America, Do Thyself No Harm: Sanity, Hope, and Cynicism
As November draws near, Republicans, Democrats, and self-styled Independents are all gearing up for that great democratic olympics: Election Day. I feel the buzz myself. Suddenly, despite having had only a passing interest for the minutiae of politics most of the year, I am glued to CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News all day long. I look forward to NPR updates with bated breath. I keep checking the New York Times website for updated stories. This is the time when the gloves come off. When we all take on the burdens of citizenship and play our part in America’s future. It’s election season! I am practically bursting with joy. I can hardly contain myself. Every chance encounter in the bookstore or coffeeshop is a chance to talk politics. This bill or that bill, what the Democrats are doing wrong, and what the Republicans are doing right — its a great time to be American. I think kids should take the month off from school, there should be parades everyday, and there should be dancing in the streets. After all, living in a (mostly) democratic society is something we should actively celebrate.
Of course, there is a darker subtext to this year’s elections. A slight, almost imperceptible change is coming over us this year and I’m not sure how else to describe it except to say that its a slowly self-destructive self-consciousness. I guess all aging empires go through this — like a national mid-life crisis. On the one hand, you’ve got a nation still groggy in its recovery from 8 years of George W. Bush — high debt, a weak economy, and a divided and uneducated populace. Waking from a coma to find that nearly all the muscles of governance have atrophied during it sleep. A recession that threatens our sense of national virility — like a man entering a midlife crisis. And then, on the other hand, you’ve got President Obama, the Tea Party, and all the newness of this millenium (globalism, terrorism, environmentalism, etc.) leading us by the nose. These are overwhelming times. Change is here –and change is coming. And no matter how smart, or gutsy, or pragmatic you may think you are, chances are you have no idea what’s coming around the corner.
All of this is preamble to my main point, which is that things are still very much undecided for this generation. We’re ten years into this century and yet there is not quite a defining overall “gist” that captures the era. You can look back even as recently as the 80’s or 90’s and say, with some degree of authority, what that time was like in America. You can sum up the American experience of those times in a few paragraphs or pages. But what of the aughties? This millennial era is still up for grabs. Eight years of George W. Bush, freakish economic robustness, technological explosiveness, and the election of America’s first black President — and still, there is not really a core narrative for the Now.
I say these things not to be smug or cryptic, but rather in the hopes that an understanding of the still pre-formative nature of these times will inspire us all — young and old — to be active in the construction of what it will be.
While so many issues battle for dominance, the real legacy of these days will fall on us. On the People. The final composition is always a conglomeration of events, reactions, and acts. That is, we will not be defined merely by events (like global warming or 9/11 or the Recession) or by our reactions to those events (declaring war in Afghanistan and Iraq, bailing out the banks, electing Barack Obama). There is a third wild card: there are the acts we take upon ourselves to do as a nation. What doings we mobilize towards of our own volition, within the context of these times.
And it is crucial that we not assume that there is a good way and a bad way, that we not create enemies of each other because of how we disagree on what to do. Shall we all be come Tea Partiers? Shall we all assume the moral high ground? It’s fine to let the self-righteousness of ones own convictions be the engine that propels a person out the door. We are often motivated to do great things by acting upon strong convictions. But, at the same time, we can’t let just any decision which goes against our own convictions knock all the wind from our sails. Disagreement is crucial to democratic balance. A government which is all in agreement with itself is most likely NOT a government of people.
We are here to disagree together, you might say.
That said, beware any position that is unwavering, that does not take into account all the many varied special circumstances that any one issue may touch upon. We are not robots or computers. We are not governed by logic. Similarly, we are not slaves to passion. Rather, it is the interplay of these things which brings about dynamic equilibrium. A position that says, “This shall be done — without exception” is usually a sign that the equilibrium is off. We are a nation built on the principles of an ingenious Constitution, an excellent experiment in governance. No other nation has the same messy-but-effective conflagration of laws, representatives, checks and balances — and arbiters of interpretation of those things. We are truly dynamic country. One which was needed in the new world in order for civilization to grow and adapt to the changing demands of the world.
Now, in this moment, the demands are once again changed and we must come up with the right adaptation to go forward. I say this neutrally (as I actively suppress my own liberal inclinations) so that, should someone with beliefs different from mine read this, they might agree. Toward that end, I also caution us to be wary of “sanity.” This is one of those buzz words that sort of means something, but doesn’t really mean anything. Words like “integrity” and “honor” — purely subjective concepts. Sanity is a useful tool when disagreement is in full swing and a compromise is needed. It is an excellent way to tamp down fiery rhetoric and demagoguery when they become too prominent. But it is a also a harsh disinfectant that can obliterate burgeoning movements. Movements predicated on hope, faith or hypothesis. There is a time when sanity, when pure practicality, can be a detriment to societal progress. I think, perhaps, this is one of those times. The real word situations (out of work, economic collapse, global terrorism) are bracing enough. To compete with them we need to stretch out beyond the mundane and find some inspired new path to the future. Not insanity, per se, but something like it, I guess.
We are all here, dear reader. Whatever roles we may play in the future (or may’ve played in the past) we are all a part of what is happening Now. The motivation to vote shouldn’t be fear or hatred or a sense that “other side” is going to win. When it really comes down to it, one must vote out of a duty to be counted. Not the privilege of being counted, no. The duty. I depend on you to vote, as you depend on me. Whether we agree or disagree, we are all one. Whether the motivation is hope or pragmatism or even cynicism — we are all in it together. We vote as a whole and we go with the majority. There is something beautiful in all of that.
The only real harm can come from those who choose not to vote. Or those who choose to vote without doing any research on their chosen candidate and his or her issues — which basically tantamount to not voting at all. No — on Election day, let every eligible mind stand up and speak its piece. It is, indeed, a brave new world out here. How this time will be remembered in the course of human events — I can’t say. But I do know that, in this moment, we are all here.