Swans Commentary » swans.com February 12, 2007  



On Obligation In A Participatory Democracy


by Michael DeLang





(Swans - February 12, 2007)   In the summer of 2003, James Kenworthy, a resident of Longmont, Colorado, arrived at a personal decision. Concerned about the general direction the political and social atmosphere of his nation had been drifting in since the tragic events of September 11th, Kenworthy had, for some time, made himself a politically active and vocal member of his community. To remain politically active, one must manage to keep informed and stay abreast of current events. In the attempt to do so by following the news, Kenworthy had concluded that all of his sources of news were telling the same stories in the same way, and in a manner that consistently failed to divulge the truth about the processes and powers that were changing his world. He felt that the information provided by the corporate owned and controlled major media, while accurate in terms of its facts, was disturbingly deft in its failure to address the issues of the day in terms of the values that he and others in his community held to be most important. Sharing these concerns with colleagues at a local collective of activists, the Longmont Citizens For Justice and Democracy, Kenworthy found that he was not alone in this assessment. Determined that an ingrained culture will not change on its own and that waiting for leaders to act on our behalf is just a dodge, the citizens group decided that they must make it their own civic responsibility to do something about it. Kenworthy and Karen Treanor Brown agreed to head up and co-edit the collective project and in October of 2003, when they felt that they had mustered sufficient volunteer support to move the idea forward, the Main Street Free Press was born.

The Main Street Free Press began publishing every other month and was distributed for free by volunteer workers to the driveways of Longmont residences and businesses, with additional copies made available at selected access points such as shopping centers, coffeehouses, and public buildings. At first, all of the money required to cover the cost of publishing the paper came from the pockets of the founders and their small core of volunteer supporters. As the project developed a following and the paper acquired a regular readership, a scattering of advertisers was attracted and a handful of paid mail subscriptions were generated. The type of businesses interested in advertising in a paper like the Free Press tend to be small local concerns struggling just to survive, with little money available in the operating budget for advertising. To accommodate them, rates must be kept at a modest level. Still, with a little more seed money kicked in by the editors and volunteer staff, along with infrequent, but appreciated, donations from readers who understand the value of a project like the Free Press, by the summer of 2005 the Main Street Free Press was able to step up the project to publish an issue every month.

I first came across the paper during the summer of 2004 in a café in the mountain town of Nederland. After reading an issue, I concluded that the Free Press represented the perfect manifestation of what I believed that a community news publication, ideally, should look like. Although I was just passing through and not a resident of the locale served by the paper, in a gesture of solidarity with the notion that an informed populace supported by a free and independent press is a vital component of any properly functioning democracy, I immediately took out a subscription. Each issue that I have enjoyed over the last couple of years has contained a lead article providing a lengthy in-depth analysis of either a local matter of import, or a broader-based issue with a particularly significant impact on the local community. Conscious of the diverse nature of the Longmont community and sensitive to the importance of providing it with an inclusive service, the lead article was always printed twice, side by side, in both an English and Spanish version. The balance of a typical issue consisted of a few news articles of local or national interest, and usually at least a couple of opinion pieces by both the Free Press staff and guest contributors. Whenever possible, the editors always provided, at the end of an article or editorial, a list of relevant resources and websites the reader could use to obtain additional information on the subject of the article. As a regular monthly feature of the paper, an article appeared updating the readers on the activities of the representative of Longmont's congressional district, listing his committee assignments, recording and reporting his votes on legislation, while explaining the meaning and impact of the legislation, and passing along any stances taken or comments made by the representative on the political issues he had chosen to weigh in on during the proceeding month. The Main Street Free Press seemed dedicated to providing Longmont residents with the kind of information that would both enable and encourage them to become active participants in the political process that, ultimately, would help to shape their community and lives.

Sadly, a couple of weeks ago, I received a check in the mail for the unused portion of my most recent subscription renewal, accompanied by the brief announcement that the Main Street Free Press had ceased publication. In Jim Kenworthy's own assessment, "I feel we had some success. It was worth doing and we all benefited" from the experience. He stated that the group had fallen apart over policy, all members had become tired, and in the process, had worn each other out. Although he hasn't said as much, I can't help but feel that a general lack of support from outside the organization must have factored in to its dissolution. How difficult must it be to continue to make a personal sacrifice for the benefit of others when the effort seems to go unappreciated, unacknowledged, and unnoticed?

Last summer on a trip down the Moose River to James Bay, I had the pleasure of sharing my campfire one night with a producer of news programming for the Canada Broadcasting Company, who happened to be paddling the same route. After the customary exchange of trip experiences, covering both current and prior paddling adventures, the talk turned to politics. We seemed to be on the same page with regards to how my government was handling its responsibilities, but as I was painfully ignorant of any of the details pertaining to Canadian politics, I began carping about one of my pet subjects, the manner in which the American press had rolled over and been playing lap dog to the shameful machinations of the Bush administration. This much my new friend allowed without comment. But when I started spouting off about the evils of the corporate agenda being pursued by a self-serving media, he called me on it. "Not so fast, there. You're attributing far too sinister a motive for the problem. We're simply not organized enough to follow an agenda. In fact, we're a very competitive lot, and the prize we compete for is your attention." He then proceeded to tell me about a documentary program that he and his staff had put together not too long before our conversation.

The program consisted of a thorough point-by-point analysis of an impending trade pact with the United States governing the export of soft wood. It was a pact, the documentary concluded, that was designed to bring enormous short term benefits to a few well positioned owners, while imposing a catastrophic long term negative impact on Ontario's timber industry and the workers who depend on it. By the time the program approached this conclusion, however, the majority of the sets that had been tuned in at the beginning of the documentary had already changed the channel in search of more entertaining fare. The example he offered was meant to illustrate that just as Americans (and Canadians to a slightly lesser degree) have the government they deserve only because of an apathetic willingness to tolerate a high level of corruption, we also have a news media created by our own collective appetite for trivial diversion. I couldn't argue his point. After all, any good con artist will tell you that the secret to a successful scheme lies in identifying a mark who is willing to meet the con halfway. I weakly countered, "But isn't there any sense of journalistic obligation to give the people the kind of information they need, whether or not they want to hear it?" "Oh, sure," he replied, "but to heed it is professional suicide. And that's a lot to ask." Again, I found myself in an untenable position. It is too much to ask. If I have not given up my own livelihood to work full time for the betterment of the whole, what right can I claim to demand the same of another?

Still, we occasionally come across people who are making these kinds of sacrifices in answer to motivations we can only guess at. There are people going it alone and offering too much of their own time and money in their efforts to prod the rest of us into a more participatory role in securing our own future. When we see this happening, we must support and encourage it in any way we can. We must offer up some portion of our own time and our own money to sustain the efforts. Because when the day arrives that determined citizens like the good folks at Longmont Citizens For Justice and Democracy no longer emerge from our midst, giving over some measure of their own lives in order to patiently push us towards the paths that lead back to ourselves, then we will truly have lost a foundation for hope.


Author's note: Mr. Kenworthy has requested that I acknowledge Polly Christensen, Cyndie Hardy, Bill Ellis, Ron Forthofer, Susan Unger, Dave Morton, Jeff Treanor Brown, and Ernie Greenly, without whose efforts the Main Street Free Press would not have been possible.


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Internal Resources

Activism under the Radar Screen

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About the Author

Michael DeLang is a self-defined middle-aged blue collar worker in the trucking industry who lives in Rockford, Illinois.



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URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art13/delang09.html
Published February 12, 2007