Thursday, October 20, 2016

Considering Chief Wahoo

Though raised in Connecticut and New York, I've lived in Cleveland for the last sixteen years. Relocating here with my wife after grad school and starting a family, all of our children are native Clevelanders and have known no other home. While there have been many times it seemed like the Seddon family would move on to other cities, regions, or climates, we've always chosen to stay. It's a great and affordable city to raise a family, and more than that: Clevelanders, while possessing a gruff exterior, are paradoxically some of the most welcoming people in the country on a deeper level. That isn't their initial impression, though. They can come off as naturally defensive, grim, and hard bitten. They also tend to be shocked at anyone who would relocate to their city, and will question your sanity with a characteristic dark humor. But anyone who stays around Cleveland long will soon enough realize that this city is unlike many others: those who come here might not be superficially welcomed with charm, but you will be accepted as Clevelanders almost immediately. There is no real bias shown against those who weren't born here: if you've decided to throw your lot in with Cleveland, Cleveland throws its lot in with you.

One of the things I noticed was the way the city unifies around its sports teams. When I first moved here, back in 2000, I hadn't been prepared for such unanimity of sports conviction in a single geographic location. Growing up in Southern Connecticut and in the Mid-Hudson River Valley, there are no mandatory sports teams. All sports fans are presented with options: In Connecticut, you can choose to be a Yankees, Red Sox, or Mets fan. In football you choose between the Jets, Giants, and Patriots. All the other sports have similar options, and generally people tend to root along the lines of family ties. If your grandfather grew up in the Bronx, for instance, you are likely a Yankees fan. And though they don't like to mention it, some people will even shift depending upon the varying levels of success of each team. I saw a lifelong Yankees fan buy a Mets hat in 1986. I'm sure he dug out his Yankees gear again in the '90s.

Rolling into Cleveland, in the summer of 2000, I was unprepared for the unanimous support of the Tribe. Wherever I turned, the grinning face of Chief Wahoo stared excitedly back: on cars, t-shirts, caps, lawns, windows, billboards, storefronts (whether they were bars or not)--I even saw clergy wearing Indians gear; the Chief's knowing look covering all with benevolent enthusiasm. At first, I didn't know what to think. I hadn't considered the question much, but had heard the arguments that the Chief was a racist caricature, and offensive to many Native Americans. That seemed pretty cut and dry to me, and I probably uncritically accept it. Anyhow, many Native Americans are offended by the Chief, so that much is pretty easy to acknowledge. The rest of it was tougher for me sort out, and remains that way.

Homage or Racist Logo? The Original Chief Wahoo from Municipal Stadium,
now on display at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland [photo: Eric Seddon]

Before going further, let me clearly say that I neither reject nor disparage the feelings of those who consider the Chief offensive. In many ways, American cultural history is a story of ignorance, appropriation, re-purposing of cultural goods, and violence, followed by amnesia. When considering the contributions of Native Americans, this is especially true, and tragically profound. There is still a tremendous need for a more accurate cultural history of America to be written, showing the foundational importance of indigenous culture. Our music, poetry, dance, and even aspects of our national psychology are in many ways dependent upon their Native American roots. Beyond that, our Federal system of government, with its unique matrix of cross checks and balances, owes a profound debt to the Iroquois Confederacy. Furthermore, I don't believe all of our study should be of a purely historical nature. Current, living Native American culture has a lot to teach us still about the values of eschewing materialism and seeing ourselves as a more responsible and interconnected part of the natural environment. If protests against Chief Wahoo raise our awareness of people so important yet so ignored, then it is good they happen. 

