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Creating a livable world

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  • Peter Cohen
    Dear Friends, Before I send the following piece out into the wider world, I would like to have your input and suggestions. I have been trying for some time to
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2011
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      Dear Friends,
      Before I send the following piece out into the wider world, I would like to have your input and suggestions. I have been trying for some time to encourage national organizations to create vibrant local organizations for peace and the environment. They don’t bother to answer -- in spite of the fact that they have little effect on the great issues of our day. Climate change is almost completely ignored. The peace movement may be proud of getting the Senate to pass the New START treaty, but the administration’s bargain of spending some $180 billion on new nuclear weapons facilities and modernizing delivery systems has pushed real nuclear disarmament into the distant future. 
      There must be a better way. Many peaople have said that we need a mass movement to create change, but first we must create that mass movement. My article was stimulated by reading Andrew Lichterman’s ‘Nuclear disarmament, civil society and democracy’ in the Disarmament Forum of UNIDIR. Lichterman is a lawyer with the Western States Legal Foundation and very experienced with local groups. What he has to say about the peace movement is profound.
      Can we tear ourselves away from television for long enough to build a livable world for our grandchildren? Is there any choice but trying?
      With all best wishes, Peter G Cohen

      Revitalizing Our Democracy
      Peter G Cohen

      Ultimately, it is the potential for a mobilized, determined, self-conscious and self-organized population that is the only defense of “civil society”
      and democracy against the unlimited accretion of power to the large organizations  of the modern economy and the modern state. -- Andrew Lichterman

      We are losing our democracy. It is obvious that the Congress and other branches of our government are deaf to the needs of the American people. The President's 20111 State of the Union emphasized growth through technology and innovation,  while ignoring the plight of the fifteen million unemployed and the millions of families that have lost their homes. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court abandoned a century of legal precedent to give the corporations the rights of individuals to unlimited contributions in elections, thus allowing those with money to increase their influence and override the basic principle of one vote per person.

      We have tried petitions, letters and emails, demonstrations and lobbying by national organizations to which we send money to represent us with little effect. The trade rules that have given away millions of our jobs and technologies  to foreign nations are still in effect. The people who caused the collapse of our financial system in 2008 are now installed in  top governmental positions and, to my knowledge, none of the financial crooks who destroyed out economy have gone to jail. (Though millions have been incarcerated for ‘possession’ in the failed war on drugs.)

      The greatest ever worldwide peace demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq did not keep our government from invading and occupying that nation at huge cost in lives and money. Yet, there has been no benefit to the people of our nation. Those who lied us into that unnecessary war have still not been indicted for their lies,  violations of their oaths of office and other laws of the land.

      Our government has failed to limit the discharge of greenhouse gasses that are fueling the violent storms, fire, droughts and floods of climate change worldwide. We still do not have an agency responsible for the smooth transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources, or to encourage the development of the transmission systems to carry the alternative energies from their places of generation to our cities and factories. In short, our government is not coping with the nation’s major problems, nor investing in the future of our children or the nation.

      When government fails the people it is no longer a democracy!

      These failure of our government to deal with the needs of our people is largely due to the lobbying and campaign contributions of very wealthy citizens and large corporations for their benefit. As their power increases the life blood is drained out of the United States. Workers income remains flat while corporations reap generous profits. It has not always been like this. Under Pres. Franklin Roosevelt the government worked to balance corporate power and to alleviate the sufferings of the unemployed.

      But it is not the fault of government alone that we are losing our democracy. We the people have allowed our civic life, our local organizations to wither. When they are a part of a national organization, we allow the national office  to set the agenda rather than developing our own. When they are local in focus, we tend to let a handful of people run them and thus fail to provide the opportunity to train people in democracy, in the skills of working together and of  developing policy through discourse with every member.

      We have failed to develop our own vision of the future and to work for it over time. We have failed to train our own people and develop democratic leadership.  As a result, our community is too often with characters on TV rather than the people next door. Even the unions are shrinking as a result of neglect. We absorb sixteen minutes of advertising for every hour of television, which turns citizens into consumers, focused on wanting the latest gadget or service.

      We are concerned with the morality of others. We worry about their using drugs. We worry about their sexual preferences. We worry about the private details of abortion. We  are more concerned about the private lives of our elected officials than about their effectiveness on the job. And rather than organizing for solutions to our problems, we turn to media demagogs to express our frustration.

      Democracy demands local organizing
      If we want to be heard in this large and varied society, we must organize locally, for it is the sum of local organizations that make a mass movement.
      Local organizing is also the key to getting good representation in the Congress, as representatives must be elected locally every two years. A demonstration in Washington can be ignored by your representative. Even a small picket outside of his or her office may make the news and influence their next vote on an issue. 

      The price of democracy is that it must be demanded and experienced by every generation. Encouraging participation is the key. If a meeting is dominated by the local officers or a speaker, the majority is passive. If one meets in a circle and there is opportunity for everyone to be heard, one becomes a participant, not just an attender. New ideas can be introduced and tested against the opinions of others. People who regularly participate in such gatherings will have greater respect for themselves and their neighbors, and be less subject to panic and propaganda.

      I prefer the term club rather than chapter, as it implies the social aspect of the group, which is the glue that holds it together over time. Attending a forum should have a social dimension beyond its serious discussion. Free food can allow people to share their ideas informally. People who work hard for the cause should be recognized and receive emotional support from the group. 

      The role of national organizations is to serve the local clubs. They can coordinate the efforts of clubs to focus on an issue and share the diverse opinions that result. They can lobby more effectively when they can mention the local groups in the Congress person’s district. They can facilitate the creation of coalitions on the national level, while their clubs form coalitions locally.

      Finally, I would suggest that on the local level, all people of common interest should be encouraged to work together. The peace movement, for example, has numerous national organizations for different aspects of peace work. They should all encourage their members to join the local peace club and work together. With education and outreach we can build a determined local club to support its members and work on local issues that contribute to international peace. The variety of information and strategies will enrich the local peace club in the long run. Similar coordination among the environmental groups might give them the clout to develop a national policy and the agency to carry it out.

      Issues should be seen in terms of their national and human situation. For example, the administration is hoping for growth to solve the nation’s economic problems. But unregulated growth of either population or GDP only exacerbates the production of greenhouse gasses and dangerous climate change. It is possible that automation has so reduced the number of jobs in our society that we should be looking at a shorter work week or other arrangements to share the jobs that exist now, rather than emphasizing unlimited growth as a national goal.

      Our nation has profound problems that threaten its future. Most large corporations have shown little interest in investing in that future or in our children. It is up to us, the people to organize ourselves so that democratic values and processes are exercized in solving these problems. Only by organizing can the American people assure that our children will inherit a responsive democracy that is dedicated to serving the needs of  all our people.
                                                   #     #     #

      Peter G Cohen, artist, activist and writer, is a veteran of W.W.II, a peace organizer during the Vietnam War, peace candidate for representative in 1968, Director of the New Democratic Coalition of PA in 1969-’70. He now lives in Santa Barbara, where he can be reached at <aerie2@...>

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