Written by: Eric Blair
My college diet is not exactly wholesome. Especially now that I’m off campus, general nutrition has taken a backseat to low prices and easy access. Ravioli has always been a favorite cheap food of mine – it takes two minutes to heat up and less than five minutes to eat. It’s simple and routine; just enough to satisfy me until I have time for a full meal. But the last time I went to chow down before diving into the pit of despair and anger that is math homework, things did not go as planned. I opened my can of ravioli to find it full of green beans.
I generally loath any food I deem fit for rabbits, but green beans have always held a special place on my palette. This might be because I normally lather them in salt and bacon, but I think it’s because I appreciate healthy alternatives every once and a while. Perhaps someone pure of heart at Bon Italia recognized this desire and decided to subtly inject some variety into my sustenance. More likely, someone screwed up somewhere along the assembly line. Still, I was happy to have unintentionally escaped the banality – to have encountered something fresh and different, something actually better for me.
Recently, our government decided to do something ostensibly courageous. On their website, they put up a petitions page entitled “We the People.” Anyone could start their own “We the People” petition, and if they got enough people to electronically sign their petition by a certain date, their petition would be reviewed by the Administration, an official response would be issued, and the appropriate policy-makers would be notified (presumably so that they could take action).
I suspect that not many people found this all that inspiring. What possible difference could it make? Though I am usually cautiously optimistic when it comes to politics, occasionally I play the part of the political romantic. This was one of those times. I was much more excited about it than most: what an excellent opportunity to interact with our government via technology! What a great way to make yourself heard! The White House apparently shared my enthusiasm:
“The right to petition our government is guaranteed in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Throughout our nation’s history, petitions have served as a way for Americans to organize around issues that matter to them, and tell their representatives in government where they stand. Petitions have played an important role in many of the changes throughout our history, from ending slavery to guaranteeing women the right to vote.
The We the People platform on WhiteHouse.gov gives Americans a new way to create, share, and sign petitions that communicate your views about your government’s actions and policies.”
This sounded like a good deal to me. I didn’t create any petitions of my own, but I signed many of the more popular ones: end federal funding for Boy Scouts, decriminalize marijuana, eliminate “In God We Trust” from our currency, and eliminate “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. These were all gaining a large volume of signatories (in fact, out of the top ten most signed petitions, half of them related in some fashion to decriminalizing marijuana). Wonderful! Now I would receive thoughtful, well-reasoned responses; and maybe, just maybe, this would all translate into some simple policy decisions.
I received my official responses, and I was ready and eager to read, “Of course! You’re absolutely right! Marijuana is significantly and demonstrably less harmful than other legal drugs like cigarettes!” or “Wow! Damn straight! ‘In God We Trust’ and ‘Under God’ are some of the most blatant violations of the separation of church and state in our history!” I craved something fresh, something different. Instead, what I got were the same tired, canned, ready-made responses which I had heard many times before. I received a whole bunch of the usual ravioli.
Each response was simple, routine, and just enough to satiate my initial desires. Not a single response left me stunned or contemplative. The supposed rich history of petitions to which the White House alluded earlier seemed rather vapid. The cynicism which lied dormant in me throughout the entire process reared its ugly head and wrote off the entire thing as a massive waste of time and energy. My fellow petitioners shared my frustration, and quickly started a petition that called on the government to take their other petitions seriously.
The responses to the “We the People” petitions were predictable and stale. I think we the people deserve more, and I think our government lost out on an excellent opportunity to put technology to good use in our political system. I hold out hope that eventually we’ll receive some actual, substantive responses to our concerns and not just something to pacify us. Perhaps we’ll get our own healthy surprise someday, even if only accidentally.