Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Color Purple

"I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it."

For most of my life, politics has essentially been a spectator sport. And like most other spectator sports, I only become interested in it when the stakes are high, like the World Series, the Super Bowl, or the Olympics. I am currently going through a phase of fairly intense interest in politics, although I still treat it as a spectator sport. I watch it on TV, read about it on the internet, talk about it with my friends. Although last week, on election day, I did get a chance to participate. And I was surprised at how fun and exciting it was.

I first became interested in politics during the 1972 presidential race. Most of my eighth-grade classmates were for Nixon, and therefore, so was I. Not that I actually knew anything about Nixon or what he stood for. I just wanted to be like everyone else. I had one friend, however, who was a staunch McGovern supporter. His name was Cliff and his dad was the minister at our church. As far as my classmates were concerned, McGovern was a Communist. And that was the worst thing that anyone could be. But one day, Cliff sat me down told me about McGovern and the things he stood for. And it turned out that I agreed with McGovern. And then Cliff told me about Nixon and the things he stood for. And I totally disagreed with Nixon.

Cliff took me downtown to McGovern campaign headquarters to learn more. I read their literature and immediately got on board. Soon, I was handing out buttons, silk-screening posters, and putting up flyers like a true believer. I got caught up in the excitement of the campaign and as November drew nearer I had high hopes for our candidate. I remember very clearly that it was raining that election day and Cliff and I thought that maybe the rain would deter some of the more complacent Nixon voters.

It didn't.

In high school, my political activities were focused on environmental issues. As a Boy Scout, I had gained a deep love and respect for nature and felt compelled to do my part to protect the earth from the ravages of pollution and overdevelopment. I joined the Ecology Club at school and signed up to take part in a protest march to help save the Red River Gorge.

The Red River Gorge is a beautiful and unspoiled area in the foothills of the Appalachians where the winding Red River has carved its way through layers of sandstone to create a spectacular series of canyons, arches, cliffs and waterfalls. It was one of my favorite places to go camping and hiking. But the Gorge was being threatened by a proposed dam, and the Sierra Club and various other radical tree-hugging organizations were fighting the Corps of Engineers to try and preserve the Gorge's unique ecosystem.

It was my first protest march and it was a doozy. We loaded into a bus for the trip to Frankfort, singing songs and swapping stories on the way down. I got to know some of the other Eco club members, mostly hippie types and other outcasts. The march was huge. It proceeded down a main thoroughfare in front of the state capitol, where we stopped to chant slogans and hear speeches and generally do protesty things. It was loads of fun. And it worked. The plans for the dam were shelved for further study. In 1993, the Gorge was declared a federally protected area, preventing any further threat.

The summer after my junior year, I got an inside look at politics when I attended Bluegrass Boys State. Boys State is a program sponsored by the American Legion that provides kids the opportunity to learn about state government by setting up and operating a mock government, all in the space of one week. We had a mock legislature, where I learned about parliamentary procedure, Robert's Rules of Order and bureaucratic paralysis. We had a mock election, where I learned about cronyism and deal-making. And we had a mock trial, where I learned how much I enjoyed showing off.

The mock legislature was revealing for two reasons: first, those who knew the rules were able to get a lot done, and second, very few people knew the rules. During the mock campaign, my friend Gary allied himself with one of the more popular guys and when his candidate was elected mock Governor, Gary got appointed mock Attorney General. And when Gary got appointed mock Attorney General, I got appointed mock Deputy Attorney General. That meant that at the mock trial, kind of a finale to the week's events designed to teach about the legal system in action, I got to get up on stage and prosecute the case for the state.

And I was awesome.

With our appetites for politics sufficiently whetted, Gary and I decided to run for class officer our senior year. Actually, Gary decided to run for Class President and convinced me to run for Sergeant at Arms. I had no idea what a Sergeant at Arms was, but I figured no one else would either. Unfortunately Gary was defeated. I, however, was elected to office and proceeded to serve with dignity and valor. My main function was to produce the senior class play (we did "Oklahoma") which turned out to be one of the hardest things I ever did. Also the most enjoyable.

In college, my radical side resurfaced and I joined a group of hardcore leftists to protest the building of a gymnasium on the sight of the student killings at Kent State University. But, whereas the trip to Frankfort with the Eco Club was all camaraderie and folk songs, the long bus ride from Wesleyan to Kent State was more about conspiracies and paranoia.

