Unwelcome In The Dungeon

Once in a while, usually in the fall, the iron doors of American Politics creak open and I am asked to participate in a small way. This august institution — along with any number of do-gooder organizations scattered across the land — tells me that this is a critical time. I must act. If I do not, then awful things will happen. My input is urgently needed. I must vote.

Since I was raised to follow the rules and to always put back down the seat, I dutifully march off to the cramped voting pens to cast my ballot. Upon arrival, I am greeted by a volunteer, who is either very much older than me or still in high school, who tells me I must wait in line while they figure out which forms to fill out and which buttons to push on their machines. We wait in long queues, let into the school gymnasium in small batches and then (after being asked to promise I am who I am) led to even smaller makeshift cells to make our choices. I feel as if those iron doors opened only grudgingly.

A high-propensity voter, I have been following the issues and the candidates. They communicate with me, because they think I may give them what they want. The platforms of the parties as espoused by their leaders and scribes leave me dismally cold.

***

Like most people I know, I am ambivalent — torn — about many of the directions the country is taking. I am glad the economy is perking along, but I worry about people I know who face a great deal of job anxiety. I can’t imagine just pulling out of Iraq, but it sure doesn’t seem to be going well. I fly often, and yet feel no safer than I did on September 12, 2001. I am cheered that the Dow has roared back and it seems real, but I look around at a lot of “for rent” signs in my neighborhood and wonder how long the good times will last. The faces that make up our nation are changing rapidly and I welcome this, but I worry that we are stretching our ability to get along with one another too, too far.

The answers, I am told by the mandarins of American politics, hinge on a handful of simple questions. Should we erect a chain link fence in the desert? Should we give my tax dollars to political candidates so they don’t have to demean themselves by asking for it in order to campaign anymore? Should we demand that the Middle East start getting along or else we’ll be very angry? Should we make it easier for rich folks to invest their money?

These questions seem too simple. It’s all yes or no, up or down, left or right, red or blue. Like a child has devised this test for me.

I want to be heard. I want to send a message to those who have built this system, to tell them I understand a lot more than they think and that I see through their idiotic commercials and only slightly-less-idiotic “positions.” I want to tell them they’re right, and also that they’re wrong all at the same time, that the answers aren’t so simple. That there are hard questions facing America and that I don’t appreciate them being boiled down to empty gestures.

Instead, they ask me to push a button next to a name. American Politics will then eagerly re-shut its iron doors. It will be free to interpret this message from me and my ilk in whatever way it pleases.

Maybe I am holding my nose and voting for the lesser of two evils. If enough people do that, my vote will be seen as a “mandate.” Maybe I will vote for some Democrats as well as some Republicans. If enough people join me, then political science professors will say that I am in favor of “divided government.” Maybe I will walk out of the voting booth having not pushed any buttons at all. Good government groups will say that I am “apathetic.”

***

The easy answers have been used up and we are faced with tough questions. I’m torn about what to do on so many things. Sadly, there seems to be no box I can check, no button to push, next to that sentiment. If there were an Ambivalent party, it would win in a landslide.

Sure, there are bright spots. Some political leaders seem honest about the trade offs that their policies would require, and upfront about the limitations under which they are operating. They seem, sometimes, interested in hearing my voice, not just cataloging my positions. They give me some hope. But it doesn’t seem to last long.

Well, I’d better get going. The gates are about to open. I’m about to be invited into the public square for a brief moment. I want to be ready when it comes time to speak through this imperfect and maddening tool: my vote.

Pancakes On The Barricades

About one month into my freshman stint at a left coast school known for student activism, I spied a flyer on a phone pole. “BART Alert!” it screamed, referring to the local rail transit system. I am still not sure what such an alert really is, but this particular flyer urged me to show up at a march. As a new college student who fancied himself on the side of the people, I took part that night in my very first march, protesting the use of U.S. troops in a place called Grenada.

It’s all quite hazy now, but I think I was even on local TV that night, literally waving my fist. I couldn’t say precisely where Grenada was. Looking back over the context, I think President Reagan was probably right to take the steps he did to avoid the creation of another belligerent communist island nation (there were armed Cuban workers on the island building an airstrip that was way too long for commercial traffic). But, man, I seethed with righteous anger at the time. This was imperialist oppression, plain and simple.

In twenty-first century Washington, DC, there is an uprising at Gallaudet University, the top institution of higher learning for Deaf and hard-of-hearing in the nation and an icon for that group. Student protests began in May and reached a head this month. The football team (of all things) closed the campus. A tent city was erected. There are signs. Angry speakers go on at length. Demands have been issued and there have been calls for negotiation. The faculty have voted no confidence in the administration. Arrests have been made.

It’s hard, from off campus, to understand what is at the root of the protests. The newspapers have been of little help in this respect. There are few news articles that are anything other than breathless in their coverage. One news piece literally refers to them, without irony, standing “shoulder to shoulder.” The protesters’ slogans are reprinted. Each new declaration of support they receive gets covered. Meanwhile, the administration with whom they have their beef is portrayed as increasingly cold and distant, negotiating only belatedly and perfunctorily, issuing carefully worded statements and generally being The Man. It is difficult to find more than a handful of opinion pieces that criticize the protesters.

This is the coverage that many news organizations seem to reserve for these events. In the guise of reporting the facts, protesters are always treated as legitimate heirs to the Suffragists and to Rosa Parks. But whatever grievance the protesters have has been buried under the weight of the story of noble protest.

When asked, the protesting students have given a shifting set of reasons for their anger, but have recently coalesced around two key demands. First, they say they are unhappy with the way the search was run to find a new president for the university – their viewpoints were not given enough weight. They want the chosen candidate to step down and the board of trustees to reopen the search. Second, they want a guarantee that there will be no “reprisals” against the students who led and took part in the protests. The board, their choice for president, and the current president, meanwhile, all say they have no plans to reopen the search and that student input was carefully considered.

As my college career progressed at my counterculture university, I remained on the periphery of a number of students who you might refer to as “professional protesters.” I did little of it myself. But no matter the issue, there was a ready crop of mouths to yell and fists to wave. Some causes were, in hindsight, inarguably worthy: divestment of university funds from companies doing business in South Africa. Other causes not so much: I recall one protest in favor of an unidentified group of people who had burnt the campus ROTC building to a cinder.

One common thread through all these college protests, and a thread connecting my Grenadine march to the Gallaudet students on the barricades, is a laudable – but hard to support – indignation. The examples of past demonstrations emboldened us to think our views were not only worthwhile but that they ought to carry more weight than other considerations. But we lacked the inclination to reflect on the content of those views. We were right, by virtue of little else but the heat of our convictions. Descartes might have said of us cogito, ergo sum rectus: I think, therefore I am right.

In the end, it all got a bit silly. I vividly remember one early morning when there was a loud rapping at my door. A throng of revolutionaries was on my porch, having outrun the pigs to our safe haven. The purpose of the demonstration I can no longer recall. But the purpose of their visit was quite clear: they were hungry. My girlfriend made pancakes for the lot of them, and we fed them as they swapped stories of blocking prison buses and hurling rocks. At the time, it all seemed so earnest. But it was the pancakes and braggadocio that survived, not the cause.

How will we look back on the protests of today? Are we changing the world – or passing the time?