Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Starfish and Sequoias: Why Do You Vote?

I've been having a lot of conversations about the election lately. I've fallen into the role of "liberal stand-in" for many of my libertarian-leaning friends with a penchant for debate, and I think I have a fairly broad swath of the electorate in my social media feeds and day-to-day life due to the wide swing of my life's path. A poor, small-town white girl with extremely conservative extended family getting a PhD, marrying outside her race, and living in a major urban center while teaching at a community college makes for a pretty politically eclectic collection of acquaintances. 

One conversation that I've had a few different times lately involves people who are considering voting for third party candidates because they are so unimpressed with their options. My general response has been that you should vote for the person you believe best represents your political viewpoints, but now I'm not so sure I gave the right advice.

This isn't a political post in the sense that it is going to analyze the candidates and make a suggestion for whom you should cast a vote. What I'm interested in thinking through today is the purpose of voting and its place in a larger narrative of social responsibility.

Voting is often called a "civic duty," and some believe it should be more than a right--it should be a requirement. Undoubtedly, marginalized groups in the past have fought and died for the chance to participate, and there are still barriers placed today to keep many Americans from exercising this right (as the current fight for felons' voting rights marches on). Whether voting should be mandatory or not is rooted in a question of what voting is. Is it a chance to put your individual voice into the larger machine and influence the final outcome? Are you (as "one person, one vote" suggests) simply shouting your wishes (no matter how self-serving or impulsive) into the void and then waiting to see what comes out on the other side? Or is it a collective act? Is your responsibility when you vote to make your individual wishes heard, or is it to weigh out the possible outcomes and choose based on the greater good?

That question, to my ears, was at the heart of the differences between the speeches at the RNC and those at the DNC.

Perhaps one of the places that individualism came through most strongly in the RNC was during Ivanka Trump's speech when she shared this anecdote about her father:
And like him, we each had a responsibility to work, not just for ourselves but for the betterment of the world around us. Over the years, on too many occasions to count, I saw my father tear stories out of the newspaper about people whom he had never met, who were facing some injustice or hardship. 
He’d write a note to his assistant, in a signature black felt tip pen, and request that the person be found and invited to Trump Tower to meet with him. He would talk to them and then draw upon his extensive network to find them a job or get them a break. And they would leave his office, as people so often do after having been with Donald Trump, feeling that life could be great again.
It's a feel-good moment, and it paints her father in a much more positive picture than he paints himself. Instead of being a cold, hard businessman who is only out for profit (an image that Trump seems to embrace even as it is used against him), it shows a man of compassion and charity, goodwill and kindness, a man who wants to help the common people around him.

The problem I have with this kind of individualistic rhetoric is that it absolves us of responsibility for the systems in which we are complicit partners. When we focus on the individual's circumstances rather than the system from which that individual's circumstances grew, we are able to ignore the ways that we unfairly benefit from that same system.

I was thinking about this recently when I saw the news story about a homeless teen named Fred who was biking six hours to get to college. His story was a heartbreaking account of a hardworking individual who desperately wanted to better his life but needed a break. People were moved and donated to a GoFundMe account to the tune of $184,000.

It's a truly amazing account of people coming together to help out this young man. From the police officers who found him sleeping in a tent and worked together to put him up in a motel to the strangers all around the country who pitched in a few bucks to make sure he would never have to live in that tent again, it's a reminder of what it means to come together and support each other.

The problem with stories like these (and this is not meant to discount the kindness of those who gave or those who saw Fred and decided to reach out and help) is that they can serve as a distraction from bigger societal issues and their potential collective solutions.

Surely you've heard the old story about the man saving the starfish so that they don't die when the tide recedes. The key point is at the end when he silences naysayers who say he won't make a difference because starfish will just keep washing ashore by responding, "It made a difference to that one."

And that's hard to argue against. Helping one person is important, especially when you are acting as an individual. Often, as individuals, helping one person is all you can ever hope to do. We can't, individually, fix the education loan system to make sure that Fred has funding. We can't fix whatever societal ills led him to be homeless in the first place. We can't handle those things because they are soul-crushingly huge. So instead we put $5 in a  GoFundMe account. We toss that starfish back into the sea.

But there's something a little darker going on beneath the surface of these actions. In the video of the news report, the reporter is careful to note that a bank is overseeing all of Fred's newfound riches to make sure he spends them in the "right" way. There's something paternalistic about being able to pat ourselves on the back for helping out while casually wink-winking one another with the secure knowledge that Fred wouldn't have been able to do it alone. It took our savior status to get him there. In some ways, our actions are as much about making ourselves feel good as they are about helping the individual before us.

But what if the starfish aren't washing onto the shore because of the inevitable pull of the tides? What if the starfish are washing onto the shore because they're attracted to the lights of manmade condos dotting the beach (I know that's not actually the case; this is hypothetical)? If we're actually the cause of the starfish tragedy, is it really so great of us to go and throw individual starfish back into the sea? Wouldn't it be a lot better to find a collective solution like agreeing to turn off our lights during peak starfish time or replacing our bulbs with starfish-friendly glows?

That action, though, would require collaboration, cooperation, and communication. It would be hard! We wouldn't be able to pat ourselves on the back individually as being more caring and compassionate than our neighbors because our neighbors would have to be in on the solution, too. It would have a lot bigger impact, but it would feel a lot smaller to us as individual agents in the drama. After all, what's changing a light bulb versus triumphantly tossing a starfish through the air?

