Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Urgency of Optimism

Tonight, I went to cast a ballot in the local primary. There was perhaps less objective justification for doing this than in any election year in recent memory: the only race worth the name is the 11th district's runoff between a veteran congressman named Major Owens and two female Democratic challengers--whoever wins this primary will most likely win the seat, given that our district is about 70% Democratic. Otherwise, there were not even any city council seats up for grabs here.

Still, I went over to the local high school and parted the curtains of the ballot chamber. The gymnasium where the voting was being done was virtually deserted: I was the only voter there at about 8:00 PM. A dozen or so officials and organizers sat at tables, and a cop sat near the voting booths, apparently struggling to remain awake. The question might have occurred to me, "what am I doing here?" If it had, the answer was ready for me in the most fleeting act of reflection.

I do not think it an exaggeration to point out that these are desperate times. We are living under the yoke of an administration in Washington that has alienated our nation in the eyes of the world, even as it arrogantly claims the support of a marginal "coalition of the willing" (note the language--it's not a "coalition of the equal" or of "the eager"; but just, rather ambivalently, of "the willing"). This same administration is incurring and accumulating a deficit of such massive proportions as will handicap the people of our nation unto the next generation; it is the first administration since Hoover's to govern over negative job growth--a trend that shows no sign of reversing. It is an administration that is relentlessly destroying and endangering the Earth, and depleting its resources; it is a government guided by fear, hypervigilance, paranoia, and violence. And unlike the Reagan and Bush-1 White Houses, there is no calming, moderate influence in its cabinet or its supporting voices on Capitol Hill to restrain the careening juggernaut of oppression, occupation, suspicion, and profiteering.

I have a child, a 10-year old daughter, who will soon be old enough to suffer from the effects of another four years of this depredation in our leadership. She may someday turn and ask me, "did you not vote back then, when these threats to our national principles were so clearly manifest? and did you not speak out and act to let others know what was happening to us--to our nation, our human civilization, our planet?"

I do not want to have to tell her that I didn't think it was important, or (worse still) that I thought that anything I said or did wouldn't make a difference. I want to be able to tell her, no matter how these elections turn out, that I spoke and acted on behalf of her and her generation; that I tried with what ability and influence I had at the time to help people to see the transformative potential in a moment such as this; to teach them that no matter how horrible the world and its people may seem, no matter how ridden with failure and strife we may be in the moment where we find ourselves--there is always opportunity. In fact, the deeper the seeming distress, the greater the potential for a transformative movement.

Failure is not the result of futile effort guided by an open awareness; failure is the denial of our errors. Wherever we are freely conscious of our error, and ready to learn from it, then there can be no failure. It has, indeed, been my experience that we are more truly led forward by our errors than by our successes. Therefore, I continue to talk to others, to write, and yes, to vote--not because I have anything to say or teach, or because I possess any influence that others cannot say, impart, or bring to bear. No: it is because I know that what we give each other are the gifts that are common and universal to us all, which no one person holds in isolation or exclusion from others. These are lessons that I think President Bush and his supporters in Washington have yet to fully learn--that it is in those moments where we are most imperiously tempted to act from power, to dominate, and to shout down or otherwise oppress dissent--this is when we are the most urgently called upon to open ourselves to the teaching potential of our own error. This is to enter onto the path of Modesty. It is not to efface, demean, or debase oneself, but instead to find one's own individual uniqueness in the transformative moment of human unity.

Voting is a uniquely democratic act, perhaps the defining democratic act, because it reinforces within each of us the natural stirring of humility, which is the very breath of Democracy. As the men who are commonly referred to as our founding fathers recognized, America can only be safe and prosperous when it is accepted and welcomed in the community of the world and its nations. Yet now we are governed by other men, men who believe that America can only be made safe and prosperous when it holds the rest of the world at the point of a gun. This consciousness must be dismissed and reversed; we must return to what the formative leaders of our nation taught us, to what we have learned from all who came after them--from Lincoln to Thoreau to Mark Twain to Susan Anthony to Martin Luther King--that a nation born of the public act of dissent on the part of a free people can only be secure and whole to the extent that it protects the individual's right to say No to power. This is what I'd like my daughter to recall, years from now, about what we did here, in this moment of our nation's history.

This is why I voted tonight, in an empty schoolroom on a cool evening in September.

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