Civics, not Celebrity

The topic is now prominent in the presidential campaign. It would have been nice if Obama hadn’t responded to the celebrity charge in the way he did (you’re a bigger DC celebrity than me). Peter Levine posts a message Obama could still employ.

This statement acknowledges the principle behind the opponents attack, examines the dangerous forces of celebrity culture and its negative impact on political life, sees oneself as implicated and not above the problem, takes the high ground and sets the terms of a new debate by asking the attacker to join ways to support counter-institutions and habits — various forms of local civic and communal participation. Well done, Peter. After the fold I share challenges of CIVICS not CELEBRITY in my civic education work. Here’s some snippets from Levine’s post:

“John McCain has been running ads associating me with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He has been criticized for those ads, but I believe they reflect a deep concern that I share with him…

I can hardly believe the appetite for news about Paris and Britney–and now Angelina and Beyonce–when there are wars going on, and the earth’s climate is shifting dangerously, and our people are losing jobs and health coverage. Not only are there serious problems to read about; there are also wonderful people doing amazing things to solve our problems. They work together at the grassroots level, leading organizations, cleaning up the environment, mentoring kids, creating art and culture. But these real, active citizens get one thousandth of the attention of a single Hollywood star breakup…

“I recognize that my family and I are in some danger of being sucked into the celebrity culture. By definition, the presidential nominee of a major party is famous…

I know from years of community organizing, college teaching, and working in a legislature that what really matters is not what celebrity gossip is about. Real work is done by serious people working together out of the limelight, not by a few people who have become famous for being rich and sexually active.

“The government cannot ban or censor celebrity culture. It can support local civic engagement, education, and arts as alternatives. And our leaders can speak out against the culture. In this, I would gladly join my Republican opponent.”

I’ve also tried to address CIVICS not CELEBRITY. In 2002, colleagues at the Close Up Foundation grew concerned about our students Capitol Hill Day experience. Once a highlight of the student’s week studying in DC, Capitol Hill Day was receiving more complaints. Meeting with their Congressional representatives was growing less common due to the Republican’s shortening of the work week to Tues-Thur. In fact, Party leaders expected members to return to home districts Friday through Monday.

A shortened Congressional week came from two good intentions by the 1995 Republican Revolution in Congress: 1) members would maintain better connection with their constituents, thereby not becoming part of the nefarious Beltway mentality 2) Congress would have less time in DC to act like the Big Government Democrats who had just lost power. I’ll leave it to others to assess the success of this plan to achieve its goals.

What I can describe is the reduced quality of interaction between members of Congress and our student groups (also called constituents). In three DC workdays member of Congress had to attend to committee responsibilities (hearings, bill mark-ups, votes), strategize legislative priorities with staff, participate in floor votes and debate, receive issue briefings, respond to the press and participant in interest group meetings and events. Can you believe some flew to DC Tuesday morning and left Thursday afternoon? High school students and their teachers did not always rise to the top of member’s priorities. When they did meet with student groups, members often arrived for 5 minutes of photos and handshakes. Once it was common for student groups to be taken to the House or Senate floor by the member, receive a personal Capitol tour or even eat lunch together. These occurrences were growing rarer. There was always a difference between Senate and House meetings as well as between more populous and smaller states. Yet the reduction of quality interact trended across the board.

Making matters worse for students and teachers, security at the Capitol, Library of Congress and Supreme Court — amazing buildings for them to explore when not in those frustrating and brief meetings with their members/staff — increased security lines at each door while restricting visitor access through the buildings. In fact, the experience of visiting the Capitol Building itself went from a delightfully chaotic quick visit to, frankly, an authoritarian experience of Disneyland. Visitors were no longer allow to visit spontaneously on their own, tickets and extensive were now required. Once inside, the guided tour was packed with humiliating orders about noise and standing location. Several times I saw downtrodden tourists not curious about anything mentioned. They were simply waiting for the tour to end and relieved when out of the Capitol. Getting to the galleries to see chambers of Congress in action, once simple, was now arduous and very time consuming.

So, what’s a civic educator to do here? We developed a theme for our staff. “It’s about civics, not celebrity.” We dedicated more schedule time to prepare students to engage with Congressional staffers. Students were trained how to comprehend and maneuver bureaucracy, and not be intimidated or impeded by it. For example, it is common for a student to ask about the Senator’s views on the War in Iraq, or fixing education. The legislative assistant with whom we met would cover three issues, say taxes, health care, and agriculture. Students would often be told, “I don’t handle those issues so I can’t really answer that.” Our staff the night before role-play this situation the night before, encouraging students to follow with,”Can you give me the name and email of the person in your office who can?” Civics is about these skills! To give students greater sense of responsibility and ability in these meetings, and not sit back and wait for a member to walk in and take a picture, was a huge struggle, not always successful. But the new problems helped focus us on sets of skills which we’d assumed weren’t necessary to teach.

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