November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Jim Palombo/Politics

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Roman Forum. http://romanforum.org

Contemporary Issues,

Dialogue and our Civic Character

by J. Palombo

In the last edition I promised to reference the National Issues Forum gathering I attended in Dayton, Ohio.  And I’ll get to mentioning what transpired there, especially in terms of its focus on creating a better civically skilled NIFpublic, in a few paragraphs. But for the moment it seems important to call attention to several current concerns as they serve as prime examples of what might happen in a forum type setting where national and international issues can be legitimately (without partisan favor) examined.

Let’s start with the concern that seems the farthest away in terms of time (funny how time/issues fly), the mess created by the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin case. There is no doubt that the passing of a young person’s life is a terrible tragedy and that the circumstances under which that occurred demand scrutiny. But I have to question whether taking this tragedy as an example for civil rights abuse is giving the civil rights movement its proper due. In other words, there are instances in any society, where the rubber meets the road so to speak, when crazy things happen just because of the craziness of both people and the times. In this context to put the issues surrounding civil rights on the shoulders of this incident seems a bit misguided.

It is impossible to dispute that there are racist individuals in our society, and also that there are a large number of minorities involved in crime. And there is no doubt that the essence of the civil rights movement is linked to both.  But there are a myriad of concerns that need to be measured before making significant links to occurring events. For example, in terms of individual racism, can this ever be totally eliminated? And if it seems more predominant in one generation over the other, what are the driving forces behind this? And what is the difference between individual and institutional racism? And what was the intent of the civil rights movement in the context of both? And in terms of the movement, and the desire to increase opportunities for minorities in the name of equality (via concerns like voting rights, mandated access to housing, work, education, and equal protection of rights under the law) doesn’t this era need to be fully referenced in order that its public policy responses (like quota systems, affirmative action, search and seizure restrictions) be adequately understood by each generation? And as important, isn’t the fact that the principles of equality and freedom actually conflict with one another remain a significant consideration? (In other words, isn’t it true that to legitimately have the former a society has to be willing to give up some of the latter? And what does this mean?) And what was it about the 1950s and early ’60s that contributed to making the civil rights movement feasible? And to what extent was its success tied to the prosperity of post World War II America? Or to the “collective crisis” depression years that preceded the war?  And what were the formative principles related to democracy and the free market by which Conservatives during the civil rights era fought against the movement? And what were the corresponding Liberal principles of that time? And what about the so-called “radical position” that took shape in that era? And to what extent do the principles of each of these views remain in effect today?

Although closely linked to these questions, especially in terms of justice and equality within the criminal justice system itself (and issues like profiling, bail, the nature of plea bargaining and the effectiveness of our “deprivation of liberty” punishment process), the large number of minorities involved in crime demands its own set of inquiries. For instance, what is the driving force behind this fact? Is this due to some biological concern? Is criminality a sociological concern? Or is it a psychological concern?  To what extent is it all three? (Can “normal behavior” ever be clearly determined?) And, over time, how do our particular cultural instincts – a mix of sociological-biological and psychological elements that develop within individual cultures – motivate certain behaviors? And how do the political views noted above speak to crime and criminal justice policy?

These considerations can easily be seen as too far afield from the actualities of the Zimmerman-Martin tragedy, or the fact that minorities are overrepresented in crime. In fact, many might think that raising all these questions makes matters too academic, in a sense making the problems more intellectual than need be. In defense, it should be noted that the questions are, in effect, at least as important as the answers. And although it’s partially true that sorting through these questions (and the many others) may require an academic-type setting, these are practical questions in substance. In other words the questions and potential resolutions are for all of us to think about – if for nothing else but to realize the depth of the difficulties we face in managing today’s society.

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Another issue that follows a similar logic is the continuing threat of terrorism and what appears to be the resulting threat of continued war, especially in the Middle East. Like with racism and crime, it is again clear that these threats speak to the facts of the day. Yet to avoid being swept up in chaos, the considerations attached to the threats should be clearly defined, which again means a significant array of concerns be put on the table.  For example, how did the situation in the Middle East get to be as it is? What have been our policies there that make us such a target? Why do we seem to represent a threat to many in the Muslim world?  What are the particular cultural instincts of the people there? How do the factions within each country differ from one another? And how are they different from us? As to the wars, are they to be considered “oil wars,” a struggle to control resources, or confrontations over church and state concerns, or both?   In terms of our enemies (exactly who are they?) are the wars directed at involving the U.S. in unending turmoil as much as bringing peaceful solutions to any internal/religious/tribal disputes? (Is the U.S.’s ongoing entanglements in these wars a part of the Bin Laden legacy/strategy?)  To what extent are the conflicts due to our market/capitalist objectives as opposed to the nature of our democratic pursuits? And to what extent to do the aforementioned Conservative, Liberal and alternate political platforms/principles differ on our policies there?  And where are the other countries in the world in terms of supporting military intervention – aren’t they against terrorism? To what extent are their moral beliefs as opposed to their business interests at stake?  And where is the major world power, China, in all of this?  And what is the role of Russia, as well as the other BRICS nations in the conflicts?  How does the Arab culture relate to being on the side of the Americans? Would they prefer to be on the side of China? Or would they prefer being on all sides of the oil consuming spectrum?

