Monday, November 5, 2012

The Power of Your Vote, The Power of Your Voice, The Power of Your Action

You would rather have a Lexus or justice
A dream or some substance
A Beamer, a necklace or freedom

- Hip Hop, Dead Prez

What values are we fighting for in this presidential election? Who are we voting for, and why? What motivates us to vote the way we do? The reasons are as numerous as the sands on the sore, and how a person is driven to act is as fickle as the wind. When cast a vote, however, one cannot afford to be fickle. Voting is force. It is violence unleashed, power wielded. It can mean the difference between justice and injustice, between prosperity for some over others. Since no human society can exist with perfect equality, the grand experiment begun by our Founding Fathers has been a production constantly in the remaking. From a community of white male farmers who held the franchise, to a community of male and female voters and a community of ethnicities of all manner of diverse backgrounds with the capability of voting, America has never been the perfect dream only imperfectly grasped at by the founders of our country.

Thomas Jefferson, for as much as we trumpet him, did not free his slaves at death. Washington, long the bastion of Federalist power and greater central government, did. Why? What influenced their choices, and did one man have any more inherent worth than the other? No. Instead, they were both imperfect individuals making imperfect choices in difficult times. There is no difference from the precipice at which they stood to the one we stand now, as every choice we make will influence four years and, eventually, generations of people to come after us.

That is the power of the vote. The power of the vote empowered individuals like Andrew Jackson who discarded treaties with Native Americans and began outright conflict in the attempt to take land. The power of the vote also secured men like Roosevelt who initiated programs that would benefit the least of our society, the impoverished and starving that just years earlier had languished beneath the presidency of Herbert Hoover, who shifted the burden of care to private institutions woefully under-equipped to deal with the struggles of the Great Depression. 

But force wielded is not limited to the vote, and it's important to remember that. The great upheavals that tore at the fabric of American society in the early 20th century were actions of individuals in response to the inaction of those in power. While men such as Eisenhower and Kennedy were placed into power by the vote, and had sympathies for the African Americans that struggled under racist policies in the south, it took the unceasing shouts of the people to force action. It took brave individuals entering schools while being taunted by classmates, and college students willing to be beaten for riding buses in support of racial equality. It took protests and unending voices, media coverage and endless group action to alert the United States government that an eternal war in Vietnam was wrong. In one defining moment of the classic American show, The Wonder Years, a discussion occurs between war protestor Louis and Kevin's dad that echoes the reality of what people were facing:

Louis: Don't accept all this death and then justify it. It is wrong! Your friends should be alive...they should be enjoying dinner, and arguing with their kids, just like you are.
Jack:What do you know about it? Who the hell are you to say that?!
Louis: [pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket] You see this, man? This is my draft notice. In two weeks, I can go to jail, I can go to Canada or, I can go get shot, full of holes, like your friend Brian Cooper. You keep thinking the way you do, Mr. Arnold, and these two [points to Kevin and Wayne] will be next. And I just hope that's what they want.

What is the legacy of the vote then, and what is the legacy of social action? It was neither one or the other, but the two working in tandem, that created change. It was violence, force and power, exerted because no institution changes peaceably. It is always the use of force that mandates change, even if that force is not that of the rifle or the shotgun. Though the statement has become cliché, the phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword" still resonates precisely because the power of an idea belong to no individual and persists long after we depart this world. The idea of freedom and equality so imperfectly beheld by those that created our country has been hammered upon and worked at by generations of individuals to continue after. So now, at this election, we stand at a crossroad. This crossroad, however, is not unique. It will not, singularly, define the future of America. However, it is one crossroad of many that we must cross. The stakes are always high because change always requires time, effort, and memory; Memory of where we came from, what we've become, and a vision of what we want to be.

The freedom to vote, now being denied to some by those who so tenaciously grasp at power, is one of our greatest weapons. That is a fact being realized in communities who were long marginalized, and who continue to face marginalization via billboards that try to warn them away from voting and rhetoric that demeans their ethnicity. The freedom to choose how to run one's family, once the exclusive domain of white males, has now become a field in women have input. Yet the ability to choose whether one is ready to be a parent or not is slowly being taken away by a government that demands young girls to have babies that they cannot properly raise, and yet refuses to provide the funds necessary to support, educate and equip those children for anything else than menial jobs. The freedom to choose who one can love without facing stigma or discrimination is one we are still in the process of warring for. And of course, the freedom to believe what one wants to believe. Whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or any number of other faiths or non faiths in this world, what one decides to believe should not be a point on which politicians can find traction through the basis of discrimination. What one believes should not be reduced to a talking point by which to strike fear.
So where will we be in another hundred years? Much rests on this election, but only because much rests on every election and every action in between. Progress is not made in a moment, but in a lifetime. Racial equality, sexual equality, religious equality, love equality, have all been works in progress from the moment the words "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men were created equal" were put to the parchment that formed the nation's Declaration of Independence.

When you think about the actions you take, about the vote you wield and the movements you support, it's as important to think about others, including those to come afterward, as it is to think about yourself. What world would we choose for those to come after? Is it a world of greater discrimination, of religious homogeneity and intolerance, of racial intolerance and hateful rhetoric? Is it a world where, based on what one chooses to be or believe, they are disparaged in the media, disdained by politicians and insulted by religious leaders who actually betray that they are simply as political as the secular leaders they claim to be distinct from?
Every individual has power, and that power is magnified when many come together. Like a thousand gusts of wind forming a tornado, or a thousand drops of rain forming a storm, unified power of individuals becomes group force that is unstoppable. That is the beautiful violence of action wielded, the violence that creates peace because it raises no guns but raises a voice.

Go Vote. Happy Election Day, 2012.

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