Having said this, I think it's important to recognize that the Chief is part of a long tradition in white American history, not necessarily as racist as it might seem. In many ways symbols like the Chief were intended (or at least functioned as) a fight against our selective amnesia. Not all Americans of European descent have favored the horrible policies that sought to genocidally destroy those who were here before us. Each generation has had its protesters, among the some of our greatest writers, poets, and musicians. The new republic's first great man of letters, Washington Irving, wrote scathingly against the American policy of 'extermination' (as he clearly referred to it) in his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (the first international hit by an American artist). He was followed almost immediately by James Fenimore Cooper, whose portrayals of the nobility of the Delaware and Mohican Indians, while anthropologically and historically romanticized and conflated, became an impassioned and lasting cry in favor of rescuing this people from injustice, while giving them credit, in many ways, for who we are as a nation. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, likewise concerned that the valuable contribution of Native American myth was being lost due to the expansion of the United States, wrote perhaps his most enduring epic with Hiawatha. There have always been racists in America who sought to destroy this sort of art, and unfortunately they tend to have their voices too. Mark Twain was one of them, whose bigotry against Native Americans extended to hating and disparaging the art that celebrated them. His mockery of Fenimore Cooper and Longfellow was almost certainly related, and for anyone who reads them these days, clearly wrong headed. 

By the 20th century, perhaps because of guilty consciences combined with the cynicism of Twain (which always threatens to carry the day in our country), portrayals of Native Americans drifted from the heroic to the servile, to the comedic, to the caricature. Perhaps the most famous native American of the mid-20th century was Jay Silverheels, known for the role of Tonto in the Lone Ranger. It was a favorite of mine as a boy. I was drawn to this image of the Native American as loyal, brave, and humble. It was only as an adult that I realized, too, that Tonto was only allowed to be a servant, far less important than the figures of Tamenund, Uncas, or Hiawatha of the 19th century. Tonto was at least a protest against the shallow stock villian Indian of the Hollywood cowboy movie, but he wasn't what he could have been. 

I Love Lucy even took a whack at an Indian themed show, though in typical fashion, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz produced deeper art than most other comedy of the time. In it, New York Mohawks are shown to be regular New Yorkers, Lucy considered ridiculous for reading sensationalized fiction, and the musical climax, while sentimental and decidedly middle brow, was at least somewhat heartfelt and pretty. In between, Lucy stumbles clumsily through quotations of Hiawatha, the Mertzes and Ricky sing stereotypicallly about peace pipes and tomahawks, and a the very end, the recurring theme of Lucy breaking out of traditional housewife roles depicts the baby as a papoose--a double nod, perhaps, to the influence of Iroquois women on the women's suffrage movement in Seneca Falls, NY, and perhaps a looking to the future of mothers in the work force. All throughout, we sense it is a good hearted homage. It helps to remember that it was produced at the height of McCarthyism, and that Lucy had been investigated for "un-American activities." It didn't behoove her to criticize American status quo too much in those days, though she did in her own ways.   

One of the era's worst caricatures of Native Americans came from Disney's studio in 1953's Peter Pan. The original J.M. Barrie children's novel can (and probably ought to be) taken as a fantasia on a Victorian British boy's imaginative mind, and therefore probably shouldn't be held to the same standard as adult American art. The same can't be said for Disney. They should have known better. "What Makes the Red Man Red" is a disturbingly bigoted number, made worse by the use of music that couldn't have even developed without Native American foundations. It's just plain insulting. 

Enter Chief Wahoo, the current form of whom dates from 1951. We're past the advent of Tonto here, and almost simultaneous with Lucy and Peter Pan. Is he racist like the Disney version? Or an homage (if not fully adequate) like Tonto, or Lucy's "The Indian Show"?  

It would be easy, even facile, to say that because he is closer to the Disney cartoon than Jay Silverheels, he must be racist in intent. The fact is, caricatures were and are common in sports advertising, with no disparaging meant. The cartoon Baltimore Oriole isn't intended to disparage birds, and people don't name their sports teams after those they hate or look down on. To name your team after a people or group is a sign of admiration. Thus, for all the cries that a black or Jewish version of Chief Wahoo wouldn't be tolerated, there lies the sad reality that no, those noble groups of people have never been so honored by a major league franchise. That's not a strike against the Cleveland Indians name, but an unmentioned gap in the rest of our culture. A more direct parallel comes in the form of the Boston Celtics logo: an Irishman with a shalalie (that's what that "walking stick" is). This isn't offensive to any of my Boston Irish relatives, though it plays on stereotypes. The Cleveland Cavaliers likewise offer a floppy-hatted swordsman, bearing no real resemblance to the Royalist forces of the English Civil War, but not offending my English sensibilities either. The mascot and logo were chosen not for cultural or historical accuracy, but for perceived virtues of honor and loyalty. Likewise, the Chief was chosen to suggest bravery, perhaps cunning, and persistence. 

