between China's government and its people. I have spent a fair amount of time reading what I can and speaking to Chinese people, particularly those who Chinese involved in social media. "You think of our government, ' one of my new friends told me, "like the Bourne identity--listened, watching able to eliminate anyone, anywhere. It's not that way. It's more like your government, more like your Keystone Cops. Officials running all over the place, in all directions, barely getting anything done."
There are many actions of the Chinese, or Singaporean governments that I don't like. Then again, I'm aware of the facts in more cases of my own government's actions that I consider pretty untenable. But what is clear to me is that both of these governments, who do not allow two-party votes for their highest offices, have agreements with their citizens. These agreements ensure that life will be stable and it will improve. That freedoms will come at a pace which ensure social stability, and that sitting here in California, I have limited access to the big picture in either country. So I bring them in to this conversation, not to judge them, but to challenge my own basic premise.
That premise has been part of my own conventional wisdom all my life: that America's way of governing s best because it allows the most freedom and that most people in the world would like to have our way of life and government.
I think in emerging countries, stability, health, education, housing are inalienable human right, just as they are supposed to be here. But I think a case is emerging that our particular system may not be the best at all times and in all places.
And I think that before we judge our global neighbors, Americans need to spend a great deal of time and energy in getting or own house in order first. Which brings me to the 5th and final thread in the rope that connects this--social media. In social media we have the opportunity to restore the voice of our citizen. We have the ability to talk directly with those who govern us, and are supposed to serve us. We have the ability to bypass the admen and Carl Roves who use traditional communications to deceive us, to by lies that hurt us.
We have just begun to use conversational technology in this light. Until very recently, politicians used social media to get message out and campaign contributions in. But new ways of conversing are happening, such as the Contact TV-Twitter project I wrote about earlier this week. That project itself is relatively minute when one looks at the challenges we face to restore American faith in the American system, but as Malcolm Gladwell, told us in his Tipping Point subtitle, little things can make a big difference.
Or, the other thought is, that at this late date in my life, I still have the ego and naivete to believe people like us can make a difference.