When we arrived at Kent State, the mood was ominous. Heavy clouds darkened the sky and tensions were high. The rumor was that the long rally and march was to end at the site of the proposed gymnasium where we would storm the chain link fence and occupy the sacred terrain. Supposedly, the FBI was there to keep an eye on us, as the gymnasium site was protected by Federal Order. These were not the glassy eyed-hippies of the environmental movement, but rather the wild-eyed remnants of the anti-war crusade.

At the rally, we heard from several speakers, but the one who really stood out was Mark Rudd, founding member of the SDS and basis for the Doonesbury character Megaphone Mark. Rudd had been underground for years due to his association with the Weathermen, but he still spoke with the raspy conviction of those turbulent times. He got us all riled up, chanting the slogan, "Long Live the Spirit of Kent and Jackson State!" It was one of the more eye-opening aspects of this trip to learn that ten days after the killing of four white students at Kent State, two black students were killed in a similar protest at Jackson State College in Mississippi. For all the news and uproar surrounding the Kent State killings, I had never heard a peep about Jackson State.

The Neil Young song "Ohio" was played over the PA system as the rally evolved into a march. As rumored, we wound our way through campus and ended up at the gymnasium construction site. There were thousands of people gathered there, chanting slogans, fists raised. Rudd and the other leaders wore bandannas over their faces. I noticed several men on nearby rooftops pointing telephoto lenses in our direction. The word was passed around, "you don't have to cross the fence line if you don't want to." But when the fence came down, we poured in by the hundreds. There were police standing by, but they didn't move to stop us. We massed in the center of the site, where bulldozers and dump trucks were already waiting to erase the past. We heard more rhetoric, chanted more slogans, and eventually, peacefully, left the area.

That trip was quite a dose of radicalism and it left me stirred for more action. A few months later, I found myself back with the leftists, occupying the office of the president of the university. We were there to protest university investments in South Africa. Most of the other students I knew didn't really care too much about the issue, they were more concerned with grades. But the issue seemed important to me, especially when I learned that many students didn't believe that we had the right to protest at all. Of course we have the right to protest!

Unfortunately our protest didn't get much attention. Repeated attempts to attract the interest of local TV stations were answered with the disheartening comment, "call us if someone gets hurt." The sit-in devolved into a series of frustrating meetings reminiscent of the paralytic bureaucracy and stifling parlimentarianism of Boys State. We did, however manage to encourage the university to review its South African investments and begin the long slow process of divestment. As it turns out, one of the students who was with me in the president's office during the sit-in is now there on a daily basis as the current president of Wesleyan.

By senior year of college, my political activism had just about run its course. I voted in my first election only to see Jimmy Carter get clobbered by Ronald Reagan almost as bad as Nixon beat McGovern. I wasn't buying in to the Reagan mythology. His whole idea of "what's good for business is what's good for America" has been around literally since the pyramids. And it always ends up the same, the rich get richer and the poor get screwed. As a college graduate, I bounced from one meaningless job to another waiting for the crumbs to start trickling down my way. Meanwhile, stockbrokers and lawyers were getting fat and happy.

I finally took the advice of a friend and went straight to the source, taking a job in a law firm in Washington D.C. There were crumbs aplenty for sellouts like me in Reagan's America, but I couldn't help noticing the throngs of homeless people camped out across from the White House in Lafayette Park, victims of the Reagan budget cuts. No crumbs for them.

Living in D.C. during the Reagan-Bush years completely soured me on politics. It was all sound bites and voodoo. Eventually I stopped participating altogether.

I did get a little jolt when Bill Clinton was elected, although as an unregistered malcontent, I hadn't actually voted for him. But Bill managed to tarnish his image (as well as a certain blue dress) and once again I felt that politicians were a bunch of weasels. That feeling was exacerbated when the King of All Weasels, George W. Bush, was elected. Well, the first time he wasn't so much elected as appointed by the Supreme Court. But to see the same clown get elected again was really discouraging. Didn't like him in 2000, didn't like him in 2004, don't like him now.

But this new guy I really like. I'm even reading his book. He's smart as hell. And he's cool. Will he live up to expectations? That may be impossible. But I'll say one thing for him, he's got my interest. And after all this time, that's no small achievement.