Is the logo, ultimately, among other things, an expression of ignorance? Clearly, yes. Amnesia? Maybe, though I would argue figures like the Chief, drama like "The Indian Show", and characters like Tonto kept memory alive, in a good way, when the nation was really trying to bury the past. That doesn't mean that we have to remain stuck in the 1950s regarding our imagery--we need to progress. But in the process of progressing, it behooves us to recognize the good that was attempted, though imperfectly, before our day and age. 

I began this post reflecting of the character of Clevelanders. Though it's never mentioned, I believe the inhabitants of this city feel a symbolic solidarity with Native Americans, and that's one of the reasons the name of the baseball team has endured. As Lebron James said recently, before an Indians playoff game "It's always Cleveland against the World!" Clevelanders have long endured the country's unfair jokes and scorn, and are acutely sensitive to condescension. They see themselves as downtrodden, yet resilient; proud of who and what they are; unyielding. To many Indians fans, attacking Chief Wahoo makes them dig in more: he becomes a symbol of Cleveland defiance. I'm not one who agrees with this perspective,  but it is an emotional reality. Recently, in the ALCS, a lawsuit was brought against the Cleveland Indians in Canadian court in an attempt to block them from wearing the Chief or the name "Indians" in Toronto. The case was dismissed, and the emotional result was probably not what was intended. It seems the Indians have doubled down on the Chief this post season. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole controversy isn't being used as locker room motivation. This is speculation, but such speculation is likely to continue so long as the logo remains. 

Though I have Indians gear with the Chief's smiling visage, and though I personally feel he was never intended to disparage the people who inspired his creation, I admit that it is perhaps finally time for the Chief to be fully retired. I, for one, would favor a collaborative effort (similar to the agreement between Florida State University and Seminole Nation) to come up with a noble logo that celebrates and respects Native American culture. Perhaps something can be worked out with the Seneca Nation, whose people once ruled the lands and waters of the Cuyahoga. That way we could move forward, respecting and healing the inheritance we have received.   


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Conscientious Objection Part 6: Pro Wrestling Style Politics

I haven't watched pro wrestling since the mid-80s (back when it was still called the WWF, rather than the WWE), but even a 12-year-old could tell the outcome was predetermined, and the media emotion covering it was more or less scripted--the moral indignation was contrived,  inconsistent, and superficial. That the script was just about the same every Saturday morning made it predictable enough to watch with glee rather than horror. Psychologically, one might like to fantasize about hitting someone with a metal chair (though it's not good to do), but it's always nicer to know that, in movies and pro wrestling, it isn't actually real: such is the cathartic effect of drama. The catharsis, however, only works if it isn't real.

Our election script feels disturbingly similar this year, and because it is being portrayed as reality, isn't cathartic at all.

We're given a cartoonish, exaggerated villain who makes scary and dangerous runs at achieving his nefarious goals. Various morally compromising revelations are made against our hero (or heroine), who must battle back against all odds (though none of us really think the odds are against them), and we have the predictable turning point. A great deal of WWF coverage back then was devoted to pre- and post match hype, consisting of blustered recriminations and self-adulation. The verbal 'debates' between bouts were so idiotic, either side could claim victory (and both did). The same holds true here: winners of the 'debates' are declared by the media, often in contradiction even to the third rate bluster we've just witnessed. The polls read whatever the pollsters want us to read, and the political analysis seems so shallow, unrealistic, self-referencing and narcissistic that I'm honestly no longer sure our votes even really count--and I think we should seriously start questioning it.

