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Power to the people.

At the date of this writing, the elections have been over for more than a week. Nine days have gone by since George Bush conceded to Bill Clinton, but a feeling of surrealism persists. Talking with friends and colleagues tends to confirm that this reaction is particularly acute for human-rights activists of my generation. In the whole of our adult lives, we have experienced consistently deteriorating political and social conditions. As humanists, liberals, and rationalists, we have been forced to live and work in an America not just apathetic but openly hostile to our deepest convictions and concerns. Little we've done has seemed to bring much progress. Most of our time has been spent working frantically - and most often unsuccessfully - to hold back the tide of further losses. Still, most of us managed to retain the conviction that the American people were better than their leaders. We refused to give up the hope that Americans would one day wake up and say "Enough!" to demagoguery, repression, and fear. Recently, it seemed to us that more and more "ordinary" people were beginning to think for themselves and to talk about the only things that could save us: objective thought, rejection of failed solutions, and a recognition of our common humanity.

In the November/December 1992 issue of The Humanist, I expressed my hope that the American people had finally had enough of simplistic, moralistic, fundamentalist thinking. "I feel the pendulum beginning to shift:" I wrote. Nevertheless, I wasn't prepared for the decisiveness of the election results, the nationwide rejection of hard-line conservative candidates, or the unexpected victories of women and minority candidates in numerous state and local races.

This presidential campaign was unlike any other. That the people were sick of politics as usual - sick enough to demand change - was the most significant reason for this. After so many years of apathy and neglect, our nation is in an alarming mess. Americans are beginning to realize that the fruits of political indifference are bitter and the costs are high. With great reluctance, the people have been forced to confront the fact that the government belongs to them; thus, they cannot avoid the final responsibility for its conduct.

And so it was that we witnessed an amazing phenomenon. During debates and on telephone call-in shows, we saw citizens taking an active role in questioning the candidates and directing the dialogue. We saw candidates on MTV, on Nashville music shows, even playing the saxophone with Arsenio Hall's band after midnight. We saw George Bush forced to "chat" with callers on "Larry King Live." In the second presidential debate, we even saw the audience take charge of the format, forcing the candidates to stick to the issues.

The voters actually wanted to know the unadorned facts. They wanted to discuss the nation's problems and weigh the merits of various proposed solutions. Repeatedly, they voiced their concerns about this time of extraordinary national and global change. They rejected rhetoric, scapegoating, personal attacks, and condescending pronouncements from political pundits and commentators. They sensed that a rare combination of timing and events had presented them with an opportunity too important to pass up. It isn't often that individuals can participate in determining the future direction of their country or the fate of future generations; in many places in the world today, people never get that chance. The choices, for once, were clear. And so was the abysmal record of the past 30 years.

In short, we saw and heard the people - individually and en masse - realizing that politics has become the stuff of their lives.

As a result, voter registration jumped dramatically in every state. Everyone wanted to get in on the excitement (which is exactly as it should be). All over the country, a generation still too young to vote held mock debates, campaigns, and elections. For perhaps the first time in history, children were presented with the true nature and intent of politics as a vital, living process directly and inexorably connected with their own lives and the lives of their families. Voters under 30 came out in droves to exercise their fundamental right to vote for the first time in their lives.

Certainly, participatory democracy for all Americans is far from a reality; we have a long way to go to achieve that goal. We also have a daunting task before us as we begin the work of redressing the horrifying consequences of decades of neglect. But although it was primarily economic issues - as opposed to concerns about liberty and human freedom - that prompted this awakening, we cannot underestimate or fail to recognize its deeper significance.

Once citizens realize there is a direct connection between government and their own pursuit of happiness, and a similar link between themselves and millions of other Americans, the correlation can be made in other areas. In this election, the people have taken the first and most fundamental step toward understanding the necessity of civil rights, personal liberty, and self-responsibility. Americans have indicated a willingness, even an eagerness, to take charge of their own destinies. They are probing, questioning, challenging, opening their minds to further enlightenment. Now, more than ever before, it is our responsibility to provide it.

As one who came of age in the 1960s, I have thought often during the past several months of Abbie Hoffman. I remember something he said in response to a critic shortly before he died: "Sure we were young; we were irreverent; we were arrogant; but we were right!" As our generation accepts the burdens of government, it behooves us to remember the timeless ideals of those years. It is our responsibility to breathe life back into words like "All power to the people!"

With power comes responsibility, which is why so many Americans have shunned it for so long. But in today's world - where a woman's right to choose hinges on politics, where the most intimate issues inherent in changing families and values have become public policy debates - it is no longer possible to escape the fact that the personal is political. "Voter interest" has become what it really should be: human interest. Consequently, we have seen the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.

Among additional reasons for genuine celebration and relief at Clinton's victory is, of course, the future composition of the Supreme Court. Justices Harry Blackmun and Byron White (ages 83 and 75, respective, will both almost certainly retire within the next four years. Two more Bush Supreme Court appointments would have been nothing less than disastrous, leaving us with the kind of damage that might have proved virtually irreparable. (Remember, too, that two-thirds of all federal judges now on the bench are Reagan-Bush appointees.)

