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February 11, 2016

The Big Show has departed for the next tour stop promising more horse race coverage, ratings for the lucky networks that get to televise debates, canned oratory and fake emotions, and America’s greatest entertainer delivering idiotic solutions to complex challenges.  The citizen is either the journalistic staple of the man on the street who doesn’t know much, or a data point in a media poll. It could be dispiriting – except the American Friends Service Committee is doing something about restoring the dignity of the citizen.  

 Our campaign farce-ocracy is often discouraging, dominated as it is by money, an oft trivial media, and the numbing nothingness of repetitive polls. So I was cheered to read an article by Lee Fang at theintercept.com titled These Quakers are Asking Tougher Questions Than Many in the Press.

 The American Friends Service Committee has been training hundreds of citizens in techniques of how to get the attention of candidates at forums or along rope lines, ask a good question, and record it for dissemination on social media. The questions are not from the Friends but from the citizens themselves – would it shock you to know that so far none of them has asked about poll standing or the latest Donald Trump insult?

 Instead the questions are substantive and usually not ones being asked by the media. Iraq war veteran Will Hopkins, a volunteer with the Friends and director of NH Peace Action, asked Hillary Clinton about the influence of military contractors. That made the Today Show. We haven’t heard much about President Barack Obama’s $1 trillion nuclear arms expansion, but Friends trained inquisitors have asked about it, as well as fracking, ethanol subsidies, and other issues. Military veteran Jose Vazquez attended training in hopes of getting to ask about undocumented immigrants serving in the military and facing the threat of deportation. Julio Torres wanted to ask about the growth of our military budget at the cost of social programs.

 The candidates have had varied reactions. Arnie Alpert asked Senator Lindsey Graham about federal rules stipulating that Immigration and Customs Enforcement must fill 34,000 beds per day in detention facilities, a matter of importance to private prison companies and one would think, to the immigrants. That was news to Senator Graham, who took the information seriously.

 Then there was Carly Fiorina, who was questioned by a veteran about police brutality. Fiorina ritually thanked him for his service and then totally ignored the question. Some people think, some don’t.

 The efforts of the Friends shows the importance of intermediary institutions that aid the individual in the performance of citizenship. Religious groups often help citizens acquire the tools of civic engagement.

 Fang attended a training at which the Friends trained military veterans about how to approach candidates:

[O]rganizers Will Hopkins and Olivia Zink pretended to be presidential candidates, shaking hands and dispensing the usual platitudes. The challenge for the veterans was to use the grip-and-grin as an opportunity to ask tough questions.

As they practiced, the organizers would stop intermittently and query the room for critiques. After a quick exercise, they chatted about best practices: Make eye contact, remember to introduce yourself as a veteran. The former soldiers in the room nodded and took notes.

 MSNBCFOXWSJ/NBCCNNABC This just in, we have new poll results/Donald Trump tweets new racist remark/Marco Rubio’s a robot/Hillary Clinton enjoys hors d'oeuvresat Goldman’s. Ugh.

 If you want a tough question asked turn off the TV, turn to a Quaker.

American Friends Service Committee, Quakers

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