This year gets odder the farther we go: the country feels to me like the Poughkeepsie Civic Center circa 1984. It's Hulk Hogan vs. Rowdy Roddy Piper. Hulk is the "good guy" because even though he used to be a "bad guy" he's actually a "good guy" now (and that's all the moral reasoning we're gonna ask for or get). Rowdy Roddy is bad because, well listen to him! He's all nasty! Of course Hulk is nasty too, but that's cuz he has to be! He's fighting Rowdy Roddy Piper! But don't worry folks, we all know who's gonna win in the end. This was just to get your blood pumping and make sure you're committed to the action.

The question for the electorate: Was the WWF of the '80s a prophetic work of performance art, warning us of the political climate to come? Or was it just a useful template for the parties?

I once ran into an ad man, brought in to help a friend's business start up. He said that, once upon a time, advertising used to be naive: they would acknowledge that the competition offered a decent product too, and that the customer actually had a choice between goods. The ad man felt this wasted time and endangered the attention of the customer. An improvement, in his eyes, was when a pivot occurred to "good vs. evil" in marketing. The genius of our current marketing trends, he concluded, was we've finally reached the ultimate in advertising, with one last innovation: successful companies have made advertising have the emotional effect of "evil vs. evil", and that marketing your business as the stronger evil, you can really get them hooked, with no rational arguments needed. (Think about that next time you watch a car commercial).

Interestingly enough, the pro-wrestling world seems to have morphed over these lines since I was a kid. So have our politics.

To choose the lesser evil is still to choose evil. In fact it's to participate in evil. It's a no win situation.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Poetics of Militarism

Military recruitment videos aren't the place anyone goes to experience art that plumbs the depths of the human soul or speaks profound truths to our historical situation, so subjecting them to poetic analysis can seem excessive to the ordinary American, who has been trained to think of poetics as an elitist luxury rather then a central necessity of life. But one of the goals of this blog from its inception has been to argue for greater poetic literacy. Without understanding the poetic function, which is inherent to all human beings and a necessary capacity we must all develop, we are easily manipulated and used. That our current educational system is hyper-oriented towards STEM training while virtually ignoring poetics, rhetoric, music, philosophy, and art is not only alarming in the sense that our current generation won't be "well rounded" as people: it's more directly a threat to their freedom, in that they will be completely ignorant to the very real powers of propaganda, persuasion, and coercion that are common practice in this world. Without poetic analysis, we are left at the mercy of rhetoric we can neither decipher nor effectively oppose. We are left adept at manipulating gadgets, but incompetent to reasonably dismantle obvious rhetorical lies.

The following U.S. Army recruitment videos, currently airing, serve as good examples of creeping militarism in advertising. They were launched in 2015, but I recently saw them pop up when surfing YouTube, and was shocked by their message. As works of recruitment propaganda, they are well executed. Stylishly filmed, they deftly blend a sense of epic majesty with the personal and heartwarming, and extend that to even the technical. Entitled "Narrative 1", "Narrative 2", and "Narrative 3", they work as a progression of thought. The music is patterned off of what is by now a well known cliche--majestic, open voiced orchestral music, with a reflective,  resolved, 'patriotic' sounding brass motif, culminating in a figure reminiscent of John Williams's Olympic Fanfare. This type of music is a staple of every Hollywood war film, generally used at a 'reflective heroic' moment in the plot. [note: for a more detailed discussion of the music, composed by Hollywood composer Mark Isham, read Jordan Newman's "Sounding Military Identity through US and Canadian Recruiting Videos." Ethnomusicology Review, Vol 18 (2013)].  It's worth pointing out that what we view as drama these days is mostly what people of past eras would have called "melodrama"--drama which is so thin as to need musical support for the emotions expressed on stage. In most of the films we consider classic, melodrama plays an important role. Remove the soundtracks from them, and witness how empty the dialogue and acting actually are. Once upon a time, this was understood. Now, more often than not, people uncritically accept the emotional experience, thinking the plot, acting, or camerawork was actually profound, when it would have failed without the extra boost given by the music. Musical ignorance ends up dumbing down a nation emotionally and cognitively.

This digression aside, these recruitment ads would fall flat without the music, and without the skillful montages depicting a little girl rescued, and attractive intelligent young recruits hard at work. Those are so skillfully weaved, that one barely notices the shocking message of the words.

