The Universal Language of Music Being Spread Through Universal Access to the Web

Yesterday I realized I was singing to myself, “Cho Cho Cho…Cho Cho!”—a call-and-response chant native to the people of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. I have never been to DR Congo nor do I know anyone who has been there, let alone is from the country. Yet here I am—an anonymous young woman—sitting at my desk in Los Angeles, California singing (in my best attempt) the words of my African brothers and sisters on the other side of the world.

A song titled “Cho Cho Cho” was created last month by the mobile Beat Making Lab and distributed online via its web series, re-contextualizing the chant through music. I, among thousands of other viewers around the globe, watched the video and experienced a taste of Goma culture visually and phonetically in a way I likely wouldn’t otherwise.

We often think of globalization in terms of the interdependent economy; we understand it as the acceleration of the transfer of goods, services, and information between nation-states. But so too does globalization refer to the acceleration of the transfer of people, ideas, and culture between nation-states—a process amplified by new technology and the Internet. The later understanding of globalization allows smaller countries with lesser economic clout like DR Congo in comparison to larger countries with greater economic clout like China to be a part of the ever-increasing interdependence of nation states around the globe. Otherwise, these smaller countries are often left out.

Some are critical of the globalization of culture, arguing that it is making the world more homogenous particularly through the spread of Western values. As The Glaring Facts identifies:

Glocalization is a global corporate strategy of tailoring commodities to local markets. This corporate strategy stresses the importance of a product or service specifically adapting to the locality or culture it is marketed in. This fusion of globalization with localization causes a fundamental shift in the way in which commodities from foreign countries inflict their dominant popular cultural norms on a more predominantly traditional atmosphere. Through the unannounced integration of capital in an otherwise traditional atmosphere, the danger, as perceived by the public, lies in the effect it has on local identities and culture.

Conversely, spreading local culture is also possible through the employment of a grassroots approach using new technology and the Internet, as seen through efforts such as the Beat Making Lab. Programs like the Beat Making Lab allow the “global village”—the integration of culture through digital technology—include both dominant popular culture and traditional local culture. This sort of village catalyzes the constant flux of culture around the world. Funny enough, it’s what made South Korean pop single “Gangnam Style” a popular culture phenomenon from the States to Germany to China.

Of course, cultural globalization manifests not only in music, but also in sports, cuisine, and even attractions.

Digitally Altered Images of Women: Advertisements’ Deceptive Cultural Standards of Beauty

As discussed in Girl Lens’ recent post titled “Video Game Culture Changing for the Better,” the blogger discusses the sexualized images of women as depicted in video game culture. Her discussion prompted me to ponder about yet another medium in which women are narrowly represented: advertisements. Advertisements that disproportionately use images of women representing the “thin ideal” have been a point of great controversy in a number of nations around the globe. In early March, in fact, the Israeli government passed a law intended to change idealized perceptions of beauty that, according to information provided to the branch, lead to eating disorders. The established “Photoshop Law” requires that advertisers clearly disclose when they digitally alter images of models in order to make them look thinner. Many have questioned whether or not a law such as this one would be effective in the States. Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad idea.

The reality is that digitally altered images of models used in advertisements foster narrow cultural standards of beauty. We use cultural standards in our everyday comparative evaluations, something that well-known social scientist Leon Festinger identified in his Social Comparison Theory. According to the theory, people compare themselves with others and use the comparison information to craft an understanding of their self-concept. In contemporary United States society, advertisements, especially those with digitally altered images of models, are ubiquitous. A market research firm, in fact, estimates that a person living in a city sees up to 5,000 advertisements per day. Given their pervasiveness, these images that are manipulated as to maximize perceived beauty, reflect cultural standards of beauty that consumers—especially young women—often use as a basis for social comparison. Statistics support this sort of real-life application of the Social Comparison Theory. In fact, in the context of body image, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 69% of girls in the 5th-12th grade report that magazine pictures influence their idea of a perfect body shape.

Digitally altered images of models are deceptive because the advertisers—those creating and perpetuating cultural standards of beauty—systematically distort the idea of what it means to be beautiful through the over use of certain images and the under use of others; for example, the tendency to disproportionately make models slimmer in images than they are in reality. The deceptive nature of these advertisements leads to later manifestations of consumer harm. Studies have shown that exposure to advertisements of idyllically slim models is correlated with appearance anxiety and body dissatisfaction—symptoms of eating disorders.

Now, I am certainly not advocating that the United States government ban advertisements that digitally alter images of models as that would clash with our national ideals about freedom of expression—something that should never be jeopardized. However, at some point there has to be a line drawn on deceit, especially when it can contribute to the 11 million people who on a daily basis are affected by eating disorders.

