“The price of democracy is participation.”
Slogan at the top of my old university student newspaper.
This year I tried to do the citizen thing: I confess I made a shabby job of it. At least I tried.
My shabby effort
Back in classical times you could put on your shabby cloak, wander over to mingle in the grey marble forum, and your voice would be as good as the next guy’s. Today our great equalizer is social media, before that it was the World Wide Web: “On the web, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Everyone likes to participate and be heard, right? Maybe by pounding the table in the kitchen, or sounding off in the morning at the town café among old peers, or posting an idea on a blog, or—wherever. My own blogs seem to have a really good effect. “Seem to.” Sometimes when I come up with a great new idea, and then I later see it taken up by others, well… I know it’s only coincidence. I’m not that important: More likely, when an idea is good others eventually have it too.
So maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty that maybe I didn’t try hard enough for my latest idea. I said as much to my city alderman’s communication person, Twyla Jasper, and I suppose she agreed. I had been leaving her alone because I thought she would be busy getting her guy elected mayor. But no, Twyla advised me that’s a separate function. Before that, I had tried to contact her (besides for a common law matter) merely to access her common sense as a resource for background information. Big mistake: I had no idea the city was in fact getting involved in a celebration that included singing! Four Strong Winds will be sung at our Canada Day celebration for our centennial and a half, better known as “Canada 150.” My idea? Let our kids sing the Centennial Song from 1967.
As I put it to Twyla, it’s like the joyful and triumphant Christmas carols we all sang in elementary school: You never forget some of the words. Hence both in my Friday writing group, and among a few folks in my favorite art gallery, when I started us off we all began to sing. We remembered. Wouldn’t it be nice if kids today could sing it too, and then sing it again, fifty years hence, at the bi-centennial? It’s a good song, collected as late as 1986 in my Alberta Sings songbook, and still sung by children on an Indian reservation, according to an Internet commenter.
We all sang it so triumphantly, but maybe our liking for the song was biased by our excitement at having a centennial. (Twyla nodded at this) You see, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was airing exciting TV clips. My favorite (memory is dim) was when the camera panned up to the very top of a mountain, then showed three people in black formal evening attire, with instruments, performing a “minuet and trio.” The elegant narrator proclaimed, “Plan your centennial project now.” According to Wikipedia, the CBC ran a short clip of a man like the Pied Piper, leading a bunch of kids along a grassy field as they sang the Centennial Song. How nice. How surprising, when the CBC phone rang off the hook. All across the land—that’s five and a half time zones—people requested the sheet music for the song. Very popular. You could hear it on the radio, and through the doors of many classrooms.
Here’s a comprehensive June of 1967 news article about the story of that song. (link)
Here’s a link to a Youtube video of uniformed school kids walking and singing at Expo 67, not the original clip that ran on TV. (link)
You can find Youtube stills of historical 1967 pictures, and of proud Expo 67 pictures, while the song plays, if you fire up a search engine page.
I didn’t attend exciting Expo 67 myself, but I read about it in the Boy Scout magazine, Canadian Boy. (Many of the fiction stories in that mag later appeared in an older children’s reader) I think the Expo 86 in Vancouver was mere spectacle, as un-discussed as Canada 150, with none of the bursting pride of 67…
So what could I do, as a citizen participation-type guy? Although I thought it was weird how the CBC didn’t have their original clip on the Web, (let alone on TV for Canada 150) I decided to hike on down to the great big stand-alone CBC station, during working hours, and bend the ear of a fellow Canadian. No luck. Did you know Canadian buildings on the prairies all have airlocks? It’s to keep the subzero air from storming in to freeze-dry us every time somebody enters. I got locked in! Locked in the airlock tunnel! I could project my voice through the thin glass to the security guard far across the lobby, but no, I wasn’t to be let out. Luckily there was a phone on the wall. So I called inside and left the CBC a message. But I knew in my heart they weren’t going to do anything. Back out into the snow.
Now what? The next logical stop was the Calgary school board, better known as the CBE, whose building downtown had tall artsy statues left over from after Expo had shut down. In fact, those “family of man” statues had become the trademark of the board. I hadn’t been there in years, not since I used to back out her car for the Board Secretary, who used a wheelchair. She felt guilty that her multiple sclerosis had meant the building had to be retrofitted to be accessible, but they told her not to worry. They would have soon had to make the building accessible, anyways. I liked that building.
So there I was: I waved to the statues, started into the building, only to be blocked by sawhorses. The building stood desolate, empty, abandoned. Je suis desole. The nearest payphone had no phonebook but that was OK—I had my Macbook in my daypack. I am told that these days, for phone listings, more people use their computer than use the dead tree yellow pages. Dude, the world’s sure changed since ’67.
I walked. Soon it was lunchtime, so I killed an hour enjoying freshly perked coffee in the public coffee shop at the bottom of the new CBE building—a perk (pun on purpose) the old building never had. I went to reception… only to be told that now there are now two big buildings for the CBE, and the communications guys are in the big tower across the street. Oh. So I hitched my backpack and started to trudge off, only to be told that no, it is closed to the public. I was welcome to use the computer along the wall to communicate with the communication people. Assuming they weren’t all androids over there, I proceeded to try to talk. With a little help, I managed to get into the site.
