Sunday, October 25, 2015

To Not Vote

Each November, American citizens aged eighteen or older face decisions. We can choose between political candidates who are vying for leadership roles. Sometimes that’s a cut and dry choice because one candidate represents your ideology so clearly, or the other candidate is so repulsive; just as often, it may be a matter of selecting the lesser of two evils. In addition to voting on people, there are often policies at stake—what will or will not be legalized; what people will or will not have to do. In recent years, depending on where you live, these issues may have included matters such as legalizing gay marriage, the use of recreational marijuana, or a requirement to label genetically modified foods.

And then there’s a more fundamental question: should I bother voting at all? Today, I’m writing support an unpopular opinion: maybe you shouldn’t.

Maybe it’s nothing new on a national scale, but over the past decade of my life I’ve observed a significant uptick in rallies to get people to their local polls as a matter of principle and as a matter of pride. There’s rhetoric about people dying for our vote to right. Suggestions that it’s un-American, or irresponsible not to cast a vote. And I don't entirely agree.

For one matter, a vote is someone’s personal business. We don’t allow people to see whom one another are voting for at most polling places. It’s considered poor manners to bring politics in mixed company. I would argue that the choice to vote is no less a personal matter--that my choice to or not to vote has little more to do with you than my choice to or not visit a dentist or get a cardiovascular workout. In not voting, I recognize that I am sacrificing my voice on that particular Election Day’s set of issues--and that I have little right to complain if I don’t like the outcomes for matters I chose to abstain from. Perhaps Rush put it best in the lyrics to their song “Free Will”: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

But more to the core of the issue, why would someone not want to vote? There are poor reasons, such as apathy and laziness--truly not caring about the world around you, or being so slothful not to find your way to a polling place or to file an absentee ballot because it simply seems like too much effort. But there are more legitimate reasons, too.

If you’re ignorant, you shouldn’t vote. You might mistaken ignorance for laziness, but I do feel there are important distinctions. There have been times in my life—particularly when I just moved to a new place, and just started new professionalor academic responsibilities, and simply did not feel that I had the appropriate time and attention to fully educate myself as a citizen. This left me with choices. I could scramble to learn as much as I could about the issues and people at stake, with full knowledge I wouldn’t have time to learn enough information to feel fully comfortable with the issues at stake, much less to think critically and form my own, meaningful opinions on these topics. Or I could vote the party line and have faith that my general political leanings, and the people who subscribe to the same political party, won’t lead me astray.

But the fact is, if I’m not confident I fully understand an issue, much less that I have a concrete opinion on that issue, then it’s a disservice to myself and all of the people who do understand the issue for me to make an ignorant vote. I’m better off staying home.

If you’re not affected, it may not be appropriate to vote. This is a trickier point, because I’ll acknowledge there are plenty of times in which people can use their privilege to work toward more ethical or equitable treatment of those less fortunate. That said, there are also times in which voters stick their nose into business that does not concern them. Take college kids--a group that is often most aggressively encouraged to “do their civic duty” and vote. As a college freshman moving into a new community, likely in a college bubble in which your life is very different from the circumstances “the townies” have lived in and will continue to live in indefinitely, is it really your place to shape how their local government will proceed? Conversely, if you’re a college student who only returns to your hometown for winter break and a couple weeks of summer, how confident do you feel in casting that absentee ballot pertaining to issues and candidates that are going to have minimal impact on your life in the months ahead.

There are individual circumstances that can play out much differently from the oversimplified points I’ve outlined above, but I’d argue that these points do ring true for a startlingly high number of disaffected young Americans who arrogantly think they’re doing what’s best for ignorant townsfolk in a community they're not really a part of, rather than allowing true democracy to shape the people most affected by it.

If you don’t feel represented, you’re well within your rights to not vote. Make no mistake about it, American democracy is largely broken. I won’t go so far as to advocate for a complete and total reboot or overhaul, but campaign financing games, media tactics, and the strategery of major political parties have left us with a thoroughly corrupted version of what democracy, in its purest form, is intended to be. There are a number of people out there who take flack each election season for opting not to vote because their views are not represented in the choices available in an election, or because they sincerely feel that the system is too screwed up to accomplish anything of import, and that the act of not voting both sends a clearer message than voting for the least of all evil available. Some of these folks are quietly disillusioned. Some of them are waiting on the revolution.

I don’t count myself in the ranks of this last group, but nor can I disrespect their stance. They have made informed choices.

With all of this said, I should raise an important caveat to this post. Ideally, I do support civic engagement. In an ideal society, people would follow the political issues that most affect them--they would follow them consistently, learn about them objectively, think critically, and form opinions independent from what their families, political parties, and the media would have them believe. They would vote in the district and on the issues that they feel most strongly about and that most directly affect them. Or they would consciously choose not to vote, but still engage with issues and use other avenues of organization to work toward change. The US would be better for all of that.

But with all of that said, this Election Day, I urge you to do what you want, and to acknowledge the possibility that that can justifiably include not voting.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Taking a Swing

When I was five years old, my father tried to teach me how to hit a baseball.