One of the most significant and largely unrecognized aspects of the new administration resides in the person of Hillary Clinton, a professional woman whose marriage has always been a partnership, a woman who has the obvious and genuine respect of her husband. In short, she is a complete and competent person in her own right, and one who accurately reflects the changing role of women in American society.

Lest readers conclude at this point that I believe Clinton, Gore, and the other recently elected Democrats are political messiahs who will solve all our problems quickly and painlessly, I hasten to state that I have no hopes of being able to retire from social and political activism - now or ever. I do not expect the struggle to diminish, nor do I believe the work load will lessen. Yesterday may soon be gone, but its legacy has left us with some pretty horrifying problems. The price of liberty will never be less than eternal vigilance.

President-elect Clinton has made many campaign promises which clearly reflect humanist principles; now it's up to us to hold him to them. He has promised to sign a Workplace Fairness Bill prohibiting permanent replacement of strikers. He has pledged to overturn anti-gay policies in the military, to sign the Family and Medical Leave Act, to revive the child-welfare bill vetoed by Bush, and to fully fund Head Start programs. He has committed himself to freedom of reproductive choice and has promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, repeal the gag rule, support testing of the French abortion pill RU-486, and lift the ban on the use of fetal tissue for research purposes.

He has promised to appoint an AIDS policy director to assure better funding for AIDS research and care of AIDS patients. With Al Gore, he has promised environmental reforms, including a rewrite of the Clean Air Act regulations, no expansion of offshore drilling, and tougher penalties for pollution violations. He supports school-based clinics and drug education. He says he'll sign the Motor Voter Bill. He promises health-care reform, a pressing and far-reaching problem particularly resistant to government remedies.

In addition, of course, he has promised to reduce the national debt and to boost inner-city development through national economic strategies: incentives and grants to revitalize urban economies and the expansion of education, job training, and child-care services.

To say that these are daunting tasks is a sizable understatement. But, to his great credit, Clinton already has demonstrated considerable skill in reconciling different viewpoints and building consensus in his terms as governor of Arkansas. It was surprising to see even William Hearst, Jr., in a recent column, urging bipartisan support for Clinton - and pledging his own.

Unfortunately, even in these remarkably comprehensive election-year discussions, civil liberties were hardly a major issue - and what little we did hear on the subject was not at all encouraging. All three presidential candidates supported the continuation of the "war on drugs." When Bush urged in one debate that the exclusionary rule be discarded in the interests of winning this war, Clinton did not disagree. And H. Ross Perot had long since declared his support of random searches and seizures without warrants in "crime-infested neighborhoods"

Clinton has promised to appoint his own "drug czar" and is totally opposed to the legalization of any "recreational" drugs. He is also a death-penalty advocate, supporting its use for "cop killers, multiple murderers, and drug kingpins." As Arkansas governor, he scheduled 27 executions and signed four execution orders. He has never granted clemency for a death-row inmate. He promotes "community boot camps" for young, nonviolent offenders. All these things are very troubling.

Because none of the candidates was asked any questions about civil liberties, we know practically nothing about President-elect Clinton's views on the First Amendment. He has stated that he strongly supports the 1991 Civil Rights Act; however, he has also declared his support for the erosion of habeas corpus rights. As far as I know, no questions regarding this stance were ever asked of him during the campaign. Readers of my column "Civil Liberties Watch" are familiar with my grave concerns regarding the erosion of the rights of the accused to due process and equal protection under the law, the increase of state and police powers, the decline of privacy rights, and the illegal activities of the Justice Department with regard to sexually oriented materials. We heard nothing about any of these pressing issues.

I was also amazed by the fact that, only five months after the Rodney King verdict and the resulting riots in Los Angeles and other major cities, we heard practically nothing about the underlying racial hostilities and divisions in this country - divisions fostered by malign neglect and periods of outright hatemongering from the White House.

We heard not nearly enough about the hopeless poverty and disenfranchisement now reaching epidemic proportions in all our inner cities, or our legacy of a dual criminal-justice system whose greatest accomplishment has been the incarceration of tens of thousands of black men. We heard nothing about escalating police brutality and other forms of misconduct. And I don't like what I did hear about Clinton's proposed National Police Corps, made up primarily of ex-military personnel, or some of his other "tough on crime" proposals, which include 100,000 more street police and the construction of yet more federal prisons.

With so many young Americans watching, it is particularly unfortunate that the campaign taught them virtually nothing about the importance and relevance of the Bill of Rights, the most fundamental document of the republic they will inherit.

Notwithstanding all these cautions, concerns, and fears, we have made a turn in the road - a turn which alters our view of what lies ahead. We have made a profound and decisive ideological change; we have also made a long, overdue generational change, the most dramatic since Dwight Eisenhower was replaced by John F. Kennedy. In so doing, we have rejoined the world community and entered the twenty-first century.

I am hopeful that these changes will encourage and inspire more of us to bring our humanist heritage to bear on the burning issues of our day. Free-thought activism is an affair of the heart. Let us resume our work with renewed vigor and hope. Now, at long last, it is our time.

Carpe diem!
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Title Annotation:election results
Author:Dority, Barbara
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:New beginnings.
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