November 3, 2008

In Defense of Not Voting / In Defense of Voting

In Defense of Not Voting

"Don't forget to do your civic duty: vote Tuesday, November 4th."

No. No. Voting is not your civic duty. To the degree that you have a civic duty, it is to work to improve the situation of the collective (neighborhood, city, state, nation, world - the organized collection of people around you). Voting is not only tangential to that goal, but it could be argued that it is actually counter-productive.

The political system is corrupt - or, even if not exactly corrupt, at least unable to progress the well being of our collective (again, that can be taken at any political level you wish, but for this discussion we will be looking at national politics). Everyone, no matter what her/his political persuasion, always votes for change . . . even incumbents claim to have the "experience" to be able to affect "real change" within the political system. Political change, however, is a pipe dream. The political system functions above all else to ensure its own existence, and to do that, it must maintain status quo. One would think that serving the interests of the populace would be in the best interests of the political system, but that is demonstrably not the case a significant part of the time.

There are always tensions in a democracy: the rights of the few and the wishes of the many, the individual versus the state, the ever shifting horizon of colliding personal freedoms (my freedom to blow Motorhead as loud as I want, anytime I want, versus your freedom to live in peace and quiet). The best way to maintain the precarious balance of the system is to always have citizens who aspire to change believe that change is possible, while eternally postponing the change. Think of the alliance between neo cons and religious conservatives: what would happen if a conservative administration actually managed to get abortion outlawed? Where would that leave the alliance? No doubt many religious conservatives would still stick with the Republican party out of loyalty, but the most issue oriented leaders of the movement would be on to the next issue. What if, after the conservative view of "sanctity of life" is enacted, the religious leaders moved on to the environment, or fighting poverty? Obviously, the connections between the religious conservatives and the neo cons would be strained to the breaking point . . . and, lest you think that's a far-fetched scenario, note that the Republicans will lose some of the fundamentalist Christian vote for exactly those reasons even in this election.

The political system must provide the illusion of choice to keep the citizen invested. To do that, it promises to "change" the things which the populace asks to change, to the point when "CHANGE" itself becomes more important than any actual issues. Once the abstract idea has replaced the specific issue, then the citizen becomes invested in the system that embodies the abstract idea, which is in turn perpetually driven precisely by that which it will not achieve. Our choices, to the degree that we have them, are usually between McDonald's and Burger King.

It is no coincidence that true men of conscience and the desire to do good, such as Jimmy Carter, are often "failures" as president. I believe it is Carter's unwillingness to fully capitulate to the political system that led to his defeat in '80. I also believe that it is no coincidence that Jimmy Carter has done much more for our nation, and for the world as a whole, after he left office. The system is built to resist change.

All true change must happen outside the normalizing influence of the political system. We may oppose the fundamentalist Christian stand on abortion, but talk with a younger fundamentalist, and you may find that you agree on the environment. So, why not join forces to change environmental law? Form coalitions. Protest in the streets. Organize awareness campaigns. Take the fight to the courts. INVOLVE IN DIRECT ACTION. LEAVE THE POLITICAL SYSTEM BEHIND. Ultimately, most of us have many beliefs in common, once we get past our own selfish interests, and the culture warriors who exploit our fears and biases.

It is here where voting becomes counterproductive. If the choice is between McDonald's and Burger King, then a vote for either one is a vote that perpetuates the defective system. In Zimbabwe, when it became clear that Robert Mugabe had no intention of letting Morgan Tsvangirai win the election, citizens abandoned the government (to the degree that they could, anyway). A citizen of conscience would not vote if he/she believed that vote to perpetuate a destructive system.

