Sunday, May 17, 2020

Of Apathy & Absence

First issue
Last summer my friend Eric Matthies reached out to me because he was planing to publish an anthology, "in the spirit of the old school punk zines",  and was looking for contributions from friends. As one does with these sort of things, I read it, and filed it away  - meaning to reply later. I got a reminder from Eric a few weeks later, and I'll admit I didn't reread the original pitch, I just dove into writing an idea that had been taking shape after his first email. Looking back, my contribution to Eric's zine turned out to be a bit literal, but only because I remembered the title of the Zine, "DEFY APATHY!" as a theme for the first issue... So it goes. What follows is my dispatch from another country: the past. (although I do feel like the conclusion rhymes nicely with the COVID present.)

I don't remember seeing Star Wars for the first time, It is one of my all time favorite movies, but even so, I have absolutely no memory of being in the theater with my sisters, of seeing the Star Destroyer pass over head for the first time, or of the crowds' reaction to the "drop into hyperspace". What I do remember is my sisters saying that if I didn't go, they couldn't go, and thinking the title sound dumb (I was 6 in May of 1977). And I remember the summer that followed - that practically the only thing my friends and I talked about was Star Wars, and that all we cared about was speed; the speed of "hyperspace" - but on Big Wheels. Likewise, I don't remember my first votes - or I do, but only as an absence.
My spread - and free stickers
I turned eighteen in June of '88, so I would have had my first chance to cast a vote in the presidential elections later that same year. I can't imagine I was swept up in the excitement of the Dukakis campaign, but I do remember discussing with my father, my choice of whether or not to register for the draft. Dad wasn’t an activist, but he was an outspoken pacifist who, as a younger man, had marched with Martin Luther King in Selma. He encouraged me to bite the bullet, so I could get the student aid I’d  need for college, and to vote my dissent.
My disgust with the Reagan/Bush administration had its origins in middle school, with friends who came from political activist households, they and their parents stirred my earliest political convictions with sharp no-nuke and anti-war rhetoric, which I found galvanizing in a way the background noise of my father’s pacifism never had. By '88, my alienation had come to a boil and I did not want to participate, in anyway, with the bellicose corruption of the US government. And while I don’t remember exactly how it went down, I do know that by November of '88 however, my father’s arguments had won the day over my more radical anti-war impulses. I had registered for the draft and enrolled in a community college.
On Tuesday November 8th, I would have been living with a high school buddy, sharing a second floor walk up on the least attractive corner of Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. I imagine he and I might have gone to vote together, we were nerdy and did those sorts of things together. And because my father was a Yellow Dog Democrat, I am sure I voted for Dukakis, not because I cared for him as a candidate, but because I know my father would have urged me not to throw away my vote on a radical lost cause. I’m sure that I would have voted with my father the pacifist that year, but I’m not positive. I can’t be. I don't remember the act. I do remember my disappointment that Bush won that election - which was personal, keen, and deeply felt. So while not positive, I’m pretty sure. But like Star Wars, my first vote is remembered as a sort of negative space.
By the time the 1990 midterms came along two years later, I was living a couple hours drive straight west of Seattle. I had hitchhiked out in the spring of ’89 and gotten myself a job casting bronze at the end of a dirt road in a small community of hippy poets, boat builders, fishermen, dairy farmers and loggers (an odd mix for a kid from Chicago). And again, while I don't actually remember voting that year, I have good reason to be almost certain I did.
Investing a casting with Tom
I had moved out west to apprentice to the sculptor Tom Jay. Tom was a back-to-the-lander who’d built a small bronze foundry on ten acres at the end of a dirt road - deep in the woods, no running water - in the early 70s. Tom was also environmental activist (something I'd never encountered growing up in Chicago - the political activists and community organizers I’d known growing up were focused on anti-war, no-nukes, and racial justice, I don’t remember anyone talking about nature) who was well respected by the hippies, fishermen, farmers and loggers - no small thing.
"Think Globally, Act Locally" was another entirely unfamiliar concept else my boss Tom introduced to me -  the activism I’d known till then felt as nonlocal as the wars, nukes and racism they were countering. It seems trite now, the stuff of faded t-shirts and half legible bumper stickers, but it wasn’t yet then. And it wasn’t just an idea they declared however, Tom and his neighbors were true believers, and they acted on those beliefs. Like no one I had ever met before (in Chicago hippies were people who smoked pot, dressed a certain way, lived in poorer neighborhoods, and drove particular makes of van - but to me the nonconformity had always seemed one of quality, not kind). The community I’d found myself within was “living the change they wanted to make”. Again, that might sound trite, but I’d never seen a large group of people do that before, I was totally convinced.
