Bullshit and Bathrobes: The State of Our Civic Discourse

I have never been more appalled and felt more uncomfortable in a public meeting than I did during city council last Tuesday. At many points I felt like I needed to pinch myself because the sheer depravity of it all seemed more like satire than reality. There were people yelling at each other, talking out of turn, openly insulting each other, and even people coughing “bullshit” into their hands after someone made a point they disagreed with. (Come on, what are you 12?) And to think this was all over a pair of ordinances regulating the number of square feet street performers can have, and extending a “smoke free” zone half a block… Really? The experience left such a sour taste in my mouth that I almost proclaimed the death of civic discourse in it’s entirety, but held off, that is until I started reading about Congress.

John Boehner

John Boehner

At this point I feel I am ready, it’s over, civic discourse is dead, or is at least in it’s final throes. And perhaps this is a good thing, perhaps it really needs to get worse before it can get any better. And if what I saw last week, at both a local and national level, becomes the norm, then others will be hard pressed to disagree with me.

Strangely enough, I have written about this before. Last summer, during another city council meeting, I remember watching the debate about the Pogonip multi-use trail. Both sides vehemently denounced each other, organized supporters, and flooded the inbox of every city council member there, expending so much effort to derail one another without even considering the act of compromise. And yet somehow it got worse…

I am not sure exactly when it was that I cracked, or what caused it. Maybe it was Robert Norse, bounding around in a bathrobe, making side comments to anyone who would listen, or maybe it was when council member Mathews proceeded to label those in the crowd as “idiotic” for their take of the first amendment (yea, like that’s really going to help), or maybe even, it was the final clearing out of the chambers by police while a crowd booed and screamed bloody murder. But somewhere in there I really second guessed why I would ever want to be a part of this process. This, coming from someone who has worked and dedicated his entire life to local civics and politics thus far. But when an episode of Parks and Recreation seems more tame and ideal a process than what actually happens in real life, it’s hard not to throw your hands up and begin to consider living alone off the grid somewhere, devoid of human contact.

Parks and Recreation

NBC’s Parks and Recreation

But then again, the whole ordeal is quite comical, and only serves to reinforce my perspective about what needs to change. After all, my friends and I joke that it’s not a real Santa Cruz city council meeting until someone gets compared to Hitler or Stalin. (First they banned smoking on just Pacific Avenue, and I said nothing…)

Though here is my real question, if I can barely stomach attending these meetings, then how can we expect the average person to? It’s not just inconvenient to become civically engaged, it’s downright unpleasant. This, in spite of there being a clear path forward. As my colleague Esther Kim described in her blog last week, if we as citizens, en masse, really work to fix the system, we can. The tools are there. If we can bombard each other with millions of cat videos everyday than surely we can take the time click “yes” or “no” on something like a local smoking ban. And if even 5% of our community had bothered to do so, then maybe those meetings wouldn’t be so awful. Maybe the vocal minority wouldn’t feel so compelled toward political theatre had they been given more channels to participate, and god forbid, discuss and compromise.

So what’s it going to take, what’s going to cause normal, rational people to have a “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore” moment? When are we going to make the conscious effort to take our system back from those who have hijacked it? When are we going to realize that we don’t have to do it this way anymore, that the current system is antiquated, structurally deficient, and – surprise, surprise – not capable of reforming itself?

mad-as-hell

The Network (1976)

I’m not sure when it will happen or what is going to do it, and, in all honesty, it probably won’t happen at some peak moment, but rather gradually. And as like minded individuals slowly come to realize that there are alternatives, their momentum will compound and the pendulum will swing back toward sanity.

So let me know when you have that moment for yourself. Let me know when it is, that you as an individual start to look for an alternative, when you read that one article, or hear that one person speak… When that blood vessel in your eye finally pops, let me know, because I have an online voting site to show you : )

-Robert Singleton

8 comments

  1. Michael A. Lewis, PhD · · Reply

    As many have noted over the past two centuries, democracy is a messy business.

    The takeover of City Council meetings by homeless advocates is a direct result of a laissez-faire policy on the part of those sitting in the seats facing the audience. Santa Cruz is a haven for those who choose to demand rather than contribute, disrupt rather than support, take rather than contribute.

    Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County have long been untiring advocates for the democratic process. Government representatives have constantly supported the privileges of a democratic society, but unfortunately have done little to also support the responsibilities of such a society.

