Monday, November 15, 2004

Civic Duty

I got a double dose of civic duty a couple of weeks ago. That's exactly the kind of thing I've spent the past twenty years generally try to avoid. For a long time I liked to think of myself as "flying under the radar." I guess I even imagined myself a bit of an "outlaw" at times in my own naive and overly romanticized way.

For several years, when I lived in D.C., playing folk music for tips at a vegetarian restaurant and writing free-lance articles for American Heritage, I drove all around the city in an unregistered, uninsured car. I even got pulled over once, but somehow finessed my way out of it. I voted in the 1984 election, but after that I kind of lost interest. And yet I still ended up serving jury duty. I figured it was an easy 40 bucks so what the hell.

While I was in Brooklyn, attracting media attention as one of the "Funniest Unemployed Comics," I lived rent-free for the better part of a year after my landlord mysteriously disappeared. I failed to file several state income tax returns and defaulted on my student loans. I never registered to vote in New York; politics just seemed like an irrelevant nuisance to me. But once again I got called in for jury duty. This time the pay was only about 20 bucks, but I was unemployed so who was I to complain.

These days I am a little more respectable. My car is registered and insured and has a valid parking permit. I pay my taxes on time and I don't even get a refund. I'm never late with the rent and I even assisted the landlord in evicting a tenant who was creating an unsafe environment in our building. I register to vote and have served on two juries. In fact, two weeks ago I served on a jury and voted in the same week! How's that for good citizenship?

One thing that always strikes me about jury duty is that despite the fact that everyone whines about it and tries to get out of it, once the jury gets into the deliberation room, everyone seems to take it pretty seriously. Which is good because in this case we were sending a guy to prison for the rest of his life. But what was really cool about it was the way people allowed each other to disagree and to talk things out before they reached a final decision. In the end we all agreed on a guilty verdict on thirteen separate charges.

The day after that was election day. It was my first election since '84 and I was pretty excited about it. In fact I had registered specifically to vote in this election because I felt so strongly about the outcome. I felt like I couldn't sit this one out -- it was too important. So I did my civic duty and voted for the candidate of my choice. As it turned out I was disappointed by the final result of the election. And it made me think about the whole trial by jury process.

It's too bad the information put out by the candidates isn't subject to some kind of stringent requirements the way evidence in court is. Politicians can say whatever they want and there's no counsel to object to the impropriety or lack of foundation or irrelevance of it. And no judge to decide what's fair and what isn't. And there are no instructions for voters the way a jury gets instructed: Be impartial, don't base your decision on personal bias, don't pick a position and refuse to budge despite compelling evidence to the contrary, on the other hand don't be swayed by a passionate argument if your sure of your position.

Wouldn't it be cool if we could all go into a giant deliberation room and everyone would actually listen to each other's opinions and we could all decide together which candidate is best? I guess that's what we try to do anyway. We had the debates and they had moderators. We have plenty of time to gather the facts and discuss them with our friends. I tried make sure that I talked to people who didn't share my opinion to see if their reasons made sense to me. But what it seems to come down to is some people believed one guy and some believed the other. In a court of law, that would be called a "hung jury" and there would be a mistrial and they would have to try the case all over again. But in politics the same thing is called a "mandate."

That's democracy for ya.

I'm still glad I did my civic duty. Maybe one of these days I'll run for office. I wonder how much a councilman makes?