In Defense of Voting

  1. Sometimes, there really is a lesser of two evils. In 2000, I did not vote for Al Gore because I did not see a difference between a centrist Democrat and a centrist Republican. After all, Bill Clinton moved to the right at the speed of light as soon as it became clear that is how he could hold on to office. Clinton loosened business regulations, cut back on the government's social safety net, and bombed the hell out of a European country. By the time he was done, he was somewhere to the right of Nixon. I had no reason to believe that Gore would be any different, and given the number of Nixon people in Bush's orbit, it seemed like Nixon versus Clinton. Of course, hindsight being 20/20 . . .
  2. There is, on rare occasion, the opportunity to vote for someone who clearly is better for the country, no matter how much that candidate is still (necessarily) invested in the current defective political system. It is foolhardy to expect ANYONE invested in this system (to the degree that they would actually run for office - and that includes people like Dennis Kucinich and Ralph "Don Quixote" Nader) to be able to change the system, but it is possible that people can be elected who would not stand in the way of a change from outside. It's difficult to know who these people are, because they don't align cleanly with any political philosophy: I would, for instance, vote for Dick Lugar before Hillary Clinton, for even though I agree with Clinton on more of the "issues", Lugar has proven to be a politician who looks for answers that don't necessarily come from within the political sphere (of course, it helps that Lugar is so popular in Indiana that he has run virtually unopposed for the majority of his political career). That is not necessarily a dig at Clinton (I like her much more than I like her husband); it just seems that Clinton is stuck in the American bi-partisan political rut in a way that Lugar is not.
  3. Of course, always vote in local elections, if nothing else. Gotta keep those creationists off the school board and in their churches where they belong.
It is for these reasons that I will vote for Barack Obama. I have no illusions about his ability to achieve CHANGE, but I do believe that he has principles that roughly align with mine and, more importantly, he will not stand in the way of citizen-driven change for the better. And, unlike Bill Clinton, I believe he would risk his political career to stand in the way of change for the worse. He seems much more intelligent than most politicians. He also seems more thoughtful. He has hinted at a broader understanding of how to truly change the world for the better, a change that takes place outside of the political sphere. Though I am totally at a loss as to how his empty rhetoric has inspired a groundswell of enthusiasm, I am thankful, because I like him as much as anyone I have ever had a chance to vote for in a major election. And, most importantly, if he is elected and serves all eight years, he will leave office at the age of 55. That will leave him a long time to do some real good outside of the US political system (see the Jimmy Carter example above).

Well, that's it. I had planned to flesh this out and really do it right (maybe drag Badiou into it), but I shot from the hip instead. I'm tired of politics, I'm tired of writing about politics, and I'm really tired of this election. I'm dashing this off so I can stop writing stuff that annoys even me. It's about time I kicked back, took a shot of Old Fitz 90 proof, brewed myself a mug of hot tea, and played some guitar. If you have to have more, here's that notorious commie wackjob Howard Zinn touching on the same issues (thanks to Dan Willems for posting this video where I could see it):

There you have it. Now that's over. I've taken my shot, I've got my tea, I've got my resonator, I think I'll start it out with a little Son House, "Pearline"

Yeah, that's the stuff. Next post will be about Motorhead. Or not.


josh said...

The decision to vote or not is a prisoner's dilemma. Voting is betraying.

Bill Zink said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Zink said...

It may be a prisoner's dilemma, but what (or whom) does it betray? And while I freely acknowledge the reactive character of participating in the political process as structured, I still do not object to it, as long as it is paired with extra-political affirmative action (in the literal sense, not the politically correct talking point sense)

Matt said...

Several random thoughts related to this post:
I wouldn't say we live in a democracy so much as an oligarchy (at best). Often, elections seem like a big show to allow ourselves to feel better about our ailing country. Though I have participated in every election I've been able to since I turned 18, I have give serious thought to not voting anymore. You mention just a few of the compelling arguments for that view.

I sometimes describe myself as a "New Deal Democrat", but it was usually just to avoid having to explain my true views, wich run a spectrum of pure socialism on one end to anarchy at the other end. Your writing brought to mind Howard Zinn's take on the shortcomings of the New Deal. In "A People's History of the United States", he criticizes the programs of the New Deal for not going far enough. Roosevelt's stated goal was to basically get things back to where they were, even if it was a somewhat "radical" (by American standards) path. New Deal programs stabilized the economy while preventing a rebellion from becoming a full blown revolt. Basically, Roosevelt's goal was to get back to the status quo, to achieve "normalcy".

I bring this up to support your claim that ours is a system that has no interested in fundemental, substanative change. I agree that often, our system is a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils; it is the choice between McDonald's and Burger King. I often wonder if I'm betraying my own values by supporting candidates/parties that I feel lukewarm for at best. Often I do because the folks I'd vote for aren't on the ballot.

However, I would like to suggest a route not covered in this article: vote, AND do shit in your own community. Live your life according to your values. Accept personal responsibility. Be an idealist, not an idealogue. Stuff like that that is horribly out of vouge now a days.

You write that "All true change must happen outside the normalizing influence of the political system." This is true. Despite what high school textbooks would have you believe, significant, popular, essential change has always emerged from the people first. Go ahead and laugh - you've heard this populist tripe before, haven't you? And yet with the aid of circumstance, this has proven true time and time again.

