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?


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