Now that I've decided I'm no longer bound by the strictures of my religion, there are some new choices presenting themselves. One of these is whether I should register to vote.
Needless to say, many of my attitudes toward citizenship have been shaped not only by my former religion's doctrine, but by the household I grew up in, where Dad was die-hard Democrat and my mother, though ostensibly neutral, enjoyed a good political argument as much as anybody who actually voted. We were an ultra-liberal household in many ways, if a morally conservative one. But only Dad voted. Even so, nobody in my house trusted a politician of any stripe farther than they could be thrown, and even Dad was more radical libertarian than left-wing liberal.
The religion I left prides itself on being neutral to political issues, though I've come to realize it isn't entirely so. They don't vote, they won't join the military. They do pay their taxes, scrupulously, and it's left up to the individual as to whether to serve on a jury or not, whether to join a union or cross a picket line. I have cousins who worked as hospital orderlies stateside as conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war rather than join the military and I know people who went to jail rather than fight in WWII. They're happy to use the courts, to appeal to Caesar when they feel their rights have been violated. I've written a number of letters to government officials all over the world asking them to stop persecuting and imprisoning my brothers and sisters because of their religion and their political neutrality. I think that's one of the things that got me interested in human rights issues to begin with.
Belonging to an apocalyptic religion fosters a deep sense of pessimism in its followers, as well as a kind of political paralysis. If it's all going to hell in a hand basket anyway, why get involved? You're powerless to change anything and God will sort it out eventually. But even as a kid, I itched to get involved in protests against things I felt were wrong, for ideals I felt were right: against the Vietnam War, against nuclear arms, for the Civil Rights movement. As I got older, it seem less and less tenable that I should be writing letters only to free people of my own faith. Why not everyone who was being persecuted, discriminated against, jailed for things they said? Why not, say, Nelson Mandela, too? Racial discrimination hurts everyone as much as religious persecution does. It was feminism that finally got me fired up enough, if not to vote, then to speak out, to talk back, to identify with something more than just my religion, with the radical notion that women are people.
And there I was, suddenly: on the slippery slope, sliding.
My very first conscious memory is watching the news of JFK's assassination in Dallas; I was three. Maybe that's what really put me on the slippery slope by giving me a strange sort of political awareness, imprinting me like a duckling. I don't remember his administration, but I remember Lyndon Johnson's and I remember MLK's assassination as well, and the riots in Detroit, and how tense even our barely integrated little town became. I remember how much hope went out of everyone when Nixon was elected and the bitter relief when he resigned before he could be impeached. Jimmy Carter, though not the strongest or best president, had the same kind of integrity and sense of responsibility to the electorate that Kennedy had, as did Clinton. I can't say as much for the Republicans, who have raped and pillaged the economy and racked up an enormous debt and killed people every time they've been in office during my lifetime. I look at this regime and think, "what the hell is wrong with you people? Why are you acting like Cold War Soviets?"
The truth is, they've all got clay feet, and we expect them, unrealistically, to be literally unimpeachable. That expectation leads, I think, to the election of hypocrites. I've seen nothing in the last 30 years to make me trust any politician any more than I ever did, but there is a certain selflessness in the Obama campaign that reminds me of the Kennedys, who, for all their dynastic pretentions, at least tried to serve those less fortunate than they, and paid a heavy price. I think there are some honorable, selfless people working in government, and I realize they have to make ugly compromises with the powers-that-be. That doesn't mean I gotta like it. Or condone it.
My friends have always been astonished that I don't vote; some of them are even more astonished now that running out and registering wasn't the first thing I did with my newfound "freedom." The right to have some say in your government is a privilege people come here from all over the world to gain, and here I am, taking it for granted, or throwing it away. Scandalous. Even more so since women didn't even have the right to vote until the year my mother was born and because for years I chanted "The personal is political" right along with the rest of the feminists.
The truth is, I'm not a patriot and I don't feel that I'm a representative citizen of anywhere in particular except Earth. In the past, I've been grateful that I was born in a country that seemed to take human dignity and human rights pretty seriously, to the point that if enough people made a fuss about some policy or attitude, it would change. That's no longer such a sure bet here. I'm not sure anywhere else is much better though, at least at the moment, and if there is, how long will it stay that way, and how practical would it be for me to move there, anyway? Could I live somewhere else? Sure. I love Scotland. Spain was lovely. Bits of Canada are okay too. Do I want to? I don't know. I feel a little like a stranger in a strange land just about everywhere except the city I'm living in right now, which is a city-state unto itself, a bit like Venice was.
I've always followed politics from a distance, until the Bush administration. I've studied enough history to be a big picture kind of person, to have learned to see trends, and the repetition of mistakes, and recognize the signs of early decay. The erosion of personal and institutional liberties (like the arrest of Democracy now reporter Amy Goodman and her two producers on "suspicion of rioting" at the Republican National Convention), the contemptuous neglect of the poor, the bread and circuses of our entertainment industry, the idea that the elected leader answers to no one (Hail, Caesar!), the election rigging, the failing economy, the lies and cover-ups, the croneyism and those croneys unmitigated greed, the complete disregard for the letter of the law and founding principles (where are those barons and the Magna Carta when you need them?), the territorial aggression—the W years look a lot like the usual dry-rot of empires to me, and they're deeply alarming for that reason. It was the stifling of free speech that first alarmed me, probably because that's one of the key components of the right to preach door to door, along with freedom of assembly and the separation of church and state. In the W years, these have all been attacked and whittled away. So you might say that even when I thought of myself as part of my former religion, I had a vested interested in preserving those rights.
I still do, because I suppose I've bought the national doctrine that these are the inalienable rights of all humans and I used to live in a country that practiced what it preached. I'm not sure how that's different from signing on to the religious doctrine of political neutrality I grew up with. I think this is what's making me hesitant to rush out and register to vote. I don't want to trade one faith (in God) for another (in humans). But whatever else we are, humans are social and political creatures. Very slowly, we're learning that we must all hang together lest we all hang separately, as Benjamin Franklin said. Some parts of the world are learning it quicker than others. And some parts of it seem to be backsliding. I'm still not sure we're capable of saving ourselves, and I'm equally unsure that there's anyone else to do it.
I feel a little like Lawrence Ferlinghetti's speaker in "I Am Waiting":
I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder . . .
Maybe next time.