The most obvious example the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Somehow, JFK and LBJ got credit for that one. But is no secret that JFK wanted foreign policy to be the centerpiece of his administration (he was an ardent cold warrior and was eager to engage the Soviets whenever he could. He was concerned about the spread of Communisim and ramped up - and would've continued rampping up - US involvement in Southeast Asia, despite what Oliver Stone would have you beleive, but I digress. . . ) It was only when the south became a powder keg that would no longer be ignored that JFK allowed himself to be pulled in. The civil rights movement was initiated and sustained by folks like you and me.

Some of my bigger fears about what at this moment appears to be an Obama presidency is not that he'll let me down - he will on some issues - but that people who were engaged in the process become complacent because they labor under other high school textbook mythologies. Stuff like our history is the linear movement of progress, and that this country was ordained to be some beacon of hope or democracy or some shit.

Anyways, different rant for a different time. I'm going to go celebrate the election this nation's first African American President.

Bill Zink said...

Politics is a medium, not a method. We force social changes in politics like salmons swimming upstream. The problem is that people think Obama is a change. Obama is only the possibility for change . . . though my friend Josh will deny this, I am enough of an idealist to think that the truth. I will not, however, be any more disillusioned if I am wrong. My eyes are open.

josh said...

Bill, you're right. I don't believe an agent of the state can represent the "possibility for change." Ours is not a personal state. It is a machine. Replacing one part with another does nothing to alter the qualitative function or output of the machine.

Voting betrays everyone but those in power. Voting is simply giving the jailer what he wants, specifically, an admission that he is in control and the best you can do is cut a deal that involves betraying your fellows for the possibility of getting what's better for you. The only guarantee you received by voting yesterday was that voters will be back in the same interrogation room (i mean, voting booth) 4 years hence hoping to cut the same deal.

Since your candidate won, you may see some benefit over the next 4 years as a result of your vote. Likewise, the 48% of voters who didn't vote for your candidate may end up the worse for it. Everyone who votes decides that the possibility of improving his/her own situation is worth the possibility of worsening someone else's as a result.

Elections are divisive. And if the prisoners are divided they're more likely to turn on each other than their jailers.

Bill Zink said...

Josh, you and I are coming from pretty much the same place. Our difference is that I don't believe the parts are completely interchangeable. I believe that the state is, at best, a static system virtually incapable of positive change (presumably Obama, from my perspective), and, at worst, a destructive system (Bush). I primarily base this, at least in this election, on foreign policy. And if indeed I am better off, then so are the 48% who voted against Obama, whether they think so or not.

Where we agree is that no real, substantial positive change can come from the state. It must come from the populace. Or, at least, that's my read. And I do agree that elections are divisive, and I don't have a big problem with that. To the degree that some people in our culture fight against the good of others, I will stand against them. When the "prisoners" choose to stand with those who would destroy us, then indeed I will turn against them. There is plenty of room for disagreement, but there is no room for those who would, for whatever reason, indulge in the anti-social.

josh said...

"And if indeed I am better off, then so are the 48% who voted against Obama, whether they think so or not."

I assume this is sarcasm. Nonetheless, this kind of thinking often drives attempts to change society. Perhaps, you are earnest about it. If you are, you're more Catholic than I am.

"There is plenty of room for disagreement, but there is no room for those who would, for whatever reason, indulge in the anti-social."

Perhaps, I'm interpreting "anti-social" in a way you don't intend; but, this strikes me as a loaded statement. There is more than enough room for indulging in the anti-social as long as it's passively expressed; e.g., one lives and thinks like the Unabomber without actually bombing anyone. Moreover, the aggressive expression of the anti-social is inevitable, generally, and doubtless understandable--if not justifiable--in some cases. If you're implying the indvidual must be an active and positively-acting member of society, I'm afraid we disagree. I'll never feel confident that my or anyone's vision of a better society is anything more than the expression of a narcissistic super-ego.

Bill Zink said...

"Anti-social" requires the narrowest possible definition, since it is such a serious claim. I certainly don't mean "anti-social" in the normal way, in that I believe the Columbine kids didn't become anti-social until they actually started shooting. I would think of "ant-social" as that which is destructive to a wide social structure. Obviously it's a sliding scale, since I find both Capitalism and Marxism anti-social to a degree. The social is a complex system, and any easy assumptions about what constitutes the anti-social are destructive - that is, any easy assumptions about the anti-social are themselves anti-social.

