On Voting

For the record, I’m a liberal and this post is written from the perspective of a left-wing voter. I think my points in principle are applicable to any participation in the American political system, but the perspective here unapologetically reflects my values and priorities.

As Election Day approaches, I wanted to address the things I hear from people I know who are considering not voting. A sampling of these reasons…

  • I don’t want to participate in a corrupt system.
  • I could never vote for a party that supported drone strikes overseas or mass data collection on Americans.
  • All politicians are the same and they are all beholden to corporate interests.

Though I also feel the frustration and cynicism that feeds it to these, when it comes down to it I can’t accept these as good reasons for not voting. Though the system is imperfect, I think sitting out an election for these reasons is at best puritanical, at worst, teenage.

I’ve commented before in this blog on the American preoccupation with hypocrisy, with finding the inconsistencies and failings of those who profess any set of values, perhaps especially those we agree with. It’s right to seek the truth, and this form of seeking the truth feels good—it feels like we’re rooting out what we always suspected is wrong with the world around us. We are whistle-blowers, we are the smart ones. It’s a stay against a huge, messy, too-big-to-steer world where our impacts are always less visible than we wish they were. But unfortunately, that messy system is where all real action and all real advocacy for change happen. There isn’t a leader or an activist alive who hasn’t made a hard choice and doubted whether she did the right thing.

To me voting is not about moral purity. It’s not about feeling above it all. It’s a means of exercising the power that you do have to make things better. You don’t serve what is right by removing yourself from the ambiguities and compromises and ugliness of the world, keeping yourself somehow pure. Your duty is to do what you can to make things better, particularly when it involves a minimal amount of time and effort and no threat to your safety. The decision of whether to vote for a candidate should therefore not be a question of whether you agree with all the candidate’s views or actions, or even of whether the candidate takes some views or actions you consider unethical. It’s a question of whether there will be measurable positive or negative impacts on the world as a result of the election outcome. And there will be. These are (based on actual and recent events, not my catastrophizing) just a few of the things that happen when Republicans control state legislatures, governorships, and Congress (and the White House, though this isn’t a presidential election year):

  • Women’s right to control their bodies through access to contraception and abortion is undermined. More women, particularly the poor, find themselves forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. More women are sickened or die of improper abortion attempts due to lack of access.
  • SNAP and other basic safety net benefits for the poor are attacked, cut back, and tied to degrading and obstructive requirements, effectively denying benefits to many eligible people.
  • Attacks on voting rights and targeted disenfranchisement of the poor and minorities continue and accelerate.
  • Increases in the minimum wage are less likely, while millions of working poor people can’t afford basic needs. More people go without food, decent housing, heat, and other basics to make ends meet.
  • At the state level union-busting of public employees continues, driving down wages, benefits, and negotiating power for these workers and workers in general.
  • Federal funding for scientific research is cut back and interfered with for ideological reasons.
  • More conservative supreme court justices are be appointed (even if the appointments occur under a Democratic president, an obstructionist Republican-controlled congress will force watered-down candidates, and this is also sure as hell a reason to turn out for the next presidential election), and the court will be more likely to rule the wrong way on voting rights, corporate power, and women’s rights for many many years to come.
  • Though I’m not optimistic about substantive action on climate change in general, I think it’s even less likely under Republican-controlled government. And at the state and local level environmentally-friendly policies are less likely.

Turnout is the deciding factor in most American elections today. The vast majority of people don’t have their minds changed by campaigns. Though they are not the only two world views, the two major political parties in this country represent fundamentally different approaches to living in a society and caring for others. Who shows up at the polls is the biggest factor in which of these approaches is implemented. And which one is implemented matters.

I support efforts to diversify the two-party system and attack the influence of corporations in politics, and I’m deeply troubled by some policies supported by Democrats. And there are many ways to mobilize and advocate on behalf of a better political system and better policies. But if you are considering not voting as an approach, or, worse, your only approach, to contributing to those goals, you need to evaluate how effective the act of not voting is as protest. When you don’t speak at all, it’s very difficult for people to know what you mean—if you listen to speculation by pundits about the electorate it might drive home how poor a communication tool not voting is. And when you compare the degree of your impact sitting out an election to the immediate effects of U.S. local, state, and federal elections I listed above, there is no contest.

