On Activism

By now, everyone is familiar with the largest mass shooting in United States history that occurred at a LGBTQ night club in Orlando Florida early Sunday morning. This latest act of terrorism is yet another addition in the never ending list of mass shootings in the United States. It is beyond comprehension, tragic, and disturbing that a U.S. citizen could walk into a crowded nightclub and open fire with a semi-automatic weapon.

This post will not attempt to tackle the gun control issue (which a good friend of mine wrote on earlier) or the issue of hatred for LGBTQ folks. Instead, I will attempt to tackle the issue of the current state of political activism in this country.


In the wake of almost every shooting (in particular the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary) a rise in gun control activism takes place. Elected officials (particularly Democrats) call for increasing gun control measures, while (mostly) Republicans discuss the 2nd amendment and gun rights. A few citizens get riled up enough to add their perspective on the issue, and within six months the nation is back to being fixated on the latest reality TV show or Netflix Original.

That disinterest in activism is not exclusive to gun control. The average United States citizen is more interested in anything but political activism. Why? Early on after the adoption of the United States Constitution, Founding Father and Framer, James Madison, introduced a series of amendments to the newly adopted Constitution. One of them, the First Amendment, enumerated six civil rights.

A Constitutional Interlude

The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech, or of the press; or the rights of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The rights contained in the First Amendment are crucial to a healthy civil society. The Framers of the Constitution believed it to be crucial to enumerate rights to better guide the nation in what rights were necessary for the new nation. Additionally, it is important that these rights are listed first in the Bill of Rights, as they are the most essential in the eyes of the Framers. The colonial history of the United States is all about religious freedom, the free exercise thereof, freedom of speech, press, and the rights to assemble and petition. Hence, their inclusion in the First Amendment. For the purposes of this post, the last rights listed, assembly and petition, are what we are focusing on.

Activism

Recently, with the rise of Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ rights movement, you would not be criticized if you thought activism was alive and well in civil society. And yes, those two movements are great examples of political activism and the role activism plays in policy making. Yet, those seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

Citizens do not seem all too concerned with activism. Citizens across the nation seem to act as if activism plays no role in civil society. To be clear, I am not talking about joining large scale social movements, rather I am talking about being active in civil society. As an example, my parents live on a dirt road in a township with some of the largest reserves in the county. My parents have hoped for the last 21 years that the road will be paved. Yet, not once have they contacted their township board, attended a township meeting, or any of the other myriad of things that could be done to have their voice heard. This story is being played out across the country while everyone is complaining more and more about how government does not work.

The Framers truly believed that for a successful republic (we are not a democracy) the citizenry needed to be involved in the civil society; they needed to do more than vote every two years.

And so, with the recent events in Orlando, many on social media will be quick to post, tweet, or snap their opinion on gun control, LGBTQ rights, immigration, or any other issue embedded in this latest tragedy. Yet, how many citizens will write a letter, be involved in a protest, or call their state representative with their opinion on gun control? I would be surprised if more than 10% of the United States do anything to express their opinion in civil society.


The attack in Orlando on Sunday is tragic. Senseless violence has occurred far too often in our country as of late. Everyone has an opinion on the issues embedded in the tragedy, yet hardly anyone actually takes part in civil society and attempts to make change.

As a republic, we cannot continue to look to our elected officials to craft good policy. We cannot sit back and trust that the country will be run effectively. We are not doing our civil duty when all we do to participate in civil society is vote in the Presidential and Congressional elections. Citizens need to be involved and take their role in governance. The Constitution, after all, begins with “We the People…” not “We, the Elected Officials…

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Reflections on We the People

For the past week, I have been volunteering at my old elementary school. My old fifth grade teacher reached out to me to, once again, help with the We the People Competition, which is organized by the Center for Civic Education. In short, this competition has five teams focusing on a series of questions about civics and constitutional governance. When I was in fifth grade, I participated in this competition which began my interest in politics and government. To be able to go back to my old elementary school and help students learn about civics and constitutional governance is something that I am proud to be able to do.

Yet, more importantly is the place that this program has in the American educational system. No other program, to my knowledge, has the ability to promote critical thinking, constitutional understanding, and an appreciation of history and current events. I participated in this program when I was a fifth grader, and once again as a twelfth grader. Each time, my passion for government, civics, and history grew. Ultimately, this passion for government, civics, and history had me attend the James Madison College at Michigan State University, where I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy.

