Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Leaves & Lost Marbles: On Voting & True Will

I think I've been able to pinpoint the source of my discomfort and horror over the Presidential Election.

Room to Object

For one thing, I always feel uncomfortable, even suspicious, when everyone seems to agree about something. When the only arguments for not voting are apathy or a sense of helplessness--something is not right. Nihilism is a sure sign that the conversation has ceased to be open and honest and has become a kind of repetitive rhetoric that shuts down any real thought. Most people buy it, and those who don't feel impotent to respond. I mean, come on, we can still have infinitely complex, subtle conversations about killing, lying, stealing, cheating; we can debate the relative justice and necessity of war, the roles of faith and violence, the ambivalence of "God"; we can think of endless ways in which things that seem obviously wrong and harmful might sometimes be justified, and things that seem like obvious goods can sometimes have devastating effects--and now you're telling me that in the face of this overwhelming complexity and diversity of thought and experience, there is not one reasonable, coherent argument for why someone shouldn't vote? Suddenly we all agree on this one thing, when we can barely agree on the definition of "good," "right" or even "life" itself? No, that's just too much to swallow. Something is wrong. Something is being left out, we have a huge blind spot, we've been swept up in rhetoric and ritual and our minds have been left by the wayside somewhere to fend for themselves.

So, first things first, I would like to hear someone give a complex, intelligent, thorough argument for why voting is an absolute, unquestioned good--and to do so without resorting to terms like "civic duty/obligation," or support for one particular candidate, or grand statements about the "lesser of evils." I want to know why voting is an/the essential aspect of citizenry, why it is the best medium for political expression, what benefits it has over the alternatives (and if you can't think of any alternatives other than "not voting," that should be a very obvious warning sign--an argument that cannot conceive of any viable counter-arguments against which to prove itself is probably pretty shaky from the start). I want a reasoned argument, not an appeal to sentiment and the feeling one gets when participating in a successfully managed mass social ritual. In short, I want some perspective, please.

Room to Will

Walking to lunch, I tried to attend to and articulate the thoughts and emotions I was experiencing in regards to the election and my supposed "civic duty" to vote. I was disconcerted mostly because nothing remained at all clear or obvious, and the confusion and obfuscation had a kind of deliberateness, even a malice to it. I had ceased, long ago, to consider voting the sole or even the primary way in which I participated as a responsible citizen in my political community. I feel like I do more on a daily basis, through the ordinary mundane lifestyle choices I make, than any one voter can accomplish by pulling a lever or pushing a button once every couple years. But that didn't mean that voting was something to be purposefully avoided either. I couldn't pin down and define very good reasons for voting, and yet the stress and pressure to do so was palpable and constant. And, most importantly, external.

Now, I'm not sure how many people have a self-awareness so precisely refined that they can tell the difference between external pressure and internal desire. It seems that a great deal of our economics, politics and social relationships are built upon (and even designed to induce) confusion between the two. But I have always spent a great deal of time sifting and sorting, trying to find the root of my longings and opinions, learning my own interior landscape and acting from my own core being. Of course, that being is not cut off from the world, it is not some "pure" and unadulterated essence that never changes... It is shaped by the world around me, by my fluctuating experiences in it and growing knowledge about it. But if I try, as best as I can, to stay true to that internal sense of self and purpose, if I make a habit of resisting any pressure with the slightest smack of conformity-to-the-merely-external, then I trust that even those external pressures which shape and transform me will, in their turn, be shaped and changed by their inclusion in my own inner alchemy. In this way, I can always act with integrity even if I do not always act in isolation (which would be a silly thing to strive for, anyway).

So, the sense of external pressure was a sign for me that I simply had not internalized the necessity of voting--I was not, myself, convinced of its importance. And if this was the case, then I couldn't very well act one way or the other without first understanding my own ambivalence and determining what my own true sense of self--the sense of my own personal nature--required that I do. Believe it or not, this is how I make most of the choices in my life. It's a slow process, lots of groping slowly along in the dark, but then sometimes the natural movement of things must be gradual and subtle. "Through nonaction, all action is accomplished."

So I wanted to quiet myself down, listen to what my True Will was saying. Luckily, my walk to lunch was through the park (I love these times during my week when I can take the long, slow path through the woods), so I had time to listen, to attend. This is what my Will seemed to say:
Just... wait, a little longer, and it will pass. If only--if only there was just some way not to begin, someway to remain free of it. You were born needing food and shelter in a system that had already bought and sold them, and you never had a chance. Think of how hard you have worked to extract yourself from that system of buying and selling the necessities of life, how long the search for alternatives, the constant second-guessing and analysis of who has cultivated and slaughtered your food, who has suffered that you might eat and live. You never had the chance not to begin, and now you find yourself trying to dig your way out of that hole imposed on you from the start. But--the American political system! You were not born, according to its own self-imposed rules--you were not born a political entity. You were denied, that is spared, participation until you turned eighteen. If there is only a way--if you are only sure enough not to start, not to take on the role, not to step into it, not to accept it--if only you make the choice not to begin that way... perhaps you will not have to spend your life trying to wield the clumsy, deadly thing.

If only you refuse the role they've laid out for you, then maybe you can remain free to act with real creativity and power.