The words themselves are carefully shaped little poems, using techniques well worn by American poets and script writers. In them we hear similarities to Whitman, Sandburg, and even Pinsky.

"Narrative 1" begins with a strong 'call and response' style opening:

The challenges facing the country never stop. 
So neither does the US Army.

This is followed by rhythmic listing, in threes, similar in cadence to Whitman:

We train, adapt, and get smarter. 
Every soldier, every unit, every day. 

And as so often with Whitman, there is a rhythmic pivot to emphasize the next, crucial line:

Not to keep up with change, but to drive it.

This is the shocking line of the ad. In the history of the U.S. Military, there have been many technological breakthroughs, it is true--and this ad emphasizes that with the imagery flashing before our eyes.  But the language is nebulous and elemental. "Not to keep up with change, but to drive it" doesn't imply technology or even military tactical theory but, especially in our recent political climate, something more like progressive campaign rhetoric. Now I don't wish to be misunderstood: there is nothing inherently wrong with people wanting change. But to suggest that it's appropriate for the military to drive it is very dangerous. The military's basic mission must be to protect and to serve. It cannot espouse a role of driving change without being in some ways antithetical to a free society.

The ad ends by retreating, quickly, from this point, and pivoting in message altogether:

Nobody knows what problems tomorrow will bring. 
But we do know who will solve them.

There is, of course, a logical inconsistency here. If the Army is going to drive change, someone in the Army will, at least in some ways, be able to predict at least some of the problems of tomorrow. There is a misdirection here that is not altogether honest or comforting.

"Narrative 2" dangerously suggests that the Army is the underpinning, rather than the defense, of the nation. It is arguably the tightest poem of the three videos, in many ways. It's three sentences, interlocked by subtle rhyme if not by reason, mask the jaggedness of the message:

Before there could be a nation
there had to be people willing to fight for it:
to take on the world's greatest challenges
whatever they might be.
So the US Army masters not only tactics and strategy
but also physics and chemistry
we make battle plans and create breakthroughs 
in medicine, science, and engineering. 
Our next mission could be anything
so we prepare for everything. 

Note the rhymes linking "be...strategy...chemistry" and at the end, the rhythmic surety of the last three lines, with their resolved sounding, identical suffixes: "engineering....anything....everything." That these devices interlock over various ideas gives the text a sense of cohesion that it doesn't actually have, logically. Rhetoric, which in many ways is the application of poetic diction to ideas, can sway our opinions without making rational sense. This ad isn't necessarily that bad (it can be read, as all poetry, in multiple ways), but it makes certain emphases that are not carefully separated from dangerous ideas--and should be in a U.S. Army recruitment video.   

The "Narrative 3" text reads (and sounds) like it might have been alternate dialogue for a less temperamental Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men--at least in some lines. The voice-over artist even delivers the first very similarly in contour to Jack Nicholson.

When it's your job to protect the world's greatest nation,
it's your responsibility to solve the world's greatest challenges.
This is why we search for the best and brightest,
why we train for every eventuality;
on land, in water, in the air, space, and even cyberspace.
We operate in a complex world, with one simple mission:

In a very short window, this ad manages to flatter both the nation and the recruit, pivot to brag about the Army, then acknowledge the world's complexity only to immediately oversimplify to one, basic idea, framed outside of any ethical structure: to Win. If "Narrative 1" sounded like current left wing political rhetoric, this sounds like current right wing political rhetoric: to Win, unreflectively, at all costs. 

American society has been force fed the notion, enshrined in Vince Lombardi's insane dictum "Winning is everything, it's the only thing" for several generations now. In many ways, this saying has supplanted the common and more ethical, older American proverb "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." This final U.S. Army "Narrative" washes away any notion of ethical or moral concerns. Duty and honor are not discussed. Change and Winning are the goals, supported by the notion expressed in the middle video that the Army is the basis of the country; that the country--then and now--owes its existence to the Army. 

These videos are markedly different from the recruitment ads of the 1980s; the "Be All You Can Be" campaigns which emphasized self-improvement (socially, educationally, and financially) through Army service. Those tended to offer the Army as an advancement program: the recruit would help themselves while serving a worthy cause. That's not what these ads are. I believe they are creeping militarism.