He was nothing if not frugal. Thus, I’m not sure if the wiffleball and plastic yellow bat were on sale or just inexpensive enough that he thought he could justify their purchase as an investment in my athletic future. Regardless, he bought them new and took me into the backyard so he could pitch me the ball and I could learn to swing.

In his mind, I imagine this might have been the first in a series of lessons. Hitting--the most obvious, fundamental piece of baseball, and the boyhood rite of passage I’d need to master to not to make a fool out of myself in all variety of gym classes and pick up games and birthday parties of the years to follow. Followed by throwing and catching, perhaps upper level teaching to follow on good fielding decisions or pitching.

We never made it past hitting.

To put a finer point on it, try as I might, and despite my father’s increasingly agitated insistence that I keep an eye on the ball I must have struck out enough times for a whole team in multiple whole games, never making more than glancing contact between the bat and the ball. I recall our practice migrating the garage, maybe because he grew conscious of the neighbors hearing him yell at me, maybe to avoid sunburn, maybe because he no longer feared me hitting the ball into a window—because he may have rather replaced a window by then than accept that his son was that instinctively bad at baseball.

We tried once or twice more with few better results. Though he would offer he me his old baseball glove and half-heartedly teach me to catch and throw in the years to follow, he lost any illusions that he might raise a baseball player. With less gusto, he aimed to capitalize on my existing talents in the years that followed. After I won a foot race against the other kindergarteners in my grade school, he had me arbitrarily run from point to point in an unfocused attempt to refine those skills. When I took an interest in basketball in middle school, he played with me a couple times to see if I were objectively skilled in that realm, only to recognize that, despite playing for hours and hours, having been blessed with slightly above average height, and learning the idiosyncrasies of the lopsided blacktop court and tight rims at the local playground well enough to best far better opponents who had trained on regulation hoops and hardwood floors, I nonetheless lacked the natural athletic ability or basketball IQ to ever be of any meaningful value to any organized team.

My limited athletic ability was a sore spot for me growing up. I (rightfully) dreaded getting picked last in gym class, and the times when my absence of athletic ability ruined plays or cost teams games, and the jocks would alternately make fun of me or scold me for sucking so hard. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the sport of baseball where I still dreaded every instance of getting called to bat in PE and in the occasional instances when my high school crew decided they’d rather play baseball than basketball or even football.

The thing was that, in most sports--football, soccer, floor hockey--I was fast enough that I could be of some value on defense, and while I wasn’t particularly skilled, I could more or less get lost in the shuffle and go unnoticed except when the ball actually came to me. In baseball, there was a concrete, unavoidable part of the game that called upon me to become the focal point of everyone’s attention, and it happened to be the part of the game that centered purely on hand-eye coordination and upper body strength--neither of which I had in any discernible quantity.

I struck out for years, before developing a sort of check-swing. I found that if I didn’t follow through but rather concentrated on moving the bat up or down, and nominally forward just to make contact, I could spare myself the embarrassment of striking out altogether (or those God awful situations in which a well-meaning parent of one of the guys insisted on pitching until I hit, because no one would strike out on his watch). Pairing this new skill with my above average speed, I actually managed to get on base a decent percentage of the time--essentially bunting because when I hit a fair ball with this method, it rarely made it more than halfway to the pitcher’s mound.

In adult life--meaning anytime post-high school (and a handful of summers when I let friends talk me into a softball game or two)--I don’t have to hit a baseball. Indeed, the idea of standing at home plate, poised with a bat eels like a distant memory. That is, until I got to reminiscing, and realized the prospect that I might find myself swinging a bat again one day.

As I grow older, it’s not a certainty I’ll ever have children. But I am in a committed relationships, and we’ve more than once talked about the potentialities of parenthood. The values we would want to instill. The experiences we would want to have. The home we would want to provide. The skills we would want to teach.

And I think of baseball.

I imagine teaching my son to hit a baseball. Not to be too gender normative about it--and I recognize that girls are about as apt to play on softball or baseball teams as boys these days--but I most identify with the very particular humiliation that comes with being a boy who can’t hit the ball, and listening to the brand of taunts reserved for un-athletic boys, and wanting to prepare my hypothetical son to be better adjusted, more skilled, and more comfortable than I was.

I don’t necessarily know what I’d say if he couldn’t hit the ball either. I know that I wouldn’t be equipped to teach him any better.

I like to think that perhaps I could be an example to him. That my failures recounted from childhood, and maybe even exhibited for him in real time might reassure him that it’s OK not to be good at everything--that this particular skill may never be his to master, but that doesn’t mean he can’t thrive as a musician or a painter or an actor or an orator a writer or a scientist or a leader or as a good friend, son, and, one day, father himself.

I get ahead of myself, I know. But then I think that if there’s one lesson I might be able to teach my son via baseball, it might have far less to do with sport than with the essence of stepping up to plate. That it doesn’t matter if you strike out or hit a home run. It matters that you fix your gaze, and that you keep swinging.