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Time to Get Crazy

October 22, 2018

November approaches, and it’s time for one of my periodic screeds about voting. Few things perturb me more than Americans who don’t vote.

Well, President Twitterman gets top rank among bugbears, of course. And there’s the Saudi autocrat who’s finally being bashed in the press for murdering one journalist while his mass slaughter of Yemeni civilians continues to be ignored. Yet I don’t know that princely thug called MBS, he’s never bought me a beer, and my outrage at him merges with my general disgust for the fat-cat gangsters swarming the White House and other seats of government.

In comparison, my displeasure with nonvoters is much more personal. You know the truism that sibling feuds are the worst of all? Americans who don’t bother to vote—especially college-educated, middle-class types like myself—those people are family, and so I get really mad at them. There’s no excuse for their behavior. Voting is so simple—how can they not do it?

Do I sound like somebody’s grumpy old uncle?

I am.

Let’s survey some apparent reasons people don’t vote. I’m excusing, of course, those who are blocked from voting by electoral machinations (“you put a period after your middle initial on one form but not on another; therefore we can’t verify your identity”), and those who juggle three jobs and three children and have no time in between, and those whose polling place is conveniently located 153 miles away. Etc. (Although in the latter cases people might use absentee ballots.) I’m aiming this diatribe at people who could vote easily but somehow don’t. The people who elected Twitterman by abstaining. The people who make the United States notorious as a nonparticipative so-called democracy.

Reason for Not Voting #1: “I don’t like any of the candidates. They’re all flawed.”

My response: I hope you believe in a Messiah. Because your perfect political candidate will come along sometime after the Messiah.

Reason for Not Voting #2: “I’m sick of voting for the lesser evil. I can’t compromise like that anymore. From now on, I’ll stand on principle.”

My response: Congratulations on your moral purity. Have you considered moving to a place where none of your principles will be compromised, such as Antarctica?

Reason for Not Voting #3: “None of the candidates talk about issues important to me.”

My response: If you like that situation, keep on not voting. By not expressing your opinion at the polls, you make certain that candidates will disregard it.

Reason for Not Voting #4: “It makes no difference anyway. In my gerrymandered district, people with my views are so outnumbered that my candidate can never win.”

My response: Gerrymandering is a big, big problem. But the canny politicians who divvy up voters for their own advantage are counting on the continuation of established political patterns, including the pattern of people not voting. A sudden swell in ballots from groups they are trying to marginalize could upset their calculations—and maybe set the stage for legislative action to end gerrymandering.

Reason for Not Voting #5: “Votes change nothing. Politicians do whatever nasty things they like regardless of what the public thinks.”

My response: Um, politicians can’t do that nefarious stuff if they’re not in office. Vote them out and they’ll be reduced to making millions as lobbyists. That’s not quite as bad for the rest of us.

I’ve said all this before, in one way or another. But the other day, inspired by a conversation with a politically involved friend, I turned the problem around in my mind, reflecting on what it takes to become a committed voter, someone who turns out in every election:

  • A sense of morality or justice. People are said to vote their pocketbooks, and many do, but in our divided times what seems to drive citizens to the polls is a belief that certain actions and policies are right and others are disastrously wrong.
  • Faith. Not religious belief necessarily, but a conviction that there’s some hope left for the world and that human actions—our actions—can make a difference. Admittedly, if science says the Earth is likely to be uninhabitable in a few decades, faith stretches thin; but there have been Doomsday scenarios in the past that we managed to escape, and it wasn’t by hiding under our school desks to avert the atomic bomb. We must believe that our flawed and compromised democracy can be salvaged and that its fate is important to the world.
  • Irrationality. In the most local of elections, one vote can actually matter. In a 2017 contest Phillip Garcia won the post of judge of election in a Philly precinct because he wrote in his own name—the only vote cast for that office. Still, I have to admit that one vote, which is all each person can control, will change nothing in a statewide or national election. Making a point of casting a ballot is therefore irrational, or at best a stroking of one’s own moral sensibilities (cf. Reason #2 above).

It seems I’ve put myself in the position of urging people to be irrational. Okay, I’ll own up to that. I’ll double down, as Twitterman always does.

Get out there and go crazy, people! Against all reason, act like it makes a difference what you do. Vote for somebody! If necessary, embrace the lesser evil, the best of the bad choices.

Maybe there’s some hidden good there after all.

Bold Predictions

September 7, 2018

In such unprecedented (or unpresidented) times as ours, it’s difficult to imagine what comes next. But as concerned citizens it’s incumbent upon us to plan for the future. In that vein, here are my carefully reasoned predictions about likely trends in the next decade.

