Before today 99% of my experience with political hearings came from DC Council and DC Public Schools. Today I went to Attorney General Eric Holder’s oversight hearing with the House Judiciary Committee. I was there to show some solidarity with my fellow online poker players who now don’t have a game to play. And yes, the Poker Player Alliance gave me a t-shirt for showing up.
I mention the t-shirt because once upon a time I attended Michelle Rhee’s oversight hearing with DC Council and there were people wearing t-shirts, protesting some of her decisions. Back then I honestly didn’t pay too much attention to the t-shirt wearers. I already knew their stance, had already heard their voices and already knew they weren’t going to get what they wanted. But they showed up in their t-shirts to make a statement, to be seen, to show that they were united, just as I did today. Of course, the House Judiciary made us take our t-shirts off, no protests, even silent ones, during committee hearings apparently.
Truth be told even before I went I knew the hearing would not change anything in my life, not poker or anything else. But it was something to do, an action to take. And it was very interesting seeing something I’d only experienced in support of the person giving testimony and never as an audience member who wasn’t well versed in all the issues. I thought about the prep work Eric Holder had put in, recognized the dodges, the bristles at personal barbs made by grandstanding politicians (honest grandstanding and not), and the desire to explain and make clear the nuances of some issues and decisions that are far more complicated and difficult than they may appear at first glance.
The big takeaway was a takeaway I already knew. Hearings don’t solve problems or answer questions. Just like the t-shirt wearers from my past, I was powerless at this hearing. My issue was one of twenty that were discussed. The venue was wrong for creating change. The tactics used by myself and my t-shirt wearing new friends were wrong if our intention was to actually do something. The politicians who did bring up our issues weren’t briefed well enough to ask the questions in the right way. Eric Holder was not especially knowledgeable about the poker issue because his priorities rightfully lie elsewhere.
In terms of advocacy we had failed, a blip on the radar of everyone in the room except the youngest of interns excited to see politics up close. In terms of our own psychology I suppose we had probably won because we had done something, we had shown up, fought the good fight albeit quietly and without our t-shirts on.
The thing is I felt very similarly to how I felt about many advocates during my days in public education. I truly appreciated the information, the reality check, the feedback and even sometimes the thank you’s. I always felt good when I got to help someone. But what I grew tired of, what wore me down even as I worked really hard to keep my faith, was empty gestures and empty criticism. I wanted to scream at people that if they spent as much time thinking about solutions and helping me, and my colleagues, do things the right way as they did yelling at me and complaining about how everything I did was wrong, we might actually get somewhere. Especially because so many times I was screwing up and I did need to change something or improve something and I needed someone to help me do it. But legitimate voices were easily drowned out and it became hard for me to tell the difference between a problem I needed to jump in and solve and a problem that wasn’t a problem at all.
The really hard part is just about everyone’s heart is in the right place. Everyone is pushing their agenda because they think it is important. But with so much noise it is easy to forget that showing up at a hearing in coordinated t-shirts is not a victory, it is not an end, it is not anything except showing up. If you are pushing real solutions and pushing those solutions in a meaningful and thoughtful way, in a way where even your worst adversaries are able to listen, then you are a true activist, making the world a better place. Anything else and you are just as much a part of the recurring mess that you are trying to clean up as anyone else is. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the world isn’t getting fixed.