We shouldn't expect that military recruitment videos be great works of art. But we should take seriously the poetic devices they use, what they suggest, and whether their "narrative" is true and healthy to the nation they ought to serve.    

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Conscientious Objection Part 5: Presidential "Debates"

Each election cycle there is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing from the media and intelligentsia that the election process,  and the country at large,  has been "dumbed down" to a dangerous degree. There is always a nostalgic sense that elections from just a few cycles back featured more intellectually capable candidates, or more substantive debates. Perhaps these guardians of the American Intellect have been around long enough to remember the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but frankly, I don't know if any disinterested observer of any intelligence would conclude that our televised presidential debates of the past several generations were won by 'substantive' arguments. They are more geared to photo-op style entertainment, and victory relies more upon posture, catch-phrases, and spin than upon serious issues of political philosophy, ethics, or morality. In actual substance, both parties resemble each other more closely than is generally observed. No matter who is president, we will continue a path of global economic expansion, social decadence, and militarism. The big differences will only be who gets the most power and profit. As Bill Clinton once (too accurately) mocked George W. Bush in the 2000 election, the debate seems more over whose fraternity will get control than serious issues.

If anyone doubts this, consider the presidential debates since 1980. Does anyone remember anything substantive about any of them? Let's consider who 'won' the debates and why, just based upon generally accepted popular memory.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan scored a rhetorical victory, showing no profound political or philosophical depth, by muttering "There you go again." It was without substance, but 'won' the debate.

In 1984, Reagan once again routed his opponent by not holding his opponent's 'youth and inexperience' against him.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush told the lie America wanted to hear about taxes.

In 1992, Bush was foolish enough to check his watch (for some reason it's difficult to find a YouTube link for this), and Bill Clinton felt our pain.

In 1996, Bob Dole couldn't convince "Soccer moms" that he knew who they were, while telling them he cared about their vote.

In 2000, Al Gore failed to intimidate George W. Bush, play-ground style. This major faux pas was enough to convince America that Bush had won the debate, it seems.

It's hard to imagine a series of debates more focus-group tested and safely played than 2004. The major concern of both candidates seemed to be to avoid 'gaffs' or faux pas. They succeeded so well that none of us remember much of anything at all about them.

In 2008, Barack Obama sidestepped issues of human rights, science, and anthropology by saying they were above his pay grade.  That was good enough for the electorate!

In 2012, Mitt Romney revealed his strategy for women voters: binders of women!

In 2016, Donald Trump is attempting the Jerry Springer style, and Hillary Clinton is taking no risks of substance.    

People of America, these are not real debates. We should demand more, but if social media is to be believed, we actually ask for even less. These are media spectacles; shallow popularity contests. And because they are run by the major parties, who insist on the format of the debates, and ensure no real challenging issues or actual point by point follow ups, we will continue this until the electorate refuses to participate.

Ultimately, our 'debates' are merely another chance for candidates to tell the public why their plan to make us richer and destroy our enemies surpasses their opponent's plan, which is inevitably dedicated to those same goals. The goals themselves are never seriously challenged, and the electorate seems not to care. Contrary to this, I personally believe the electorate does care, but are funneled to these goals throughout the entire election process. We keep choosing the 'lesser of two evils' all the way to the endgame of our ethical dilemmas being all but completely ignored by the time of the general election. And we accept this outcome cycle after cycle. The end result is informative: we are the most powerful and richest nation in the history of the world, and yet this is what we're discussing. Shouldn't we be more reflective and responsible than this?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Conscientious Objection Part 4: Foolish American Proverbs

The respectable man...adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving he is himself available for any purpose of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of the unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought. 

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

If you don't vote, you're a part of the problem and You have no right to complain about our government if you refuse to vote are two foolish proverbs, that have been predictably leveled at me over the last several weeks. As someone who has voted in every presidential election since my coming of age (dating back to 1992), and nearly every local election as well, I can't be accused of apathy to the voting process, and confess that I am by this point immune from such nonsense, but surprised by how such phrases are uncritically thrown around, and how many otherwise intelligent people accept them without scrutiny. These proverbs are uttered constantly, every election cycle and in between, but I have yet to meet the person who, having once said them, can defend them.