  • When the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and states are once again free to ban abortion, women will migrate en masse from pro-life to pro-choice locales. Mississippi, for example, will empty out and Massachusetts will burgeon.
  • In Boston violent fights will erupt over parking spaces, and the city’s parking clerk will have to dodge irate commuters armed with tire irons. Electric bike-sharing companies will make a fortune. So will lawyers.
  • As women abandon pro-life states, property values there will plummet—increasingly so as the despondent remaining men litter their yards with empty pizza boxes. Country music will reach new heights of popularity as songwriters exploit the rhyming potential of lonely pepperoni.
  • Once property values have tanked in pro-life states, adventurous young gay couples (realizing abortion bans are irrelevant for them) will seize on the opportunity to homestead. They’ll buy houses on the cheap and settle in. They’ll need to acquire weapons to fend off the Klan, but being younger and smarter and unencumbered by clumsy hoods, they are bound to prevail. Within ten years, Mississippi will be the coolest place to live in America.

If any of this comes true, you can count on me to say “I told you so.”

Meanwhile, people who don’t want such things to happen can consider a radical alternative: voting.

Martin Armstrong, “U.S. Voter Turnout In Perspective,” Statistica, Nov. 11, 2016.

In the midst of America’s absurd, untenable political situation, my wife’s refuge is to watch MSNBC every night, where the anchors tell her over and over again how absurd and untenable the situation has become. That has a certain reassuring quality, she finds. For me, it’s just too repetitive and depressing.

One of my own escapes is to read books that have nothing to do with the present-day USA or its foibles. For instance, I just finished Joyce Cary’s novel-cum-memoir A House of Children (1941), in which he describes vacation stays with relatives in Donegal. Lots of scenes about boating on the water, gossip about the older girls’ suitors, night-time swims in the lough, donkey-cart rides with a hired hand.… A fine respite from the 21st century—until I come upon passages like this one, which describes the children’s reaction after a play they have produced proves hilariously inept:

There was great applause, and Frances came to congratulate us. But we had lost heart. We were not only ashamed and disappointed; we had suffered a shock. Deeper than the sense of failure, there was the feeling that we had misunderstood the situation; that plays were not so easy as they seemed. With this went, as always, the feeling that life, too, was not so easy as it seemed. Like most children when they fail in a grown-up enterprise, we were subdued and secretly frightened; we wanted to get away by ourselves, preferably out of the grown-up world and back into our own refuges, the school-room or the kitchen. [Chapter 48]

Immediately, on reading that, I was back in the USA, wondering how much of our present state could be characterized as shock and shame at the failure of our self-conceived, long-running play called “American Democracy.” Are we frightened that it’s not as easy as we thought? Would we rather retreat to our refuges, like the couch and TV?

Actually, despite time spent on old British novels, I’ve been doing something useful lately, namely, volunteering for Fair Districts PA, an attempt to stop gerrymandering in my fair state of Pennsyltucky. After ranting for years about people who don’t bother to vote, I’ve decided to help address one of the conditions that discourage voting. This does require certain compromises on my part. I’ve always been annoyed with the inefficiency of volunteer organizations. Also, any cause that counts Arnold Schwarzenoodle among its supporters is inherently suspicious to me. But I do believe that if we can do away with legislative districts that look like this—

PA's 7th Congressional District

—we’ll have less need to run away from the grown-up world and hide in our refuges.

By the way, that district shown above, PA’s 7th Congressional District—known as “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck”—is served (if that’s the right word) by the estimable Pat Meehan, who has voted to repeal Obamacare, to defund National Public Radio, and to ignore requests for President Twitterman’s tax returns. With borders drawn so well to suit their needs, he and his fellow Goofies can be re-elected forever.

Shocked!

February 19, 2017

Change Seven magazine has posted a guest blog entry of mine about surviving a (Trumpian) shock to the system. Here’s the link.

The general theme, in keeping with the magazine’s name, was “change,” and I started to ponder how our former ideas about change seem both still-relevant and terribly quaint. The old term “future shock” popped into my mind—which was kind of like reading a letter you wrote as a teenager and realizing that, back then, you understood far more than you do now.

The original gerrymander in Massachusetts

The original gerrymander in Massachusetts

At the second meeting of the #WritersResist group in Philadelphia, I learned about Fair Districts PA, a group determined to convert Pennsylvania to a nonpartisan redistricting process before the 2020 census.