The government isn’t responsible for consumer behavior, but it is responsible for consumer protection. The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, is an independent agency whose chief mission is consumer protection. Its Division of Advertising Practices states the following on its official website:

The Division of Advertising Practices protects consumers from unfair or deceptive advertising and marketing practices that raise health and safety concerns, as well as those that cause economic injury…The Division also brings administrative lawsuits to stop unfair and deceptive advertising.

At a briefing on eating disorders held on Capitol Hill in the early 2000s, Susan Ice, an expert in eating stated that “The incidence of eating disorders has doubled since the 1960s and is increasing in younger age groups.” While there is no research that directly correlates digitally altered advertisements, specifically those that make models look thinner, with eating disorders; there is plenty of research that directly correlates such images with eating disorder symptoms. Requiring the FTC to oversee that advertisers disclose when they digitally alter images of models decreases the extent to which the advertisements are deceptive, which can reduce the correlated eating disorder symptoms. Attacking symptoms, as with any illness, prevents later, more harmful manifestations.

Our country’s commitment to freedom—freedom of expression and freedom of choice—is what defines us as Americans. We live in a country where advertisers will always be free to create advertisements that sell their products, including those that are digitally altered. And where consumers will always be free to make their own choices related to those advertisements. We cannot expect people to make the best choices for themselves, whatever those may be, without having access to proper information—information that seeks to inform and not to deceive.

Niche-Driven Marketing and the Socially Conscious Millennial

Earlier this week, in their post titled  “The Effects of ‘Nichification’ on American Audiences,” Jess Talks Journalism touches on advertisers’ tendency to use “niche-driven marketing.” Indeed, many companies are now “nichifying” their advertisements and other marketing efforts through the relatively new phenomenon known as cause marketing, a strategic partnership between a company and a social cause that is intended to be mutually beneficial for the two parties. In particular, cause marketing targets Millennial consumers, a population deemed more socially conscious than most.

In a recent study published by the Boston Consulting Group’s Center for Consumer and Customer Insight, quantitative and qualitative research lead to the following conclusion:

U.S. Millennials are receptive to cause marketing and are more likely than non- Millennials to purchase items associated with a particular cause (37 percent versus 30 percent). Millennials expect companies to care about social issues and will reward those that partner with the right causes.

Clearly, conducting cause marketing campaigns is an effective way to attract the Millennials, one of the most sought after consumer groups in the States (especially, given that this demographic has nearly $40 billion in discretionary income). But are cause marketing campaigns really effecting change, or are they yet another way for companies to perpetuate consumerism amongst the next generation?

In 2010, in place of running advertisements during the Super Bowl, the most widely watched sports event annually and most attractive platform for advertisers, Pepsi committed itself to a cause marketing campaign. Instead of spending millions of dollars on advertising during the game, the company spent $20 million on its Refresh Project, a cause-marketing initiative geared towards providing grants to organizations proven to have positive impact on local communities.

Pepsi’s Refresh Project hoped it would effectively capture its intended consumer base in the long run. This is one of the primary benefits companies running cause marketing campaigns expect to gain: loyal consumers. Such a notion is supported by the fact that Americans are more likely to switch brands, equal in price and quality, to ones that support causes. Unfortunately for Pepsi, the cause marketing campaign wasn’t effective and it didn’t expand its market share like it had hoped. The result: scrap the entire campaign and go back to “all-about-me” marketing.

This Pepsi example debunks the notion that Millennials are blindly swayed by cause marketing campaigns as some companies may think; and it also points to the idea that privately companies may not be as committed to the causes they publicly support.

Food Deserts: Government and Business Attempts To Find Solutions

In a recent post titled “The freshman 50 lbs…” featured on the blog Does It Really Matter?, obesity is targeted as an issue Americans need to urgently address. The author argues that the majority of Americans are still negatively impacted by the recession, and that such limited funds combined with absent healthy and affordable food options greatly contributes to this national problem. The later part of this argument brings to light yet another issue related to obesity that our nation faces: food deserts. Food deserts are regions that lack access to healthy food.

Fortunately, contrary to what is argued in Does It Really Matter?, the White House is responding. Specifically, First Lady Michelle Obama in her Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity has raised public awareness on the issues of obesity and food deserts.

According to a blog posted on the Let’s Move! website, about 23.5 million Americans, 6.5 million of which are children, live in food deserts. The great majority of those living in food deserts are low-income Americans. They have access to a disproportionate amount of fast-food restaurants and convenience stories in comparison to grocery stores. According to reports related to food deserts filed by Let’s Move!:

Public transportation to supermarkets is often lacking, and long distances separate home and supermarkets in many rural communities…It is hard for residents of these areas—even those fully informed and motivated—to follow the necessary and recommended steps to maintain a healthy weight for themselves and their children. Too often, economic incentives strongly favor unhealthy eating, and accessibility, safety concerns, and convenience can also promote unhealthy outcomes.

Living in a food desert directly correlates with higher chances of becoming obese. This phenomenon is of particular concern to low-income minority communities, especially those that have large Black populations. According to data made available by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Blacks have the highest rates of obesity in the nation.

