The might and reach of the federal government can be hard to fathom at times, and often individual citizens find themselves overwhelmed by the threat of coercive power and bureaucratic excessiveness.
I mean, how can one person confront the IRS? The National Security Agency? The White House? Instead of acting, or taking responsibility for self-governing, it's much easier to simply go passive and listen, isn't it? We'll go on a website that drives traffic to itself, or listen to a radio talk show host spin up elaborate conspiracy theories. We take satisfaction knowing that someone with a voice is also outraged at whatever we are outraged about.
Actually, there are a number of things you can do. You don't have to be a techno-utopian to see how two facets of the information age, access to a lot of information and access to a lot of people, can serve as a check on power, or as a means to access the people who can serve that check for you.
1. Learn about the Freedom of Information Act and the Mandatory Declassification Review processes. You, dear reader, can chip away at the layers of rock above the Deep State and even drill a hole right down into it, provided you know how to ask the government for information, what to ask for, and what to do when you don't get what you're looking for.
2. Respect then recruit journalism and professional journalists. Ten years ago, if you wanted to email Jake Tapper a question, you'd have to spend a lot of time looking for his email address. Twenty years ago, Brit Hume's White House desk phone number was virtually impossible to access. Now, you can communicate with Tapper instantly. Both he (@jaketapper) and Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) regularly communicate with critics who are respectful. They'll take your questions and even incorporate them into their own White House briefings. (Tapper is a host now but he did this often when he was a correspondent.)
You don't have to agree with them to talk to them, but you've got to be civil. Civility facilitates access; access helps ensure that your criticism or praise is deemed legitimate by your target.
Reporters have access to power. Make them use it. Help them. Having spoken to both Chuck and Jake about this, and, actually, many other journalists, I can tell you this: trolling, insulting, acting stupid, in emails or in tweets, will make you feel better but it will also make sure that you're ignored. It's counter-productive and too easy. Instead, be civil but frank. Show respect. The chances that you'll be able to get your point across, that you might come up with a question that the pros haven't considered, that you can help hold powerful interests accountable, increase when you approach the access points with open arms.
The flip side of this: Criticize bad journalism all you want, but praise good journalism when you see it.
3. Read books. Before you go about trying to change something, become an expert about it. Slow down, and read books. Ask for help in identifying which books you should read. But read them. If you approach powerful people from a position of ignorance, you're a nothing to them. If you've taken at least some time to understand the subject, your questions will be sharper, and you'll have a better chance at getting them answered.
4. Find "formers." On LinkedIn or other professional networking sites, or on Twitter, you can find powerful people who held just about every job in the federal government. In my experience, these people like to talk about their professional lives. Take advantage of this.
5. Temporarily fight against partisan instincts. You will often find that your allies, particularly when it comes to trying to understand and check the coercive power of government, might be people you'd never otherwise associate with. Glenn Greenwald and Marcy Wheeler have carefully and comprehensively held the Obama administration to account for its counter-terrorism policies. Both are liberals. You might find that your staunchest allies in protecting your right to associate and speak freely are gun rights advocates.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How one woman is standing up for India's abused husbands
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Obama just kneecapped Jeb Bush and Chris Christie's 2016 prospects
- The 5 most important developments in climate change in 2014
- Why we can't educate racism away
- How Sonia Sotomayor became the Supreme Court's preeminent defender of civil liberties
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- China's leader is telling the People's Liberation Army to prepare for war
Subscribe to the Week