Start Your Venting

There are a lot of people angry with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) this week. The agency responsible for screening airplane passengers is being asked how a man allegedly smuggled a chemical explosive onto a Detroit-bound airplane December 25. An attempted terrorist attack was averted in part because of the quick reaction of other passengers. And those angry people have a place to share their thoughts, the TSA blog. Hundreds of complaints flood the comments section.

But TSA agents can’t solve a problem like this one on their own. President Obama has ordered a review of airline security, and numerous government agencies are involved in the effort to ensure another attack is not attempted. Details of the investigation will likely be kept private, and decisions about necessary changes in security procedures will be decided at some of the highest levels.

Blogs and other online government tools provide citizens the most direct-access they have ever had to officials. But with that direct-access comes a seeking of instant gratification and frustration when it cannot be delivered.

“Due to an ongoing investigation, there is little I can say here on the blog…” wrote one of the TSA bloggers. To which a reader responded, “what a poignant statement on the worthlessness of the TSA and this blog.”

“We expect venting,” Lynn Dean, one of TSA’s bloggers said in this July America.gov article. And sometimes the venting – typically about screening procedures – does make a difference. Problems at particular airports have been identified and corrected, thanks to comments posted on the blog.

I’ve been blogging on U.S. Department of State blogs for more than two years now. I too expect venting. And I love it. At a minimum it’s an indication someone is reading my work. At most I can hope that one day I too can be a problem solver.

Drawing for Democracy

On the last Friday of every month, democracy isn’t elections or protests or freedom of speech, it’s art.   That’s when Maira Kalman, an illustrator, author, and designer who teaches design at the graduate level in New York City, posts her monthly drawings on, And the Pursuit of Happiness, a blog about American democracy.    I cheered at her inauguration entry, and loved her Abraham Lincoln post, but March’s colorful edition is my favorite one yet.  In it, Ms. Kalman takes us from 16th Century England, to France in the time of de Tocqueville, to a town hall meeting in Newfane, Vermont, to a student council meeting in the Bronx.  Ah, the power of pictures.

This month’s entry by Ms. Kalman got me thinking: I own a copy of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but I never finished reading it.  I’ve never attended a town hall meeting either (if I go, do I get to eat barbeque chicken and cornbread like the Vermonters?), nor did I serve on my student council.  Does that make me a bad citizen? 

Probably not.  Other than voting (and By the People blogger, Michelle, suggests maybe not even that), I’m not sure there’s anything everyone should do in a democracy to keep it going.  Some of us will read de Tocqueville, and some of us won’t.  I might not have been a member of the student council, but I did participate in my school’s mock trial team, role-playing lawyers and witnesses, and learning about the rule of law.   We all have our preferred civic activities.

So, while some citizens will attend town hall meetings, or run for office, or help people get to the polls on Election Day, others, like Ms. Kalman, will draw beautiful depictions of democratic life for the rest of us to contemplate and enjoy.  Ah, the power of options.