Once you've become radicalized, it's always amusing and enlightening to encounter the various stimuli which, in your pre-radicalized days, would have elicited a far different response. This happened to me last week when I was setting up a new email account for my Mom and came across a slew of fundraising emails from the DCCC. Though the messages were authored by a wide variety of familiar names - Biden, Pelosi, Reid and the like - they all contained the same general structure, which went something like this:
Did you hear this? Republicans just released a new attack ad saying Democrats sacrifice kittens. KITTENS!
Oh, and get this - Republicans sacrifice kittens. KITTENS!
We've gotta respond. The first quarterly FEC deadline of 2012 is in just 48 hours. Send us money now, and let's send them a clear message that says we won't stand for their lies, nor their kitten sacrificing. And if you act in the next 2 hours, we'll triple the donation!
My Mom had been persuaded to join this mailing list from one of her more political dinner group friends. She can be persuaded into pretty much anything, as she was by my Dad's more Republican leanings in the later years of his life. She is, I believe, like most people, in that if something either connects with her emotionally, or seems credible on the surface, she will generally go along with it without much further examination. The complexity of truth eludes her and others who simply don't have the time or interest required to broaden perspectives or revisit long-held assumptions.
Thus, it didn't take much for me to get her to unsubscribe from the list, but not before she pleaded with me to allow her to donate $3 as a parting gift, if only so she could tell her friend she had done it. "But it's the Democrats!" she entreated with a half-hearted tone which suggested she knew she was clinging to an old paradigm that she herself was now beginning to see through.
"Do you really think the Democrats are any less consumed with holding onto power than the Republicans?" I asked her. "Do you really think Obama is more concerned about the welfare of the poor than his own re-election campaign?" "Aren't you just a little alarmed by all this nonstop campaigning? Don't you see how it's all just a dog and pony show? Don't you think there is a better, more enlightened use of their and our time and money?"
"Why in the world does Obama continue to oppose the legalization of marijuana?" I continued. "Why does his administration continue to obstruct action on climate change and renewable energy?" "Why do we still have military operations in over 150 countries?" "Does it bother you when Obama rails against Wall Street in public, even while it has provided him with his last 2 Chiefs of Staff and a significant amount of his campaign money?"
But more important to my point than any of those specific issues, which were merely the ones sitting at the top of my head at the time, was the wholly misguided premise illustrated in those emails. As a campaigner in '08, Obama hit all the right notes when he talked about "the smallness of our politics," and "disagreeing without being disagreeable." Today, our politics are as small as they've ever been, and Obama, though certainly not deserving of all the blame, did not take the bold action required to progress in this area and is no less the game player than those he decried on the campaign trail. Populist rhetoric is one thing. Populist action is another.
In '02, I was in the camp of angry Gore voters, disgusted that the ballots wasted on Nader had likely sealed the election for Bush. Now, I recognize those Nader voters as having been ahead of the curve. That's not to say I didn't know back then that there was something deeply wrong with our politics, but I did feel as recently as the last presidential election that the Democrats at least offered a better enough choice to engender some guilt if I didn't show up at the polls. Not anymore. If listening to Romney these days makes me want to curl into the fetal position and die, listening to Obama just makes me really depressed, and while depression may be preferable to death, a dangerous precedent is set when our vote no longer needs to be earned. The time has come to ask more of our candidates, or more specifically, ourselves.
Which reminds me of another line Obama was fond of using in his '08 stump speeches. "We are the ones we've been waiting for." He really did have a lot of good slogans. Looking back on it, I don't think any of us, Obama included, were ever really interested in or ready for a genuine application of that sentiment beyond the empty affirmation. Do we really want to be our own leaders? Or would we rather just hand the reins over to the intellectually superior minority that, thankfully for us, does want to lead? Do those in the highest positions of power really want education and economic empowerment for all, if it would result in a leveling out of prosperity and a ceding of their place at the helm? Who would fight the wars and perform the low-skilled labor they require to maintain their distinction? Would there be war at all, if the entire world's population were educated, with the ability to easily access agenda-less, unfiltered information and truly think for themselves?
