We listen, but do we hear him?

Barack Obama electrified the Rogue Valley last weekend, thrilling an overflow crowd at Kids Unlimited in Medford. He finished with a soaring list of great things an Obama Administration could do and then added, "That's what can happen when YOU set the agenda. When democracy works the way it should. It requires you to be involved. It's not enough just to vote you and I together, we can change the country and change the world!"

The hall went crazy, so much elation and energy that it was easy to forget how many speeches we've heard with the same phrases. You and I setting the agenda! Changing the world together! We hear and like it &

at least speech writers think we do. And judging from the political history of our lifetimes, we take it in about as seriously as a flight-attendant's safety talk as we're buckling our seat belts.

It makes you wonder if we want change nearly as much as we say we do.

Remember back to Howard Beale in the 1976 film "Network." He raged about a nation gone desperately wrong and ordered his viewers to open their windows and scream out, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Thousands of his fictional viewers did, and millions of us left the theater ready to sign on. Now consider about how much more we have in fact taken in the 32 years since. It turns out "not taking it anymore" demands more than shouting out that we won't.

Whether or not you like Obama, the point he was making was much more than a good applause line. It's delusional to expect good leadership without good citizenship, which is not about opening our windows to scream out how mad we are.

It's about getting reasonably informed on issues we care about, finding others who share our viewpoints (an easy task online), joining with them to deliver clear expectations to elected representatives and holding those public servants accountable for what they deliver. The tools to do that are already in place: letters, phone calls, visits to Capitol Hill, organized presentations at town hall meetings.

Anyone who says those can't work should ask a Congressional staffer how his or her boss reacts after receiving as few as one to 200 personally written letters that carry the same message. That's not to say that elected representatives then follow through. They often assume that, if they ignore us long enough, we'll go away. They're usually right.

Writing about the Obama phenomenon recently, Rabbi Michael Lerner () offered a powerful vision of renewed citizenship. He asks what would happen "if Obama were to ask people to meet weekly in their neighborhoods in small groups to begin to build ongoing projects of social change that would embody their highest ideals. Groups could be organized, for example, around universal health care, environmental sanity, the Global Marshall Plan as the path to homeland security, corporate social responsibility and electoral reform.

"If the millions of people who have been touched by the campaigns (and yes, not only by Obama, but by Hillary Clinton, John McCain, etc.) were to begin working now for the changes they want their candidate to bring to the country, then these campaigns would stop resembling horse races and start resembling the building of mass movements and the reclaiming of social space from all those columnists, politicians and public opinion leaders whose impact historically has been to deaden our hopes and convince us that we should just attend to our own personal lives."

You might be delighted with this vision. Or &

maybe more likely &

you're thinking, "Weekly neighborhood meetings projects of social change you're kidding, right? Do you have a clue what my life's like now?"

That's not a small factor. But let's remember three things. The first is that tens of millions of Americans want the kind of changes that you do, and many of them are stirring right now. With the growing skills and technology of political organizing, you may find an effective place to plug in that costs just two or three of your scarce hours each month.

The second is that many people are surprised to find how satisfying new activism turns out to be, usually because of the deeper connections it offers. Civic engagement often enriches their social lives. Speaking of rich: What if you started a monthly neighborhood dessert potluck (I'm available for on-site consulting), and brainstormed each time on action steps you could take together on an issue of shared concern?

Finally: What are our real choices? If effective citizenship is too much trouble, do we wait for the coming of someone so wise, so good, so irresistibly compelling that he or she will single-handedly smite the insurance, oil, banking, broadcasting, weapons, automobile, coal, agribusiness, federal employee, pharmaceutical lobbies, while we sit on the sidelines applauding?

We've done that. And we've opened the window and screamed. When it comes to getting what we want, the two practices are about equally effective.

is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" ().

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