Sunday, September 28, 2008

Why I Vote the Way I Do--Part 2

I actually believe in the American Ideal. You see, when I studied them, I took the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution seriously. I really believe all that stuff about people being created equal, and being entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I believe in America and I want her to be what she was envisioned to be--the City Shining on the Hill, the beacon of freedom…the land of the free and the home of the brave.

It’s fashionable right now among the right-wing chattering classes and talking heads to impugn the patriotism of those who disagree with their jingoistic, xenophobic approach to politics. To be honest, I feel the same way about them. I really question whether they truly love this country at all.

Loving your country means more than waving (or wearing) a flag. It even means more than joining the military. I am grateful to those who put their lives on the line in our armed services, but I do not believe that makes them better Americans than the rest of us.

Loving your country means you do your damnedest to protect the ideals on which your country was founded--government by, for, and of the people.

Loving your country means that you don’t allow it to engage in activities that bring it into disrepute, or that undermine its foundational tenets. It means you ask hard questions of those in power and don’t stop until you get solid answers. It means you hold your elected officials responsible for their actions--and you never, ever, EVER give them a blank check with no accountability. (Do you hear that, Congress?)

Loving your country means you participate in the political process. It means you work to ensure free and fair elections. It means you educate your children about their civic responsibilities. It means you don't ever offer an excuse about why you couldn't be bothered to vote.

Loving your country certainly means more than shouting “9/11!” every time someone questions an approach to domestic or international politics…or handing over your civil liberties because some politician tells you that doing so will keep you safe from “Terrorists™.”

Loving your country requires intelligence, courage, skepticism, patience, and perseverance. Waving a flag or slapping a bellicose bumper sticker on your car are piss-poor substitutes for real patriotism. Saying “My country, right or wrong!” or “America: love it or leave it!” makes you an idolater in my book--not a patriot.

I love my country and I have fought for the ideals on which she was founded my entire adult life--as far as I’m concerned, that's the definition of patriotism. I expect better of her than what I've seen for most of the last eight years. Hell, I expect better of her than most of what I've seen since I was born in 1963.

It is no secret that we have rarely lived up to the ideals enshrined in our founding covenants. America deserved better than de jure racial segregation--and people put their lives, and their children’s lives, on the line to get it. We deserved better than sexism written into law--and women and their male allies fought until we changed a lot of it. (Miles to go before we sleep on both issues, but it’s a start…)

We deserved better than Vietnam, and Richard Nixon, and Love Canal. We deserved better than U.S. support for murderous regimes in Latin America and Africa. We deserved more than Iran-Contra and Reagan’s unconscionable silence on HIV/AIDS. We deserved better than Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the infamous Blue Dress. And we CERTAINLY deserved better than anything we’ve gotten in the last eight years from George W. Bush and his cronies--the “Patriot” Act, Abu Ghraib, the ongoing debacle in Iraq, the current financial crisis, the privileging of bad theology over science in public health…to name just a few.

One of the first things you learn to tell your children when they are old enough to understand is “I don’t always like what you DO, but I love YOU.” That is how I feel about America--and why I vote the way I do.

No matter how many times I am disappointed by my country, I refuse to give up on her. I still believe in America--the America enshrined in those yellowed parchments in the National Archives. That America is worth fighting for, and I’ll fight for her until I draw my last breath.

So I vote for people who share that vision--who believe that what has made America great is not her military might, but her commitment to the ideals of freedom. And I vote for policies that will create that vision…for my children and yours.

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I was born on third base. I will not make a liar out of myself by pretending that I hit a triple.
I vote for progressive politicians and policies because I’ve been so damned lucky—and I can imagine what life would be like if I hadn’t been.

I have had every opportunity that a woman born into a white, upper-middle class family could have. A loving and supportive family. An excellent education. Financial help--especially in times of crisis in my life. I have not gotten where I am today solely on my own merit--I won the lottery in life. To act as if the playing field is level--or that I somehow "deserve" what I have--would make me the worst kind of liar.

No one can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.* No one. Each of us is called to work on our own behalf, but we do not do so in a vacuum. There is no such thing as a blank slate--you are born into a world that is already set up to work either for or against you, based on the socioeconomic status of your family, the color of your skin, your gender, and your sexual orientation. The only people who deny this are the ones on the positive end of the spectrum.

We all know people who have overcome their backgrounds to succeed in life--and we can admire and respect those individuals. But we cannot pretend that this is the norm. And I believe we must always ask ourselves: Why should we expect anyone to “overcome the odds” of their own lives? Why do we not work to lessen those overwhelming odds for those who face them?

The answer, I believe, lies in our own selfishness and fear.

I spent the past couple of days at the St. Francis Springs Prayer Center in Stoneville, NC. It is a lovely place--conceived, built, and run by a Franciscan monk who saw a great need for a contemplative place where people could meet, pray, and focus on their relationship with God. On the wall outside the office is a plaque that reads: Poverty happens when people stop caring for one another.

I believe that is true. I believe that material poverty happens when we mistakenly believe that we deserve what we have, and cling to it with both fists so that others cannot “take it away from us.”

I believe that spiritual poverty happens in that same moment.

And both material and spiritual poverty are compounded when we build social, legal, and economic structures in such a way to ensure that we maintain our unfair advantages over others. I do not want to live in selfishness, fear, and spiritual poverty. I vote the way I do because I recognize the role that culture and the social structure play in success in life--and I believe we can create structures that open the door wider for everyone, not just for the privileged few. I vote that way because I will not fall into the trap of believing that I have been blessed by God for my “specialness” and that I have no responsibility to help those in my own backyard who were not so blessed.

This does not make me a "guilt-ridden liberal," by the way. It makes me a clear-eyed one, who believes to the depths of my being that every child born in this world should have the right to the same things I had (and have). A supportive family and community. A decent place to live. Food to eat. Health insurance. A good education. Help through the inevitable rough spots of life.

In my earlier post, I mentioned John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. If you don’t know Rawls’ work, I encourage you to check it out. Rawls was a political philosopher who thought deeply about the issue of distributive justice. He asked people to consider how they would build a society from scratch if they could not know in advance what their position in that society would be.

Since I suspect most of my readers are well-educated whites from the middle and upper-middle class, I ask you to do the same. Consider what your life would be like if you had none of the advantages you enjoyed growing up. Think long and hard about what it took for you to succeed—outside of your personal ambition. Good schools? Safe home environment? Medical care? Etc.

Then ask yourself:

  • Would I trade places with an African American or a Latino in the current culture?

  • Would I trade places with a gay or lesbian person in the current culture?

  • Would I willingly put my children in the "worst" public school in my city?

  • Would I support the current health care system if I did not have health insurance?

  • Would I be satisfied with the current mental health care system if I, or one of my loved ones, had to be treated in it?

  • Would I be satisfied with the justice system if I had to enter it without money?

  • Would I support our current system of prisons if someone I love had to be incarcerated?

I ask these questions of myself all the time. To you, I will say, that if you answer "No" to any of them, then you need to ask yourself why, and then look long and hard at the kinds of policies you are supporting.

Because if you wouldn't choose to be a minority in this culture, you need to work to create a society where your lot in life doesn't depend on the color of your skin--or whom you happen to love. Because if you wouldn't want your child to attend any school in the system, you shouldn't consign other people's children to substandard education. Because if you wouldn't want to have to go to the emergency room to be treated because you didn't have insurance--or wouldn't want your own child to go without medical treatment for that reason--you shouldn't condemn other people to that status. Etc.

I vote the way I do because I believe Rawls was right---and because I won't condemn people to lives of poverty or misery just to maintain my status on third base.

*Please forgive the poor grammar.