You can and likely should attack the Democrats for many of their positions and the political system in general for its limitations and yielding to moneyed interests. You should do these things loudly and publicly. But that doesn’t mean that voting against the destructive impact of conservative policies isn’t the right thing to do. The right thing to do is often messy and imperfect and compromised and may not always make you feel good. But if you are enfranchised it is your duty to wield the power you have to do the best you can. End of lecture. Get your ass to the polls.

For National Poetry Month

Last year I read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (here’s a summary and an excerpt http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127370598.) The book stayed with me. It’s a compelling argument drawing on the known plasticity of the human brain to argue that the attentive mind is endangered in a world of information saturation and chronic distraction.

Part of the reason I connected with this book was personal, as I suspect is the case for many people. The state of mind described in the book—skimming, distracted, overstimulated yet helplessly jumping to the next post or email—felt so true to the state I find myself falling into online and at work. That was months before I got my first smart phone (I’m a late adopter of most things), and in the months since I’ve felt the pull of the small screen start to creep into my life as it sits within arm’s reach on my desk or coffee table.

But one of the side effects of the information age that has struck me the most involves poems. I have been reading, writing, and studying poetry for all of my adult life. And I’ve noticed a strange thing happening in the past year or so. I have some friends who regularly post long excerpts or entire poems on Facebook. And when I encounter poems in this environment, a frightening thing happens to me—I can’t read them. I can move my eyes across the words and grasp their general meaning. But I find myself unable to enter into the poem, to absorb its perspective and images, something I am far more practiced at doing than most people. The poem passes by me and I find myself strangely in the shoes of someone who doesn’t “get poetry.”

This is why I found this recent commercial so overwhelmingly insidious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiyIcz7wUH0. While evoking the lofty Poetry, it presents its opposite—a world where everyone’s eyes are attached to a screen no matter where they are or what they are doing. In this world the Poetry the ad means to evoke is more lost than it ever has been.

We’re now well into good old National Poetry Month, with its public awareness campaigns that might make you feel that you should read poems in service of vague ideas of art and culture, in the same way that I feel I should really learn the constellations, or get more familiar with classical music, or read War and Peace. Because it’s a good thing to do and what educated people should do. Says somebody.

But this time, I’d like to present a much more immediate, and perhaps compelling reason to read poems: To recover your mind. To reach the state of mind that allows you to enter into a poem with patience and concentration is an antidote to the distraction that permeates most of our lives. To take in the poem requires an alert stillness, that, when recovered and sustained for even a few minutes, comes as an overwhelming relief. Poems can help us preserve our capacity for attention at a time when it is endangered beyond what we ever might have imagined when I began writing them twenty years ago.

So, try picking up a poem this month. On paper if possible, if not, try online, but close your other tasks and tabs. If you don’t like the poem or don’t get it, try a different poet. If you don’t like that one or don’t get it, try another poet. But after that, consider that the issue might be you. Breathe, settle into a moment of silence, and try again. There is something worth working for here.

On My Non-Christian Christmas

It’s complicated, but suffice to say I was raised Unitarian, I am not an atheist, I am not a Christian, and I don’t currently attend any church on a regular basis. And my family always has celebrated and probably always will celebrate, Christmas.

I used to feel a sheepishness about this Christian holiday hanging around my life, a sheepishness that triggered cynicism or the unnecessarily repetitive pointing-out of the pagan origins of Christmas customs (which, fair enough, are there in abundance and a meaningful part of the holiday for me). I wasn’t alone among my many non-Christian friends with the vague sense of apology coupled with attacks on the holiday for being blended, and therefore impure already, so what the hell. At its worst this creates a sense of going through the motions and robs familiar rituals of meaning.

But a few years ago I had what can only be described as an epiphany. I was talking to a friend who mentioned wanting to make arrangements to visit her family for a Jewish holiday (I have to admit I’ve forgotten which one). Knowing her to not be religious, I must have made an expression of slight surprise, and, picking up on this, she said “I’m not a religious person, but I still feel very culturally Jewish, and it’s important to me to be there.”

And then it dawned on me. I do not believe in the Judeo-Christian God or that Jesus died for my sins. And yet, in some ways, I am culturally Christian. And the thought quickly followed: I am of a culture. And it’s okay to have a culture. I would never fault anyone else for this.

To be fair, I am a white American with a family history of Christianity, and I recognize that the frequent invisibility of my culture is an outgrowth of its privilege. That is critical for me to remember. But it’s also realistic to acknowledge that that culture exists, and that it is part of my messy, complex humanity.  

