Democracy is important. And it is difficult.

This should be self evident to all who have the time and the stomach to follow the decision-making processes that thornily evolve at all levels of our government. So too have they been foregrounded by the confluence of new and old ideas that swirls around the broad Occupy movement. Anyone who has taken part in one of their General Assemblies has seen first hand an example of how long, frustrating, and ultimately invigorating large scale deliberation can be. Consensus emerges.

As some have begun to question where these proposals come from, how they are phrased, they’ve been directed to join working groups and other bodies ancillary to the main Assembly that have been set up to facilitate finer-grained discussion. A system of governance is beginning to emerge. It is, in its design, a critique; a pointed alternative to the existing government. There is little that is so seemingly hierarchical, so arcane as the bureaus of the Federal apparatus, or even that of a large municipality. It is phenomenally easy for those working closely with these systems to feel alienated, and with very good reason. In cases of monumental legislation that might have hugely detrimental effects upon one’s own life or the lives of millions around the globe, sending a letter to one’s Congressman feels almost insulting. The Occupation is, in so many ways, successful or not, an attempt at building a better, more participatory and direct system.

Here in San Francisco though, like in most cities in this nation, there is a system of direct democracy in the form of initiatives and referenda. These are issues put to vote to the population at large that live or die based on the will of the people. Roughly half of the United States have a system for this at the state level; in major cities in this country, it is the norm. In many countries around the world there are mechanisms for national referenda — in the extreme case of Switzerland, where three or four national referenda are held annually, it is a fundament of governance.

Just this month, San Francisco voters came out to vote not only for a new mayor but also to approve three new initiatives that give money for schools, roads, and enacting a large restructuring of city pensions.

“Last year, the city began a campaign against [traveling kids] because they were allegedly harassing residents and tourists for cash on the street. Despite city-wide protests, a law came into effect that actually prohibited sitting on the street.”

The above was published in the first issue of the n+1 sponsored Occupy Gazette, and while it is a short excerpt, it is nonetheless an ugly blemish upon the entire publication. It is indicative and not to be overlooked. With it, writer Adriana Camarena flourishes some of the worst attitudes toward democracy that I believe have been embodied within the Occupy movement. The initiative and referendum process is far from perfect; decisions affecting the whole population can be made by narrow margins. It is nowhere near as right-minded and theoretically neat as consensus; it is, however, extant at a scale that matters.

I voted against the proposition, and I still don’t think the law was the best way to deal with the problems in the Haight. Whatever one’s feeling on the issue, though, to write of “a law coming into effect” — to clearly imply that it was passed from on high, rather than decided by citizens directly — is mercenary, selfish, and dishonest. It devalues the entire democratic process for the betterment of one’s own position. To know the phrase to be untrue requires an only passing interest in or knowledge of local politics and to publish it brings into sincere doubt the veracity of every other detail printed in the publication. Assuming that the writer is not woefully ignorant of the process by which this measure was passed, it must be understood that she chose to obscure that fact. In turn, it must be the case either that the editors did not check the veracity of the claims, or that, knowing it was misleading, chose to publish it anyway because it supported the sway of the publication.

We deserve better media, and we must demand from it, at every turn, a commitment to openness and to factuality. It is not enough to only gleefully skewer the media of the right for its own inaccuracies; it behooves us on the left to to keep our own media — the one that echoes and shores up our own beliefs — honest. This feedback loop of political slant in the media is truly regrettable, contributing as it does political polarization, to a lack of common ground on which discussion can be held. But it is at least justifiable when the reporting and commenting is done with a modicum of good faith and respect. Here it was not.

The matter raises for me some serious questions as to the willingness of the movement to accept the defeat and (more often) the compromise that make up any successful democratic process. In this case, a writer with sympathy for one side of a contentious issue — the sit/lie law in San Francisco — has written the other, ultimately more populated side of the debate from existence. For a movement that supposes to speak for a vast, vast majority of the population, for one that has a purported commitment to a more equitable, just, and open democracy to allow this sort of misinformation is deeply troubling.

It gives me cause to ask aloud a question that I’ve so far kept to myself: if there had been a general vote in Oakland as to whether or not to let protesters camp in front of City Hall, what would have been the result? What about a vote in New York or even nation-wide on the question of Zuccotti Park? More importantly, if the majority asked them to, would they go?


 

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