Every ten years, after the national census, states redraw their district lines — both for the state legislature and for the U.S. House of Representatives. Under the current system in most states, those in power in the legislature gerrymander the districts to make sure they stay in power. We get districts shaped like this (from the U.S. Department of the Interior via Wikipedia):

pa_uscongressionaldistrict12

 

Besides perpetuating one-party control, the “safe seats” contribute to gridlock on both a local and a national scale. If lines are drawn to make sure that those with certain views get reelected (and reelected and reelected and reelected), they have no need to listen to any dissenting voices or consider any compromise.

Although the USA is not the only country to allow gerrymandering, the practice is particularly egregious here, and the Supreme Court’s rulings on the subject have been indecisive.

I’ve long bemoaned Americans’ lax voting habits. There are two principal ways to influence politicians: money and votes. Most of us don’t have the first, and too many of us throw away the second.

Obviously, one way to encourage voting is to make the districts fairer. If we eliminate automatic winners, people will be more inclined to think their votes count for something.

So do check out Fair Districts PA or a similar group in your own state. And vote!

(I’m still fuming at my friends who didn’t bother to vote last November.)

 

Writers ResistYesterday in Philadelphia, an event called “Writers Resist: United for Liberty” filled to overflowing a 300-seat auditorium for more than two hours of readings about freedom of speech, racial justice, economic justice, and more. It was linked in spirit to the New York event sponsored by PEN America, but it had a uniquely local flavor, with passages from historical speeches and writings set in Philly. The organizers (and who knew writers could organize so well?) were Alicia Askenase, Stephanie Feldman, and Nathaniel Popkin.

There’s a good write-up at Philly.com, and many ongoing comments on the Facebook site and Twitter feed (@ResistPHL), as well as photos and videos. Most important, the plan is to carry on with further events and actions, beginning next month.

I can’t add much to the eloquence of the other voices, so I’ll simply quote three passages that I found most moving—ones that didn’t have specific connections to Philly but shared a universal resonance.

The program concluded with poet Tom Devaney reading Langston Hughes’s stirring poem “Let America Be America Again,” which includes these lines:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

A dream that’s never quite fulfilled but that we can, we must, keep aiming at—that states it perfectly.

Valerie Fox read a translation of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “When Evil-Doing Comes Like Falling Rain,” a reminder not to let ourselves be anesthetized by the quantity of outrages:

The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread. When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out “stop!” When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.

Finally, here’s a quotation that connects with my frequent screeds about American voting behavior. Kelly McQuain read this passage, among others, from Elie Wiesel’s 1999 speech “The Perils of Indifference”:

In a way, to be indifferent to [human] suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.

Let’s say that one more time in capitals: INDIFFERENCE IS NOT A RESPONSE.

 

votebuttonResults are in for the presidential name poll posted on December 30!

In an effort to find a proper moniker for the incoming U.S. president, some voters chose among the options offered, some proposed alternatives. A total of six votes were cast, and since this blog has eleven total readers, including bots, the percentage who bothered to vote was nearly identical to that in the November election itself. We find that encouraging.

The vote resulted in a tie, with two names collecting two votes apiece. This calls for a runoff—also encouraging, because it prolongs the excitement!

Now, the original poll asked participants to vote by comment, which was a bit difficult. To register a vote, you first needed to have a sign-in recorded and recognized by the system. Then you had to go through the elaborate motions of typing a name on your keyboard. The setup deliberately mirrored the two-step process of regular voting, in which you first have to register and then, on the day of the vote, you have to show up, sign in, push some buttons and pull a lever.

In fact, five of our six voters circumvented the standard process, casting their ballots by Twitter, Facebook or, in one case, vocally. We Americans just can’t seem to follow the rules, can we? Nevertheless, in a true spirit of liberality, we decided to count those votes without penalty.

Perhaps the laborious effort required to cast a ballot is what discourages so many American voters. Therefore, for this runoff, we’re experimenting with a simpler poll format, in which you merely have to move your index finger twice. The two remaining candidates are listed below. Remember, the point is to choose a surname that, when combined with the title “President,” won’t make us hyperventilate or curse uncontrollably.

Click the circle next to the name you prefer, then click the Vote button. It’s easy!

Besides its simplicity, you’ll note that our runoff format has other important characteristics:

  • It’s like a sports poll in that you can vote as many times as you like. Hence it gives an advantage to fanatics and those with nothing better to do with their time, kind of like a primary election between no-names running for Register of Wills.
  • It resembles a Russian election in that, after you vote, the information disappears into the cyberether until the authorities (in this case, the Gridleyville Board of Directors) announce the official results, which may or may not reflect actual votes cast.
  • It reflects the typical democratic process in that it makes not one iota of difference for the long decline of Western civilization.

So hurry up and vote now! The polls will be open for an unpredictable amount of time.

We wish the best of luck to both candidates.