There is a commendable, but at times excessive, thread in American consciousness that is preoccupied with hypocrisy. In those we don’t like we relish pointing out hypocrisy above all else, and we fear it in ourselves. I wonder sometimes, though, if is better to have the right principles and fail to live up to them some of the time than it is to have the wrong principles and display unflagging consistency. And when it comes to the sustaining elements of family and history and identity, a demand for tidiness, philosophical or otherwise, has the power to mow down landscapes.

My mother does not believe that Jesus was the son of God. But she loves nativity scenes because she loves the ideas of birth and hope and humble beginnings of great wisdom. And I have enjoyed her nativity sets since I was a child and rearranged the little figures over and over and told stories about them, and as an adult I have shopped for her collection. I love Christmas lights because they cheer me up as the nights grow longer, and their symbolism carries hope and the celebration of the eventual return of the light to the planet. But mostly because the quality of the light makes me feel soaked with wonder, and because I remember lying under a Christmas tree as a child and staring up through the lit branches. It’s complicated.

There is a lot worth questioning in the way we celebrate Christmas (or whatever you celebrate this time of year). Unsustainable consumerism is a threat to both the planet and the soul. I try to approach the season with moderation, make meaningful gifts to charity, and use the closing of the year to reflect on the gifts of hope and love and better ways to live up to them. But I don’t apologize any more for calling it Christmas. This is part of who I am. I will take comfort in my mother’s nativity scenes just as someone else will place a star on their pagan-descended Christmas tree and think about Jesus. And that is okay. We will be weighed down with a hundred nostalgias and arbitrary desires for symbols and ritual because we are human and it is dark and cold out and this is what we do.

Happy holidays! (of your choice)

On flip-flops

There has been a proliferation of flip-flops. When I was a child, these were the shoes of poverty—the shoes you bought to wear in a gym if you were afraid of the shower floor, or the shoes you bought when you could afford no other shoes. They cost $.89 or so at the drug store. They all had the same imprinted pattern on the outside of the plastic straps, their insoles were pressed into a faint grid. There were three circles on the bottom where the ends of the straps pressed though. If you were lucky you got a pair that did not have a coarse ridge of plastic left on the piece that went between your toes. If you did get a pair with that, you had to scrape it down with a razor to avoid it chafing.

There is something mesmerizing about a huge store display of something in a rainbow of colors. One of the towering walls of flip-flops at Old Navy or JC Penney. It’s a promise of all the colors at once, even though the spectacle will be gone when you choose one thing and take it home.

In the past few years in the U.S., one cannot help but feel that the inevitable slip is in progress. Hints of the third world begin to creep in to the cocoon of comfort—accelerating inequality, falling wages, rotting infrastructure. Combine that with the knowledge that our level of consumption is environmentally unsustainable, and the general feeling is that, for better or worse, the jig is up.

I try to not consume for the sake of entertainment. I frequent thrift stores. But I fail at this often enough. There’s a constant tension between wanting to live responsibly and knowing that even if we can perform the highly unnatural task of holding the world in our minds at each turn, that we can’t hope to control it. And the immediate often beats out the distant.

I can’t remember her face, but I met a woman once who had worn her flip-flops until the sole on the inside edge was paper thin—narrowing to a frail chisel edge as you followed it from the outside to the inside of her foot. The plastic was matte and crumbly-looking, the grid pattern long gone. She was dirty, maybe homeless, itinerant, bumming cigarettes from my hippie friends and talking in vague terms about the road. I remember nothing but the shoes. A using-up of something that seemed so striking in the world of objects that come and go and clutter our lives and still draw us to buy them.

The new flip flops are a little different, but not much. They cost $1.99 or $2.99, $5 if you are not a good bargain-hunter. Their rainbow of color seems to be their primary selling feature. The shoes of the end of the empire. The sign at JC Penney said “A flip-flop for every outfit.” This is what we are promised. You can pretend to be the idle rich a bit longer if you like. You will have the things of poverty, but you will be surrounded by a rainbow of them, you can use your money to buy more of them than you can use, even if they are a shoe that is barely a shoe, that fills your foot with a faint fear of slipping, a nervousness around escalators. You can console yourself with these bright things. And sometimes I do.

On hard work

The mid-size publishing company where I work has an internal website, and on that internal website is a variety of information and updates, and the cafeteria menu for the day and the Quote of the Day, an inspirational line by some historic or well-known figure. Actually, it’s the Quote of the Page Refresh, but no one seems to notice or mind. These quotes are mostly about following your dreams, working hard, success being a journey, the usual. Apparently these quotes make some people want to do a better job at their job at a mid-sized publishing company. On me, they either have no effect, or they make me want to immediately quit my job at the mid-sized publishing company and go do something heroic, or they make me mutter lightly at the person the quote is attributed to. I am particularly bitter lately at anyone who seemed to have “Man of Letters” available to him as a job option.

