Chis Bohjalian's recent blog on town and school boards reminded me how far we have "evolved" politically since our colonial times. My experience at public meetings in both rural and urban jurisdictions (Minnesota) is not exactly the "pure" democracy one associates with the town meeting ideal or "model" originating in the early days of New England townships, idealistically portrayed in the Norman Rockwell painting of the rugged common man standing up to exercise his free speech. After all, no right is absolute. [Translation: Words can mean anything.]
To speak at a school board meeting in my suburban district, one must first sign up (registering the topic) at least a week before the meeting date. Once you are in attendance at the public meeting, only one part of the meeting (usually right before adjournment) is reserved for public participation. During that allotted time slot, you have to wait until the chair recognizes you or calls upon you and, regardless of the complexity of the issue, you are limited to THREE MINUTES for your comments. You may address the chair ONLY (not other board members) and, if you ask a question or request an explanation of some policy or action affecting citizens, the chair has full discretion whether to answer it then or take it under advisement for a POSSIBLE written response at some later time. Frankly, the whole experience made me feel pretty much like Oliver Twist in the dictatorial orphanage dining room hall, apologetically asking ("Please sir") whether he could have some more watered-down soup.
During the other parts of these public meetings, citizens in attendance are basically observers only, with protocol prescribing they remain silent while the board goes through its agenda. In an Orwellian-like setting, the board of my urban county meets BEHIND a floor-to-ceiling glassed-in area that seals them off completely from the seating area for OBSERVING citizens. [I understand on certain occasions when the board wishes to be more accessible, the glass panels can be retracted.] It's similar to viewing a state-of-the-art recording or broadcast studio through huge sound-proof glass panes, with the citizens clearly NOT part of the "performance" except during comment time when a microphone is turned on in this viewing area.
As for the "town meetings" (in name only) conducted by presidential/political candidates, from what I have heard (admittedly hearsay), they are typically tightly controlled "staged" events rather than spontaneously occurring interactions. Almost nothing is left to chance. Such staging (one might call it part of political theater) has practically become the norm in my opinion. Even houses for sale are staged. At the risk of sounding cynical and jaded, I find these "staging" trends part of a larger overall "fakiness" or lack of authenticity in our cultural life. It's one thing to "put your best foot forward"; it's another to create a completely fabricated and deceptive persona or image.
After our bureaucrats (once called public SERVANTS) have added all these regulations and staging to "insulate" themselves from REAL interaction and feedback, the political roles/processes have become largely inverted or or should I say perverted: It's the citizens who have become the servants and public officials have become our controlling, manipulative masters. As Orwell might have phrased it in Newspeak, "Serving is controlling."
For fairness and balance, one should note that many public officials are hard-working, dedicated and well-intentioned but nevertheless find themselves part of these changing atttitudes and cultural trends for which we all bear some responsibility in creating and allowing.
Causes Brenden Allen Supports