Let’s face it: the Let’s Move! campaign is not going to combat food deserts on its own. Businesses also need to step in.

According to a blog posted on Justmeans, community members in the Old North region of St. Louis, Missouri, a predominately Black section of the state, developed a local social enterprise to “turn its food desert into an oasis.” The community created a food co-op called the Old North Grocery. Local residents collectively own the grocery store; they can purchase memberships in which the funds go directly to supporting its operations.

Combating national issues like obesity and food deserts requires efforts made on the part of both the public and private sector.

The College Sports Economy’s Lack of Reciprocity

Kevin Ware put himself on the line for the University of Louisville. Now it is time for the university to do the same for him. Last Sunday during the NCAA men’s basketball Midwest Regional final, Ware suffered a compound fracture in which the tibia bone in his right leg protruded six inches from the skin. His injury, which many are calling the most gruesome televised injury in sports history, has prompted debate over college sports programs’ responsibility to provide long-term healthcare coverage to student-athletes; currently they are not required to do so. It is unethical of college sports programs to neglect providing student-athletes with healthcare coverage as it breaks their moral obligation to continuing reciprocity.

A college sports program’s ethical integrity, like that of any enterprise, lies in its ability to engage in reciprocal exchanges with its student-athletes. Reciprocity is a sort of binding mechanism that holds our relationships, including those within the college sports economy, together. Relationships become compromised when one party attempts to gain something of greater value than it gives in return. This type of unbalanced exchange is the embodiment of the college sports economy.

College sports programs earn millions of dollars in annual revenue. These large cash inflows are generated because student-athletes are collectively capitalized on for their performances. According to an article published in Think Progress, the University of Louisville’s basketball program alone made more than $40 million in revenue last year.

To the average college sports fan like you or me, student-athletes’ ability to generate millions of dollars might seem glamorous. While I’m sure to a certain extent that is true, it is also important to be aware of the not-so-pretty price these athletes have to pay. Unlike professional athletes, student-athletes are unpaid; college sports programs are therefore making millions of dollars off the backs of free labor.

There is a gap between what student-athletes, like the men of the University of Louisville’s basketball team, generate in revenue for college sports programs and what they receive in return, particularly in regards to their protection.

Some argue that providing scholarships is an appropriate form of reciprocity on the part of college athletic programs. While there is certainly a degree of tangible protection that is earned from receiving a degree, for example being more competitive in the job market, on its own it is not an appropriate means of exchange. Generally speaking, tuition costs are but a mere fraction of the revenue student-athletes bring in. Plus, scholarships are often issued on a year-to-year basis and are therefore not guaranteed.

Studies conducted in the field of sports medicine highlight the noteworthy health-related risks student-athletes are taking in exchange for these scholarships. A recent study published by PLOS One, a scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science, shows that college football players are prone to mental disability that often manifests years down the road. The study conducted blood tests and brain scans of local college football players over the course of their 2011 season and it found that football players who experienced hard hits to the head, even without being concussed, had high levels of a particular antibody linked to brain damage. It proved that simply engaging in football at the collegiate level, due to the nature of the sport, is enough to risk developing serious mental disorders.

But it’s not just football players who are at risk of developing long-term health issues and becoming vulnerable to daunting healthcare costs. Student-athletes pursuing all types of sports are prone to this. Kyle Hardrick, a former University of Oklahoma basketball player, experienced a similar unfortunate situation.

Currently universities do not guarantee that they will cover medical costs incurred by student-athletes. According to a recent article posted by Gillian Mohney:

David Dranove, health management professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, says…NCAA athletes can only enroll in school health care plans offered to other students, even if the student-athletes are at a higher risk for injuries that can require long-term or expensive treatments. Schools also have the option (emphasis added) to pay medical bills related to an athlete’s sport-related injury.

Given that many student-athletes’ injuries are long-term and continue to manifest years after they leave college, college sports programs should provide long-term health coverage as an appropriate means of exchange to the players for the revenue they generate. The gap between what student-athletes generate universities in revenue and what they receive in protection must be closed.

If the exchange policy is not adjusted, student-athletes like Ware could potentially bear the brunt of paying for later costs of their injuries.

Paul Ryan’s Budget: How Social Enterprise Challenges and Supports its Objectives

Last week House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released the Republican budget resolution. Consistent with conservative ideology, Ryan’s proposal suggests that cutting government spending will reduce the government deficit. The proposed budget “stops spending money we don’t have”—particularly on government programs for the poor and middle class. Like that of many conservatives, Ryan’s argument that the government should not fund public programs, despite their do good intentions, neglects to acknowledge the paradigm shift in public service.

In a recent blog post, Ezra Klein argues that Ryan’s budget is an attempt to alter the relationship between the government and the public by employing a fear tactic. Klein suggests that Ryan justifies his budget by eliciting fear of government amongst the public; he highlights, for example, the dangers our community currently faces—e.g. “rising health-care costs, a stagnant economy, a massive debt”—and he places the blame for them on federal government.

