Voting and Vigilance: Politics are a Pain in the Ass

Why can’t they just leave me alone?

As another election nears, my mailbox has been the site of a ravaged rainforest: for two months, candidates from both main parties have bombarded me with several flyers a day.  I used to look forward to getting the mail.  There’d be the magazine my friend bought me as a gift.  Or a letter from a great-aunt.  A thank you note.  Even bills were cherished because they showed progress in paying down debt. 

But since the end of August?  All I’ve gotten were flyers.  Flyers with words written in bold so I can understand just how serious and important the candidate is.  Or flyers with words written in italics so I would feel rushed and emotional by the time I got to the end of the sentence so that I just had to believe what the candidate was saying!!!  Or flyers with creative word choices: why say “Senator Smith voted against the Bill,” when “Senator Smith raped the American public,” has much more punch?

I could easily toss the flyers into the recycling bin.  I don’t.  I get a perverse sense of satisfaction sending those Republicans and Democrats through my paper shredder.  Shredding through the bullshit.  Shredding those false words so they lose their power.  Only then do I put them in the recycling bin hoping that those words will finally be rebuilt into something useful…like a credit card statement.

At one time, when the world seemed black and white and I hung myself many times on my own idealism, those flyers would have had me throwing my fist in the air.  My heart would pump with adrenalin not my own.  My mind would yell, My God, we have to do something about this!  And if no one believed the anguish spoken from my lips, the eyes twisted in disbelief, the nose reddened as tears welled, I felt personally crushed.  Forgive them God, for they know not how stupid they’re being.  And so it would go until The! Next! Big! Issue! provided another distraction.

But in college, I was given a gift.  I took a Communications course and my professor showed me how to think critically.  One of the hardest things I had to do was look at a picture of a toddler in an advertisement asking for money to feed poor children.  The girl was beautiful, heartbreaking really, with large brown eyes looking up at the camera.  Dirt smudged her face.  Mouth slack because the burdens in her young life would never allow her to smile.  Dressed in a dirty shawl reminiscent of Argentina, she clutched her hands together in pain.  I was ready to write a check. 

Then I looked closer.  The lighting used was clever.  It cast a shadow onto cheeks that were actually full and well-fed.  The bit of dirt on her face was no greater than what any other toddler would end up with after a day of exploring.  Her hair was clean and shiny.  She probably had a bath that morning.  The lack of a smile suddenly became the sullen look that any two-year old would wear after having to pose for a photo.  The backdrop was generic.  She didn’t stand in front of a mud hut but in a muddied image.  Years before Photoshop, this was a manipulated photo. 

Or was it?  It could be read either way.  And while there are poor children who need desperate help and excellent organizations that help them, after releasing my initial emotional impression, I wasn’t sure if this was a poor child or the organization asking on her behalf was legitimate.  Not being sure meant I had learned a valuable lesson: vigilance.  If I wanted to send money to this charity, I had a lot more research to do.  How much of my donation would go to feeding poor children and how much to advertising or income?  What was the track record of the organization?  With whom or with what was the organization affiliated?  Was there a condition for receiving help, such as conversion to a specific religion or sterilization?  Just what, exactly, would my money be buying?  

That’s a lot of work.  Wouldn’t it have just been easier to send in my twenty bucks and smooth over my sense of Western middle class guilt, just in case the little girl really was poverty-stricken and the charity really would help her?  Sure, it would have been easier.  And that’s the problem with vigilance: it takes time to get to the truth.  Politicians, the media and anyone with a bit of market savvy know this and they exploit it, pleased with themselves for pulling one over on a “dumb American public.” 

Americans aren’t dumb by any means, despite what conservatives and liberals throw at each other, despite what is emphasized in our media.  What we are is overworked and afraid to our cores.  A decade of terrorism, sending our youth to fight in two ill-advised wars, the aftermath of a hurricane and the loss of jobs, insurance and homes will do that to a nation.  We are terrified, just waiting for the other goddamn shoe to drop.  And when we come home, exhausted and chastened and stuck in fear, there is some politician or some newsreader on the television gleefully willing to manipulate us.  Just to feel alive again, just to feel some semblance of control in this out-of-control decade, we jump into the mouth of the bear.  Issues that are small and unimportant are suddenly infused with Great Drama…and what is most important, is relegated to the back page, to the last five seconds of a news broadcast.  We fall for it every moment of every day because being vigilant, getting to the truth, is too much to ask of us.  We’re tired, damn it.  How can you ask us to track down the source of a story or to search out the context of a quote or to give more than five seconds of attention to an important issue?  We’re tired.  We’re sick of it.  And fuck it, it’s just easier.  Why ask this of us when after a decade of hell, we’re barely standing upright?

Because what will save us, individually and together as a nation, is that last push.  Just when we are overworked and overburdened, we are required to work even harder.  Smarter.  How much time do we spend on our Facebook pages or watching vapid reality shows?  Sure, they have their place; they’re a great distraction.  But why not take half that time in search of the truth?  Take that time to monitor our reactions: are we getting the full story or are we raising our fists in the air, our hearts pumping with adrenalin not our own, disbelieving that other Americans, those Americans, could possibly be so stupid?  Take that time to look into the souls of people: I know liberals who are the biggest bullies on the planet and conservatives who are the most generous; I know Republicans one step away from wearing a white hood and Democrats who are rebuilding communities.  On either side of the divide, there are good people and exploitive ones.

Most importantly, we need to take a look within: why would we, just because we are tired and afraid, hand our happiness and well-being to someone else’s agenda?  Why wouldn’t we honor ourselves by taking the time to discover the truth about all things?  Aren’t we worth that much?  What have we got to lose except divisiveness, anger and fear?  This isn’t a utopian wish, a Pollyanna-ish fantasy or even a call-to-arms.  It’s just the truth: if we, as individuals, do not take the time or put in the effort to always seek out the truth, to step back from our emotions and egos and view the people and issues before us with new and pragmatic eyes, then as a nation, we will continue to stagnate.  Stagnation is a hell of an opportunity: on one side, if we’re vigilant, we can grow up and step out from the swamp; on the other, we can be sucked in until all life is extinguished.  It’s our choice.

Then again, what do I know?  These are just my words.  Find your own.  But for your own sake, be vigilant…it’s better than being ravaged in the swamp.

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