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beep, beep-beep-beep, beep-beepbeep, beep,beep,beep,beep

Google tells me that this is the number of the main congressional switchboard. My query was the number itself, verifying an email I had received that this number would work to put any American into touch with their congresscritters. A host of webpages recommend it as the right place to start the process of democracy; a picture may be worth a thousand words but a phone call does more than a million emails.

ring

I'm calling to voice my opposition to Fritz Hollings' latest monstrosity with Maria Cantwell's office. I'm not expecting it to do much, before becoming a Senator she was some high-up muckety-muck for Real Networks and they're completely in bed with the entertainment gestapo, but this issue is big-time, capital eye, Important. Besides, I love playing with big automated phone systems; there are usually scores of undocumented features and hidden menus distributed throughout the system for the use of maintenance techs and such but you can find them if you are patient and willing to call back after you induce the system to hang up on you.

"Capitol," a flat female voice sounds through the small plastic plug in my ear.

"Uhhh.... um... pardon me. I really didn't expect a human to answer."

"May I help you."

"Yes, is this the main congressional switchboard?"

"Yes, sir. Capitol. May I help you."

I wonder how long she's been doing this, answering the phone when people call to Be Heard.

"I'm calling to verify that this is the correct number to give to any American who wants to contact their congressperson, even if they aren't sure who their congressperson is."

"Yes, sir, this is the congressional switchboard. Given somebody's zip code, city, or state we can look up the correct Senator or Representative."

"So if I were to write an article about how to get citizens involved in government this would be the right number to cite?"

"Yes, sir, we can connect citizens with the appropriate people in the offices of their representatives. We can also connect you to the offices of particular committee members or chairpeople."

I bet she could connect me to a lot more than that. She probably interacts briefly with tons of people with a grievance against the government every day. I bet she has her finger more firmly on the pulse of the nation than an entire Demographers and Pollsters convention.

"Wow. I bet you get some serious crazies calling every time some political action website runs your number."

chuckles "We certainly get to hear from the people, most of them are quite willing to announce their opinions to the operators. And not in their library voices, either, if you understand what I'm saying."

"I wish people didn't have to be so rude."

"It's ok," she replied, "people believe, not in any one thing, and different people in entirely different things, but they passionately want to make the world a better place and none of them know how to do it so they try the only thing they can think of, which is call here.

"And it's the right thing to do. It's ugly and messy and people say awful things and are abusive to everyone around them, including us operators, but that's just how it is when 300 million people are trying to come to consensus. They'll overshoot one way and I'll be called a puppetmaster yanking people's strings for a year and then they'll overshoot the other way and I'll be the voice of the world's coldest and most ruthless pack of wolves, abandoning people to their deaths in a cold, cruel world.

"But in the end they always come down to something that everybody can live with, even if nobody thinks it's perfect.

"Now, may I help you?"

"No, thanks, I got everything I need."

click.

I sat and thought about my impromptu civics lesson for a long time. That capitol operator understands the core of our system; we do overshoot, all the time, but we always try to correct ourselves. And we correct ourselves, and our society, by standing up and shouting and yelling and waving our hands and in general making a spectacle--because that's all we can think of to do, and because it works.

Later I realized that I had forgotten to get connected to Senator Cantwell's office. I'll call back.

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