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October 2003

RE(3): ON VOTING

In Issue Eight, the Editors argued that:

Voting is an obligation. “It is too easy to treat bad leaders like bad weather: inevitable, unpredictable, and unalterable. This is the con. It will cease to be the case the moment we stop believing in it.

In Issue Nine, Robert P. Helms of Germantown responded:

To vote is to surrender authority to another person, an empty ritual of a sham democracy. Voters should stop willingly authorizing a government that harms them and instead work in their own communities to implement solutions directly.

In Issue Nine, Associate Editor Mark Lotto of Los Angeles responded:

Those who abstain from voting for the best of reasons are indistinguishable from those who do not vote out of laziness and indifference. All non-voters help keep the present national government and its terrifying agenda in power. Removing the nation’s president from office is an immediate necessity, and voting will help bring that about.

In Issue Ten, Mr. Helms responded:

Neither national party offers an alternative to globalization. Therefore any vote is a vote for the destruction of the earth. The president should be removed from power, but the best way to do this is to dissolve the government entirely. Only then will the people be able to solve everyday problems like food, transportation and health-care without interference from the government.

& now, another reply:

YET FURTHER ON THE QUESTION: TO VOTE, OR NOT

I have been reading with even bemusement the civil debate within these pages between the eloquent epistolarian Mr. Robert Helms of Pennsylvania, and this newspaper’s Mr. Lotto, regarding the utility of voting. Mr. Helms believes it is a poor way to spend a November morning, while Mr. Lotto pleads that while certainly exhausting, electoral participation is a critical duty of the citizen, whether he is an Anarchist, a Communist, a Republican, a Fascist, or an Episcopalian. The exchange has surely thrilled thousands in the Philadelphia area, and I don’t doubt that the constituency of imbeciles now awaits a conclusion to the debate. There has to be a right answer, of course – it would be cruel and unusual to leave the readership hung on the edge of such a moral cliff, and not tell them how to resolve this complicated question. This is not a country fit for degree or doubt; and so here is Mr. Swartwout with the exposition, impossible, you will see, to rebuke.

Mr. Helms is a radical indeed, and his last letter gleefully declares that he is ultimately in favor of the dissolution of the United States government, rather than its continuation as a sham democracy. This is the most fine and ambitious idea I have heard in many a moon, and I admire the keenness of his opinion that a “vote for either party is a vote for the destruction of the Earth.”  I can not keep private the opinion I have held since the outbreak of this debate: if Mr. Helms would only condescend to run for office himself, he could rely on my vote.

Mr. Lotto, meanwhile, argues quite soundly that our nation is at a critical and immediate juncture, which requires that the present Administration be removed by an act of civil solidarity, and that even the most disaffected idealists ought to come together to handle the problem of the moment. Religious fanatics and homosexual liberals, white-collar executives and squeegee men, coffee-drinkers and tea-drinkers, all must realize that Mr. Bush is dooming the lot of us, and his office must be stripped from him at any cost. Mr. Helms has a rainbow-colored dream for the distant future, and Mr. Lotto is all a-sweat with the real crisis of the day. A jolly match to behold, and both participants ought to be given certificates of ideology.

I appear here to announce that while Mr. Helms’ utopianism is worth a cheer, it is ultimately unforgivable, except as the most fully realized expression of misanthropy. And Mr. Lotto, for all his practical arguments, many of which I must admit I have since forgotten the specifics of, spends too much energy painting horns upon the present dilemma—the easy task of vilifying our political leaders—and not enough overturning Mr. Helms’ pretty words to show the worms beneath.

It is true that we must realize the disparity between the realm of ideas, and that of realities. This is not the compromise of Principle so often begged of the jaded Non-voter, but in fact it is the first statute of the philosophy of Pragmatism, founded here in our very own fifty states, and one which has served everyone from John Dewey to the hungry Mahatma Ghandi. Our ideas are nothing, until they are realized in action. And conversely, our inaction may therefore be the only expression of our existence. Indeed, we might harbor some fine, high principles in our cerebra, but the world knows nothing of them beside what we have done, or not done, on their behalf.

The voter who stays home because he is not willing to be complicit in the crimes of the idiot whom he might be electing, must know he is as complicit in the crimes of the idiot whose election he ignored. The murder of foreign civilians, which is now daily fare on our newswires, is not merely Mr. Bush’s crime, or the Republicans’ crime; it is as much that of the liberals and the abstainers. It is the American military leveling Baghdad, and so long as I hold that blue passport, eagle emblazoned, I am as complicit in these acts. I am a resident of [—-] Street, of New York City, largest city of the State of New York, which is one of the fifty United States of America. If I feel any responsibility toward my own neighbor, then I have no logical reason for not feeling as responsible for the nation. This is because this is my community. And furthermore, if I am willing to recognize the humanity of my neighbors, and the humanity of the citizens of Los Angeles, then I have no reasonable means of dismissing the humanity of the citizens of Lagos or Jakarta or Patagonia—and so far as my country and its government has an effect on those citizens, also, I am responsible.