My peers who were involved in the program with me are now doing all sorts of things with their careers, but we all are still civically involved and pay attention to current issues. That lasting influence that the We the People program has on its students is impressive, even more impressive than the fact that most of us could rattle off court cases that greatly influence our civil rights today (Lawrence v. Texas and Texas v. Johnson have a fond place in my heart due to their multiple influences on civil rights).

Yet, our federal government so often cuts funding for the We the People program, endangering the program. I have not heard any movements to defund the program as of yet, but this program is one of the few federal programs that seems to work and has an important role to play in our educational system.

Going back to the last week, I have worked with fifth graders on complex questions and seen them begin to grapple with these issues in a way that is beyond their fifth grade status. Working with one student on understanding judicial review (and McCulloch v. Maryland) was a challenge, but ultimately the student understood the role judicial review plays in our national policy discourse, and developed on opinion on the role judicial review should play.

This program will always have a special place in my heart because of its promotion of critical thinking and civic-mindedness. If you see this program in your area, you should take a minute to volunteer or go to the hearings and see what this is all about.

Teaching Discourse

Part of my morning ritual is to turn on the news and watch a half hour of CNN, just to get caught up on the days events. For the most part, this is a helpful aspect of my morning ritual, yet all too often there is a segment or two that devolves into two guests shouting at each other. The shouting is mind numbing, not because it is early in the morning but because the shouting commenced because the two individuals have no respect for one another and a hatred of facts. The shouting matches are ever more disturbing each time I watch them, because they all follow the same script. The loss of a respect for ideas and varying viewpoints is troubling, particularly as our nation grapples with issues that require thoughtful and solution focused policy.

The educator in me finds this rather troubling. In my own experience working with collegiate students, I find the same troubling lack of respect for different ideas. My own hope as an educator is to expose my students to multiple perspectives on a given topic and to allow them to interrogate those perspectives in a civil and critical manner. Yet, the students I have worked with go to their basic instinct which is to simply criticize and wright off a perspective from which they disagree. It took most of the fall semester to get 20 first year students in a leadership course to be comfortable with critically investigating an idea that they disagreed with.

This critical interrogation of ideas is missing from our society. Looking at our political climate, there is a dualistic, ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mindset that permeates through todays political climate. There are some bipartisan efforts being worked on, but those are few and far between. As a society, we seem to have lost the basic respect for our peers and a desire to move forward together by finding consensus.

For educators, reteaching this respect for different view points and critical interrogation (which I view as the act of analyzing and discussing an idea) is critical to the work being done in and outside the classrooms. Students need to be okay with engaging in ideas that they may seem detestable because when they are in the ‘real world’ and outside the comforting walls of the classroom, they will be forced to work with ideas and perspectives that they may disagree.

How do educators reteach respect for different view points and critical interrogation is beyond me. There is no ‘perfect’ solution, but the themes and values embedded in those two ‘soft skills’ are essential to the survival of the Republic in which we live and the health of public discourse.

Waiting

There is something positive to be said about having almost two months off between jobs. I finished my contract at Miami University on May 20th and will start at my new position at Virginia Tech on July 13th. I looked forward to this time off to get my life in order, see friends and family, and recharge after working through my graduate program for two years.

Yet, as I sit in this liminal state, I cannot help but feel restless. Just a few short weeks ago, I was feeling restlessness as I went through the ritual of commencement. In some respects, this restlessness is to be expected for a newly anointed master of student affairs. Yet, that restlessness is tiring.

I spend my mornings going through a ritual of turning on the news, drinking a cup of tea, and making breakfast. This ritual is important, as it adds structure to a time filled with anything but structure. Lately, that ritual has been filled with responding to emails from my future employer about my placement or notes of welcome. The restlessness to move to Blacksburg and start my new position is starting to get to me, and I am in only my second week of my break.

It helps to know that the restlessness I am feeling is natural and one that my peers across the country and undoubtedly feeling. Yet, the desire to get up and get started with my next position hangs over me like a heavy cloud. The possibilities that wait for me at Virginia Tech are numerous and have the rose colored glasses to make the impending transition seem incredibly exciting and without trouble. The next five and a half weeks are going to be filled with restlessness and the desire to get started. How I stay grounded in this liminal state is important to the enjoyment that I can get.

Best of luck to all who are feeling similarly as they wait for their new beginning.