"Moreover, the aggressive expression of the anti-social is inevitable, generally, and doubtless understandable--if not justifiable--in some cases." If here you are casting government/religion/hegemonic structures as the social, then I agree with you . . . it's called revolution, and though it usually goes too far ("meet the new boss, same as the old boss"), it is a necessary and desirable thing. I wouldn't want to cast the social strictly in those terms - though, frankly, I'm having trouble figuring out just how it should be defined. I sometimes get the feeling that if I ever really figure that out, everything else will fall into place. And yes, your example about "thinking like the Unabomber" is not anti-social. To the contrary, an encounter with the other is at the core of Badiou's Ethics, and since I agree with him on the nihilistic source of Western ethics, this encounter (thinking) is potentially valuable to the social. And indeed, I envision a society where nobody has to BE anything. People who bitch about others "not contributing to society" annoy me as much as people who bitch about welfare being a strain on society.

Uhm, not to be a dick about it, but isn't narcissism essentially a redoubling of the ego? That may only be my idiosyncratic understanding . . . I say that because I take seriously your term "narcissistic superego", but I don't think it works. Narcissism is implied in Badiou's critique of Western ethics, and it is a big trap. Nonetheless, to say that "I'll never feel confident that my or anyone's vision of a better society is anything more than the expression of a narcissistic super-ego" is, I believe, a leveling device. It's more or less like saying "everything is everything", and it re-enforces the status quo. I believe people have better ideas than I do. I believe people have worse ideas than I do. I'm egotistical enough to believe that most people's ideas are worse than mine, but I obsessively seek out those whom I believe have better ideas. When I find them, I try to act upon their ideas. I have values that I question constantly, but follow rigorously (I hope) until the day comes that I change or reject them . . . and even when I do change or reject certain values, it is in the context of everything I know and everything I see, which shifts constantly but always maintains a fidelity to what has come before. I don't have my copy of Badiou's Ethics handy (left it out in the car - was reading it today at the Taco Bell), but I think the superego roughly maps onto Badiou's conception of other or, as he attributes it, Levinas's citation of The Law in Judaism. So: narcissism bad, but to the degree that the superego really does represent a legitimate experience of the other, then ego is good. In this sense I am egotistical, but hopefully not enough to ever become narcissistic.

That said, it's clear my comment about the 48% who voted against Obama is not remotely sarcastic. I act on what I believe is good for the whole, not just for me. I believe that my statements about the good of others is not narcissistic since, in making these statements, I do not put myself outside of history, do not pretend there is a transcendent universal to cling to. And yet, these are ethics more real and rigorous than the Catholic ideas that I was raised on - more rigorous because they are always subject to critique and evaluation: indeed, the critique of ethics is the only path to truth, which itself is always under evaluation. I may or may not be right, but I always have a fidelity to truth (or, the truth process) which guides me, and (to the degree that I honor the rigor of the process)I will always contribute to the "greater good". So I may be completely wrong about President Obama being good for the country (no, beyond that, the entire world), but I don't think the processes which brought me to that conclusion are suspect.

And, if I'm all of a sudden Catholic again, then the Catholic church loves fucking and has lots of women priests who do too.

Bill Zink said...

Josh, I would be interested in knowing what you think of ONLY the "In Defense of Not Voting" section, even if the "In Defense of Voting" section is a capitulation. I figure you'll still have problems, but I'm interested in hearing them.

Bill Zink said...

One more thing . . . reading through these comments, I think my stridency can be misleading. While I believe in what I say, and I do believe that my conclusions are for the greater good of all, I DO NOT EXPECT OTHERS TO THINK AS I DO. Plurality is not only a fact of the social, it may well be the strength of the social. A certain amount of divisiveness is expected and far from harmful. The difficult decision is at what point the divisiveness becomes anti-social. That's an answer that is still foggy in my mind.

josh said...

Bill, I don't know how valid my "narcissistic superego" is. I was thinking of the superego as the conscience. I think that's how Freud more or less imagined it. I know the superego has also been described as the "father figure" and Badiou may refer to it as the "psychoanalyst's voice" (although what little I know of Badiou is 2nd-hand). So, my notion of the superego is that it's a part of the psyche that is at least partially apart from the individual, that there is something like a social component in the superego. Or, it's the part of the psyche informed by society. I'm still not really sure what a narcissistic superego would imply but I think there's something there to consider. If nothing else, it sounds cool.

I know very little about psychoanalytical jargon and I'm probably just making things up that seem to make sense to me. But, Freud's terms aren't widely accepted either so maybe I'm not doing any harm by misusing or recontextualizing them. I don't know.

Regardless, you're probably right that it's just a leveler. But, I'm inclined to think that's where all roads lead. I'm not sure truth exists outside of experience.

