By Gavon Leseig
and Tim Hjersted
Apr 13, 2009
Tim Hjersted, Films For Action media revolutionary, enjoys biking around town, reading the “Tao Te Ching” for the 15th time, and going ape-shit on apathy
Gavon Leseig: In last week's local elections, if you subtract the candidates and their families, negative 32 people voted (not even the candidates and their families voted). To what do you attribute this atrocious turnout? To be fair, participatory democracy just can't compete with the release of "Fast & Furious."
Tim Hjersted: “There was an election last week? Whoooaa! Like, I totally missed that. Of course, I always watch American Idol on Tuesdays and would never forget to vote for my favorite rising star! I mean, pri-or-it-tays! Sheesh. …
In all honesty, I actually don’t think a lot of people even knew there was an election, and if they did, they didn’t know enough about the candidates to care one way or another. I can’t say the LJ World does the best job informing people, but most people I know don’t read the local paper anyways. I did a study on why newspaper readership has declined so significantly (especially among young people) last year for a media studies class, and my theory on it is, the news has become too sanitized.
Journalists (fearing they’ll be accused of bias) have been serving up the same watered-down (I’ll interview one liberal and one conservative and call it a day) objective format for as long as I can remember. But more and more, I think people feel like they’re not getting the real deal. Too much spin and meaningless PR quotes and not enough investigating to discern who’s actually telling the truth, and who’s straight up lying. Given the poor state of mainstream journalism (and the overall sense of futility with current politics) a lot of people don’t care enough to make the effort.
Plus, despite the fact that the American economy is crumbling, when you go outside, things don’t look that bad. Everything seems fine on the surface. You don’t see anyone starving in the streets (accept for the homeless, which have been socially normalized and accepted apparently). But on the whole, we’re still the most affluent and privileged country in the world, Lawrence being no different. There are a lot of individuals hurting right now, but even the people that are effected and you would think would have a greater stake in politics I imagine are still likely to only seek individual solutions – deal with it on there own. We are very much an individualist society, a far cry from Jeremy Bentham's principle of wanting to work towards “the greatest good for the greatest number.” When we have problems, we seek individual solutions, not common ones.
Until things get really bad, or a new culture of civic participation becomes not only “cool” - but expected of us, socially and personally - politics will remain just another option. Just another ‘something’ that we can choose to identify with and use to construct our personal brand of ME, much like our choices of music and movies and hobbies and clothes all so perfectly define us.
This to me really gets to the heart of modern apathy. For most kids today, being politically involved is just another option in the vast sea of options. It's not necessary. It has so far not been required to make it through life. And by all relative standards, our generation is one of the most affluent and well-to-do generations since probably, ever. We’ve never known what a Great Depression feels like. We’ve never lived through a major political upheaval. Most kids have probably never been to a major protest or lived amongst a community of political resistance. Perhaps most importantly, many of us have no living memory of a time when political involvement actually won genuine victories. At the same time, there is so much entertainment available to us, so much music and movies and videogames and TV shows and sports and personal hobbies, that floating among the sea of options, politics simply can’t compete. By comparison, politics is either a) hella boring, or b) hella depressing.
I would like to think that finding a mutual stake in creating a sustainable future – exploring visionary new ways of living that could make all of the things we hate about the status quo one day entirely irrelevant - well, I would think that would be pretty exciting… but who knows, the visuals in the Fast & Furious do make my eyeballs melt.”
What might increase voter turnout? All you can eat fried shrimp buffet at the polls?
“Since Australia made voting mandatory in 1924 they’ve never seen a voter turnout below 90%. It seems a potential $30 dollar fine is enough to motivate most people (though apparently it’s easy to get this waived if you go before a judge). Of course with this strategy there would no doubt be plenty of people up in arms about their inalienable right NOT to vote. But! The perfect solution: we could let Lawrence vote on the issue directly in our next election, and the bitter irony would play itself out beautifully.
A good first step short of that would be to make any election day a holiday. For national elections, Martin Wattenberg has proposed moving Veteran’s Day from November 11th to election day to address the issues of lost productivity from a new holiday, and it could also become known as, “Veteran’s Democracy Day.” That would certainly give voting another thoughtful layer of significance.”
Maybe we're blowing this out of proportion...it's just the city commission. Aside from taking kick-backs from pharmaceutical companies and renaming streets to stoke a sports rivalry, what is it exactly that they do?