    We see the result on Tuesday evenings in City Hall.

    The answer to this problem is to pressure our City government to practice the pronunciation a single word: “NO!” With four-part harmony and feeling.

    We must also instill in our City and County representatives that those standing before them have responsibilities as well as privileges, that a simple demand for services must be accompanied by a willingness to participate in the process of community support. That process starts in public meetings, when all are expected to be courteous of others, including the public body, knowledgeable about the subject matter at hand, and willing to work with government bodies to achieve an outcome for the greater good.

    Unfortunately, Santa Cruz fancies itself a “progressive” community, whatever that is, and the word “no” sticks in most Cruzans throats. When people who choose to live outside the bounds of community and yet demand support services that no one else receives, Santa Cruzans find it difficult to say “no.” When dog owners demand special exception to leash laws to allow their dogs to dominate a stretch of beach at the expense of all other users, Santa Cruzans have a hard time saying “no.”

    Democracy does not mean that we must find a way to say yes to every demand, to compromise away our principles when under attack, to draw down our society to the lowest common denominator. We look to our government to uphold and defend our ideals in the face of attempts to tear them down. We don’t need government to denigrate our society. There are plenty of citizens eager to take on that chore.

    Our government is the way in which we discover and defend the common good, protecting the interests of the majority from degradation by special interests.

  2. Wow, what you wrote really resonates with me and perfectly describes my desire to stop listening. It’s just noise? It’s interesting because I have a daughter who is actually interested in diplomacy (don’t blame me, I have no idea how this happened) and I hope, for our sake, she pursues it. Because I still want to believe that’s a word and a value and an aspiration.

  3. Actually, I think many of the people behaving in the uncivil way you describe would say that they are having a “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore” moment. Urging people to get mad in the interest of more civil discourse is not a helpful direction. We need people to cool down, listen more, be open to other points of view and work toward compromise. I think our Council displays this approach quite well on most occasions. If we believe in democracy and the right of the people to speak their piece, that has to include views we disagree with. I applaud our council members for being calm and polite under the most trying circumstances.

  4. Unfortunately this article doesn’t discuss the crux of the council meeting; that performance and art vendors must now be relegated to a size that is probably smaller than your desk space. 12 square feet. That isn’t enough room for a guitarist and a mandolin player and an open guitar case. Does that not infuriate you? That a city council person thinks it should be a law that a performer should have to go and sign up for a city permit to play music? I know the author has been paying attention to civics for his whole life.. but this town has had a street performance legacy that lasts 30 years too. People come from all over to experience it but here we have just killed it. It may be said that those in the crowd who were upset by this ordinance change didn’t organize or put their case out there better but what we saw at city council was a travesty. There has been nothing to necessitate this law change and yet it will transform our downtown into something quite a bit more bland and boring. Robert Norse has been wearing a bathrobe since ’94. It shouldn’t shock anyone. He makes the point by doing so that it is illegal to sleep outside at night.. and yet +1,500 in the city do.. and that doesn’t seem to shock many. I agree that this council meeting was berzerk, but almost appropriately so.

  5. You might find the following resource helpful, a 2009 article in YES Magazine by Sandy Heierbacher, Director of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD). NCDD is a network of more than 1,500 practitioners working in the areas of public engagement, facilitation, conflict resolution etc. Full disclosure: I am a long-time member.

    Upgrading the Way We Do Politics article

    http://ncdd.org/rc/item/3172

    Based on the article, NCDD later developed a one-pager aimed at public officials:

    http://ncdd.org/rc/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/NCDDTownHallFlyer.pdf

    While these guidelines on meeting design and meeting management were developed in the context of the infamous “healthcare townhalls”, they could be applied to city council meetings as well.

    NCDD has quite a network here in the Bay Area, including a few members in and around Santa Cruz. Do you think the City Council might be interested in learning more about what other options they have available?

  6. […] Bullshit and Bathrobes: The State of Our Civic Discourse (civinomics.wordpress.com) […]

  7. […] waiting for someone to revive the “This Week in Public Comment” series. There are some pretty, um, fascinating moments occurring at our local […]

  8. […] can oftentimes be downright unpleasant, a reality that one of our co-founders, Robert, describes in a previous blog post.  Both locally and nationally, too often our political debates are framed from an “us vs them” […]

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