Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Howard County Simulated Congressional Hearings

Yesterday, I participated as a judge in Simulated Congressional Hearings at Manor Woods Elementary.  It was fantastic.  From start to finish, I felt like I was playing a part in a well-oiled, well-designed machine.  My parts were engaging, interesting, and fulfilling.  Plus, I had the chance to interact with some truly amazing kids.  You can find out more about the program, and register to be a judge yourself, through this link.

The best part was the opportunity to learn from these 5th Graders.  While I know you all do this at home, it is rare that we ask what 5th Graders think about things.  And not just rote learning or "what do you think about Tom Sawyer's approach to painting fences?"  I'm talking about important things that affect our adult lives.  I thought I would recap a few of those topics here.

Negative Campaigning

I was excited when I saw that this would be addressed by one of the "panel of experts".  Across the board, students placed a significant duty on those running for office to respect the democratic process and do everything they could to educate the populace about their positions.  In fact, the students suggested that it was the responsibility of the candidate to ensure strong turn-out and identify important issues in the community.  One young man said, "If you are spending time attacking another person, you must have run out of reasons for why you would be good at the job."

 I loved that.  As candidates, we have so little time and opportunity to let the average voter know where we stand on things.  Going door to door, I would say I spend 70% of my time listening to the concerns of the neighborhood and 30% of my time talking about me.  That's by design.  Door-knocking, when done right, is an exercise in data-collection, not salesmanship.  But thankfully, through this blog and my efforts in the community, people know what I stand for, know my priorities, and our additional campaign efforts are supplementary to that core.

At this point, my opponent has spent upwards of $30,000 of his own money to make this race about me.  I would expect that most of the Primary Voters in District 9B agree with my Fifth Grade friend.

Federal Powers

Another topic was the separation of powers under the Constitution, described by one student as "Rock, Paper, Scissors", with each branch having its own supremacy and deference to the others.  One of the more interesting suggestions was that the Supreme Court has too much power distributed amongst nine people, emphasizing that the size of the body was disproportionate to the weight of its power.  When asked to state their favorite Presidential power, two of the four children asked responded "the ability to make treaties."  

That's a splash of cold water on the face of modern day politics.  When was the last time you remember a President making a significant treaty?  I had to look this up - there have been only five treaties ratified by the United States since the year 2000.  

Individual Rights v. Common Good

For 25 minutes, I listened to 10 and 11 year old students discuss John Locke and the social contract (sorry, Rousseau, you didn't make the cut).  It was fantastic.  This is a complex subject that can be pulled into any discussion of government power.  The students were able to explain the interface of individual rights and common good with agility and sophistication that was beyond the ken of many lawyers.  I will always remember my Junior year History Teacher explaining that "Your rights end at the tip of your fist.  My rights begin at the bridge of my nose."

One of the students commented that the nature of individual rights are "selfish".  Having instinctively thought "well that's incorrect, but an interesting idea", I reflected on it more and realized she was 100% correct.  "Selfish" is a pejorative word, but all of us should be selfish about our rights.  They are ours, inalienable in nature, and preexistant from government.  But just as we are selfish about individual rights, we should be self-less about the common good.  While there are many who would say otherwise, government is another term for "us".  Whether we like it or not, government is the result of our collaboration; the only realm where we are forced to work together as partners.  If we took that approach to democracy, instead of decorating it with ugly words like "politician" and "government", we may be more inspired to participate.

Closing Thoughts
These children were completely uninhibited in talking about subjects that many of us are afraid to discuss in public for fear of being stuck in an intractable argument.  Many suggest that the tragedy of growing up is forgetting to play, but in my experience the real tragedy is forgetting the difference between our humanity and our ideas.  There are bad ideas, but the people who offer them up in conversation are not "bad" for doing so.  These ten year-olds recognized difference of opinion as merely that - opinion.  If I can sway you, great, but if I can't, we both are better off for having discussed it.

We shouldn't be afraid of speech.  It was an asset of democracy intended to elucidate the complex issues of governance and educate the public.  We're going to be wrong sometimes.  As someone who has written something almost every day for over five years, I know that better than most.  But that should not deter us from the exercise.  Those who pretend to have always been on the correct side of things are only lying to themselves.

That's all for today.  Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!