Well in kind of an odd coincidence, I am currently in Shanghai and doing a master's program while teaching here. I also have a few friends who have just finished teaching at the school where eien_meru is going. Small world.
One of my good friends from the program just left yesterday to go back to Boston and as a going away present, I made him a book with a little plane reading. He's a pretty politically minded guy, so I figured I would give him some political tomfoolery to read in case he ended up sitting next to someone really boring on the plane. What follows is kind of a spectacularly boring play, that covers up what would otherwise be a boring essay on democracy. But it was pretty long and I spend a decent amount of time on it, so I figured I would share it with the group.
As a disclaimer...it's pretty long.
Brad and Sam are driving around New York City in a beat up 97’ Saturn.
Sam: It’s a farce Brad. The greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the western world. We wrapped it in all this great packaging, and coated it in these honeyed magnanimous phrases but in the end it’s just another entirely clever, dastardly way for the few to control the many. How much has voting ever changed anything, the parties, all TWO of them, are like chameleons anyway. They change their skin and their values whenever they feel it represents the best way to get elected. Politicians are so afraid of the shadow of that voting lever that they’ll castrate every value they have in order to appeal to the masses with promises they never intend to keep, while they owe favors to fewer and fewer more powerful people that have to be repaid before they can even remember what is was they got to the office to change anyway. You read Freakonomics right?
Brad: Yeah Sam, I read it.
Sam: Well then you remember the little anecdote about the economists meeting at the voting booth, both ashamed their wives made them go. Do you remember why they felt that way?
Brad: Umm, something about…
Sam: Mathematics, statistics, pure unbiased, apolitical proof that voting is completely useless. They said that statistically a single vote is almost completely meaningless, so economists by a mark of their trade, like a scarlet protractor or something, never vote, in any election, ever.
Brad: Yeah, one vote may not matter, but what if everybody started thinking that way, are you saying that everyone’s vote doesn’t matter? That’s ridiculous.
Sam: What have I been saying the whole time, the whole system is ridiculous, you’re choosing a sum total of lies told so that a single man, or maybe woman gets to live the messianic dream of ultimate power they’ve been nursing through their heads through all the years they’ve been playing and winning the political game. Hell, if they do it right, maybe somebody will put their head on the nickel! How’s that for a legacy, a swathe of war corpses, broken promises and a badly drawn silver portrait on a coin?
Brad: Come on, enough of the bla,bla,bla – tell me something meaningful, tell me about how to change the things you and all the other liberal bashers complain about. Where’s the solution? The founding fathers-
Sam: Oooh, here it comes, the founding fathers?! A bunch of spoiled aristocrats who thought they were far enough away that they didn’t have to pay taxes anymore. The founding fathers were like spoiled suburban kids gone away to college who didn’t want to take their parents calls anymore because all they could really talk about were the bars they went to and the dorm mates they were sloppily creeping to at 3 AM. They were like adolescent children stealing away from their parents and hoping their false freedom from familial expectations and responsibility was as real outside of their new bubble as it was within. And then what did they do, they paid the poor farmers to take up arms against the British and the only battles they won were the ones the French came to help them with. It’s like getting a sober uncle to argue with your drunken parents at a Christmas party gone horribly wrong.
Brad: Haha, alright, but that doesn’t make it true. They were great men with a vision, and who changed things for the better, if they had just sat around in the colonies doing what you’re doing now, nothing would have ever changed.
Sam: My friend we don’t laugh at lies, because the powerful ones frighten the hell out of us. Yes, they did indeed do something. And kept doing something, they chased natives across the country in trails of tears. They called it manifest destiny. I’ll give you the constitution, wonderful document, except that it laid the groundwork for this incredibly powerful nation, made up of states first and a country later an incredibly powerful central government which to this day acts as if its completely unaccountable to the people this country was supposedly built by the founding fathers…Well I digress, it was dreamt up by the founding fathers, we had slaves build it, but anyway, the people have been left by the wayside. Now people are just left to spend and pay their taxes and buy bigger houses and leave the real problems up to the adults that they voted for.
Brad: Back to the beginning, that’s why we vote in the first place, so that the politicians who don’t live up to their word are moved out of office and a fresh one put in their place to hopefully improve.
Sam: What do you think of the congress?
Brad: What do you mean?
Sam: How is the congress doing these days, or any days, write laws, pass laws, legislate, you know how are they doing their job?
Brad: Probably not so well I would think. The domestic policies are pretty much in shambles.
