By Ralph Nader
As the 2009 Academy Awards swept their way into history, the glitz and the massive global audiences show that across cultures fictional stories, mythologies and money go hand in hand.
As the nominees for the awards were briefly showcased for their artistic imagination in one category after another, it occurred to me that the saying “truth is stranger than fiction” has another meaning. Many people would rather see fiction than the real thing.
What if, permit a flight of fancy, there were the equivalent of the “Academy Awards” for the civic heroism that goes on every day here and abroad. The powerless valiant ones who challenge the powerful and corrupt in ways that throughout history have broken new ground for more justice, economic well-being, health, safety and freedom. They are mostly unsung. They are often marginalized or maligned.
The history books make reference to only a very few—anti slavery abolitionists, women fighting for the vote, workers for the right to organize, farmers for federal regulation of brazen banks and railroads. People take on, for example, corrupt city machines, company towns dominated by a single plant or mine, toxic contamination of drinking water supplies, corporate looters of worker pensions, manufacturers of defective cars and harmful medicines.
Recognition before large audiences keeps a highly nourished concept of the heroic before the people. It gives support to those who take the first step and who speak truth to power. Acclaim is protective and encourages more people to follow in the shoes of these citizen-pioneers. Civic heroism changes the culture and the dreams of youth.
Movies are meant to be dramatic and can take liberties with reality even when they are describing real-life situations and people. But Hollywood can make almost any story dramatic and interesting. Look at Frost/Nixon. On the other hand, there have been great flops with pure violent action—consider Ishtar.
Anything that is important to people in the course of their daily life can be made interesting. Real life narratives of people taking on power and cruelty can be compelling, without losing authenticity.
How would the Civic Heroism Awards be organized? The process would start at the community level with nominations and take it up to the state, national, and international level. Unlike game shows and beauty contests, the nominees would not be allowed to promote themselves. What they have already done is why they have been nominated. There is no present or future enhancement at ever higher levels of awards for what they had accomplished and striven for in the past.
Consider for a moment the peoples’ infrastructure that such a multi-tiered annual award process would stimulate. Local video producers would see an opportunity to profile potential nominees over the Internet, Cable and local screenings. The digital era assures the widespread egalitarian prevalence of such productions. Thousands of communities would be involved.
Discussions, debates and banter would be stimulated over the criteria for nominations which would include awards for “the supporting cast” around the heroes as is done by the Academy Awards.
The teaching of civics in the local schools would become more attached to local activities beyond textbook study. Putting a human face on civic action will stir the minds of youngsters presently saturated with often degrading electronic “virtual realities.”
The positive repercussions are many. Just the chance to become civic celebrities through this process of recognition increases media exposure and greater attention to the serious conditions and reforms that the nomination processes highlight.
The formulaic local television evening news—with its nine minutes of ads, four minutes of sports, four minutes of weather, chitchat, animal stories and miscellaneous fluff leaves very little time for civic news to attract the dwindling number of television reporters. Daily civic efforts to improve community life and justice wither on the vine for lack of any media coverage.
Civic heroism awards—done in a professional and exciting manner—can compel news coverage. Even in print form, columnists like Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times roams the continents of Asia, Africa and South America to find the most courageous and besieged people standing up at great risk for human dignity and humane treatment.
The drama is in the people. The search is for the civic dramatists to find their calling. Finally, philanthropy needs to come forward to jumpstart what could become the citizen equivalent of the Academy Awards from the local to the global for these stalwart pillars of just and democratic societies.
Readers: do you know any likely philanthropists? Have them contact Awards Project at PO Box 19367, Washington, DC, 20036.
– Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate and three-time presidential candidate.