Indeed, with the rise of social entrepreneurship the relationship between the government and the public has already begun to shift. But unlike what Ryan proposes, it encourages collaboration—not separation.

Social enterprises employ business methods to advance their social motives. Some are traditional non-profit organizations that have an adjoining revenue-generating entity (e.g. Chrysalis); others are traditional for-profit organizations that have a central social mission (e.g. Grameen Bank). According to the Social Enterprise Alliance,

Mission is primary and fundamental; organizational form is a strategic question of what will best advance the social mission.

Given the rise of social enterprise, public and private sectors are no longer mutually exclusive. In fact, social enterprises benefit the private sector in a number of ways. Ryan, are you listening?

In the United States the most relevant and prevalent social enterprises are those that create jobs, which liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between generally agrees is needed. Chrysalis, for example, one of the most successful employment-focused social enterprises in the nation, provides a comprehensive job-training program for the homeless community in Los Angeles. After completing the program, clients can then apply to work for Chrysalis Enterprises, which is composed of street maintenance, facilities management, and staffing services. Creating jobs such as these in low-income communities contributes to our country’s economic development. 

Social enterprises like Chrysalis are also good practices of fiscal responsibility. By providing people necessary tools to reach economic self-sufficiency, employment-focused social enterprises not only reduce the number of people dependent on public service programs, but also their associated costs. Investing in social enterprises would thus cut funding for public programs, just as Ryan desires, not because we cannot pay for it but because we do not need to. Social enterprises help people transition from poverty to economic self-sufficiency.

Plus, social enterprises generate returns. According to its website, Chrysalis Enterprises in 2010 alone generated $2.5 million in wages. Even some of the world’s poorest countries are seeing returns; microfinance is now a $65 billion market as it serves more than 90 million borrows.

As noted in a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review, the challenge for most social enterprises is that they have difficulty attracting enough investment to, for one, cover their costs and, for two, grow their activities and thus expanding their impact. Unlike conventional businesses, social enterprises seek a social, in addition to monetary, return on investment. As such, they are often not profitable enough to compete in traditional financial markets. Preventing the resulting “financial-social gap” from manifesting requires government funding.

The government has already begun to respond by acknowledging the importance of public-private collaboration; in 2009 it created the $50 million Social Innovation Fund (SIF). According to the Corporation for National and Community Service,

The SIF makes grant awards of between $1million and $10 million per year for up to five years to grantmaking intermediaries, selected through a rigorous, open competition. Intermediaries, match their federal grants dollar-for-dollar and with those combined funds they then:

  • Host open, evidence-based competitions to select non-profits implementing innovative program models’
  • Invest in expanding the capabilities and impact of the non-profits they select; and
  • Support those non-profits through rigorous evaluation of their programs.

Unfortunately $50 million is not sufficient enough to truly scale the impact social enterprises have the potential to reach.

Upon unveiling the House Budget Committee’s proposed budget, Ryan stated, “A budget is a means to an end. An end is the well-being of the American people. An end is a growing economy that produces opportunity and upward mobility.” Social enterprise is reaching such an end. It acknowledges that government is not always the best entity to operate public programs; effective change can be made in the private sector. It cannot, however, solve some of our nation’s most pressing problems on its own.

Job Creation: The Necessary Step to Ending Poverty in Los Angeles County

There are over 51,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County, making it one of the largest homeless populations in the nation. Homelessness, although a social issue on its own, is also linked to additional problems such as poverty, violence, and public health (recently, in fact, there has been a reported outbreak of tuberculosis among the Los Angeles homeless community). Combating homelessness would therefore benefit the community at large in a number of different areas but doing so, as we know, is no easy task.

In December of 2010, United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the regional branch of a national non-profit dedicated to improve communities around the world, began implementing an initiative to end “chronic and veteran homelessness” in Los Angeles by 2016. The crux of the initiative, called Home for Good, is to provide homeless people housing and thus promote wellness. Home for Good is a helpful step in ending homelessness as it provides people, well, homes. This service on its own, however, will not end homelessness because it does not promote self-sufficiency. Job creation must therefore be a part of the solution.

For homeless people self-sufficiency means having the ability to lift themselves out of poverty. Doing so requires having the skills, knowledge, and experience that lead to obtaining a living wage.

Obtaining a living wage requires having a job. Los Angeles County in particular has reached record unemployment rates. Since 2009, it has remained in the double digits. It peaked in 2010 at 13.3 percent and it is currently at 10.2 percent. Unemployment rates in Los Angeles County last reached the double digits in 1994. Given the current state of the economy, there is increased competition for fewer jobs, and the homeless are having a difficult time being able to compete.