It turns out that there is a certain web page that is for the use of the public. If, say, you want to go into the classrooms to offer a puppet show, this is where you post it. This page, I was assured, is checked by a communication committee once a week. So I typed. I explained the song, typed in the two web sites above, and I made sure to leave my own web site, e-mail and the number for my telephone landline, complete with digital answering machine.
Of course it would be common sense, a common courtesy, for the committee to let me know if my idea had any traction, but nevertheless I took the precaution of explicitly saying that if they acted, then I would like to be informed. For me, teachers fetching the Centennial Song for their kids to sing is a no-brainer. I’m not saying the CBE has no brains, I’m just saying they never did anything. (Or else, Twyla noted, they forgot to tell me)
I will console myself, like a fox looking up at some grapes; hopefully I did enough of the citizen-thing. After all, maybe our song-loving ancestors back in 1967 were not as smart as we are today. I tell myself: “Maybe that song wasn’t a good idea anyways, because the CBC and X-hundred teachers can’t all be wrong.”
You may be wondering: If both the CBC and the folks at CBE responsible for communicating were locked off from the public, then was the old Athens forum blocked off too? The forum with its stately columns allowing nice Mediterranean breezes surely could not be enclosed. I’m sure that aliens and other non-citizens were not welcome, and I’m equally sure it was not fenced off. No sawhorses.
Our City Hall is another matter. I recall years ago going in to the tiny little reception area, being asked if I was a constituent, and then my specific alder-person coming out to talk to me. (My issue? I didn’t want the bylaws changed to allow “voluntary” lap dancing, because those “girls, ” some of them as old than I, did not have a union—my friend would not be given a choice)
Today the receptionist is behind a very thick armor-glass wall without an intercom, far across a wide lobby; an inset glass door has an electronic lock. A shouted conversation to her is probably not even possible. This is up on the third or fourth floor, in the old building. What you have to do, back down at ground level, is enter the new fancy City Hall, walk across the big expanse to discover the only payphone in the building, an obscure one near the building’s little used back door, then telephone over to the old sandstone building upstairs, get put on a list for the security guard, and then go up and have a guard buzz you in. The phone costs half a dollar. For each call. And the parking costs in Calgary are higher than anywhere else in North America, even New York City, except for the island of Manhattan. That’s a lot of quarters just be a good citizen.
On trips downtown I would make calls plural, between coffees at the Good Earth over in the corner, without getting Twyla. A lobby security guard I chatted with suggested Twyla was trying that self-help-book gimmick of never answering calls until time to review recorded messages and then answer them all at once. I reflected: If so, then she was ignoring the test of philosopher Emmanuel Kant: What if everyone did that? That’s the Kantian test. As for me, I could in theory go home to take Twyla’s return calls, but hey, other constituents can’t always be home during working hours. I’m not homeless, but my little cabin is not a place to hang around much when the weather is not bad. (Here in Calgary, “not bad” is anything within ten degrees above or below freezing) As it turns out, no gimmick: Twyla remembered me calling, and was sorry we were accidently missing each other. (We had met before)
That was yesterday.
Meanwhile, a few months back in time: You may have heard the old joke: The worker knows everything about something, the executive knows a little about everything, but the receptionist knows everything about everything. A helpful city worker (I daren’t say who) let me past the armor-glass wall. I crossed the vast floor to see the receptionist. Did she have any idea about Twyla’s day?
As you know, dear reader, at some offices the staff slide little magnets to show when they are in or out, in addition to informing the receptionist of their errands, meetings and their hiding off to go smoke. I saw no magnets. The receptionist politely stood up, talked without admitting anything, and led me back to the door. Maybe she even held it open for me. It was a week of wasted quarters.
When I saw Twyla the other day, we talked a little about the song—and I didn’t mention forums at all—mostly I explained some old common law that she wouldn’t be expected to know. There’s a joke told by visitors from Boston: “In Calgary the buildings have just had their packing crates removed.” So no, Twyla couldn’t be expected to know a musty old “law” that I had heard from my school principal back around centennial year. I won’t blab it here on my blog, because I don’t want to jog the elbow of our city lawyers in a possible case against Big— never mind.
I hope you think kindly of me out on the windy sidewalk, shedding a tear from the cold, as I’m trying to think of reasons why I should keep on trying, why I should not just give up on doing the democracy thing. I’m glad we have this new fangled Social Internet, because our old grey forums just aren’t what they used to be.
It’s summer! For sure!
Discussion questions for a book club, or blog club:
~Both Vladimir Putin and the Chinese communist leaders believe they are “the good guys,” that order is better than chaos, that people want to follow good leaders. Perhaps they think, with their exclusive membership, that Party Members have more character or more brains than ordinary people. Like how feudal aristocrats had blue blood. In the Party’s society, would good people occupy squares, protest in the street and talk in the forum? Or only those who deserve to be arrested?
Point to ponder: Perhaps allowing people to rub shoulders and rub ideas in a forum will increase their common sense and self-agency.
~Would members of the Party have any use for the trickster Coyote archetype? (Think Harlequin and the Ticktock man, or Bugs Bunny) Does Crawford show any humor?
~At the end, Crawford mentions the “democracy thing.” If society is dynamic, not static, then do you think are we moving towards:
more chaos or less,
more freedom or less,
more self-agency or less?
Nobody gets involved in thinking about how to responsibly spend a lottery windfall, let alone get involved in action, not unless they are into fantasy. It’s just not practical. Are sensible people here becoming more, staying the same, or less involved, in their society?