Thursday, May 27, 2010

Whither Democracy?

I read this story in my local paper today.

People tend to have three responses. One group complains that these kids aren't focusing on poor American people. Those people are idiots. A second group says "that's nice" but thinks it's a lost cause. The writer expresses that side of the story at the end, noting that all they have to show for their efforts is a form letter. A third group believes in what they're doing. I'm in the third group.

These kids aren't working in isolation. They were inspired a few years back by a Invisible Children, a movie about the kids abducted by and living in fear of the LRA in Uganda. (It's a great documentary. Two of the directors went to USC for film school.) As the Invisible Children site notes, President Obama just signed a bill that allocates around $40 million to supporting reconciliation and rebuilding in the area and requires the bureaucracy to formulate a strategy for achieving peace. Will it work? I have no idea. I shy away from foreign policy issues like this because I don't think anyone knows. But it's worth a shot. (The benefits are hundreds or thousands of deaths prevented, thousands spared violence, and millions of lives returning to normal. Even is the probability of success are tiny the expected value is HUGE.)

But why did the President sign the bill? Did it have anything to do with the erasers? No. The erased were mailed too recently. But it did have something to do with the thousands of kids (including kids from Nature Coast) who turned out for Invisible Children's events over the years. Events like the Global Night Commute and Displace Me. President Obama invited the CEO and two of the founders of that non-profit to the signing ceremony--a good indication the White House and Congress were paying attention to their movement.

Still, there were thousands of people involved in that campaign. Did it make a difference that 50 kids from Nature Coast went to Displace Me? Probably not. Like any political action, the chances some individual was the difference between success and failure is microscopic. But if we use that criteria then we should never vote. What are the odds my vote is going to matter?

One of the comments on that article complained that these kids should being spending time learning American history. Don't they need to know the difference de jure and de facto segregation and who won the Battle of Bunker Hill? No. Not really. But someone really does have to learn about performing their civic duty, taking part in the public discourse, and making democracy work. Economists and political scientists have show how there is a natural tendency for important issues that no one has a vital interest in to fall by the wayside. It's not that these issues aren't important--they're often critical--its just that everyone else hopes someone else will take care of them. For us to keep our priorities straight--e.g. putting the lives of millions of people who might be exterminated by genocide toward the top--we need a lot of people to make some small sacrifices to keep these issues on the agenda.

Otherwise they'll disappear. And a lot of lives will be snuffed out too far to soon. No one will notice. But it'll be just as tragic all the same.

P.S. Watch the Displace Me video. It has RFK quotes. My mom shook his hand when he campaigned for a senate seat in 1964.

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