Combating homelessness in Los Angeles, just as in any other part of the world, requires that homeless populations have access to job training programs. Non-profit organizations such as Chrysalis, which is based in Los Angeles, understand the importance of preparing the homeless to compete in the job market. Chrysalis Enterprises, the for-profit branch of Chrysalis, hires those who complete the non-profit job training programs. Specifically, Chrysalis Enterprises provides employment in the areas of street maintenance, facilities management, and staffing. The Chrysalis philosophy, according to its website, is:

…that a steady job is the single most important step in a person’s transition out of poverty and onto a pathway to long-term self-sufficiency. Offering a hand up, rather than a hand out, Chrysalis empowers its clients to complete a self-directed job search.

Having a steady job provides a person with assets, many of which are intangible such as feelings of empowerment, that cannot be taken away at the snap of another’s finger. It discourages relying on dependence and encourages making sustainable life choices.

Combating Voter Apathy in the United States Through Understanding the Nexus of Communication, Community, and Public Participation

What President Lyndon B. Johnson called “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom” is under attack. In the recent Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, justices engaged in an oral argument over the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Specifically Section 5 prevents certain “covered” jurisdictions, many of which are southern states with deep histories of racial discrimination in voting, from making adjustments to their voting laws without first receiving federal clearance. Conservative justices generally suggested that this vital piece of the Voting Rights Act is no longer constitutional and should thus be revoked. The argument that took place before the Supreme Court has sparked a great amount of public debate, and for good reason. The right to vote is possibly the most sacred right of our country; its protection is fundamental to ensuring that our democracy properly functions. Many Americans, especially civil rights supporters, believe that overturning Section 5 would likely reverse the hard-fought progress made to safeguard public participation. Unfortunately, Supreme Court justices are not the only ones currently threatening this important right of ours—voters are too, but in a different way. According to the United States Elections Project, only 53.6 percent of the entire voting-age population exercised its right to vote in the 2012 presidential election. Such a statistic is not uncommon. Low voter turnout in presidential elections has been a long-standing problem in the United States. Data provided by The American Presidency Project indicates that the average voter turnout rate since the 1960 presidential election has been 55.15 percent. Many point to voter apathy, or eligible voters’ disinterest in going to the polls, as the cause of such poor public participation. Given that our country is founded on the principle that the people have sovereign power, which is largely exercised through the act of voting, voter apathy directly threatens our democracy. Combating such a deep-rooted problem must begin with rebuilding a sense of unity between the people and those who govern in their name. The United States Congress should establish Presidential Election Day as a national holiday thereby creating a sentiment that bonds us as a national community and encourages public participation.

Properly rebuilding a shared sense of national community must first begin with a discussion of the activity through which communities are created: communication. Communication creates a framework through which we make sense of our shared reality. Through the process of attaching meaning to communication symbols, or words, we create language. Language allows us to exchange information, insights, and ideas; all of these social interactions bind us together as a collective. According to work published by Ferdinand de Saussure, a well-known 20th-century Swiss linguist, the creation of language is an inherently collaborative activity. Words, as Saussure described, can be understood as a combination of the “signifier” and the “signified.” The signifier is the “sound-image” we give to something; it is what we hear, say, or write. The signified is the mental concept we give to something; it is our own internal visualization of an idea. Our understandings of the signifier and the signified develop through our social experiences with them. For illustration purposes, consider the term “American.” The signifier, the word “A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n,” we learn to say by hearing it repeatedly by others. The signified, the mental image that comes to mind when we hear the word “American,” is a culmination of all that we have learned being American represents, much of which is developed through our observations and conversations involving other people. The creation of words and the integrated system that is language—the very bedrock of communication—is thus a communal process.

In addition to building community through the collective experience of creating meaning, communication also allows us to engage with one another and use our interactions to establish order in society. It is through communication that a boss directs a subordinate, a coach teaches an athlete, and a parent encourages a child. It is also through communication that the American people maintain a connection with their government. As Thomas A. Hollihan notes in his book Uncivil Wars:

Politics is fundamentally a communicative activity…Because political officeholders need the support of the public at large, they must continually communicate with their constituents to explain their actions, clarify their goals, claim credit for their achievements, account for their failings, and gain support for new policy initiatives. The communication that sustains democracy is not only that which flows from political candidates and officeholders to voters and constituents; citizens, in turn, must express their concerns and desires to those holding power or aspiring to power.

Unlike in our everyday activities, we rarely have the opportunity to directly interact with those in government, requiring us to communicate through another type of “language”: voting. Voting is the most fundamental way in which the public communicates with the government. A vote can be understood as a message that indicates a citizen’s position on what he or she views as important, how he or she wants an issue to be resolved, and whom he or she wants to serve as a representative on their behalf. As the people’s public servants, government officials are then expected to decode these messages by making decisions that are consistent with their voters’ expressed desires. It is through this process that the people exercise their sovereign power as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. When communication is blocked between the people and the government not only does our democracy become compromised, but our shared sense of community also crumbles.

