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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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I watched a beautiful thing the other day. I attended a municipal government meeting in a small-ish town. It was pretty damn boring and sparsely attended. But something about the monotony, the repeated parliamentary intonations...

"I move that upon Second Reading as required by law the ordinance be affirmed on March 12th."


Alderman A? Yay. Alderman B? Yay. Alderman C? Yay. Alderman D? Yay. Alderman E? Yay.

"The motion carries. Madame Clerk will you please read the ordinance by name?"

Suddenly, I began to see it in context — probably because I'm reading a lot of evolutionary text recently — I began to see this meeting not as a particular event but the culmination of a long process — this language, the law, had replaced the religious incantations and divining of our pre-Enlightenment selves, were all rule was based on some idealistic force, some divine authority.

And these aldermen were just normal folks, chosen by (an admittedly small portion of) their neighbors to not rule, but "represent" them.

The ancient Romans, living on top of each other in their dense labyrinthine city, surviving by their ability to move supplies and food through the city to open markets of exchange, created an office called the Tribune of the People. The elites basically realized that the mob, if displeased by the day's edicts and orders, needed only assemble and refuse to disband in order to threaten the survival of the entire city. When the plebes were pissed off, in other words, they didn't need to fight the Senators' paid legions; they needed only to sit down in the streets and squares.

The Tribune of the People had the power of "veto," meaning literally "I forbid." Basically, if the Senate got too cute, the Tribune needed only to say, "I forbid it" and it couldn't happen.

Tiberius Gracchus, son of one of the early Roman republicans, was Tribune. In trying to get some land reforms beneficial to the working classes of Rome, Gracchus met such fierce resistance that he risked the destruction of the entire city by vetoing everything, even the opening of the markets and therefore the transport and sale of bread.

Gracchus had no legions; but if the Senate had touched a hair on his head, the people would have revolted. He's their tribune. Only by finally turning the mob against Gracchus was the Senate able to end his insurgency.

There was a flip side, too. The Tribune of the People could post no guards at his home, nor could he lock his doors. You can guess why. The Roman idea of a "recall" was considerably more decapitate-y than ours.

Well, the American political culture has unfortunately given up on collective action (in the opposite proportion, notice, to the amount of protection and insularity we provide to our elected officials). But we took something important from the Romans: a visceral understanding that government is "of the people" not only for some ethereal, nebulous reason, but for very material, practical reasons. Because when it isn't, it is only a matter of time before things get ugly.

"Collective action" has fallen on hard times in the last few decades, gone out of vogue, become passé and embarrassing. It's a vestige of '60s and '70s excesses, not for the Casual Generation that finds passion and confrontation totally beneath them. Collective action is unnecessary, anyway, at a time when you can build a "movement" by donating securely via ActBlue, right? A generation of training has taught us that we "vote with our dollars" not our feet or our, well, vote. Consumerism has supplanted citizens; collective action a reflection of weakness, not strength. Just vote harder with your dollars! Economy sinking? Vote harder! Nevermind that, as author Thomas Franks brilliantly points us, "one dollar, one vote" is a definition of plutocracy, not democracy.

Without collective action, we leave our Tribune standing in the market all by himself. He can shout and scream "Veto!" all he wants, but without the mob behind him, it's quite literally just a word.

In the secular democracy, lawyers displace clergy as the "priestly class." Talk to a lawyer about the law, and you can see the passion well up, as though in revelation. Those words have power — not because they were written by some staffer and approved by a group of elected officials, but because The People collectively assent to them. Their force comes from collective action, and the risk of general disrespect for the law is the devolution of power from the collective to the few who can afford it.

So we continue the incantations.

"I seek a motion."

"So moved."


It was beautiful to watch these aldermen get uncomfortable in the blistering criticisms of their constituents, who in some cases lived on their same block. One guy got up and started talking about "our" budget, and expressed an interest in a specific youth program.

"I don't have any kids," the old guy said, "but, from what I hear, it's really good. It'd be a shame if we raised the fee, and lost some kids."

Only 150 years ago, there were millions of human beings in this country who were in a state of perpetual servitude, their status as property making them explicitly subhuman. One hundred fifty years before that, there existed democracy nowhere on Earth. The entire species of Homo sapiens lived in a condition of master and slave. Nowhere did man rule himself. Two hundred years before that, much of humanity was split between two dark and repressive religious empires, both with expanding frontiers, both with savage colonial practices — I'm talking of course of the pre-Reformation Catholic empires and the Ottoman Empire.

Now here we are, in this room, and the rulers cannot appropriate $40,000 for additional summer camp buses without clearing it first. Little communities of humans who have organized themselves for self-rule.

We have a long way to go — the luxury of our boring city council meeting contrast starkly with the appalling human misery in much of the world. That the resource-rich struggling nations of the Earth tend to have an especial capacity for self-defeating brutality is no coincidence, either.

But these are problems that can be fixed not only in centuries but in some cases in generations.

Humanity has made it a long, long way forward. We shouldn't forget that.

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Ranter / March 15, 2008 2:04 AM

A moving piece, nicely done. The thing that people don't realize is that it all starts in places like the small town hall meeting you attended. The tribuner (Gracchus) wielded a power that is difficult to attain today - without the media and a network of yalies. Even Gracchus was the son of an early republican, so then - like today - it is hard to get the "foot in the door" of the political process. It all seems to be this nebulous thing that only certain families can access.

The political nepitism argument aside - it really comes down to , "what can one wo/man do?" I know some really great, brilliant people that never even tried to attend that town hall meeting, that never tried to speak up for what they believe, that always sit back and take whatever punch is thrown at them on the chin ... all because "there is no point. I could never stand up to THEM and win. Not by myself."

Must I remind you through the examples of MLK and RFK, that show if you speak up for what you believe, you get brutally murdered - just as the "people's" tribune in Rome (it is not as decapitate-y today, but definitely more blow-your-head-off-y). Divinity has nothing to do with it - ask Antonin Scalia if he actually believes the crap that he writes about natural law. Natural law is a circular argument - if the law is the will of the people, it is "natural," and if the law is natural, it is the will of the people - therefore, the "people" assent to it. That makes sense. Divinity and mysticism are ploys used by the landed elites to keep an otherwise unruly population in line. It always has been and will continue to be. Ask Jesus of Nazareth what he thinks about divinity (oh yeah ... you can't). Also, ask a lawyer what the "power" behind the words of the law are. It is livelihood - being able to make a living off of the imperfection of a political system that creates laws that have nothing to do with reality, divinity, or pragmatism. The laws are policy decisions by elites - and those who are affected by those laws are their guineapigs.

The question then becomes, "how do we change?" "What does the next generation of politics look like?" It is definitely one divorced of the town hall meeting and the landed elites making policy decisions that are tantamount to running a scientific experiment in real time. We all must use technology and whatever future resources we can to reach everyone to participate in the everyday political process. We all must become RFK, MLK, and even Christ himself. They can't kill us all.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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