Recently there was a quote from an Olympic gold medalist along the lines of “I’ve learned that if you work hard and persevere, your dreams will come true.” It occurred to me suddenly—of course that is what she learned. That’s what happened to her. When we ask a person who has experienced success to describe her world view, we tend to assume that the success was caused by the world view, not that the world view was caused by the success. Some minimal reflection should remind us that the reverse may be truer. No one ever asks the person who trained as hard her whole life and missed making the Olympic team twice what she has learned about life, though it might be more instructive.

If you work hard, good things will come to you. If you are patient and dedicated and focus your efforts, you will achieve great things. This is the promise that keeps many of us going, and on some level that keeps me going. It is sometimes true. At the same time it is also one of the most insidious lies.

A few weeks ago, congressional Republicans voted to make deep cuts to food stamp programs, and to tie benefits to poor people getting jobs. This is an example of “if you work hard, you will make it” carried to its most blind, simplistic conclusion. The only reason someone is poor must be that he or she is lazy, and if we can make that person work hard, they will not be poor anymore. Most of us can see the many flaws in this argument, but it is an argument that is potent for those who buy in to conservative social policy in this country. The roots of its potency are deeply personal.

I was at an Occupy demonstration a year ago, offering fliers to people walking to a college football game. More than one middle-aged man sneered at me “Get a job.” This was very funny, since I do have a 9-5 desk job, and it made me wonder where these men’s hatred was seeping from, and how they clung to a world view that made them think that “get a job” was a viable solution to my discontent, despite all evidence to the contrary. Here were well-off older men who had probably held jobs of some kind for thirty years, who believed and desperately needed to believe that they had what they had because they had worked hard. And if this was true they could believe that they deserved everything that they had. To suggest that this system was not predictable and merit-based was to undercut their narrative of their own lives and their own morality. There was a news story this week that reveals another striking example. When the wealthy president of the McDonald’s corporation was caught off guard by a worker who said she still made $8.25 an hour after working at McDonald’s for ten years, he blurted out that he had been there for forty years (www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/10/11/232077122/mcdonalds-president-was-caught-off-guard-by-low-wage-single-mom). In a moment caught off guard, he could not understand why working for McDonald’s for forty years did not have the same results for other people as it had for him. The reasons why are obvious on some reflection, but deep down that is not the story the rich tell themselves.

In the same week that the Republicans were voting to cut food stamps, I laid awake in bed, as I often do, wondering if I could have done something differently with the years since I finished graduate school. I’ve never aimed for large financial success, but I want other things. I want recognition for my writing; I want to make some meaningful contribution to the world. And somewhere underneath everything is a National Honor Society student who believes that if you work hard enough, good things will happen. And that if they don’t happen, it is because I did something wrong. The inspirational quotes are hard to shake out of your ears. And if we could shake them, there’s the frightening reality that what happens to us is more arbitrary than we care to contemplate, more driven by chance, and that we will always be partly helpless when it comes to the course of our lives. That’s something no one wants to admit.

Introduction

A year ago, I was honored when my brother and his fiancé asked if I would be willing to get ordained on the internet and write and perform their wedding ceremony the following June. Honored because they are amazing people and I felt that their love was as beautiful a topic to write on as I could ask for.

The online ordination is not immediate (someone at the church must review your application—they emphasize that a website cannot ordain you), but it’s close, and the process carries about as much weight as becoming a notary public. You become a person distinguished from others only by your authorization to sign certain official documents. The church I selected believes in freedom of religion and being good to people, with a few vague references to a higher power thrown in (the degree and specificity of these references seems to be the main thing that varies among online layperson-ordaining churches).

As I filled out the generic online form and absorbed the site’s language, I began to think of the verb meaning of minister. As a verb, ministering is something anyone can choose to do at any time—any moment of compassion, of taking responsibility for each other. The mundane and unpublicized of these are the most sustaining and precious. But after I delivered the address at the wedding, I realized that what I wrote was meaningful to many of the guests, and may even have had a touch of ministering in it. Writing is what I have always done, and this little touch of encouragement led me to send some prose out into the world. If you’ve found this in the sea of content you’re surrounded by on the internet, thanks for reading.