A community is a group of people who are bound by a sentiment of cohesiveness, engage in positive interactions, and share vested interest. Our country prides itself on being comprised of a diverse community. We celebrate that our people represent varied races, religions, and cultures. We embrace difference. As individuals we identify ourselves differently and as members of a national community we approach issues that affect us as a whole differently. We often use these opposing approaches to separate ourselves into smaller communities called political parties. Organizing in contrasting groups encourages productive public debate, contributing to a healthy democracy. In addition to engaging in discourse, maintaining an overarching vision of national community is also important to sustaining the democratic process. When people identify themselves as members of a community they feel compelled to act in ways that protect, benefit, or enhance that community. In other words, truly fostering a sense of community promotes public engagement, including going to the polls and exercising the right to vote.

The persistence of voter apathy in the United States can be attributed to an absent sense of national community between the people and the government, and it can be traced back to the mid-1960s and early 1970s. One of the primary causes of voter apathy is that the people do not feel as though their voices are being heard. Hence the ongoing trend of low voter turnout, the consequence of voter apathy, began at a point in our nation’s history when citizens’ voices were seemingly ignored. According to The American Presidency Project, the 1972 election voter turnout dropped below 60 percent for the first time in two decades, reaching a low 55.21 percent. Attempting to understand the likely cause of such a drop requires gauging the socio-political climate of the time, which in a single word can be characterized by the term “unrest.” The Vietnam War, which began in 1954 and did not end until 1975, negatively shaped public consciousness as it revealed a disturbing America with which much of the public did not identify. It also sparked the largest anti-war movement in our country’s history. As Edward P. Morgan states in The 60s Experience: Hard Lessons about Modern America:

For millions of Americans…the war revealed the power of political rhetoric and propaganda to mask an ugly reality. It exposed the degree to which the U.S. government would willingly and openly engage in repressive and inhumane actions, both overseas and at home, when the system itself was challenged. Public trust in authoritative institutions like Congress, the presidency, the military…plunged.

Our government used political rhetoric and propaganda—means of communication—to mislead the American people regarding the reality of the war. In response, throughout the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the American people used yet another form communication to express their disapproval: protest. In October of 1969, under the leadership of President Richard Nixon, over two million Americans participated in Vietnam Moratorium protests all across the country. Their voices, however, were ignored as the war continued on for many more years. In 1970 Nixon publically exposed a deliberate violation of the communication system that our democracy depends on when he openly acknowledged something that he earlier denied: that the United States military had also secretly bombed Cambodia. His public announcement, along with general exposure to the atrocities committed at the hand of American government and military, confirmed that integrity of our national community had been compromised. Even worse, it was at the hands of our leaders—people we elected to serve in our best interest. Trust, an essential piece of maintaining community, was destroyed. Since the 1968 election, voter turnout has not yet reached 60 percent since. The Vietnam War altered the fabric of American life, particularly because it damaged any pre-existing sense of national community.

Unfortunately the disconnection between the American people and the government that largely started as a result of the Vietnam War has since grown larger. Additional factors have continued to damage the system of communication upon which democratic governance depends. One such factor, for example, is the ever-increasing role that money plays in politics. The concept of voting—the idea that each citizen, regardless of their economic background or access to resources, gets one vote—was introduced to create a level playing field in which all votes are equal. However, with money now considered free speech due to the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, even with all votes being equal, some citizens have more influence than others. Super political action committees, or “super PACs,” which are generally affiliated with large corporations, are the heirs of the Citizens United decision; they have the ability to make unlimited monetary contributions to political candidates. Super PACs undoubtedly alter our country’s political landscape as it turns the concept of a level playing field, which was intended to protect the average voter, into nothing more than a utopian ideal. Moreover, a second factor harming the average citizen’s ability to communicate with their government is the unprecedented increase in the polarization of political parties. Public opinion is becoming starkly divided, often failing to highlight areas of common ground. Given these two factors, among others, the great “American disconnection” seems to be developing a constantly widening gap. Public perception of our country is no longer one of unity; it is one of fear that elected officials will not serve the collective needs of the citizens, but the interests of their partisans. Such lack of confidence correlates with voter apathy.

Most Americans believe in our political process itself but not in the government officials whose job it is to represent us. Our lack of unity, and therefore public participation, can be attributed to our broken relationship with government. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 68 percent of Americans express unfavorable opinions about Congress. A majority of the population, 56 percent, believes that the political system can function properly but the politicians, particularly the members of Congress, are the problem. This sense of satisfaction towards our democratic process is understandable given that the system itself was designed to elevate the voices of the people. Such a process only works, however, when both parties—the people and the government—properly fulfill their roles. If a majority of the people point to government officials as the source of distrust in our national community then one thing is clear: the general public does not feel decisions are being made in their best interest. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center’s findings, nearly three quarters of our population believe that they can only trust the government some of the time or not at all. We need to fix our relationships with government as they are fundamental to the composition of our national community. Doing so will provide a space in which people are confident in participating in the political process, especially by voting on Election Day.

