WASHINGTON — While at a meeting the other night, I was amazed to discover that my fellow members of the board of a public school parents advocacy group considered our organization to be "radical."
Me, a radical? Is it radical for a community of parents to form a group that uses means such as organizing protests, testifying at hearings, even taking legal action - to, in this case, improve the dismal state of schools in Washington? Yes, I was told as we sat around a conference table, munching on cheesecake and strawberries. In these conservative times, many illustrious citizens and business people don't want to donate money or be closely associated with groups that stir up controversy.
In between making a living and my life as an apparent "parent radical," I've been reading the biographies of the Founding Fathers. So far, I have devoured "George Washington: The Indispensable Man" by James Thomas Flexner, David McCullough's "John Adams," and well-regarded biographies on Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. Now these fellows were radicals.
This enlightened bunch of deists stirred up more than controversy, they stirred up a new system of government that fundamentally changed America's political and economic structure.
Our first two presidents, Washington - a man remarkably immune to the temptations of power - and the underrated, feisty, pragmatic, and intelligent John Adams, would be horrified at the distance the average American feels from his or her government today. They'd fully understand the roots of our disaffection: Both were dead set against the creation of so-called "democratic societies," the predecessors of the political party and lobbying group which were not envisioned during the writing of the Constitution. Although Washington and Adams would eventually come to be considered "Federalists" who opposed positions promulgated by Jefferson's "Republicans," both men were reluctant to think in partisan terms. They would be terribly disappointed to find that today most people think that they are supposed to interact with government by identifying with a political party. They'd be outrightly disgusted by the power wielded by lobbies.
As president, Washington was generally circumspect about expressing his opinion, so I was struck when I read of his strong opinion about what he called self-created factions that claimed to speak for the common man. "Washington," says biographer Flexner, "believed that the government should have the most direct possible connection with each citizen as an individual. He was in favor of everything that would enable the individual citizen to act intelligently - education was his favorite charity." (Adams, by the way, took this one step further, taking up the cause of public education.)
"Realizing that it was hard for one simple citizen to make his voice heard," Flexner continues, "Washington saw as the natural grouping the neighborhood." Of course, neighborhoods in those days were closer in size to Congressional district, in part, thanks to Washington. His one formal contribution to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had been to reduce the size of districts that would elect a member of the House of Representatives.
Washington thought the people had two methods of expressing dissatisfaction: the ballot box and the right to call a mass meeting for the purpose of producing a resolution to express their view to the government. "Washington visualized these meetings as arising from the neighborhood, rather than being engineered, as the democratic societies were, from some political center," says Flexner. "He considered everything that intervened between the people in their neighborhoods and the federal government, an impediment to the true functioning of a republican system."
Our first president detested politicians whose object it was not to give people material to make up their own minds, but to sell them predigested views, making them not thinkers but followers. He regarded democratic societies as the "stamping grounds" of demagogues. Washington did more than express an opinion on this subject. While president, he paid attention to every such resolution, and answered each one with a personal reply.
How refreshing to read of Washington's thoughts on this matter in a time when there is more spin than information, power resides out of the reach of most people, and it is difficult to discern genuine grass roots from AstroTurf. Yet the principle remains. In the absence of direct appeal (and in the case of Washington, D.C., voting elected national officials), we must come up with constructive ways of meaningfully connecting up from something so small as a neighborhood or a group of neighborhoods.
So, I cannot possibly claim the moniker of radical. Nor can most community activists, whatever their cause. According to my reading, we're doing just what we're supposed to do in order to bridge the gap between the needs of the neighborhood and the large nation-size political arena that looms so far above.
For me, this means fighting for something that each one of the founding fathers believed in - an education that will allow all American citizens to make intelligent political choices.
Nadine Epstein is a writer and artist. Her latest book is 'Rainforest Home Remedies' (HarperSan Francisco, 2001).