Room to Dance

This is, of course, a paraphrase of sensation and vague thoughts, but the impression was sure, solid. I felt on the edge of a precipice. If I chose to jump, to jump in to the political system as it has been designed and laid out for us, then I was resigning myself to a life of game-theory and prediction. It would mean abandoning the commitment to choice as creative participation in immediate reality, in favor of decision as abstract analysis and systemic control. As I walked through the woods, a breeze lingered along the tops of some trees and not others, shivering down cascades of golden leaves through shafts of warm sunlight. The sky--the sky was above me, infinite and open. Each leaf danced down the wind, some looping lazily in long sighs and starts, some spiraling quickly in tiny swirls of color. A few caught in branches and bushes, others scattered along the path or blanketing the low stone walls of the crisscrossing footbridges--a hundred leaves, dancing and settling gently with a hushed rustling sound. Each according to its own shape and the shape of the currents that wove through the lattice of slowly undressing tree limbs.

No, of course, it seemed very obvious now. This was nature: creative, direct participation--seasoned and strengthened, in the human condition, with self-awareness and awe--responsiveness and chaos, light and dancing. If politics is going to function, it must learn to function according to the examples set in nature. Instead, watching the falling leaves, I had the distinct impression that the current political system was more like one of those ball-and-pin games you find at the arcade--drop a marble in one of the slots at the top and watch it bounce its way down among a maze of pegs until it lands, hard and determined, in one of the walled-off slots at the bottom. A physicist might be able to calculate the possible paths among the mess of metal pins, trace the trajectories, advise you which slot along the top to choose to best ensure you win the $500 prize at the bottom. Or a statistician, perhaps, could watch enough games to predict with a reasonable amount of certainty the likelihood of each result. But in the end, despite the flashing lights and fabulous prizes, it's just a tiny marble set loose inside a box.

In order for the social ritual of election to be satisfying it must involve an intentional degree of uncertainty and risk, there must be some disjoint between action and result. So it's not that the game is rigged. It's that it is contrived, constructed, manufactured--in short, unreal. The fact that such a contrivance has very real consequences only makes it more dangerous, and more compelling, but in no way more necessary or inevitable. There is absolutely no reason why I should relinquish my immediate, creative responsiveness to my political environment, a freedom in which my actions and their results go through no artificial process of disjoint and abstraction. Should I choose to trade this away freedom for a constrictive pre-ordained role as "voter" pondering which slot to pick, which button to press, based solely on which way I hope the marble will just happen to bounce? I am not a physicist, a statistician, a sociologist, historian or political analyst, and when it comes to politics, I am certainly no gambler.

I am a Druid, a writer, perhaps a bit of an anarchist when you get right down to it. I want to dance my community action, I want to swing and spiral my participation in the ecology of Spirit and existence. What could voting possibly accomplish that cannot be more effectively and creatively done outside the box of marbles and pins, candidates and campaigns? Why let go, why agree to begin at all? What if I have a thousand other plans for these small glass globes--mosaics and mirrors and meditation--what if I want, instead, to learn to juggle?


  1. Fascinating thoughts! This is my first time here, but I'll be back.

    I especially liked the bit about people confusing external pressure with internal desire. That is advertising's main goal: to help us confuse the two!

  2. If you vote it means [a] you accept the status quo, and [b] you are handing over responsibility to others (and face it, voting is often the only conscious political act that people make). I do not accept the status quo, even here where we have viable Green candidates. Nor will I put a cross on a piece of paper and say, "It is now up to you to sort out the mess." That is both my political and spiritual stance (and they are pretty much one and the same thing). As a conscious and intelligent (yeah, really) being, I am responsible for my actions; I am responsible for ensuring that what I do brings no harm to others. I cannot allow others to make those choices for me. I live as simply as I can, I do not eat meat, I buy goods based on ethical reasons, I support organisations that get out into the world and help, locally and globally, and so on. Those are both spiritual and political choices that are, as you say, far more effective than voting once every four years.

    So, the only argument I can muster in favour of voting is if [a] you buy into the status quo and [b] you are happy for others to decide how you live.

  3. Doug & Graeme,

    And here I was braced for people to start attacking me for my anti-voting notions... I'm glad you both found the post interesting. :) Still, I kind of hope someone will try to make an argument in favor of voting. Though with the election now over, I doubt very much anyone will even bother.

  4. Well, I'm one of the converted. I gave up voting a while ago. The only reason I can see for voting now is a negative one; that is, I would vote for A if I thought it would help prevent B from winning, where B is the greater of two evils.

    I find it interesting that 36% of eligible voters in the US didn't vote (and we get a similar, often greater proportion of no voters over here). It would be interesting to see the reasons why so many are alienated from the system. Apathy probably plays a part, but how much of it is a positive protest? I would guess a large number of people do look at the whole process and think, "Not buying into that."

  5. Yeah, I mean, I think I'm just feeling alienated from a lot of people today (like one of those bad dreams when even your most trusted friends have been turned into mindless zombies)... I would like to think that positive protest plays some part in it, but somehow, I just don't think it's true. Anyway, it's not enough merely to protest--you have to take action to enact positive change in your own life, too. I know there are at least a handful of people I work with who didn't vote, but mostly because they had a very cynical view of the system as meaningless but ubiquitous, and that is the most dangerous response, I think, because it's just another way of affirming the system's power, rather than undermining it. I don't think protest or action out of anger or hopelessness is ever very effective.

    But yeah, I think I'll probably spend a lot of time today feeling marginalized and sneered at by people who would rather listen to their own self-congratulations. Like I'm always saying, I wish people could learn how to be present in the here and now. Not caught up in symbols and representations, but present to the reality of the world immediately around them. Sigh.