While it is certainly not the only step that should be taken in effort to mend our increasingly divided national community, Congress establishing Election Day as a national holiday would allow us to take a significant step in repairing our faulty “foundation” of communication. The presidential election is particularly important because the people vote for the candidate they believe best represents how they conceive themselves as a nation. Declaring Election Day as a national holiday that also applies to state laws is inherently communicative. It sends a message on behalf of Congress that repairing our national community is a priority and it requires protecting that which makes us distinct as a nation: the people having sovereign power. Congress has already established 11federal holidays, all of which are intended to “[emphasize] particular aspects of the American heritage that molded the United States as a people and a nation.” Voting is more than just an “aspect” of American heritage; it helps shape American heritage. It is through voting that the people decide what issues are important, how they should be solved, and who is going to do the solving. In a properly functioning democracy—and in an effectively established community—the average citizen should feel compelled to vote. Citizens are more likely to engage in the political process when they have confidence in the government’s desire to hear and reflect public opinion.

In addition to establishing a sentiment that will bring us together as a national community, subsequently combating voter apathy, making Election Day a national holiday would also improve voter turnout by making it entirely more convenient for people to get to the polls. In the United States, presidential elections fall on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This timing often deters those citizens who must either wake up early in the morning to get to work or leave work late in the evenings to make up for the time spent voting. Additionally, it is also often difficult for people with young children to find the time to vote on a weekday. Having the day off due to Election Day would drastically improve accessibility to the polls, expressing to the American people that total public participation in voting is vital to the mission of our democracy, and the government wants to hear every citizen’s voice.

Some might disfavor the idea of establishing Election Day as a holiday, arguing that most people treat holidays as a mini vacation and do not reflect on the reasons for which they exist in the first place. For example, Independence Day, which is most often referred to as the Fourth of July, some might say, has become an excuse to host barbecues, watch fireworks, and get inebriated; rarely do families use the time off to commemorate the birth of the Declaration of Independence, which established our thirteen American colonies as independent states free from the British Empire. All national holidays absolutely have special significance. Independence Day, in fact, celebrates the very nascent stages of creating this national community that is the United States of America. However, most national holidays honor events of the past, and if they celebrate an event of the present they are not coupled with set notions of civic engagement. Election Day in the United States is already established as the day dedicated to general elections of government officials; it is designed for public participation that is timely and relevant—i.e. voting. As a holiday it would celebrate citizens’ right to vote by encouraging them to do so. As a holiday, Election Day would be designated to allowing citizens to vote; resulting increases in voter turnout would prove it effective.

The nexus of communication, community, and public participation, if properly understood and applied, could combat voter apathy in the United States. As with solving any problem, identifying the root cause is important in making effective change. Improving the system of communication, which builds and sustains communities, between the American people and the government should be a top priority. Congress establishing Election Day as a national holiday is in itself a communicative act that could serve as a beneficial first step in communication improvement. In fact, if he were here today, Ferdinand de Saussure might argue that such an act would lead to a collaborative evolution of meaning. In other words, it could change the way we perceive Election Day. The signifier “E-l-e-c-t-i-o-n D-a-y” could potentially automatically trigger a corresponding signified that indicates civic engagement. Upon hearing “Election Day,” citizens could envision themselves voting. Such a cognitive process might even have the potential to change the way in which we view holidays altogether; citizens might be inspired to celebrate other national holidays through engaging in some sort of public participation. Regardless of any auxiliary benefits, establishing Election Day as a national holiday is a necessary step in preventing voter apathy from hindering our nation’s democratic process.

Hey News Media, Inspire Us!

Environmental Examiner recently challenged the generally accepted notion that wind turbines are a significant cause of death for birds. The crux of the blogger’s argument is that, yes, some birds do die at the rotor blade of a wind turbine, but in fact not enough to dismiss the great potential of wind power. In Wind Power: Bye Bye Birdie?, the blogger identifies one cause for such a widespread belief:

Media coverage of the few massive bird kill incidents in which astonishing numbers of birds died, spread the notion that all wind turbines in every location are deadly structures.

There is an important underlying message nestled in the above statement: that the media heavily influences not how but what we, the public, think about. Here’s my quick two cents on this “agenda-setting” process: If it is inevitable that the media, particularly the news media, is going to play a significant role in determining what we think about, it should give us something worthwhile—something that encourages us to embrace unconventional thinking that might better the world around us. After all, on an average evening, the three traditional broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) alone receive around 20 million viewers. Clearly network television news, a reliable microcosm of general news media, has an incredibly large audience and thus a lot of people it can influence. But as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

Last year, the top five stories on the three network evening newscasts were the following:

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As a warning, this next question of mine may reveal my maybe too strong sense of idealism. Not that these five stories aren’t important—they are—but what if them was replaced with something like “Ideas that Inspire?” I can admit that topic title might fall on the cheesy side, but I’m sure you get the point. What would it say about our national culture if such a topic was deemed a top priority to share (even more, if we demanded it be a priority)? What kinds of conversations would it spawn? What kinds of ideas might it generate?