Local elections were important to them, and so I know, by extension, that they were important to me. I almost certainly would have voted with them that first year - but certainly  all the elections I was there that followed. And most of the time they would have voted Democratic, because these people may have been drinking out of hand dug wells, living on land co-ops, shopping at the food co-op, and working in cooperative shops, but they were realists and did not throw away their votes.
Tom  looking a bit silly at an infamous holiday party (it was the 90s)
But again my memory of voting during that time is spotty, even the mechanics of the machines/ballots is all but lost to time. I seem to remember we voted in the Fire Station, that they moved the engines out of the garage; that the space was bright and airy. I do remember that the poll worker who greeted me the first time I voted there was Ean the wife of a crusty local farmer named Leonard who owned the pasture land across the road from Tom’s foundry, where I lived (her husband disliked me on principal - I think because I didn’t own a car, and while he’d pick me up, I didn’t think he approved of my hitchhiking - but that changed the day I was the only person to show up for a work party, and he and I alone put up twice as many fence posts as he'd expected to get done with six guys). As much as Leonard still disliked me in those pre-work-party years, I remember Ean greeting me warmly, and how pleased I was to be greeted by a familiar face; the small town-ness of it all.
When I arrived in Washington State in ’89, we hadn’t been dubbed Gen X yet, and it was probably a matter of a year still, before "Grunge" would become a thing - at least it hadn’t become a thing in Chicago before I left, and I don’t remember any of my friends back home registering that I’d moved somewhere relevant that first year. (Not only did I not know about Kurt Cobain and Sub Pop, I could not have found Seattle on a map before I hitchhiked there, I'm not sure I even knew there were any states on the West Coast besides California.) But by ‘88 my generation was already being dismissed as “slackers” (I turned 18 while hitchhiking through Texas that summer, and everyone I met in Austin had either been in Slacker or knew someone who had).
Me looking sill at the same party (it was the 90s)
Even before I had the right to vote, I was told my generation was apathetic; that in fact, all Americans had become apathetic- but we were somehow standouts. The proof of that apathy was obvious and impossible to refute: the shrinking share of eligible voters who actually voted and the prodigy of that decline - the twin rolling electoral trauma of Ronald Reagan (with the added insult of the George Herbert Walker Bush addendum soon to follow) had dominated the lives of my generation to disastrous effect. It was hard not to believe that argument.
A fact that was bandied around on the Left a great deal in those years, was, that in Italy, 90% of eligible voters showed up to vote. I had never been to Italy, but I had hitch hiked all throughout the lower 48 in the late 80s and early 90s and my experience of the Americans who I met while on the road was not an apathetic people. Hitchhiking conversations are a lot like airport conversations: people, with a few hours to kill, who can confidently expect to never see you again, will open up on subjects they might otherwise never tell anyone. I heard a lot about marriages (good and bad), religious beliefs (held and lost), money (successes and troubles), sex (almost always boring), divorces, working life, the dark corners of parenting - but most of all, Americans talked to me about politics.
Hitching - summer of '88
It didn't take me long to get the gist of how these conversations worked and how I best fit within them. Influenced by a clique of friends in high school, I'd developed into an aggressive debater: "You're wrong, and I'm right, and this is why..." Perhaps not coincidentally, my friendship with that group ended in the wake of my first cross country hitch hiking trip - to NYC, in January, during one of the worst snow storms to hit the East Coast in 80 years. I was 17, hard-headed, and deeply opinionated, and making profoundly poor life decisions, but no one needed to tell me a ride won't last long if I told the driver he was wrong, or that her beliefs were stupid.
Over the next six years, from my base in Washington State, I tracked back and forth across the country, and up and down the coasts. Everywhere I traveled in the US, Americans cautioned me against Americans in other parts of the country. In the North, I was told to be careful in those crackers in the South, in the South, I was made to beware of yankees. East Coasters warned me against West Coasters, Angelenos against the freaks in SF, and vice versa, and on and on.
