Voting, Sarcasm, and Hope
Once I hit my teenage years I had dug a deep pit of sarcasm. This was mostly due to growing up in an abusive household, but my sarcasm extended out into being aware of and feeling deeply cynical and angry about (most) authority figures and social injustices. This has lessened over the decades, not because I think our society is that much less hypocritical and unjust but because I have let go of a lot of anger. And, frankly, years of seeing the same unethical behavior by authority figures—religious, political, and so forth does do something to dull the emotions. We get used to it.
I, like many, am skeptical about politicians and the election process. The billions of dollars spent on political campaigns is sickening, especially considering the multitude of issues this country faces—the national debt, homelessness, sexual and domestic violence, poverty, children going to school without adequate food, corporate welfare, and so on. Here in Minnesota we are voting on two Constitutional Amendments—the Marriage Amendment and the Voter ID Amendment. The Marriage Amendment wants to make marriage between same sex couples unconstitutional even though it is already illegal in Minnesota for same sex couples to marry. Earlier this fall one of the co-authors of the bill, a Republican, publicly stated the bill was created in order to ensure conservatives would show up at the voting booth. Minnesota Republican leaders did not feel they could defeat popular U.S. Senator Amy Klobouchar who has bipartisan appeal and is up for re-election. Interestingly, his public disclosure did not receive much media play.
The Voter ID Amendment would force voters to show picture Ids when voting in Minnesota, ostensibly to end voter fraud, which, in reality, is such a small problem as to be nearly non-existent. If passed, the amendment would cost the state millions of dollars to abide by the amendment’s rules and at the same time it would make it much more difficult and sometimes impossible for many elderly, people-of-color, and college-age voters. Both of these amendments have run costs into the millions, and have pitted disenfranchised groups against other Minnesotans who feel as if other people’s right to have access to basic human rights impedes and diminishes their right to marry or vote.
Sarcasm, cynicism, and apathy versus hope and caring were two basic ways of being from my teen years and beyond. I could not cope with the injustices of my home life or the social injustices I read about and I used sarcasm, cynicism and apathy like a buffer to protect myself when I could no longer handle the pain. Once I recovered enough I would revolve back into hope and caring. They were cyclical and brutal for both me and the people I was close to because on occasion I would shut down, not caring about anything. I did not strike out at people, I just shut down and nothing could break through. It was the only way I could survive. My hurt was so enormous I had to bury it somewhere, and that is how the pit of sarcasm and cynicism took over, a pit to bury my pain.
Sarcasm, cynicism, and apathy quickly became the dominant way of being for me. I developed a sarcastic persona and kept myself safe beneath it. That persona was just fine with me, yet despite my loyalty to it, hope and care would surface. It was like I tried to kill myself emotionally, but just couldn’t quite do it. The hope—that I would not be lied to, that people would act ethically, that people would stop hurting each other and animals—would rise and then I would feel “uncool” and weak for believing that, in essence, good could happen in the world. Year after year, I revolved between these two ways of living, with the sarcasm, cynicism, and apathy winning. After awhile, I was not aware of what I was doing. It was like waking up and always putting on a red shirt. But inside, the two outlooks were a struggle, a constant internal wrestling match that often left me exhausted. Sarcasm, cynicism, and apathy protected me through brutally abusive childhood and teenage years and I did not want to open up–risking not only being hurt again, but also risking being forced to acknowledge and then deal with my unresolved pain. Yet, it was not my natural state to be or live in such despair and pain and my hope would surface, inspired by an idea, or individual, or organized political resistance.
Notice I said “political resistance”, not mainstream politics, which I have had no faith in, pretty much ever. I come from a place where it is not wise to believe in anything but resistance, where the only safe place is on the outside. Anyone who allows herself to believe is a naïve chump. Yet, I have always voted, while at the same time disbelieving that one could effect meaningful change through mainstream politics. Working through the political process and putting one’s faith in politicians or one of the two dominant political parties would be setting oneself up to be lied to and manipulated. I still believe that. The difference is personal—I have less pain internally, and I don’t react to external triggers like I once did.
Overall, I tend to agree with Howard Zinn, that “voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.” However, easy for some is not so easy for others, and that is particularly true in my neighborhood where things the middle class takes for granted, such as transportation, jobs, child care, and so on can be difficult to come by, time-consuming, and sometimes simply non-existent. One day, while on a run, I saw two elderly African American women pushing and pulling a large, disabled man in a wheelchair up a steep, narrow two-story staircase. No wheelchair accommodations. No aide in a belt with special trainings. No railings on the staircase to buzz his chair up and down. Five hours north of my neighborhood, a friend of mine on the White Earth reservation had to cut through much red tape simply to discover where her polling station was, and then drive 45 minutes just to cast her vote. And as she noted, she had a truck and gas money to get there—all things to not take for granted.
Given my conflicted feelings about mainstream politics, my response this morning when I voted was particularly surprising. I was weepy. My polling place—a community center in an area of Minneapolis inhabited largely by people of color, lesbians and gays, working class, and poor people, was abuzz with voters at 10:00am. Young, old, African American, Native, Hmong, White, straight, gay, and disabled were standing in line casting their ballots on a dreary, gray morning. As I stood in line, thoughts about access to voting flashed through my head: white women being beaten and arrested in the early 1900s to gain the vote, African Americans being lied to about their voting rights in 2012, the Minnesota Republican’s use of the state constitution as a ploy to bury the rights of same sex couples, English as second language speakers having to break down language and cultural barriers to cast their vote, and American Indians, some of whom were my ancestors, being the last group (in 1924) to be allowed to vote. This knowledge, and the very real individuals who showed up to participate in this damaged process gave me hope—not some cheesy campaign slogan, but real, deep, hard-earned optimism for the ability of people to rise above our hurt, our divisions, our distrust, our inequalities as they exist in this country right now and as they have existed for hundreds of years.
Some images from the polling place stick with me. The elderly Hmong couple whose son showed them which lines to stand in and helped translate English into their language; the young African American father in dreds and a stocking hat who lifted his baby daughter into the air, making her laugh, as he waited to slide his paper ballot into the machine; the elderly white woman with gray curls tight to her pink head, attempting to find her daughter because she didn’t know where to go next; the lesbian standing in line in her butchy clothes, talking with the man in front of her. One hundred years ago virtually none of us in that building would have been able to cast our vote, and we could have been arrested, beaten, and fined for trying. This morning the history of struggle in the U.S. merged with the reality of standing in line in a very imperfect process—one I distrust for good reasons—and I felt an unexpected, overwhelming sense of pride simply for being there, among all those people discounted and disenfranchised for so long.
This morning while voting in an indoor basketball court with banners that asked Why do people die over clothes and tennis shoes? I filled in that now shallow groove of sarcasm a little more. I want to live a balance between knowing about our imperfect and often corrupt system, country, and history with the hope that together we will stop the harm being precipitated against people, animals, and land. For the sadness and isolation of cynicism is a waste of life. At the same time, refusing to seek out and grapple with the abuses all around us is a shirking of the responsibility we each have to ourselves, to one another, to those who came before us, and to those who will come after us.
*Minnesota voted down both amendments