I am, of course, free to ignore my neighbors; I am at liberty to isolate myself from all the pagans on my block; and equally able to secede within the nation of my own psyche. But I would be a misanthrope and may never again claim to be a credit to my species; this is something snakes and lizards might have success at, but every higher mammal knows it is most successful in symbiosis with its community.

Measuring the cruelty and criminality of the present United States government, though, there must be a flaw in my syllogism, for I, Alexander Swartwout, surely am not such a monster. By such a discrepancy between my will and the performance of my country, I can only be sure that I have not been active enough, that I have not denounced militarism and imperial-industrialism enough, that I have not made myself heard enough. Mr. Helms’ own little community, to which he is such a dedicated paragon, is bombing Iraq and corrupting Afghanistan. My own neighbors, and myself, are dismantling international peace processes and wielding wealth like a club against the poorer nations of the world. Not the government, but us.

I do not accept as a reprieve the argument that one “did not vote for these people.” Whether I cast a vote for their opponents or for nobody at all, so long as I am a citizen, I must feel responsible for their actions. This is a painful mode of existence, a difficult burden to take on in its full weight, considering the depravity of the American government; but if I detach myself from the actions of the government – as have millions of the self-proclaimed “disenfranchised” – then I enable such acts by my own indifference. I set an example of numbness and defeatism, to which I will likely inspire my peers and my children. For all the bowls of soup I might hand out at the corner shelter, I shall never make up the debt I will owe humanity for my wider negligence. By blaming the individuals in power, I relieve my conscience; but I also dissolve the tendon of connection between myself and my community, that thread of shared destiny that is intended to reach from the individual to the highest offices of power.

It is just such a mass-detachment from responsibility that has borne the latter generations of American kakistocracy: the great ‘drop-out’ of the 1960s is perhaps the most deplorable act of idealistic non-participation in American history; while the hippies wallowed in ‘people power’ and congratulated themselves on a revolutionary act of self-expression, their ideological enemies were seizing the reins of government, and have not had to relinquish them since. The single progressive accomplishment of the late 1960s, that of Civil Rights, was made by well-dressed, ambitious, and practical leaders, who rejected the passive-aggression of the long-haired movement, but gladly accepted their numerical support. As such, they exploited the very system of which they were the victim; they seized practical opportunities; they did not reduce their social contact, but enlarged it; and they established, in law, the ideals that they hoped would slowly grow into their society. Accounting, as we must, for an imperfect world and the glacial pace of true cultural evolution, this movement was indisputably a success.

The rest of the Hippie movement must be viewed today as a colossal failure, or else it would not have so empowered Mr. Nixon, Mr. Ford, Mr. Reagan, and the Bush dynasty. It is no coincidence that with the retreat of the indulgent liberals to their festivals and communes, the United States government has seen the longest and most pronounced seizure of power by any ideology in its history.

Mr. Helms, by condoning “active non-participation” in an election is doing nothing better than the drop-outs of the late 1960s; it sounds lovely, but unless everybody is doing it, somebody is going to assume practical control while the libertines are out of the room. So I do not propose that yet another Retreat on Principle is going to improve our lot. Standing on principles may make the holders of those principles feel good about themselves, but this is shallow pride. Better to humiliate our indignation for the sake of a world population that is severely and adversely affected by the course of governance in our country, and who have not the benefit of proximity with which to make a political stance within sight of the powerful.

The rest is rationalizing; Mr. Helms’ broad denunciations of the political parties is quite as easy as it is meaningless. Nobody likes these fellows; so how have they come to be our options? By our own non-participation, our own negligence. The demise of democracy within this country is not the result of some marvelous conspiracy of Evil; instead, the shape of political power is a direct embodiment of our own inaction. We are stuck with a government full of half-wits because we do not demand better. Our children do not grow into better versions of ourselves; instead they see our low standards and desire to achieve still less.

Will the government dissolve and Shangri-La reign over all? Mr. Helms hopes so, and until it does, he says he may as well cloister himself among his community-servants and deal with the day to day. To hear such practicality would suggest to me that he may as well also take the time come November to participate in the national here-and-now. While the doe-eyed orphans in his care will be happy to have him around that extra half an hour, he may simultaneously be responsible for the flamboyant execution of a hundred more such Pips on the outskirts of Basra. When we with too much gusto pronounce our affection for the people on our own block, we refuse the same dignity to those around the world. Liberal yokelism does as much harm to the wider world as the conservative sort.

The non-voter who thinks himself to be acting practically must consider the example of the practical agnostic. If a fellow hasn’t got absolute faith in any church, then it will do him less harm to pray in all of them—either one of them will get him into Paradise, or none of them will. In any other way, our agnostic will be left with profound doubts when he finds himself in oblivion or Tartarus. Likewise, let the disenfranchised electorate fondle their Principles; if he goes out that single Tuesday and quietly casts a vote, he may be doing some good —and if he isn’t, it shouldn’t worry him that he has wasted his time. In god and government, it costs us nothing to hedge our bets, but quite possibly a great deal to withhold our wagers entirely. And why should a disenfranchisee of Mr. Helms’ vigor bother to do us this favor? This returns us to an examination of his commitment to that thing he calls his community, and the following question.

