Monday, September 29, 2008

Questions of Responsibility: South African and U.S. Politics

I've been thinking about U.S. politics (just listening to NPR on the way to work keeps it in my mind all day!) and, of course, South African politics. I was pondering how politics relates to social responsibility and stewardship (two themes in The Concrete Gardener) and would love to hear your thoughts.

There's the obvious-- the right to vote implies a responsibility.

There's also a lot of ambiguity about what this relationship between social responsibility and politics could, or should be. I know the phrase "social responsibility" means a whole lot of different things, so I guess I should be more specific. I'm thinking about it in the context of consuming carefully, taking care of the environment, and being engaged in issues of injustice. All of which can be pretty time consuming, right? I thought of a few questions around this ambiguity:

1) Is it worth my time?
2) What should I do if my candidate isn't elected?
3) Does it matter? Should I really care about this, if my life has always been the same independent of who is in power?

I think when it comes to people's time, our passions and priorities can be our guide-- but only to an extent. That is, it's silly to get super-engaged in something that doesn't really excite us, just because it seems like it fits with living socially responsible lives. Yet the act of voting should involve some process of truly understanding the candidates. The rest: campaigning, participating in local elections, I think that's what can be based on your passions. So back to the essential: knowing the candidates.

There's a vague idea out there that politics is a dirty business, and therefore engaging at any level is bound to get you dirty. I can relate to this feeling. In particular, if you stand with a particular candidate, you may be standing with him/her despite the fact you disagree strongly on some issues. Putting in my lot with an imperfect leader feels a little dangerous in terms of the person I'm trying to come across as, right? There's often little nuance in politicians messages (because they must deliver sound bytes), yet usually a lot of thought behind our own beliefs.

But it seems like it's better to be engaged, informed and involved than not, even it means voting a more simplistic message than you dreamed of. Even if you turn out to be totally wrong about a candidate, it doesn't mean your politics or your identity need come crashing down. I've often struggled to put my opinions out there for fear that a) I'm wrong and being obnoxious or b) my opinion will be misinterpreted. But I think it's worth putting it out there to be tested.

Related to question 3), I think even if your life personally has not changed significantly under different administrations, don't assume it's all the same. Try to find out why it matters, and to whom. Leadership always changes things. Check out the candidates websites, for a start, and look at fact checking websites to see if they stretch the truth.

I think question 2) is pretty important. My opinion on this is that you should build up the candidate who is elected, by generating conversation about that candidate and in local politics, and by complaining through channels that might just facilitate change. It's just too easy to undermine a candidate in a totally unhelpful way, by attacking him or her in incredibly general terms. This usually just makes me more angry and frustrated. It's a lot more empowering to generate conversation that is specific and complain through channels that may evoke change.

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