My great grandmother had to fight for her right to vote. She marched down the streets of Boise, Idaho with a giant beautiful banner she sewed herself on a treadle sewing machine. It read, in large and gorgeous lettering, “We demand an amendment to the US constitution enfranchising women.” From the first moment I saw it I was aware that it was in so many ways larger than me. I still have it, and hope to pass it on to my daughter to pass on to her daughter.
Incredibly old, and skin hanging from her bones, my great grandmother was still a terrifyingly full woman. She taught me what it was to vote. The first time I voted was 1992, and doing so made me feel like I was at last a full person, part of a full world. And when I decided that I would not vote anymore, it was to her that I uttered my prayer of sad apology: not merely for not voting, but for being part of the system that had reduced voting to meaning so little. I have decided that I am on strike as a voter, until voting means something.
It was learning that lead me to voting, and learning that lead me away from it. It was gerrymandering, legalized corruption, the impossibility of campaign finance reform. It was dry words like ROI on lobbying, which have turned the world wet with non-metaphorical blood. It was suicidal nonideas that reduced human civilization to a consuming blob left to go necrotic on its denuded tiny blue dot.
But then, it was more. It was watching how people built an internet while the institutions weren’t looking. It was the kindness of strangers that took me in. It was buying dinner for an old Vietnam vet on the streets of California. It was watching my daddy chewed up by the system. It was the radiation of the Columbia river and the old songs and stories of Utah Phillips. It was children who filled potholes in Zambian streets and needed pens, which I gave them with as much heart as you can give a pen to someone. It was the fall of the iron curtain, it was poet presidents, revolutions young and old, and the slow and terrible petrification of the American spirit. It was a world that runs red with blood and spirit, a body politic raped and beaten by a ruling class as arbitrary and accidental as the rest of it.
People who think that by calling for a strike against the vote I’m advocating inaction are not paying attention. Yes, I am saying please don’t throw your vote away in our corrupt ballot boxes. Instead vote everyday, not just one day in November. Vote with the stuff of your life. Vote like your life, and your opinions matter — because they do.
Vote with every dollar, in every relationship. Vote in how you work and how you speak. Vote in how you treat others and what you will accept from them. Vote your dignity and the dignity of others. Live in the opposite of fear. Bring your morals to work. Whistleblow, organize, strike, disrupt your corporation until it respects human rights. Even if just the knowledge workers in my social circle walked off the job, they could grind the machine to a halt — they could be heard. They would, in fact, resound not only through the body politic but through history as well.
But we don’t know anymore that we have this strength. We are told both that we must perform our kabuki democracy, and that our vote doesn’t really matter. We are told that this voting is our only civic duty, and the only power we have, and quietly reduced to a system where that vote can’t realistically do much.
When you vote, you complain, and then go to work to do the work of others, often against the interests and values of you, your family, the family of humankind. And you can complain about that, too. We have to get along, we have to pay down the student loans, we have to make the mortgage payment, we have to delay facing the truth about the frail and failing world we’ve built as long as we possibly can.
No. The magic of aggregate human attention is so strong that we can fix this world, we can exceed these troubles — but only together, not looking to leadership structures that have failed us again and again.
Humanity is amazing. It is the elemental magic of the world. You are the ground that can shake and rise under the fragile political structures of the Earth. You are the wrath of angry gods, you are the true storm a small and accidental system of power fears. As long as you keep believing you have to vote, and all your power is tied only to that vote, our leaders get to balance a pyramid on its tip and call it democracy.
Lay down the lie of the American ballot box, with its legal rigging, lobbying, revolving doors, gerrymandering, and even at moments outright fraud. You will have to ask yourself what is next? What do you believe, and how do you live out those beliefs? It is a scary and beautiful thing to live your beliefs.
We are on a fundamental level responsible for each other. We have incredible power, in fact we have all the power not reserved to killer robots. But it’s very hard and very painful. Coordinating, acting, having to be together with humanity after so many years of running away from it.
Today we distract ourselves from feeling hopeless and powerless. There are a million numbing balms for thousands of tiny cuts. We numb ourselves with TV, Youtube, Reddit, alcohol, games, even love. We ceaselessly and selfishly chase after a personal happiness only available to those who outgrow the hunt for it. We go to work for corporations and governments that violate our ethics, we go into debt, and come to see ourselves as bound, indentured to things we didn’t choose. But this is an illusion, and a fragile one at that. It ends the day we decide that our power is with us, in us, that it can’t fit inside a quarterly review, or an assigned essay, or even a ballot box. It ends when we realize that our minds and bodies, and most of all our little allotment of precious time are holy, holy, holy.
Let your body be your ballot.
I agree with this right up until the point of not actually voting.
Let your body be your ballot. Absolutely. That’s true, and right, and wonderful words to live by.
But also, let your ballot be your ballot. Because there’s a core to democracy that, while broken and abused, does let us have a voice. They might be illusory choices, but in combination with the approach you’re talking about, there is real power.
We’re not going to create a new political system with anything short of a revolution, and few of us want that. I don’t. Instead, let’s pull together and do what we can, both inside and outside the machine, to create the world that we want to live in.
Movements like Occupy have shown us the way. The information society has given us the tools. I don’t think this is the time to give up hope.
You are my hero. Well said and deeply affecting.
There’s nothing in this article that explains why I can’t do both. Yes the political system is incredibly flawed, but voting is one of a number of political actions I take to try and improve my country (or stop it becoming worse). I vote for the least-worst option (a third party),and I protest, and I campaign, and I build small groups with positive values.