Sam: Congress, both branches, have over a 90% re-election rate, and that’s being conservative, in the House it’s higher than that. Does that sound like we are doing a good job of shuffling these ineffective leaders around? It’s a fucking joke. The only thing voting has ever been good is assuaging our conscience that there is a system in place that we have some kind of control over. That as citizens our voices and our actions have some meaningful outcome in shaping the forces greater than ourselves. Why do you think a voting booth so resembles a confessional, where a priest would whisper sweet nothings and tell us that it’s ok son, you are forgiven, even though you’ve sinned, you will go to heaven. A voting booth is the place we go to privately tell ourselves, we’re doing the right thing, whatever the country has done wrong, and I’m a part of that country, I’m putting it right now, I’m making my voice heard, my morality, my ideas, all channeled through sliding a machine over to Democrat or Republican.
Sam: Alright, pull the car over.
The car stops at a corner and three kids are sitting on a bench by the side of the road. They look comfortably grungy and anti-establishment.
Sam: Hey! Are you guys voting tomorrow?
Slacker: Nah, who gives a shit.
Sam: Who gives a shit!? How old are you guys?
Hipster: I’m 20, he’s 22, and kiddo over there’s 19.
Sam: Alright get in the car I wanna talk to you guys.
Slacker: Fuck you man, we’re not getting in your car.
Sam: Alright listen, give me ten minutes of your time and I’ll buy you Wendy’s. How’s that sound, we’ll drive over to a Wendy’s and then we’ll drop you guys back here. Ok?
They get in the backseat.
Sam: Alright go down the street and make your third left. Now, are you guys even registered to vote?
A chorus of no’s
Sam: Well here’s the deal, because you guys aren’t going to vote the government is going to continue to slowly take away all the things we do actually care about, because everybody under 30 takes all of the things they love for granted. Your old enough to remember when the radio played good music right?
Hipster: Yeah, but it’s all the same shit now.
College Freshman: Yeah, it’s all the same ten pop songs over and over again.
Sam: Do you know why the radio sucks now?
Slacker: Because everyone bought IPODS and the radio wasn’t making money anymore.
Sam: Well in a way that’s true, and in a way that’s horribly wrong. No, the radio sucks now because in 1996 Congress passed a telecommunications act that allowed two broadcasting companies to buy a huge majority of all radio stations in the United States, and nobody who actually listened to music, or cared about music said a damn thing about it, or voted against those people in the next election. One congressional bill, destroyed variety of music on the radio forever.
Sam: Alright you guys download shit on the internet, like everything you own is stolen right?
Slacker: Yeah man, of course. What the hell does that have to do with voting for some lying sack of shit?
Sam: Because those lying sacks of shit take their positions based on who they think is going to vote for them. You think any of us are going to enjoy freedom on the internet forever. Freedom scares the government, the whole purpose of the government is to gain more control over everything that happens in this country. You think internet freedom is a right? The only reason we can get away with half the shit we do online is because for a decade the congressmen were too old and out of date to realize how big, powerful, and important the internet was. But they figured it out now, and they are going to keep trying to legislate it. Internet freedom is a privilege that a very small group of people are fighting for, and a large group of companies who are losing money are trying to end. If all of us stop paying attention in ten years hackers are going to be the only people who can even find a picture of a naked woman, let alone download a movie or album. Your internet rights will slip away and you’ll have nothing to say about it. It’ll be just like the radio. And the only party that even mentions internet freedom is the Green Party, you know that old dude Ralph Nader. If you care about the internet you should check out his website and see what he says about it. The other candidates don’t say anything, which means whatever the corporations think is what they think.
Hipster: Yeah, but what’s the point, Ralph Nader is never gonna fucking win man.
Sam: You’re right, he’s not going to win, but if all you grungy assholes got your act together and he picked up enough votes. Even enough to swing one state so that the major politicians have to wonder what would have happened if he didn’t run, then those politicians will start to incorporate his ideas into their own to pick up your votes. That’s the fucking point.
Sam: It’s the same way environmentalism works, if the three of you decided to turn all your lights off and go shopping with a backpack every time you had to buy something, it wouldn’t change anything. If everyone in the city made sure to turn one or two lights off a half hour earlier a day, and nobody used plastic bags anymore, there’s a huge return on energy and waste. If everyone does the simple things, small, meaningless changes snowball into real world returns, like a 10% energy reduction across the board. It doesn’t matter what I say, or you say, it matters what we do, people don’t follow words they follow actions. If I just stopped the car and yelled “Go Vote,” before the light went green, none of you would have changed anything. So I took action, I dragged you over here and, “Brad take a left here,” now I think there’s a very good change you gentlemen might change your minds about something.
