“Class in society is determined by voice.”
So wrote Marshall McLuhan, one of Canada’s most original thinkers. It is a potent quote, ambiguous, vaguely threatening, and unequivocal, uncompromising.
Marshall McLuhan died in 1980, before the current commons of cell phones and social networking, so it’s impossible to demand of him just what he meant exactly. But his words are tantalizing.
We might think of “class” as a simple reference to elegance or beauty. If someone has a beautiful tone to her voice, or she is well spoken, able to sculpt the beauty of language into an overwhelmingly positive personal impression, we might think of her as classy.
More likely when we hear “class” we think social class. McLuhan might have meant that no one can get access to or influence the upper class without finding a way of being noticed.
“Shout! Shout!” cried the lyrics of Tears for Fears. Here I am. Notice me.
It’s no accident that artists who generate a unique way of expressing a general longing can suddenly find themselves enriched into a position of sharing at least the lower echelons of what most would identify as a financial upper class. We buy their books and records. Memes go viral. They speak for us.
Of course, we also have the BIG voices in society: the great newspapers, radio stations, television networks, film producers, etc. These are the forces that Noam Chomsky identifies as “the agenda-setting media,” organizations like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and so on. In Canada we have the benign faces of Lloyd Robertson and Peter Mansbridge reassuring our anxieties and telling us what’s important.
These are the voices that influence who will become president or prime minister, whether or not countries will go to war, why we should or should not agree with specific proposed laws, and how much we will pay in taxes.
(It’s no surprise that governments are starved for tax revenue when the biggest voices in society, funded by corporations that are often bigger than countries, demand no new taxes and cuts to the existing ones.)
With all the big voices shouting, many citizens seem content to remain comparatively silent, perhaps nursing their grievances over the pub table among their friends, or simply keeping their opinions to themselves.
Despite this gloom, some opportunities to speak, however simply, are still granted us in this democracy. We still have ‘one man-one vote’ operating at the polls, and the polls will be open once again soon. Local elections will be held this fall on November 19, 2011. Up for election are city councilors and mayor, as well as school trustees and regional district directors.
Now it may be true that given the legal and financial constraints imposed by the provincial government, local officials have comparatively little room to maneuver. Thus, many citizens may feel that voting locally is essentially an irrelevant act. But they’re wrong.
The interests of local governments are fundamentally different to those of more distant overseers. Local councilors and trustees need to look their constituents in the eye when they meet in the street, a public relations exercise considerably different to delivering a crafted sound bite to a television camera.
Both the gaffes and the successes of local decisions are visible for everyone in the community to see (or at least to hear about). Thus we have the crumbling wreck of the co-op building on one hand (hardly a success, by any standard) and the pleasures of the refurbished George Little Park/farmers’ market area and the Hidber Arena.
We’d like to elect local officials who have more commitment to community needs than distant ministerial officials and political ideologues in some Victoria office have. We’d prefer to be confident that the local school board will vigorously promote excellent learning conditions for our children rather than mutely accept the insensitive dictates of provincial fiscal imperatives.
But why would any local official concern himself with any of this were he not convinced that the bulk of the community are behind him? That conviction comes from candidates’ experience of an engaged, voting citizenry.
Do you want a classy community? Shout! Vote.
Al Lehmann is an English teacher in Terrace, BC.