I just finished Paul Rogat Loeb's "Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time". It lays out the choice that each of us faces. We can buy into the overriding cynicism of our time, which allows us to emotionally disengage and which ultimately reinforces our feelings of powerlessness. "The problems are too overwhelming", "they're all crooks anyway", "what can I do?", "I'm just one person", etc. etc. etc. There are many convincing arguments for inaction and apathy. Or, we can engage despite the magnitude of the problems and the fact that the struggle could (and probably will) outlast all of us. Anyone expecting a sprint, rather than a grueling marathon, is in for a very unpleasant surprise.
Being extremely stubborn by nature (ask any of my near and dear), the choice for me was not a difficult one to make. Loeb speaks about the need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and I find that as good a measure as any. But, just making a choice to engage is only the beginning of the story. Each of us hears the same tune a little differently. For me, it was the basic unfairness of the 2004 elections that drew me in. The more I read (not in the mainstream media, I'm afraid), the more disturbed I was by the revelations and subsequent rationales, dismissals and overall apathy to it all. The Conyers Report ("Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio") was largely ignored by the press. Despite Congress' obligation to distribute minority reports, Rep. Conyers had to get a private publisher. When the GAO report was released in September, it essentially validated the concerns of those who were earlier dismissed as conspiracy theorists and lefty loonies. Whatever happened to that GAO report? It was issued, accompanied by a bi-partisan Congressional press conference (big news in itself, these days), yet ten days afterwards, not a single wire service nor major news organ had picked it up. The story vanished into the virtual black hole where the media buries difficult stories. If a news story is kept from the public, did it really happen? Does it really exist?
But, I digress. Back to what it takes to be an activist. Since I saw "Invisible Ballots: A Temptation for Electronic Vote Fraud" this summer, the documentary itself has become the focus of my campaign for election reform. There was almost nothing in the film that I wasn't familiar with. Yet, it made a very powerful impression on me. It showed, dispassionately and in a non-partisan manner, why electronic voting is not a good idea. Bingo! I decided to use it as a tool to bring about a national conversation on election issues, particularly electronic voting. I bought three copies of the DVD and launched my free, lending library. Exactly four months later, more than 130 group/individual 'borrowers' from 27 states, Washington DC, Canada and Japan have participated in my project. Three articles/reviews have appeared so far; more are in the pipeline.
But, it has hardly been a solitary effort. A number of people supply contacts and articles, run and update the blog (www.CountEveryVote.Blogspot.com), drop off mailers and money for postage, meet with public officials, edit my words and help me fine-tune my techniques.
My library project led me to Op Ed News and my new role as Voting Integrity Editor. Rob Kall, my new 'boss,' was the eleventh 'borrower' of "Invisible Ballots", monitored my progress and offered me an opportunity at Op Ed News. As an editor, I am also dependent upon the "kindness of strangers": bloggers who send me articles to peruse, activists who keep me apprised of their activities, interested friends and colleagues who send me tips and suggestions. I serve as matchmaker, linking stories/news/op ed pieces and their ultimate readers. Very satisfying work, indeed, but again, not accomplished in a vacuum.
One writer from the West Coast brought me to tears when he shared his despair about the future of our country. His letter was very personal and heartfelt and it really shook me up. It took me quite a while before I was able to pull myself together and write him back. We now exchange book recommendations and child-rearing tips but we shared a moment of exquisite intimacy that is unique and different from many of my day-to-day relationships.
I didn't get involved for this 'high' but now I think I'm addicted to it. How else can you explain the many late nights when I am literally falling off my feet and there I am pounding out a reply to someone I wouldn't recognize if I bumped into him on the street? There is something a bit mystical about this method of communication that transcends time and place and the physical realm. It's like when my daughter calls and wants to talk to the dog. Emma hears her voice, recognizes it, and then looks at me as if to say "I know that's her, but what the heck is she doing in there?" I feel a similar appreciation for the possibilities that the internet provides, even if I have absolutely no technical understanding of how it works.
I have many ideas I am excited about implementing as an editor for Op Ed News. Obviously, voting issues are a top priority. The "voting activist DVD giveaway" is already in full swing. The caliber of the contestants is impressive. A few copies of "Invisible Ballots" remain. If you are a voting activist, drop Rob an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and tell us what you've been doing and what your plans are for the DVD. We will send the remaining copies out until we don't have any more. Then, I will go back to my lending library, where any individual interested in seeing "Invisible Ballots" can contact me to borrow one.
I also plan a "Local Heroes" corner with bios of activists who are making a difference in their communities. You can write me about yourself or someone whose efforts touched you. As you may gather, I am aiming to create a vibrant webpage full of wonderful, every day people who have chosen to "just say no" to cynicism. It's a powerful notion: that an inspiring story can offset the plethora of depressing news stories out there. Too often, we look at heroes as inaccessible, impossible, almost inhuman figures. The problem is that we admire them but can't identify with them. That only reinforces our notions of powerlessness.
Reading or hearing about ordinary people doing extraordinary things opens us up to the possibility of our own involvement. We can fight the isolation and apathy around us only when we feel that we are not alone. I now recognize in a more fundamental way that there is no such thing as a "self-made man". We stand on the backs of those who preceded us and stand shoulder to shoulder with those who share our goals and our passions. We are part of a long chain of human endeavor to make our world a better place to live. We forget this connectedness at our peril.