Friday, February 15, 2013

J-term trip provides view of government on homecourt

Participation in democracy does not require travel


by Anna Sieber, Columnist

  As a first year, I had a unique opportunity to study off campus for J-term.

  Prior to coming to Pacific Lutheran University, I had this grand conception of J-term as this magical time when Lutes go out into the world and get to geek out about a subject in its native environment.

    It seemed like an opportunity unique to PLU, but I never imagined that I would be able to study away in my first year. Through a few twists of fate, I made it into a class studying political science and philosophy, and headed to Washington D.C.

    We met with representatives. Sat in on the House and Senate galleries. Had meetings with lobbying organizations, think tanks and other entities that attempt to influence the democratic process. Saw protesters and citizens attending rallies. And went to the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

    In doing so, we received a pretty comprehensive view of the state of democracy in America.

    While it was a thought I have been toying with for some time, I came away from this trip with one Big Idea stuck in my head: people know nothing.

    Yes, that is a grand generalization, and yes, there are people out there who know Something, but there is also a huge chunk of the population that knows Nothing and either lacks the passion or the time to know more.

    Yet, political engagement is essential for the effective practice of a democracy.

    I do not think that one has to go to Washington D.C. to see the necessity for political engagement, but that depends on what you do. If you go to the city as a tourist, as I did at a much younger age, you are going to see a lot of cool things like marble statues and displays of American exceptionalism.

    Unless you can sit down with a congressperson, aide or interest group and see the politics as they happen you are not going to get the right kind of value out of the experience of seeing our nation’s capital.

    The parts of my visit unique to D.C. — like being told about the investigation into drone targeting weeks before the story came out — were not moments that can be guaranteed to every person who visits the capital.

    To participate in a democracy, it is not necessary to visit the capital. Speaking to a representative — or a representative’s aide, more likely — can be done from the comfort of a computer.

    Washington D.C. is not this paragon of democratic feeling. There are a lot of important-looking people bustling around. There are a lot of monuments and overly patriotic museums. It is an incredible place, but it does not leave one feeling overwhelmed by national pride in our democracy.

    Let’s put it this way: the inauguration was a bit of a letdown. It was clear the J-term trip had been timed because of its overlap with the inauguration, and the thought of attending excited a lot of us in the weeks preceding the trip. But when the day finally came, all of our waiting — and then all of our watching — seemed to be in vain.

     It seemed silly to be standing out there, watching on the screen as Obama was sworn in. We could have done the exact same thing from the comfort of the indoors. I did not feel like I experienced some grand democratic epiphany.

    There was, perhaps, one moment at the inauguration that I felt proud of my country. That was when Obama called for marriage equality because “if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

    In my memory, that was the moment when the crowd cheered the loudest.

    In that moment, I thought perhaps the people do care, and perhaps there is some hope for the state of democracy in America.

    Anna Sieber is a first year social work and English double major with a possible a minor in philosophy, political science or some other subject. We’ll see how it goes. She likes long walks on the beach, candle-lit dinners in residence halls and enjoys summering on the dark side of the moon (alas, no Transformers). Over J-term she found the tunnel to the bomb shelter under Red Square—she’ll tell you about it too, but only if you ask nicely.