The year is 2000. Having turned 18 in 1998 it would be my first opportunity to cast a vote in a presidential election. Now, I grew up in a small town called Texarkana, Texas. It is a border city with a highway running down the middle splitting Arkansas and Texas. I was on the "Texas Side," with a population in the 30-35,000 range. It is the kind of place that was once solidly democratic, where there would have been a lot of yellow dogs in office if it had come to that. However years of prosperity, cheap living conditions and a growing population began chipping away at that sentiment. People became insulated to all other things outside of their own well being. By the time I was old enough to really understand my perceived surroundings, it and I was (or so I thought), solidly Republican.
I remember in 2000 laughing with my Dad about how
"effete" Al Gore looked while running. Somehow this was rationale for both of us to dislike Al Gore and of course the media loved showing that clip and many others like it. Looking back, I remember all too clearly how in a pre 9/11 world, running style (among other ridiculous things)was somehow criterion on how to vote.
So you've gathered by now, we were kool-aid drinkers. I mean, we weren't bad people. I followed current events, and that included politics, but my frame of reference was my Dad's. The Clinton "scandal" made me weary of the status quo (never mind that the status quo then was a time of unmatched prosperity).
So I voted for George W. Bush, and I remember scoffing at Al Gore contesting the results. Remember, my worldview was my Dad's, and stealing an election seemed overwhelmingly preposterous. The absurdity of its being mentioned only angered me further. I looked forward to Bush gaining the presidency as only a sheltered 19 year old with no voting experience would.
Well, you know what happened. Flash forward. It is August 2001, I have just moved to Austin, TX, preparing to attend my first semester at the University of Texas. I'd taken few issues with Bush. I was a little unnerved by his broad rollback of environmental provisions that he had originally campaigned on, but I could live with that I guessed. My water tasted OK, could still breathe the air, so why worry? It is a mentality we all know very well, and one I will always regret subscribing to.
Then...September 11th. The war in Afghanistan. The idea that things would never be the same was palpable to me, as was the sense that the world, which had always been so black and white to me was changing much more rapidly than I was. Then the next spring I enrolled in a class called "Political Communications." It was a very in depth study of the modern political message, how it is crafted and how TV has changed it. Oh, how we read books. Edelman, Rod Hart, Jeff Hart, Kathleen Jaimeson. This study came amidst the rapid change in Bush's rhetoric. I began to understand how the political message we were hearing was frequently being reduced to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
The "Axis of Evil" speech happened, and I took a course in "Modern Speechwriting in America," where we deconstructed every nuance of that speech among many others in history. The tools of manipulation and spin being used were astounding to me.
Imagine my horror as I watched my grasp of what I "knew" slip away. With each class I took my eyes opened a little further. Somewhere among the voices in our discussions, I began to hear my own.
The war in Iraq started and my horror turned to rage. I took a class called "argumentation and advocacy" where I learned all about argumentative fallacies, including but certainly not limited to the Straw Man fallacy (which is as popular as ever, as cleverly noted by Olbermann last night). I learned how argument is as natural as breathing, a truly celebratory act you could share BECAUSE of mutual trust and desire to reach a desirable conclusion. Argument could only be corrupted by those who refused to give legitimacy to the idea that they MIGHT be wrong. Because, as we all know, if you refuse to accept that, it is no longer true argument but dogma you are espousing, and both parties lose.
So, perhaps you can understand how radically my worldview had changed at this point. The cognitive dissonance of my new understanding versus my previous entire young LIFE was very difficult to resolve. I could only hang my head in shame when my new friends learned how I cast my first presidential vote. It could no longer be rationalized.
It was around this time I changed my major to political communications/political science. I graduated from UT in 2003 and have spent my days sense then trying to atone for what I consider to be one of the worst decisions I've made in my life. It is a stain that I'll never get rid of. Sure, it was Texas, not Florida where I cast my vote, but I'm sure you'll agree, it is little consolation.
When I travel home I look around at the faded American flags and the W. stickers on the cars I can only shake my head in disbelief at how the last 5 years has changed me. My Dad and I now must avoid even discussing the situation, lest it devolve into a hopeless shouting match, a sad example/reminder of argument losing again to dogma. I seem to be reminded of that one a LOT more these days.
My education truly opened my eyes to what it is I really believed and what it is I really want for myself and those around me. Were it not for the University of Texas and some extremely remarkable professors who changed not just my perception, but also the way I actually live my life, I would likely be as lost as many others. I'd be what I was in Texarkana, a good guy, but nothing more than a cog in the machine, pulling the lever enabling a view that wasn't mine but someone else's.
I wouldn't be working as you are for a Democratic majority in Congress, and of course, I wouldn't be among you. That in my mind would be one of the greatest losses, because my education continues daily here, thanks to this forum and each of you.
Education: perhaps the single greatest threat to a Republican majority. Without it, I'd probably still be living in Texarkana, drowning in the metaphorical kool-aid.
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