Hitching in the rain - summer of '88
I was never robbed or attacked or threatened or arrested. I was hit on from time to time, but the passes were no more aggressive or lewd than the sort of passes someone might make in a bar. No doubt I’ve encountered more scared cops with their hands on their holster than most Americans (only one ever drew on me). Everywhere I traveled in the US I was met with generosity and good humor. Farmers would tell me about the weather and crops, ranchers about grazing, contractors talked about the economy. Fathers about their wayward sons and daughters, women would ask me if hitching was safe (safer than the bus was always my answer). Everyone wanted to know if I had enough to eat, where I was going to sleep. Some had a hitchhiking story of their own, most harbored the regret of never having hitched when they were younger.
Everyone picked me up. Young and old, men and women. I rode through southern Utah with a group of migrant workers who spoke little or no english. I got picked up by two little old ladies with a picnic basket full of chicken going through Indiana. A professional horse judge with the greenest eyes I’d ever seen on a human being had an extra cup of coffee he gave me on a cold windy morning in Minnesota. I got pulled over with a surfer going through the southwest desert - he had gotten us very stoned, and came dangerously close to being arrested because we were speeding to get fried chicken.
Last Temptation of Christ
The great majority of my rides were working class guys in their thirties and forties. And while most people imagine truckers as the ideal ride, that was not my experience. While I have spent more time in the cab of big rigs than at least one of the truckers who picked me up, they were still in the minority - it is a big deal to slow an 18 wheeler down once it gets rolling. Mostly it was shorter rides with men who were self assured physically (tall and thin, I was not a particularly physically imposing guy, which I think helped get rides), but also interested to see what I was up to in their communities - off duty cops were always good for getting me down the road.
If it took me no time to figure out arguing and contradicting my rides was a bad idea, developing ways of gently disagreeing and strongly making a case for my beliefs, in ways that weren’t challenging, was something I got better and better at over time. In ‘88 I was able to convince a Texas preacher that he should go see Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. In ‘95 I got a retired marine, who had helped fight the war on drugs flying helicopters, to at least admit that there was merit to the idea that drugs should be legalized. But time on the road also made me a better listener, I learned about issues I’d never considered from people I never would have met otherwise. A prison guard talked to me about the need for prison reform, an addict working in a diary about the loneliness of staying sober by moving thousands of miles from his friends and family. On and on.
The Reagan and Bush proof of apathy began to be outweighed in my mind by new evidence. I began to see Americans in a new light; that for better or worse, perhaps low voter turnout was a symptom of a kind of national health not apathy. That most Americans were decent people, taken up with the issues of their own lives and their immediate community. That like Tom and his neighbors, they were engaged, sometimes even deeply engaged, but that the nation as a whole was something they didn’t entirely hold as their own. I began to counter the example of Italy’s high voter turnout, with Italian dysfunction - the Italians had had a new government nearly every year since the end of WWII; that perhaps their 90% voter turnout wasn’t a sign of democratic health but instead a symptom of political dysfunction? That, while I found it frustrating, maybe the reason most Americans didn’t show up to vote was that they were satisfied with their lives and the lives of their neighbors?
I had voted for Bill and Hillary with great enthusiasm in 1992 (“A Twofer” I told my skeptical hippy neighbors, who held their noses and voted for Clinton, but cautioned me with the wisdom of age not to expect too much from them). In 1995, after six years of working in the foundry and as an artist, I hitchhiked to NYC to go to art school. I don’t remember the ’96 reelection or the midterms in ’98, but I remember very clearly standing in line in Brooklyn to vote for Al Gore in 2000 - by then, voting in my Brooklyn neighborhood was old hat. I had voted there before, I remember that I knew my polling station well and some of the neighborhood characters standing on line with me as regular voters - so I must have voted in ’98, and I can’t imagine I didn’t in ’96.
In 2000, I remember standing in front of one such neighborhood character, a crusty old black man who reminded me of Ean’s husband Leonard. He was complaining about the long wait, and mouthing the Republican rhetoric of government inefficiency: that no company run this poorly would stay in business long. I was less impatient with his impatience than his reasoning, I remember telling him that the promise of democracy is justice not efficiency. I think of that moment a lot; perhaps because of the injustice of that election. I remember friends at the time whinging about Gore, that he was robotic, unlikable, drab. I still chafe over that loss. We could have had an environmentalist president. And we didn’t lose that election because of apathy, it had to be stolen from us.