Why, perchance, won’t the government of the United States dissolve under the weight of its own decomposition? At the very least, why can we be sure – and given any degree of calm, reasoned thought, we can be sure of this – that such a thing will not happen in the next decade, or so?

It is because most of the citizens of this nation do not want such a thing to happen. Most of the citizens of this nation, blast them and bless them, want to give the controversy of government as little thought as possible. Most of the citizens want to meet someone nice, marry, raise a family, and have a fighting chance of providing for their children. The United States’ most treasured commodity is not Freedom or Progress or Power, but merely the security of continuity, and the vast majority of the citizenry will give liberally of their esoteric rights in order to preserve this continuity, in order to ensure that the world their grandchildren will know is quite similar to the one they themselves now know.

These are modest and humble desires; these are not the desires of great men, not the high ambitions of History’s heroes. These are the simple wont of one hundred million complacent, desperate people. Continuity is the first desire of the masses; and those of us who would take that from them and exchange it for a System of our own devise, even as we may think Our New System is a better one for the human race—that would make us at best Elitists, at worst, Fascists. Even an Anarchist, if he insists on his fellow-citizens’ participating in the free-for-all, is playing at elitism. If we want to be egalitarian—and I am afraid so many of my readers do—then we must put the foolish desires of the majority before our own Great Ideas.

The non-voter, if he is a non-voter for the sake of his own skewed political principles, denies these millions of ignorami the benefit of the proper functioning of their political system. He is putting a wrench into the machinery of democracy, because he finds the poor decisions of the people too coarse and stupid to abide by them himself. The non-voter often thinks he is serving the greater good of humankind by slowly throwing acid on the gears of the machine; but he is cheating his neighbors of their right to make their own poor decisions. And in his passivity, he is dooming the swarthy, voiceless fools at the pointy ends of his nation’s cruise-missiles. Voting, to the Politicized Non-Voter, is a humiliation, and as principled individuals, they find themselves too proud to lower themselves so.

In fact, we cannot detach ourselves from our governors, however repulsive such a concept may be; their failures are their country’s failures, and therefore ours. And we cannot refute the fundamental wont of our countrymen, unless we think our own opinion, in defiance of all the laws of probability, is in fact the one True and Proper Opinion. But then we must stop calling ourselves Humanists.

It will cost no-one to visit the run-down shambles of their American polling place come November; many of us will skip the appointment because we are busy, tired, small-minded, and negligent. Reasonable excuses. But others may avoid the booths because their principles have somehow persuaded them that casting a forgettable vote for a lame candidate in a declining nation is in itself an evil act; that it is somehow just what They, the powers-that-be, want us to do. And some of these people will call themselves Humanists, if not democrats, for doing so little.

In truth, they are snobs, unwilling to take the chance of throwing their lot in with the hoi-polloi. Heaven forfend that our candidate not win the election, or that there is not even a candidate we would trust to park our car; this is beside the point. The voter says, when he pulls that grimy lever, “I am no better than any-one else, my opinions only worth that of my neighbor. And wherever I go in this world, knowing that I will be judged by the nation I hail from, I have nothing to do but work so much as is necessary to make that an acceptable condition.”

Those gentle souls who have become quite as jaded as Mr. Helms will continue to persist, though, that the mechanism for this process, for the reclamation of democracy, is ruined beyond all hope of repair. Eventually, I suspect, they will be forced to admit the basis for this opinion is that the population, the revered People, has been ruined. The People have become too dumb, too passive, too complacent. The Powers that Be have seized the brain-stem of the Masses and squeezed them numb, and nothing is left to do but revolt. I suppose if a fellow has come this far, there is nothing left with which to persuade him home; but it must be recognized that no-one who calls himself Social, or a Humanist, or an Egalitarian, can possibly be true to this stance and his title at the same time. And so for all the Non-Voters I may have here failed to convince of renouncing their disaffection, at the least I will have stripped some of them of their high-minded social theories. Democracy is not far-removed from Socialism, and each fail not when subverted by the already powerful, but when renounced—conscientiously or unwittingly—by the participants.    

All due honors must be extended from this author to Mr. Helms, the letter-writer, and his editorial foil, Mr. Lotto. But it is not enough to concentrate on either the immediate moment, or that of a century down the road. Humanism requires a broad outlook—the present and the future, the neighborhood and the world at once; not bifocals, but perfect lenses. In selecting the governors of a force as lethal as our country, I refuse to believe that there are well-informed individuals of any conscience who do not have even the whit of an opinion on the matter. The question, of course, as is every question worth answering, is left with the free will of the askéd.

Alexander Swartwout, Queens, New York

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