When I come across those DCCC emails today, what occurs to me now that wouldn't have occurred a few years ago is that politics is nothing but a perpetual power grab. This is of course redundant and obvious to many of us, but apparently not obvious enough. Most still seem content to simply pick their sides, believing that continuing to win skirmishes in the never-ending political war will solve our never-ending problems, rather than seeing the political war itself as the problem.
If politics were anything other than a power grab, those campaigning to lead our country wouldn't hesitate to admit when they are wrong, or express their views freely without running it through a focus group first. There would be no need for polls or PR teams, campaigns wouldn't have entire departments dedicated to pouncing on the trivial missteps of their opponents, and debates would not be debates, but rather, exercises in furthering understanding. Most importantly, our most enduring problems would actually get solved, because our elected officials would care more about solving them than they would about their own self-preservation.
As soon as our political system, or economy for that matter, becomes about vanquishing the opposition, truth is secondary, just as it is for a corporate news outlet whose main concern is ratings and cultivating the status quo from which it mines its status. Competition is great for sports, where context renders this single-minded goal socially acceptable. Real life, however, is a different matter, where getting a leg up on the competition for a company means outsourcing jobs, or for a candidate means lying.
Even if one side may be technically more right than the other on isolated specific issues, and even if we honestly feel that walking into a voting booth every 2 years to maintain our chosen team's numbers in the House and Senate is the best means of doing the most good in the world, the us-against-them mentality we must adopt to achieve this end muddies the water in the same way the death penalty muddies the water in the fight against crime. We can't ask for a better world without simultaneously embodying the qualities that come with it. This is what is meant by the saying "be the change." It's a recognition that the only way to make true lasting change in the world is to change ourselves. The recognition that a dictator is only granted his power from the compliance of the majority, and the only reason those attack ads we supposedly despise are still around is because they work.
As much as we love to point the finger at politicians or CEOs and pretend we bear no responsibility for our predicament, we have only ourselves to blame, for as off-putting as the political spectacle is these days, it is only a self-reflection. If we wish our politics to exhibit a greater commitment to truth, we must stop supporting a political system that encourages and rewards greed, dishonesty and manipulation - all qualities we are taught in grade school and Sunday school to detest. If we would like to see more civility and adult behavior from our politicians, we must reject negative TV ads and fundraising emails that seek to divide, demonize and confuse rather than seek common ground, whether they come from the left or right. If we change the core, our institutions, political or otherwise, will have no choice but to change as well.
Of course, simply withdrawing support from corrupt institutions is just a first step. To those still given to the kind of mentality expressed in the DCCC emails, who still feel the political process represents them and serves their interests, there may be some confusion as to what the next step should be. To those who have seen beyond the current system, the next step is more clear.
It involves looking inward first, then expanding out, when considering the true causes and thus, the solutions to the problems we face. It involves shifting the locus of power to the local level - taking a greater interest in the activities of your own community than the activities of Washington, and engaging your local government before the federal government. It involves being more discerning about everything you come into contact with, from the food you eat to the information and ideas you allow to be converted into your opinions. It involves reexamining seemingly established views, and redirecting your support to causes that are truly worthy of it, not just because of their ends, but their means. It involves acting a little more like politicians and CEOs - in collective self-interest. (No, that's not an oxymoron.)
The next step also involves finding your purpose and coming to grips with your unique talents, and refusing to take part in anything that isn't interested in making use of them. This means refusing to be exploited, even if the thing doing the exploiting also provides you with a paycheck at the end of the week.
The next step is indeed like life - an organic process, which no one can predict how it will turn out, and is sure to throw you for a loop on more than a few occasions no matter how well you plan. The best approach, then, is to step sure-footedly into uncertainty, secure in the knowledge that there is more to life than security, familiarity and convenience, with the confidence that favor ultimately finds those who listen to the voice in their head.
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