I'm not cynical enough to believe that people only help others because they want to feel good about themselves. I think that people (and I include myself among them; I've donated to those campaigns, I've given spare change, I've helped on a tiny, tiny level that made no collective difference and felt good while I did it) are genuinely motivated to make a difference where they can. When we see no collective solutions, all we're left with is individual options.

Ivanka was tapping into that desperation when she told her father's story. She was painting him to be someone who would find solutions by plucking those who are suffering out of their pain and giving them opportunities for greatness.

Hidden within that message, though, is another caveat. Only those who are deemed deserving get the help. If you don't seem like you're working hard enough through your struggle, if you've given up or are angry and not humble enough about your misfortunes, well, then, too bad.

The Starfish Method never shifts the balance of power, so be wary when those in power advocate it. If it makes you feel better to donate to a down-on-my-luck GoFundMe, by all means, do it. But don't let anyone tell you that's the best we can do or that it erases our responsibility to think about how the systems around us are set up.

The message at the DNC took a different tone.

Consider how Cory Booker opened his speech:
Our founding documents were genius. But not because they were perfect. They were saddled with the imperfections and even the bigotry of the past. Native Americans were referred to as savages, black Americans were referred to as fractions of human beings, and women were not mentioned at all. 
But those facts and other ugly parts of our history don't detract from our nation's greatness. In fact, I believe we are an even greater nation, not because we started perfect, but because every generation has successfully labored to make us a more perfect union. Generations of heroic Americans have made America more inclusive, more expansive, and more just.
Michelle Obama's speech also contained a call to look at our collective future:
And make no mistake about it, this November when we go to the polls, that is what we’re deciding, not Democrat or Republican, not left or right. No, this election and every election is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.
Bernie Sanders, too, made this kind of appeal:
This election is about – and must be about – the needs of the American people and the kind of future we create for our children and grandchildren. 
This election is about ending the 40-year decline of our middle class the reality that 47 million men, women and children live in poverty. It is about understanding that if we do not transform our economy, our younger generation will likely have a lower standard of living then their parents.

By calling upon problems like poverty, global warming, education, and health care, the DNC speakers pointed again and again to the individual starfish and said, "You're not making a difference!" But instead of saying that as a cynical prelude to, "so stop trying!" they offered a different solution, one full of hope and sustainable, meaningful change.

The trade-off, though, is that we don't necessarily get to see it happen, and we don't necessarily get to pat our own backs about it. Instead, the change will be gradual. It is the future generation for whom we act.

"Make America Great Again" is a nonsense slogan. America has never been "great" for everyone living within its borders. Gross violations of civil rights, slavery, an orchestrated genocide against Native Americans, and institutionalized racism, sexism, and discrimination against anyone who didn't fit the status quo of the era have more than dotted our historical trajectory; they've underpinned it.

But we've chipped away at those violations. We've made incremental progress so that today's world is better than yesterday's. Cory Booker called upon that truth to make the logical conclusion: we benefitted from the right choices of those before us. Now it's our turn to do the same for those who will come after us.

As Wendell Berry puts it in "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front":
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
If you plant a sequoia today, you will not live to see it full-grown. You are never planting it for yourself. At its most pessimistic, it is an act of futility. At its most optimistic, it is an act of immortality.

Today, I read this post from Ashely Wool urging everyone to vote for Hillary Clinton because a Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster. In it, she writes this:
Your conscience only belongs to you, but your vote belongs to everyone
Your vote is not a style statement. It’s not how you express your individuality. It’s not something you do to show all your friends how you think the country should work. You don’t vote to prove a point. You don’t vote to paint yourself in a certain light. You don’t vote for the Facebook likes. You don’t vote for you. You vote as a way to help give your entire country the best chance it can realistically have at this point in time.
Later, she adds this:
Let me say something else, too--if Donald Trump became president, it probably wouldn’t negatively impact my life very much. I am a heterosexual, cisgendered, upper-middle-class white woman with a college degree from a great school, gainful employment, no criminal record, and no student loan debt. In the eyes of Donald Trump, I am not the problem. I am not refusing a Trump presidency to further my own interests
I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of my friends and fellow Americans who are gay, transgendered, black, Latino, and Muslim. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of my friends and fellow Americans who can’t afford to go to college, or who are drowning in student loan debt. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of people who are struggling to make ends meet, who do not have flexible or well-paying day jobs, or financially stable parents to fall back upon if they need to. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of hardworking immigrants who need and deserve a streamlined process to citizenship, instead of being ridiculed and denied opportunity at every turn. I am refusing a Trump presidency on behalf of the millions of Americans who lives and livelihoods were saved by the Affordable Care Act.
In many ways, Wool is likening third party voters to the starfish savers. They're voting for a candidate who cannot win the general election (not this year, at least) because it makes them feel better, because it best reflects their individual desire, but not because they have looked to the future.

She's asking them, instead, to plant sequoias.

There are moments in our lives when all we can do is save a starfish, but there are also moments when we can plant sequoias.

When you have a choice, plant sequoias.

Images: Caleb Wagoner, Jenny DaviesSam Felder, Iain Mitchell

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