My remark about your Catholicism was related to your "If it's good for me, it's good for everyone" sentiment. That sounds like Karl Rahner's "anonymous Christians" idea. It's a dogmatic position. I was substituting "Catholic" for "dogmatic." Although, I think the denotation of "universal" that Catholic adds furthers my intended meaning.

Nonetheless, yours is a dangerous (though satisfying) position in my opinion. You seem to be saying that because your intentions are social they're beyond suspicion. Actually, this might be what I was thinking of as narcissistic superego. I'm sure you disagree with that assessment but I don't know what else you could mean. By separating the process from the outcome, you're really just saying it doesn't matter where the road paved with good intentions leads as long as it's paved with good intentions. It's the inverse of "the end justifies the means."

I'll try to get back to your defense of not voting a little later. I will say, I thought it was more convincing than your defense of voting.

Angie said...

I voted for the first time in this election. I'm glad I didn't vote before, and I'm glad I voted this time. I've become easier to please over time, I suppose. No longer hoping for any miracles (it would be a miracle to achieve what I would want politically and socially--and I'm not even that confident that it would be a good idea), I just want to be represented well by a president who seems to be intellectually and temperamentally suited to the job, and who seems to have benevolent intentions. It may seem like I'm being snide, but I'm not.

I'm part of the groundswell, I suppose. I hope to be part of a continued groundswell of support. I'd like to see this presidency succeed beyond our expectations.

The fact that I cried Tuesday night is ummm...gravy on the cake.

Angie said...

Regarding the rest of the comments: I'd just like to say that it would make everyone's life a whole lot easier if we had a universal scale of suffering from 1-1,000,000, with adjustments for actual vs. histrionic suffering. Then we could just point to the scale on issues of social responsibility.

Bill Zink said...

Josh - Yeah, it was silly of me to quibble with you over Freudian terminology, since Freudian language always seems to me more expressive than utilitarian . . . and as such, your "narcissistic superego" is perfectly understandable. And, if it is a recontextualization, it's fine at that. Freud's language usually seems to benefit from recontextualization . . . Freudian purists are such a drag. Sorry I sounded like one, if only briefly.

As far as "truth not existing outside experience", well, that's right along the road I'm driving on. Truth requires a break with the quotidian, an "event" which breaks the normality of our (the self's) thinking. Your use of the word "experience" denotes and individual, subjective basis for judgment (rationale preceding an act, which presupposes "ethics", in a traditional sense of ethics), which is problematic because that seems to lead to the narcissism of the superego that you refer to . . . the narcissistic superego being a projection of the ego onto the superego (redoubling of the self), or the subjective feeding back onto itself. I certainly do not believe that experience is a path out of subjectivity.

"You seem to be saying because your intentions are social that they are beyond suspicion": I certainly didn't mean to give that impression. That would be wrong for two primary reasons: 1) though I believe in an "ethics of the other" beyond the individual, that would not be properly thought of as the social; and 2) my intentions are never beyond suspicion, especially to myself. If one's ethics are always under suspicion, then I think dogmatism is out of the question.

As far as "ends justifying the means" or vice versa . . . well, I never really understood what that meant. "The means contains within it its own ends" would be closer to my understanding.

Now, back to that "narcissism of the superego": I really think that is an interesting point, and I am actually going to explore it further in an upcoming post. Once again, I invite you to respond, only this time, if you wish, I will post your response on the blog instead of here in the comments. I don't want all your stuff to get filed away underneath my ranting.

josh said...

Bill, how would you feel about collaborating on an essay/blog/whatever? I agree that we seem to have a similar conclusion in mind. Perhaps, we'd benefit from collaboration as an alternative to the point-counterpoint we've been engaging in. Let me know what you think. Feel free to email or message me through myspace if you'd rather not clog up the comments section on your blog.

Have you read Baudrillard's, the gulf war did not take place? I've only heard references to it and haven't read it myself. From what I've heard, it seems there might be some stuff in there relevant to what we're doing (whatever it is we're doing). I also need to read Badiou. I guess Ethics is the the entry-point, no? I've got a copy I haven't read yet.

By suggesting collaboration, I don't intend to shelve anything you're currently working on or have in your pipeline. But, perhaps we could exchange some ideas and see where they lead; or, if you've got a topic in mind that you wouldn't mind sharing with me we could start with that. An exploration of the "narcissistic superego" could be a starting point. Again, let me know what you think and don't be afraid to say no. This stuff may just be wanking, but it's fun. ;)