Friday, April 22, 2011

The Politics of Walking Down the Street

  Politics have always fascinated me on a number of levels. The spectacle of the debates between pundits and politicians, complete with strategic maneuvering, absurd blunders, and at times genuine emotion, is something I often marvel at. And the ideologies and policies themselves, offer an endless source of interconnected questions and ideas to work through. The issues, like one great ball of twine, are hopelessly tangled. Each bit of string originating from a source deep inside the ball and incredibly difficult to discern, and then disappearing again, heading off in a direction that is quickly obscured by all of the other bits of string that will inevitably cross its path. Ideologies, in their most pure and honest form, seek to work through that entanglement with intellect and compassion, in hopes of discovering and then actualizing the best within us. At their most dishonest and nefarious, they seek to manipulate fears in order to empower the few at the expense of many. But perhaps the most fascinating facet of politics to me, is the political activity on the ground level. The perceptions, opinions, and passions of the everyday people that are not a part of the news media, the government, or the lobbying sector, are as varied as their methods of expressing them. And those political views reflect far more than the platforms of any party. They reflect our perception of ourselves as individual human beings, and as members of society as a whole. 

  Political activity in the day to day lives of the masses, takes on countless forms. Some of the more obvious forms include getting news from television, radio, and the internet. We also talk politics with friends and family. And occasionally we even vote. What may be less obvious, is the political aspect of our roles as consumers, workers, commuters, students, parents, or church members. Even seemingly anodyne choices, such as what music to listen to on the way to work, whether to drop a coin in a homeless man's cup, or how to interact with the clerk at the gas station, have political implications.

  Our choices in news sources offer an easy glimpse into our outward thoughts on political topics. Though that glimpse may not be as straight forward as it seems (We all bring our own unique personal experiences and perceptions with us when we receive input from news media, which influences how we process the information that we're given.), it does give an indication as to what viewpoints we consider valid, and conversely what we consider misguided or even false. Objectivity after all, even when it is genuinely sought after, is an illusion. The sheer quantity of potential news stories and viewpoints make it impossible for any news source to report everything from every possible perspective. And the process of deciding what to report and how to report it, is inherently subjective. So we seek out news sources that report on what we feel is important, and that frame that news in a way that we find palatable.

  Our conversations and interactions with friends and family also contribute crucial elements to the base of our political beliefs. Through sharing our thoughts with others, our beliefs are either challenged or affirmed. And those conversations also help establish and maintain the social parameters regarding what we feel is appropriate and what is taboo.

  The choices we make at the voting booth meanwhile, seem straight forward enough in their implications as to not require any extensive consideration. But the way that we view the voting process itself, and the value that we place on our individual votes, can begin to open the door to the more deeply rooted, more personal, aspects of who we are as individuals and as political beings.

  For some, the vote is a symbol of freedom. An essential piece of the American pie, that should be cherished as much as the lives that have been lost in the name of defending it. To others it is little more than a placebo. A choice between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, that is granted to the population at large in order to create the illusion of freedom and choice. And still others, will see the concept, and perhaps even the institution, as sound and healthy, but feel that a degree of reform is required if we are to realize the full potential of our democracy. 

  That spectrum of perceptions on American democracy, while limited in description here for the sake of brevity, is a concept that can also be applied to the seemingly mundane aspects of our daily lives, with telling results. Consider, for instance, the homeless man on the sidewalk that millions of Americans will pass on their way to work today. He sits against a wall under tattered clothes and several layers of dirt, and he has a small paper cup that he's hoping you will drop coins into. But what do we choose to see beyond that? Is this a man that lives in the land of opportunity, and has let those opportunities pass him by? Or is he an inevitable casualty of a broken society? One of the countless, nameless multitudes that are spit out by a system doesn't consider morality or even seek to create equal opportunity. Or is he just a man in need of help? Somebody that perhaps made some poor decisions and had some hard breaks and fell through the cracks.

  These are questions that many of us can answer when called upon. But if pressed further, how many of us can give an honest and thoughtful explanation as to why we feel the way we do? We may offer statistics that seem to support our opinions. But go into a room full of politicians and you can watch people lie with the stats as long as you like. The only difference in this scenario is that we'd be lying to ourselves, instead of just lying to others. We can tell ourselves that we came upon the numbers with a clean slate and simply read the story as it was told, but our perceptions of the world began forming long before any of us picked up a sociology text book. So why do we feel the way we do? 

  Perhaps its as simple as compiling a few monumental moments from our formative years. A few inspiring or tragic events that shaped our lives, and that are merely supplemented by all of the other days in between. Or maybe our views are shaped slowly, through a long process of subtle nudges and suggestions, leading us in one direction or another. George Carlin said that "behind every cynic there is a disappointed idealist." And maybe thats it. Maybe a person that begins their life in the relative safety of childhood, becomes jaded as they are exposed to the honesty of adversity. That person might decide that it is easier to give up on everything and accept the world as a harsh and unloving place, than to allow themselves to keep striving and hoping for the best, while knowing all too well that there will still be times when it is necessary to face the worst. Or perhaps that same person is able to create a bubble for themselves, from which they can deflect adversity and maintain some sense of confidence in themselves and their place in the world. From that bubble, a person can find innumerable ways to ignore ugly realities, to explain and lay blame for the troubles that do arise, and to remove themselves from any position of responsibility to anyone other than themselves. Or then again we might try to walk down the middle of the road. Unwilling to give up, yet uncertain of which fights to fight, let alone how to fight them. 

  There is something to be said for the first two options. They may limit the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual rewards that life has to offer. But they also offer the ease and comfort of familiarity, while limiting the pain and frustration of disappointment and defeat. 

  The latter road however, is a hard road to follow. It asks us to consider that homeless man as something more than a pothole in the sidewalk. It asks us to consider this man as a man, and ask ourselves about the nature of our relationship with him. What circumstances brought he and I to this point? Can I live with those circumstances? Or should I act to change them? If I need to act, then how should I act? Do I simply buy him a sandwich or a coat? Do I start volunteering at a shelter? Do I want the government to intercede? The answers to those questions will be different for different people. But the key is whether we choose to ask them. Because the question, rather than the answer, is what defines who we are as individuals and as a society. 

  And we have these questions in front of us throughout the day, every day. We choose how we make money and what to spend that money on. We choose what to read, or whether to read at all. We choose what to worship, and what form the object of our worship will take. We choose how to entertain ourselves. We choose how we talk to other people, or whether we bother talking to them at all.

  And these are all political questions. They are individual, concrete, real world examples of the many questions that we try to work through on a societal level through electoral politics. They may not directly decide an election, or the passing of a law, or the funding of a program, but they do contribute to the direction that we will take as members of a society. And asking those questions will have a direct impact on the political conversations that we have with our friends and family. It will also impact how we watch the news and how we vote. And that will impact the actions of those news agencies and the people that we vote for. The connections are not simple and straight forward, but they are there. 

  We are all small parts of the vast organism that is our society. And just as the human body can move on for years, even as parts of it deteriorate and die, our society too can move on with or without us. On a societal level, most of us will never be able to reward our ego with the grand moments that it craves. Most of us do not exist in the heart, or the lungs, or the brain of society's body. Be we do exist. We are cells within the whole. And we can choose our nucleus. We can choose who we are, and what we'll contribute to our little corner of our universe. And in doing so we will, for better or for worse, contribute to the health and well being of the whole.

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