Spectators

People have been disavowed of the idea that they can participate in a meaningful way in the world. We have turned into spectators of our own lives and feel powerless. We have also been sold for at least the last 200 years on the idea that some system, some model, if only it is implemented properly and rigorously enough, can solve our problems and usher in an era of peace and prosperity. Communism and capitalism, the two-headed beast of the 20th century, both regard citizens as bit players in a greater drama where all the important questions have already been answered. We have internalized a mechanistic view of society in which experts tell us what's good for us and tinker with structure on our behalf. But go to some piss-poor third world country which isn't saddled with our ideological baggage (extreme poverty seems to impose a certain pragmatism on people), and no one ever stands around wondering, What can I do? There's always a well to sink or a house to build or a campesino rights organization to join.

In almost every advertisement we encounter, the main text is, buy our product to solve your problems but the subtext is, buy a product to solve your problems. In dealing with social and political issues, we need to abandon the illusion that it requires a kind of proprietary expertise to solve them and that we can buy those solutions in a bottle. That is, we need to re-introduce the concept of participation instead of mere spectatorship. More specifically, we need to re-introduce the idea that people have the ability - indeed, the obligation - to get involved and make a difference in the world instead of leaving it to the experts, who in any case have been shown to be incapable of leading us in a competent manner.

Prior to this, we need to remember that we are first of all capable of providing ourselves with most of what we need. In an environment where everything is done for us, the empowerment of something as simple as a home cooked meal can become a transformative experience. Harriet Friedmann explains this phenomenon in the context of globalization but her words are highly relevant to the question of participation and deserve to be quoted at length:

A recent magazine advertisement exemplifies the combined effects of corporate-guided changes in food practices. A young girl is offered a doll to help her learn to be a mother, a way girls have learned in many human societies. What exactly is she learning from this doll? To feed her baby, who is wearing a "Happy Meal" bib, a McDonald's burger, fries and shake! Another doll might teach her to breastfeed her baby or to mash bananas. But the food she is learning to serve her baby is bought from McDonald's....A toy company uses McDonald's to sell its product to children, which in turn advertises the corporate meals. Parents who buy this toy are paying for advertising that encourages their children to buy meals from the corporation! (Harriet Friedmann, "Remaking 'Traditions'", in Barndt, Deborah [Ed.], Women Working The NAFTA Food Chain. Second Story Press, 1999, pp. 54-55)

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Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Ryan McGreal