Lately, I’ve taken to seriously considering Citizen Revolution. By that, I don’t mean anything on the order of pitchforks, attack ladders, Mao Tse Tung or Castro, but a very studious and sane re-examination of our constitution and founding documents on the part of a well-educated and conscious citizenry. In her latest post entitled Representation, Becky Houtman fleshes out the loss of proper citizen representation in post-Katrina New Orleans; I may be optimistic and such a beast may never have lived here even before the storm.
… those living close to New Orleans are not adequate “representatives” of citizens in the uninhabitable or barely inhabitable portions of our city, however well-intentioned (or not). Public hearings, meetings, and comment periods are indispensable to democratic government, but they’re never a substitute for proportional representation.
Sometimes, especially times like ours, the representation allowed for by our constitutions and charters – the mayors, city councils, governors, senators, representatives and presidents – aren’t enough; legislation doesn’t conveniently exist for the level of public involvement required for a whole region’s reconstruction.
Becky speaks for the diaspora and their silence, self-imposed or not, in the rebuilding of New Orleans. Regardless of their desire to return to this city, there is no conduit for the input of the displaced. As for the people who are here: We see more people at Saints games than at the polls or planning meetings that readily impact the future of this city, even the continued stay of the Saints here. But, is that entirely the fault of the people or a direct result of a system designed not to engage their participation and answers they already have?
Despite its status as Broken capital of America, the lack of representation here is not a local epidemic, contained by Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi (or the Gulf of Mexico as a southern boundary, if you so choose). America as a whole worships complacence, and this is only encouraged by a system ostensibly set in stone by our Founding Fathers. Not so. Bill Maher, my favorite Libertarian, writes in A Re-Look-See At The Constitution:
Oh, Congress looks like America — we’ve got blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and whatever else is in Barack Obama. But diversity of thought? … Right, like 66-year-old grandmother of five Nancy Pelosi is some raving, twig-eating Marxist ideologue. If only she were … Nancy Pelosi isn’t going to try to legalize drugs or socialize hospitals or really tax gasoline or tell the Pentagon to cut its bloated, corrupt budget.
There’s no out-of-the-box thinking in this country. If we were really looking for a new direction, we’d not just change Congress, we’d have another Constitutional Convention, as Jefferson suggested we do. Jefferson said: “Let us provide in our Constitution for its revision. . . every 19 or 20 years. . . so that it may be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to generation.” … But that’s Jefferson’s phrase: periodical repairs. This thing needs periodical repairs, but it hasn’t been in the shop for 219 years. Of course it’s belching oil. Literally.
America had its chance to diversify and radically alter the face of its government. At the hyperlocal level, New Orleans has a lot more leeway and has every reason to think outside the box. But, it doesn’t. For, as Becky suggests, the representation afforded by our current system of local government is insufficient. New Orleans cannot reform or re-form within the boundaries of a set of rules too outmoded to be useful. While lame duck is the political term-du-jour, it readily applies to many local-, state- and federal-government-sanctioned efforts going on here.
Constant communication is key. A couple of suggestions to overcome this feeling of uselessness on both sides of the apparent fence:
1. Make friends with your government representatives and continuously instill in their heads the idea of progressive change. Conscientious and involved individuals may get more mileage out of their effort by teaming with members of City Council and Government, constantly bringing them back to reality and offering them the tools and ideas with which to break down the barriers of the box.
2. As we have recently shown, the power of citizen journalism is tremendous. It would not be inappropriate in the New Orleans of today for government members and their contractors (such as UNOP, etc.) to become more active on local and diasporic blogs. If they listen and respond, they may get a better idea of how to help shape things. Communication need not be relegated to overstuffed meeting rooms and offices.
In so many ways, our hands are tied, but we move forth at the level of neighborhood, planning district, school and hard-forged community bonds. This is not enough; the slow pace of decision-making puts viable recovery in great peril. We have to garner more of the power we voted for. Within our heads and hands lies the future of New Orleans. And the future of America.