In sticking with the realm of alternative energy sources, for example, let’s hear more about companies like Carbon Engineering and its attempt to build the “world’s first air capture plant” that will remove carbon emissions directly from the sky.

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In For Our Next Trick, We Will Make Carbon Dioxide Disappear, Lawrence Karol asks the perfect question:

“So if we’re having troubling limiting emissions, why not try and capture them?”

This question, as inherently suggested in the very work of Carbon Engineering, epitomizes the kind of critical thinking we should all be practicing. It’s the kind of thinking that may very well combat our globe’s climate change crisis, and it’s the kind of thinking that the news media should highlight to its audiences. After all, we’re all this together, right?

Carbon Engineering became incorporated in 2009. It is a privately held company funded by angel investors such as well-known philanthropist Bill Gates. Its vision is to become a pioneer in what will hopefully become a large-scale air capture industry, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that so threatens our earth.

I am not blindly accepting that this is the way to solve our climate change crisis, but I think at the very least it is admirable to take such a novel (and complex!) approach to solving such a longstanding problem. If we want to fix the world’s pressing problems that lie before us, we need to hear stories about the projects, organizations, businesses, etc. that are attempting to do so right now. As one of the most popular storytellers among us, the news media should assume some of that responsibility.

TOMS: The Well-Intentioned, But Not So Ideal Social Enterprise

Despite it being possibly the most well-known and widely supported business with a social mission, TOMS shoes is not the ideal social enterprise.

In 2006 Blake Mycoskie founded TOMS, a for-profit shoe company known for its unique business model: one-for-one. For every one pair of shoes purchased, TOMS gives one pair of shoes to a child in need. Since its inception, the company has given over 2,000,000 pairs of shoes to children in need around the world. The goal? To contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty by 1) protecting children against soil-borne diseases and 2) keeping children from being denied access to education in developing countries that require shoes for attendance.

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It’s quite an innovative idea—and it’s changing the relationship consumers have with their products—but it has some significant flaws. In the company’s promotional video, the narrator (presumably Mycoskie) opens with a statement that instantly reveals a potential shortcoming:

What if I started a shoe company and every time I sold a pair of shoes, I gave a pair away? And that way, if as long as I continue to keep selling shoes, these kids will have shoes for the rest of their lives.

TOMS can only fulfill its social purpose so long as its business is thriving, or so “long as [it] continues to keep selling shoes.” When it comes to fashion, it’s common knowledge that whatever is “in style” one moment is out of style the next. Although within its first year of existence TOMS sold tens of thousands of shoes to consumers, those numbers aren’t promised in its later years; and given that children are constantly growing out of their shoes, reliable and continual replenishment would be necessary for TOMS’ efforts to be effective. Truly breaking the cycle of poverty requires sustainable solutions, and making donations—especially those that are dependent upon a market’s buying habits—doesn’t quite cut it. Combatting poverty just isn’t that simple.

The more sustainable, and of course difficult, means of breaking the poverty cycle is to educate communities on how to conduct their own economic activities that contribute to wealth creation. Giving away shoes does not teach a community how to become economically self-sufficient; it instead encourages a culture of dependency. And as for the local merchants in such communities—shoemakers, for example—who do engage in income-generating activities, their businesses become threatened by free giveaways. The one-for-one business model, then, seems to be more of an immediate and shortsighted rather than permanent and all-encompassing solution.

Businesses do much more than engage us in commerce; they also influence our perceptions of the world around us. The one-for-one business model lends itself to perpetuating the notion that low-income communities need a handout instead of a hand up. For example, instead of giving free donations, Oliberte, another social enterprise shoe company, provides good-paying manufacturing jobs to African communities. The company uses local resources—e.g. natural rubber, leather, etc.—to create the shoes, and then hires local people to make them; the shoes are then exported to countries like that of, you guessed it, the United States. Oliberte’s business model not only contributes to the creation of a middle class in historically low-income communities, but it also influences how consumers around the world perceive Africa:

We were sick and tired of people saying, “Oh Africa is poor. Poor them. Poor this.” Seeing all the tv shows and commercials…We’re showing a very different side of Africa…one that shows the real pride, power, and liberty of this continent and all the people within it.

While I don’t discredit TOMS’ intentions or accomplishments, I do think that if we are serious about leveraging globalization to better our shared world, then we need to be more strategic in how we combat the root causes of social issues like poverty. Additionally, and just as importantly, we need to change the way people perceive communities in need, which begins with making a shift in how we identify–and oftentimes brand–a country and its people.