“Well, other than deciding the future character and direction our city will take, ultimately determining whether our city becomes economically and ecologically sustainable or runs off the cliff with the rest of our failing economy, well, not much.
City government really does affect a lot, and could have an even bigger influence if there was the political will to enact Home Rule provisions that would give our municipality more authority to enact local laws. This is what I don’t get about people not voting. An argument can be made that voting in national elections won’t make a difference and the two-party system is corrupt and all that. But local elections are different. Local elected officials are much more accountable to their constituents, they make decisions that have a direct effect on our city, and as was the case last week, a few hundred votes can make the difference between who wins and who loses.
We are currently at the apex of shifting paradigms. The conventional development wisdom that made everybody a lot of money and provided the base for continual growth throughout much of the last century was founded on a party of natural resources that are now in decline. Stubbornly, the status quo is fighting for the same model that made them money before – urban sprawl, cheap, low density housing in suburbs disconnected from the rest of the world. Pave over prime agricultural land to support an industrial/transportation model that will be out of business in a decade. Pave over the wetlands to support the continued use of the personal automobile and long-distance shipping systems that will be bordering on irrelevant in thirty years. The vibrant economy of the future is not more of what we see today. It will be radically different, and radically better even, but only if we fight for it.”
But really, why should we bother getting involved in politics—didn’t voting for Barack Obama last year fix everything from our tragic racial legacy to psoriasis?
“Yeah! O-BA-MA! Since he got elected I immediately sought to sell Films For Action for as much money as possible. Groups like Films For Action, Kansas Mutual Aid, the Sustainability Action Network – they’re simply no longer relevant now that we’ve entered the “Age of Obama.” It’s great. Now I can concentrate on beating my old Tetris score from years back.
Oooh, woops, well then I started reading the news again (independent, non-corporate news), and discovered this change we were hoping for isn’t coming anytime soon. Escalating the war in Afghanistan? Check. Already getting iffy about pull-out dates for Iraq? Check. Strengthening Bush’s illegal domestic wiretapping program? Yep. Giving billions upon billions of dollars away to corrupt banks and supporting the interests of Wall St. financiers? Oh yeah. Supporting Bush’s position on the (lack of) rights afforded to prisoners in foreign detention centers? Sadly, yes.
Since I no longer read or watch any mainstream news, I don’t know how much of this has been reported on. (I doubt that much) But at this point, I regret that Obama appears to be not much more than a PR face lift on a declining and distrusted American empire.
People naturally would like to be happy for a while after a shitty last 8 years. But I hope the activism that was beginning to swell during the Bush years wasn’t just a fad, while we had such an obviously disastrous and unpopular president. Has Obama temporarily stolen the political gusto from our sails – the will to seek change through ourselves rather than through someone else? Will Obama be the great pacifier? I hope not. We need some fire in our bellies at this time more than ever.”
Activism—will that require me to put on pants and leave the house?
“Yes. Yes it will. But surprisingly, as a first step, there’s a lot you can do while you’re butt-ass naked, eating Cheetos, so long as you have a computer within reach. Staying informed is obviously the first step. You can’t take action until you know what the hell the root-problems are. There are always those letter-writing campaigns that have you email your congressperson with a pre-written message. All you have to do is add your name and address. Pretty easy stuff. And it does seem to help in most cases. At some point of course, it’s probably a good idea to go outside and connect with real people. Get some sunshine, some vitamin D – get two things done at once!”
What advice do you have for people who might actually want to put down the online porn and get involved?
“Stop watching TV news, or any corporate news for that matter. There is now a brilliantly diverse array of independent news sources available on the internet. Alternet.org, DemocracyNow.org, IndyMedia.org, FilmsForAction.org (which is local), GNN.tv, CommonDreams.org etc. The difference in perspective and in the quality of meaningful information is like night and day. Locally, there are a lot of groups working on a variety of projects here in Lawrence, all of which are always looking for fresh ideas and new people to help out.
The important thing, I think, is to get beyond the idea that politics just means voting for a candidate every four years. Politics is what you do every day. It’s your relationship to the rest of society. Growing your own food and sharing it with your neighbors is a political act. Creating a different economic model for a new cooperative business is entirely political. Raising awareness and participating in citizen journalism, attending city hall meetings, taking direct actions to stop a coal-fired power plant, simply supporting the groups who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, it’s all a part of it. It all matters.”