Friday, December 13, 2013

Telephone Town Halls, and the Unprocessed Politician

As the temperature dipped below 20 degrees F on a Thursday evening, the choice looked to be between fulfilling my responsibilities as designated dog walker or attending a "senate debate" at Clio Hall on the campus of Princeton University. The subject: Creationism. Their debates earlier this year dealt with gay marriage, gun control, and the use of steroids in sports, so you have to figure these debates are not historical reenactments. If not for the cold weather, I might have made it to Clio Hall, if for nothing else than to see how half of Americans process out of existence the overwhelming physical evidence of evolution. Instead, the pooch got a chance to correspond with the other local canines, after which a more substantial alternative to the debate suddenly arrived, in the form of a phone call.

It was an electronic call, from my representative in Washington, Rush Holt. Stay on the line, the recording said, to participate in a Telephone Town Hall session. What followed, as more than 1000 joined in, was about 45 minutes during which I had this eerie but pleasing feeling that I live in a civilized democracy where representatives listen, and take reality and people's diverse needs seriously. Consider how rarely we actually hear our elected representatives speak at length on any subject, in words unpackaged, unprocessed by the media filter. On news programs dominated by news personalities and pundits, a representative's words are used primarily as additives, fodder for the audience's amusement or scorn, or to make a pundit's point. If the representatives' faces appear at all, it tends to be when they have done something embarrassing. They become, then, caricatures, barely recognizable after all the media processing.

A telephone town hall, then, is a bit like eating whole food. It lacks the zing of an Oriole cookie, but is more deeply satisfying. One of Rush Holt's recurrent phrases is "as if we have a future". We must govern, he says, invest in our youth and in the nation's infrastructure, as if we have a future. His is a lonely voice in the current political universe. How do you build a future when people are so focused on denying past and present, and making enemies out of science and government? The miracle of the mind gives us equal capacity to see deeply into reality and to deny it. It's the heavy processing that's getting in the way.

We tend to think of politics as a corrupting influence, but in Rush Holt, one sees how politics has actually made him more thoughtful, more considerate of others' viewpoints. He says he has responded to some 50,000 inquiries from constituents this year, writing the responses himself. He obviously has learned not to be dismissive, but instead to receive each concern with the same  seriousness the voter feels in expressing it. The desire to get elected, most commonly characterized as a corrupting influence, can also give the representative incentive to listen better.

There's a lot of whole grained reality out there--real food, real evidence, real people, unprocessed by factories, fear, media format or ideology, and full of nutrients for body, mind and soul. Last night's dose unexpectedly arrived in an unsolicited phone call.

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