What If Our Society Valued Civics as It Does Entertainment?
By Ralph Nader
January 19, 2024
A teacher once said to me: “A society pays for what it values.” If so, our society values commercial entertainment, including spectator sports, orders of magnitude more than it values civics defined as the rights and duties exercised by citizens in a democracy.
What if we lived in a society that valued both equally?
1. Possibly the most visible event would be an annual Academy of Civic Heroes Awards viewed by tens of millions of people. The glitter would shine not on the winner’s wardrobes, but on their victories of justice and on their groundbreaking documentaries, books and features. The acceptance remarks would not be gushing flurries of thank yous, but concise evocations of their hard-earned struggles for, and portrayals of, a just society.
2. The school curriculum in our elementary, secondary and higher education institutions would provide academic parity for civics and civic skills with courses on business and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
3. The media would provide significant space and time for citizen activities as they do for sports and the arts/movies. Presently the New York Times has a daily special Arts Section but not a special civic activity section. You know how much space is devoted to sports in the Times. Even NPR and PBS networks are heavy on entertainment and hardly feature any civic leaders or doers, whether to interview (they prefer to interview themselves or academics) or to report local or national civic actions.
4. Celebrities attract audiences and supporters. The media creates entertainment and sports celebrities. Except for a few years in the 1960s and 1970s, the media rarely highlights emerging civic leaders’ or their proven achievements. Therefore, these priceless advocates have difficulty attracting audiences or supporters.
5. We would celebrate anniversaries, in a broader fashion, beyond those remembering wars or other major acts of violence, natural disasters or revered presidents. Apart from the holiday in honor of citizen Martin Luther King Jr., little is formally remembered of the citizen leaders who built the edifices of justice for our country—for instance in the abolition of slavery, voting rights for women, and livelihoods and dignity rights for workers and farmers. Sure, they are sometimes mentioned in textbooks without much context or drama—but how many national civic leaders do you know in America today? They’re not covered on the degraded television/radio evening news.
6. The number of civic lobbyists would far outnumber those pressing for corporate privileges. Instead, companies from the drug, oil & gas and Silicon Valley businesses swarm over Capitol Hill with their promises of campaign money.
7. Parity would mean that big radio stations like WTOP in Washington, D.C. (news, weather and sports) could devote time to local civic activities as it does by giving free advertisements to opening businesses or movies. Business and entertainment have their slots by the hour or day while civic conferences and marches (as with ‘Poor People’s Campaign’) are regularly ignored.
As is routine with these stations, WTOP declined to mention or report the most expansive convention in American history of civic leaders, doers and thinkers over six days at the Constitution Hall in 2016. None of the 161 stalwart presenters, except Patti Smith, were athletes or entertainers.
8. Just as there is regular data on the number of engineers, scientists, accountants and others, there would be data on how many full-time citizens there are and how many are graduating with a major in “civil practice” (which does not exist, with very few exceptions).
9. Just as famous athletes’ and other entertainers’ clothing, equipment and autographs are selling for big money in the collectibles market, societal parity would have similar markets for citizen advocacy memorabilia which could help raise needed funds.
10 Parity of fund-raising or investment would mean hundreds of billions of dollars raised to fund tens of thousands of full-time civic groups—local, state and national—having a seat at the table where important decisions are now being made unilaterally, often in secret, by the few for the many. Civic society monies would pay for democracy’s own media—TV, radio/newspapers, magazines, and social media, owned and used by the people, not beholden to commercial advertisers.
There would be legions of knowledgeable full-time civic communicators and advocates taking knowledge to action that addresses the many serious perils—some rising to Omnicidal levels (see my January 12, 2024 column: Five Omnicides Facing Our Unprepared World)—that are now worsening and being ignored by a plutocratic/oligarchic corporate state.
As they do now for Wall Street and Silicon Valley riches, the young would rush to strengthen and lift up the structures of justice—“Justice is the great interest of man on earth” as Daniel Webster asserted. Regular civic engagement makes a democracy function productively and presciently for its citizenry and its posterity. Markets would be our servants, not our masters.
Alas, growing up corporate conditioned by the omnipresent values of aggressive commercialism over civic/democratic values is the lot of people indentured to choiceless lives shaped by merciless corporatism.
As corporations are increasingly raising our screen-addicted children by harmful direct marketing undermining parental authority and knowledge day after day, more and more people, regardless of their political labels, are realizing that this can no longer be tolerated. The people of good will and the tools of democratic transformation are available or attainable but mostly latent in our existing civic institutions.
My small example-rich paperback—Breaking Through Power: Its Easier Than We Think (City Lights, 2016) will encourage you to champion civic values.