Eight years later, the line I stood on to vote for Obama was hundreds of times longer than Gore’s. (I don’t remember voting for John Kerry, but I know I did because I remember the gloomy election night party at a gallery later that night - I’d bet my last penny there were no lines to vote that day). The line on November 4th, 2008 meanwhile circled a full city block, we were an electoral ouroboros. No one on line with me complained about the wait that day; no one thoughtlessly mouthed GOP talking points. The mood was light, laughter came easily. Those walking past in search of the line’s end were cheered on by those who had already waited hours. And While I don’t remember pulling the lever, I remember it was on one of the old machines. It was wildly inefficient. Exuberant even. Not like at all like a company; more akin to the overabundance and hilarity of cherry blossoms.
Like the summer of 1977, the election was our Star Wars, Obama was our New Hope. Practically all my friends and neighbors could talk about was  CHANGE - that was our drop into hyperspace.  The optimism had faded into something less exuberant, more realistic, by 2012, and honestly I don’t remember anything about that vote, although again, I know I voted - I know because I was afraid Mittens would win. And by afraid, I mean worried. 2016 was the first election in my life in which I was physically afraid.
My fiancĂ© and I had bought a summer place at the end of a dirt road. We watched, however, in alarm as confederate flags appeared along the winding country roads, as they gave way to Trump signs, and as those made way for “white nationalist” flyers.
But again I voted with enthusiasm. I hadn’t supported Hillary Clinton in ‘08, but by 2016 I saw her campaign as historic, she had easily overcome my misgivings about Bill. And while some of my most far Left friends had soured on Obama, I had not. I felt he had overcome an incredibly recalcitrant (read; RACIST) GOP, and delivered on the promises he’d made us - Not entirely, not perfectly, the project was far from complete, but the change had been set in motion. I believe that Hillary would cement the gains that Obama had made and build on them.
And again, like Gore, my enthusiasm was not widely held among my friends, I argued with those who had lost patience with CHANGE and wanted a radical break, to think of the CHANGE made by Obama in terms of compound interest, that eight more years would grow the CHANGE we had. into a fortune of CHANGE. For those who were weary of political dynasty” (a feeling I shared in ‘08) I pointed out that she was no longer simply a former first lady, that over the intervening eight years she had turned herself into one of the most accomplished presidential candidates of our life times, with easily the most progressive platform of any Democratic campaign in living memory. And as for the guy who told me he wasn’t a misogynist, but explained, “I want to vote for a woman, just not her.” I told him that “Yeah man, that is misogyny.” There were no lines to vote for Hillary.
The Extremist Next Door
The 2018 midterms marked the first time in almost 20 years I wasn’t voting in NYC. We had decided to move our votes upstate - hoping to help change the county from Red to Blue. I clearly remember walking into the fire station, this time the trucks hadn’t been moved, and instead the polling station was in a small cramped entrance space. The poll worker who greeted me was an overweight middle-aged man I’d never seen before. He looked me over and said “Democrat” as he handed me my ballot. I remember where I stood as I filled in my ballot. And I remember the misgivings I felt as I handed it back to him, as I watched him put it in the machine - I wondered if he actually counted the vote or if he was just miming the motions. While I may not remember the act of voting in the past, that doubt was entirely new. And I still have it. I’m still not sure my vote was counted.
My father would tell people that rejecting a Democratic candidates for insufficient ideological purity or other such imperfections, was making the perfect the enemy of the good. And for I long time I did too, but I don’t anymore. I ask my friends who are considering voting for a third party spoiler or withholding their votes altogether to remember that we are not voting for Democrats, I we’re voting with them. We vote with the Americans who want to protect the environment, with the Americans who want to care for the elderly and the poor, with the Americans who want to preserve workers’ rights, with the Americans who want to shield religious and ethnic minorities from discrimination. But I am afraid that in 2020 we are going to be asked to vote against Americans, vote to defeat the bigots, vote to beat back the racists, to punish the corrupt.
BK Line - 2008
On line in 2008 I saw the opposite of apathy, it wasn’t anger, it was laughter. It is the hilarity of hyperspace.  We weren’t voting against anyone we were voting together. The opposite of apathy is exuberance,  Whatever happens, I expect that 2020 will be marked by record high voter turnout, even if the Dems nominate another John Kerry. But I expect turnout to be high on both sides, and Republicans are better at motivating their voters to vote against. If our politics continue along the path we’re on - of voting against each other, turnout will continue to rise on both sides until inevitably, we reach 90% voter participation.

It seems we’re all Italians now.

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