Ever since the 2004 elections I’ve been trying to become, slowly, more politically aware of my surroundings. Unfortunately for me this is not saying much, as I’ve spent much of my life being cheerily ignorant of the actions and redactions of my policy makers…and let’s not even touch on my historic ignorance of matters outside this country. I can name about three or four foreign heads of state, if that, and those are from Canada, Mexico, and a couple of bits of Europe. Forget anything happening in South America or Africa or Asia, I am next door to clueless. Recently I’ve taken to reading New Zealand news every day and it’s so embarrassing that I don’t quite understand what a Prime Minister is and that whatever brief conception I have of Treaty of Waitangi actually comes from my Lonely Planet guidebook. Our news, American news, is on their front pages every day but I still struggle to understand what being in the Commonwealth really entails, because I don’t get why a monarch in England should be involved in what happens in Canada. When I say slowly I mean slowly.
In my own pathetic defense, it’s true that just keeping up with everything going on here is kind of a full-time job, as any political blogger could tell you. I’ve been thinking about DeLay’s resignation all day today, and opinion around my office’s watercooler is pretty evenly divided between those who think that Christmas has come early this year and those who think that, much as was the case with Obi-Wan, destroying DeLay only makes him stronger. I can barely keep on top of all the scandals and indictments….and dude, that’s just the one guy. What about the war? What about terrorism? What about the Katrina survivors, what’s going on with them? What about South Dakota’s abortion ban, what the hell are we going to do about that? What about intelligent design being taught in school, how about that? Bird flu? Social Security? Civil rights? Stem cell research? Drilling in the ANWR? I could go on. It feels impossible to really understand everything and so I can see why you (and by “you” I mean “I”) might find it more profitable to just give up and forget about it.
One of the things that’s really come home to me since November 2004 is that the way government does (or doesn’t) work affects all of us in ways we might not even imagine, that the political really is the personal. That’s made me think a lot about my own values…I was about to write “my political values,” but that’s what I mean, I think all values are political, even if they feel private or individual. Anyway, mine are pretty well in line with mainstream liberal progressive values: I think the government ought to be transparent in all its dealings, help folks that need help, protect its citizens’ civil liberties, support all types of families, and enshrine evidence-based policy as the gold standard by which it operates. I think people do best when we live in an ecologically sustainable manner and participate actively in our various communities, and I also think we benefit greatly from being well educated and meaningfully employed. Other myriad opinions of mine include whole slew of other stuff that includes, for example, the phrases “right to choose” and “anti-corporate welfare” and “sound energy policy,” and “separation of church and state.”. I still have this terrible problem where I’m very good at preaching to the choir but am awful at explaining my views effectively to people who think differently than I do. I suppose I’ve made some inroads in refining my own views but hell if I can back them up in a debate with anything other than “It just makes sense to me, okay?”
As I’ve thought about my own pre-global-warming-glacially-slow political evolution, I’ve realized that I’ve pretty much always defined myself as liberal, even when I haven’t much understood what that meant. When I emailed Mandy the other about what’s happening in her corner of Peru right now and asked how she acquired her own bleeding heart, I realized that I don’t know much about how that happens, how our political identification (and hence our political..and possibly personal…values) change over time. My mom has always been pretty alternative, although I don’t remember her talking to me about politics at all as a kid. Of course, when in 1984 my fourth grade class held a mock election, I was one of two kids in the entire class to vote the Mondale/Ferraro ticket so there’s that, but there’s also the fact that I was a Teen Evangelist for a while and we aren’t generally known for having our fingers on the progressive pulse. Although of course now that I think about it, I did start to get interested in social justice issues during several of the mission trips I went on in the early nineties to places like Mexico and the Dominican Republic…I even went to Grenada once, that tiny little nutmeg-producing island that this country invaded in 1983. I knew on some level, when I was growing up in Miami, that a lot of my mom’s students were Central American refugees and of course there were a lot of Cuban exiles, pre- and post-Mariel, in all my schools but I just didn’t understand that any of that was political, that my own country’s policies were (oftentimes heavily) involved in the fates of people I ran into on the streets. It’s a testament to my self-obsession that I didn’t understand that more or sooner than I did.
I left Miami eventually and went, sort of by accident, to hippie college in California and I guess I absorbed some more liberal tendencies during that time, and of course there was social work school, which had, to say the least, the sort of radicalizing effect on me that anyone forced to work in healthcare or with the social service system can attest to. Now I work with people with disabilities and I could go on about advocacy and policy and the ADA and accessibility and quality of life and medical research and PTSD for the soldiers coming back from Iraq and all the rest of it, which is certainly not edging me any closer to the right. But somehow it’s…I don’t know, it’s like I’ve only recently begun to understand that my politics, such as they are, are really a part of who I am. Doesn’t that sound sort of silly? I guess after the 2004 elections when everyone was screaming about red states and blue states and I was feeling so upset that I began to internalize it more. Part of it is living in Seattle, too, the city where it’s illegal not to recycle, and where it’s easy to feel that liberalism is just what you do, how you act, who you are. I have been wondering lately what it will be like to be in a completely different context, where American liberalism and conservatism might mean completely different things. I also wonder how I might change in general, politically, as I get older. If I make friends with a bunch of Republicans will I start to agree with them on social policy? What if someday I actually make a lot of money, will I all of a sudden want a bunch of tax cuts for myself?
I can’t be the only one who wonders about this stuff. So tell me: how have you come to your place in the political universe? Where do you think you’ll end up?