College Freshman: Yeah, I don’t know about that.
Sam: Well, here we are. Brad stop the car.
Slacker: Dude, this isn’t Wendy’s.
Sam: No it isn’t. This is a voter registration station. So gentlemen, I will leave you with 5 bucks each for the Wendy’s and ask only in return that you go into that depressingly empty building with no line for five minutes and then go back for five minutes the next day and vote. I’d be even happier if you did some reading tonight and voted for something you care about. Listen man, none of us are going to change the world with a vote, it’s impossible. But if none of us believe that all of those votes aren’t telling the people in power something, and people decide its better not to vote and complain, then the people we elect are never going to listen to your complaints anyway. So do me a favor, go in there and register, go to your polling station tomorrow and vote, because if you don’t and I don’t and nobody else does, there is going to be a time when none of us, none, are going to be able to turn on our computers and download free porn. What are our children going to do? Their all going to actually have sex every time they want to get off, and because you didn’t vote today the chances of your first son or daughter getting some super Ebola/Sars/Chlamydia are gonna go up at least 1,000%. Alright now get out of the car.
The three youths exit the car and walk rather cheerfully into the registration building, each one looks back to the car at a different time during the walk. They talk amongst themselves, not loud enough for the men in the car to hear.
Brad: You’re a piece of work you know that?
Sam: What?! I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Brad: You sat here trying to convince me of how useless voting was for twenty minutes, badly, I might add, and then you turn around and sing the praises of the Democratic process to three random guys and then bring them to a voter registration booth?
Sam: Because my dear Brad, those of us who have blind faith, or barring blind faith any faith at all, need to make sure that that faith is questioned from time to time. Because my friend, I stand by my earlier arguments, those three extra votes are still meaningless. The process will still elect a product of corporate investment and nothing will change. The system of voting is broken, maybe it always was, maybe it always will be.
Brad: Then why bother? Why are you spending time, and money, to get three votes that don’t matter?
Sam: Because my friend, those with no faith, no desire to participate are like parasites, those who only complain and never act are no better for our system then those who tow the party line election after election. Those three needed somebody to make them care, at least a little about how the country that acts in their name, and supposedly for their best interests runs. And because Democracy has never been about voting, voting is simply a byproduct of the most important facet of the system. I will yield this though: voting does have a symbolic, psychological importance. It gives a person a sense of ownership over the process. People who vote feel like they are part of the system, and may be more likely to do something when the person they voted for doesn’t live up to their promises. And if those punks are lucky enough to find some redeeming quality in a candidate and votes for the person that wins, then they’ll have plenty of argumentative ammo to fire back at the obligatory drunk uncle at that oh so American Christmas party gone wrong when he rails about how useless the non-voting youth of America. They can say, “Fuck you Uncle Brad – I voted for him.” Which is a start I suppose.
Brad: Alright, alright, if democracy isn’t about voting, what is it about?
Sam: It is not that people vote that makes Democracy effective, it is that people care. The country was founded, by those men you idolize so, on the principle that the government was of the people, for the people, and…well you know all that ideological bullshit better than I do. The point is that people that care about the laws our congress passes and the actions our executive branch takes are a truly democratic population. A population that cares will question, will write, will protest, will hopefully run for office themselves. But our population doesn’t particular care. We’ve been told countless times that the most important duty of an American, of a creature of a Democracy is to vote. So people, some people, go to the booths, pull a lever and forget about politics and government until the media frenzy approaching the next election. If anything voting is the least important duty of a democratic citizen when we don’t believe in either of our choices. For the government to be democratic, the people have to have a say in WHAT the government does, not just WHO is in the government. Voting is something that we do to fill the chambers and halls of government, but for a country to be truly democratic, all of its citizens have to be in some part political creatures. We’ve done a very good job of crafting a society that spends all of its time avoiding politics, avoiding the decisions of government, and avoiding the duty of being part of the government. Our politicians are supposed to be public servants, but we haven’t given them any orders, we haven’t given them a purpose to serve, so they make their own purposes.
Brad: So how do we make people care?
Sam: That is the question my friend isn’t it. So now I’m gonna drive, and you can try to change the world one slacker at a time.
Brad: Alright, take a right at the light.