Taking the Second Foolish Proverb first, let's do something radical. Let's actually consider whether it's reasonable to assert that a citizen has no right to complain about the government without participating in the voting process. 

On a purely legal level, of course, the proverb isn't true. The first amendment guarantees our right to complain, whether we vote or not. Because of this, my firm belief is that, if I'm found railing against our system of government on this blog come Wednesday November 9th (a likely bet), no jackbooted goons will break down my door and take me away. This is admirable, and says something positive about our system to this point. It also shows that our proverb is wrong on a concrete level. But what about the other implications? Suppose I concede the proverb actually means that, reasonably speaking, one who disengages from voting is forfeiting their chance to effect the system. Is that also true? What does history say?

As usual, the history of slavery and women's suffrage are instructive in separating Mythical America from Real America. Is there any serious student of American history who would suggest that the opinions and actions of all women and most black Americans prior to their political enfranchisement were useless, ineffectual, and without justification? Would we seriously suggest that Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe had no right to complain, as they had no right to vote? And would we dare to suggest that these two monumentally influential women had no effect on the nation because they didn't participate in the voting process? Is the sum total of our political life the casting of a vote? Or does it entail much more than that? On a deeper level, is to be an American really only about casting a vote once every four years? I raise these questions merely to demonstrate that the proposition is ludicrous. Not only do I hold that their opinions mattered, and were of political importance surpassing many of the thousands who actually voted, I believe that the opinions of others in the world beyond the United States mattered then, and matter now,  to our political situation. Voting isn't necessarily the summit of political activity for the average citizen, and it surely isn't the only legitimate activity.

Beyond this, my contention since this past July 4th has been that the two parties in America have throttled the people and our process with immoral and corrupt choices. It is emphatically not by playing along with their system that we make a positive political contribution, but by withholding our participation in outspoken, meaningful, creative, and constructive ways. Once again, it is essential to realize and embrace the fact that politics lies beyond mere voting: it is about voices in the public square, at town meetings, opinions being freely shared through any and all means, and putting pressure on our political leaders to actually embody the values we hold, independently of their coercion and manipulation. Voting is only the final stage of ratifying chosen power, and only has legitimacy (in a democracy) if there is a willingness of the electorate to participate at high levels.
Consider for a moment if our drinking choices were as limited as our political choices. Imagine a country where only Coke or Pepsi were ultimately available. If you ask for root beer you are told "Well, Barq's is owned by Coca Cola, so you get Coke by asking for root beer." You insist that you'd rather have root beer, only to be told that asking for root beer means you must really ask for Coke, because the two big soft drink companies who own all the drinks in the nation have decided to stream line their businesses (similarly, if you wanted Gatorade, you'd be told to request Pepsi). Imagine you get more irate, and demand a root beer. The waitress then brings you a Pepsi--your penalty for not even asking for Coke. This is our political system, and its range of choices.

Americans, who would be outraged with such a  soft drink policy, are yet so pre-conditioned to accept whatever their political system tells them, they won't even question this very scenario when their vote yields the same result. Yet instead of the stakes being the cravings of our taste buds, they are related to wars around the globe, public welfare and safety, and the future of our children.

All of this leads us back to our First Foolish Proverb: If you don't vote, you're part of the problem. If ever there was a false proverb in our current situation, this is it. The people who vote, especially those who can't stand either Coke and Pepsi but go along with it anyway, are the real problem. By not demanding a change, and by a refusal to withhold their consent, they perpetuate the system.

No sane American would say that unless you are willing to be coerced, lied to, and abused, you have no right to speak out against coercion, lies, and abuse. No sane person would suggest that unless you play along with coercion, lies, and abuse, you are a part of the problem. But that's what our foolish political proverbs say, and they are repeated uncritically by voters and leaders each election. Why would we accept as a matter of government what we wouldn't accept from any other aspect of our lives?