Citizens can be the voice of justice

Sraddha Helfrich

When I learned of Sen. Paul Wellstone’s death Friday, tears immediately filled my eyes. After first entertaining thoughts of Republican and CIA foul play to gain this much-contested Senate seat, my mind was consumed with the realization that we have lost one of the few human and humane voices in the government. Who is going to fight for the people who toil to make everyday life in this country run? Who is going to fight for the environment? Who is going to fight for goodness? Who will give us the voice of justice in the government so that our nation might stand true to the Pledge of Allegiance’s rhetoric of “liberty and justice for all”?

I reminded myself then that I can still speak up. Citizens can still speak up. You can still speak up.

While I am not a reticent person, I was also not the most verbose Wellstone supporter. However, his presence in the Senate, with his impassioned pleas to recognize the plight of the majority of citizens who remain voiceless in government, rendered validity to my own struggles and activities in environmental and community activism. He was (and is) a role model for public service. He represented the ideals and principles that I was raised with and that I aspire to: humility, perseverance, sincerity, generosity, commitment, energy, character, personality, humaneness, action, passion, principle and decency.

Appropriately, Wellstone is remembered through vigils in St. Paul because for many people across the country, he seemed something of a saint in our government – a government that is most often directed and run by interests of money and power. Wellstone’s voice was refreshing, reminding us that we need to temper and abate U.S. imperialism and focus on problems within our country – problems that clearly demonstrate that we have not manifested the ideals of our Constitution into reality and that the government is certainly not “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

In all the news coverage and activities I have observed, people remember Wellstone’s wonderful qualities. I hear many people talk about how Wellstone truly worked for what he believed. He fought for principles and for what was good and just. The fact that he was unique on these grounds brings to light some realities about our government that should be disturbing to us as citizens and workers in this country. I do not see much discussion about the disquieting realities of American government that made his presence so refreshing.

First, the fact Wellstone was one of the few people who was willing to stand up for the principles of justice and fairness, and also vote based on those principles shows our government is functioning with a lack of these principles. What are hundreds of other folks doing in Congress if they are not voting based on principles? Are we building a country lacking principles, ethics and a vision for goodness?

Second, that Wellstone was willing to stand up passionately – and often times alone – makes me wonder if our congressional representatives are not speaking their minds because of peer pressure from the “old boys’ club” of our government. And if congressional representatives are not speaking their minds, I wonder: How are they carrying out the work of a government of, by and for its citizens?

Third, I am appalled at the low level of expectation we have of our government representatives. While we hope to benefit from governmental policies, we do not passionately engage in the battles that are necessary to make this a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” We have a million opinions when some raunchy sex scandal comes to light, but we do not take the time to understand the underlying contradictions and dangerous power assumptions on which the government functions on a day-to-day basis as it constructs policies that affect our everyday lives. It would behoove us to engage our representatives in principles-based discussions and thereby demonstrate that we are not satisfied with empty rhetoric and political jargon born from periodic polling.

Fourth, I get irked when the media frequently talks about the “ordinary” American or Minnesotan and how Wellstone fought for “them.” This language marginalizes the working people of this country and further perpetuates the power-centered politics of our government. It falsely sets up an “us” and “them” dialogue in our national issues. It also fails to acknowledge the important roles that these people play daily in their communities.

Wellstone said the idea of community is stronger than the idea of government. So why do we have a government that does little to help those who are struggling to keep families together in our present economic conditions, while instigating an inquisition of morality? Government should not be an instrument of judgment on the everyday lives of our citizens, but a compassionate analyst of the citzens’ struggles and an implementer of solutions. Approximately two and a quarter centuries ago, some astute people came up with the radical idea of no taxation without representation. Today, it seems that soulless corporate entities seek no taxation through representatives. The people are so bludgeoned down into hopelessness that only 20 percent to 40 percent of citizens even vote! People feel that voting does not make a difference. There is much truth to that sentiment.

The government should be working for the people. Who is breaking their backs to make the thousands of U.S. communities function every day? These are the people the media does not want to hear about, sing about, or write about because it is not a high-profile, profitable story. What Wellstone stated in 1994 can help direct us today: “There is a lot of talk Ö about liberals, centrists and conservatives. I think the labels in today’s political world are irrelevant. It’s not left, right or center anymore: It’s a question of solving problems that affect people’s lives.”

It is not enough just to remember Wellstone. It is up to us. We must be our own voices against oppression and moneyed and powered interests that prop up the illusionary grandeur of prestige, power and imperialism. Each of us must emulate the qualities that made our senator inspiring and that made his presence speak to us as Minnesotans, Americans and humans.

For those us who feel that we lost a voice in Congress, we must find our own voices and make those voices rise above petty politics. We must break through the silent oppression and bigotry of this country. Everyday, our principles must emanate from our words and work. Go on and go forth for goodness. Remember, Wellstone was not the movement, but he can live on through the messages each of us brings through our lives. Indeed, there are too many issues for which we all need to fight. The stakes are too high to buy into the thought that you do not have enough time or are too busy.

As the popular activist sticker goes, “Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep loving. Keep fighting.”

Sraddha P. Helfrich’s columns appear monthly. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]