Let’s Get Civical

Can you name the Senators who represent your state? How about your Representatives? Do you know the difference between the Senate and the House?

A recent family discussion about how the roles and responsibilities of the House of Representatives differed from the Senate made me realize how LITTLE I know about the government and how it operates. I decided to give myself a crash course in Civics before the elections in November.

And speaking of November: Are you registered to vote? You can check here, and find out exactly WHERE you’re supposed to vote: http://www.dir.ct.gov/sots/LookUp.aspx

To begin, I checked out Twenty-Five Lessons in Citizenship by D.L. Hennessey. This is a primer on basic USA-ness. It gave me the overview of how the US was formed, wars fought, how the three branches of government interact and operate. It covers the Federal government, as well as County and City governments. It includes the text of Declaration of Independence, patriotic songs, Constitutional Amendments and more. It was dry in some spots, but really covered the basics, something I desperately needed. Our copy is a bit outdated, as it also told me that George W Bush was the President, but what kind of librarian would I be if I didn’t get online and let Wikipedia tell me that was no longer the case? Snap. I got this.

Next, I figured a little history of the US Presidents would be a good thing, PLUS I wanted to read something by Gore Vidal – he died last month, and I’ve never read anything of his – so I checked out his book The American Presidency. It begins with Washington, and continuing up to Bill Clinton, gives brief descriptions and highlights of the US presidents. It’s a quick read, by no means exhaustive in its historical detail, but a fun read for sure. Vidal has no shortage of facts, and no shortage of snark – he delivers both in this short, fun book.

I then read Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine: inside the secret world of the Supreme Court. Holy cow this book was good. Seriously. I think ‘Supreme Court’, and I picture a bunch of black-robed people frowning at things. Blah. But they are actually real people, with real histories and feelings, underneath those robes. This book tells you about who they are, where they came from, what they care about and how they work. It talks about the historical cases the Supreme Court has issued opinions on, too. It was written in 2007 (and spent more than four months on the NY Times Bestseller List), and we’ve had three new judges appointed to the court since then (a crazy amount of new judges in such a short time) – it would be great if Toobin would write an update to the book or a sequel, that included these new judges and how their additions have changed the court.

Getting back to the original question that sparked this whole thing, I also wanted to know about the Legislative branch of our government. I came across this book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do by Robert Draper. It’s a year-in-the-life look at the House of Representatives, during one of the worst years Congress has had – the 112th ‘do-nothing’ Congress beginning in 2011. There were a huge number of incoming freshmen to the House, and many of them identified with the Tea Party. Draper’s book takes a look at a few key players and tells their stories during this year. For better or worse, the legislators that represent us are human – they have good sides and dark sides; they want to do good – they just have different ideas of what that means and what it takes. This book gives a great snapshot look into the lives of legislators, and tells their stories in a balanced, clear-eyed way.

At the moment, I’m reading Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. This is a collaboration by these two authors – Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and Joe Sacco, an American Book Award-winning comics artist and journalist. The authors traveled the country, talking with and drawing the cities and people where poverty and crime run rampant. Places where, they say, political corruption and corporate greed has taken as much as it could from reservations, from towns, from the country, while giving back nothing, leaving the people faced with destitution, crime-ridden wastelands with no hope for any kind of future.

This book is bleak. And it knows it. And that’s its problem. This book has facts, but they get buried under Hedges’ heavy-handed call to arms. He wants to spur the revolution. He is a staunch believer in the Occupy movement (which occurred as the book was being written). I do wish he had toned the direct calls-to-arms down, and just let the story be told with facts – they are strong enough to speak for themselves. His comments will be off-putting to many, regardless of how right or left you are, and they almost make the facts feel opinion-y. It makes them too easy to dismiss. The drawings of Joe Sacco are powerful, and show the story told by the people. It makes the horror experienced by these people more real – the drawings alone are wonderful. The story the book tells is horrific. It makes you want to do something… until it tells you to do something.

My quest to know more about the political machine that exists today and how it came to be and to know more about the history of our country and the rest of the world continues… there’s so much to learn, so much to be done… I guess it starts in November with a vote. But it doesn’t end there. We citizens must hold those in office accountable – accountable to us, accountable to themselves. This is our country. We, all of us together, must make it one we are proud to live in.

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2 comments
  1. liz said:

    Great post Katy! I enjoyed reading it very much! And you are right, Americans need to be very involved in the process, but I know I’m not the only one who feels that the system has gotten so out of control, that the thought is just daunting. I would love to read some of the books you mentioned….only problem here is that English books are not in great abundance. I did, however, find Bill Bryson’s Made in America in the local library. It’s also a history of the country with a focus on the lingustic development and things surrounding/affecting it. I can honestly say that the thing I miss most about America are her libraries! It almost makes me cry, I miss them so much. I’m so glad that you are in this field! So perfect for you!! :) Keep up with the posts! (and maybe send me a list of your best reads so I can purchase them on the internet!!)

  2. Thanks, Liz. It IS daunting, but the more I read, the more it reminds me that we can change it. Or at least, have a shot at changing it. I just started A Language Older Than Words, by Derrick Jensen. It was recommended to me by a coworker after I was finished my tirade about how we need to go back to working the fields and revert to being an agricultural society. This, combined with beginning Howard Zinn’s A Brief History of the World is really an eye-opening look at where we’ve come from, what we’ve given up in search of power and money… ergh.

    Are there no local libraries there in Germany?! If there are, maybe some of the librarians would be willing to purchase some English books for you.

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