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These are more vexing questions for sure, and again there are many others that could be noted. But the picture should be clear, or at least clear enough to recognize how cloudy things actually are. With this in mind, it seems fair to turn to the question of what we might do to help better address the situation where, amid the pressures of ketteringthe day, so much needs to be understood on both national and international fronts. And this leads directly to the possibilities that exist within the National Issues Forum (NIF). Guided by the goal of improving civic dialogue and the essential question “What are the elements that prevent our democracy from working?” the NIF program focuses on bringing people together to discuss issues within a broad range of possibilities. The strategy is that, especially over-time, we will develop a better civically equipped public from which better dialogue and better public policy will follow.

In this context the major concerns relating to why, where and how these gatherings might happen becomes important. In the first sense, “why” seems quite apparent. As the questions already raised imply, there is little difficulty in recognizing the vastness and complexity of the issues we are facing. In short we are at a time in our history when civic concerns need our utmost attention. In terms of the “where,” any locale available for public discussion would be viable, with community centers, libraries or educational settings providing great examples. In this light, and consistent with the NIF’s objectives, the best option may be within the post-secondary arena, where “civic dialogue” remains a mandate and resources/people are already in place to effectuate long-term, civic-oriented programs. This option could also help with moving discussion to both the secondary and adult education environments, in essence providing a larger audience for dialogue. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the “how” relates to having a non-partisan discussion process where the exchanges don’t simply begin and end with political stand-offs, but bring to light all the variables/questions/solutions that should be considered. This requires that the discussion process itself, including the facilitators, be well honed in terms of creating meaningful, deliberative civil discussions. (This “manner of discussion” is a primary focus in terms of the NIF efforts.) In the end, the expectation is that issues on both political and individual levels can be better articulated, understood and referenced in appropriate manner.

So, this is the framework of the NIF. Yet, despite the apparent straightforward and common sense appeal of its process, implementation of the ideas is not easy. The current discussion climate presents a full array of one-sided and/or disconcerting yelling contests which make for poor examples of dialogue-related possibilities. And of course this reflects the current political atmosphere where the immediacy of getting votes, by any means possible, is the focus. There is also public apathy to contend with, the growing feeling that people can’t really make a difference.  And this relates to an overall distrust of governmental and non-governmental institutions, as well as the political and economic processes that feed into both. And when one talks of an open dialogue, this means that there will be alternative views presented for consideration which, on political, economic and social levels, may not match current mainstream views.  This generally tends to confuse/anger people when they have to look toward what they don’t know. And “new ideas” can also frustrate those who are quite content with maintaining things as they are.

CICOrgGiven the status quo, the situation at times seems rather hopeless. But in coming away from the NIF conference I felt quite the opposite.  Its program, already involved with locations across 39 states, provided a viable and positive way to address our concerns, one that can service our coming together in this time of “collective crises.” Again we need help in both thinking and acting more coherently, and certainly we have had enough of the divisive and unhealthy “shoot first and then take aim” approaches that come at us every day. So with all this on the table, I trust you will have a moment or two to take a serious look at the sites referenced below – each one is certainly worth the read. There is little doubt that we all have to find more effective ways to become more engaged in our future – and NOW is the time.

(I attended a gathering in Mestre-Venice, Italy this past month called “Politics without Politicians.” It was an interesting program, providing the mix of journalists, academics and others the opportunity to exchange ideas about the significant problems facing Italy and the European Union. Although a worthwhile event, what struck me most was that the majority of the people talking about the problems were from the upper classes, while the large number of poorer people I saw milling around the train station as I arrived and departed were actually living the problems.  It prompted the question of whether we can create a bridge between these two groups, in essence making civic dialogue more practical in its application. Once again, I believe this concern can be better addressed via a format like the one suggested by the NIF.)

 

REFERENCES:  National Issues Forum, www.nifi.org; Kettering Foundation, www.kettering.org; Sustained Dialogue, www.sustainedialogue.org; Campaign for an Informed Citizenry, www.cicorg.com

 

About the author:

Jim Palombo is politics editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

 

 

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