This piece was first published as one of my “Girl Next Door” columns in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids ICON, 23 November 2000. While many things I’ve written in the past twenty years make me cringe, I stand by this one.
I was thirteen years old when I first heard the song “Masters of War,” penned by Bob Dylan and sung, in the rendition I found in our record cabinet, by a young, short-haired, blue-eye-shadowed Judy Collins. I had not, at this point in life, acquired the accoutrements of the “me against the world” mentality I was already starting to form, but even Judy’s rendition couldn’t hide the bite in the lines “How much do I know to talk out of turn?/You might say that I’m young, you might say I’m unlearned/But there’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you. . . .” Ah yes–youth to itself rebels, and all that. But I’d like to suggest that there’s a little more to it than that.
Last week, Gary Sanders (for whom I have a great deal of respect) published a guest opinion in this paper accusing young Nader supporters (such as myself, I can only assume) of being True Believers. Sanders introduced the charge by acknowledging that he himself had once been a True Believer, hitchhiking to New Hampshire to volunteer for George McGovern. Nowadays, being older and wiser, or at any rate crankier, Sanders sees this as folly. As he sees it, working for McGovern eventually helped Richard Nixon, working for Nader just helped George W. Bush.
I’m not here to quibble with Sanders’s numbers or with his reasoning. Rather, I’d like to point out what I feel is a flaw in the idea that elections are solely about policy (as Sanders and Gore supporters would have it) or all about character (as the Republicans would like us to believe). At the risk of pissing off fellow activists, and to invert the old feminist saying, I’d like to suggest that, when it comes to campaigns, the political is the personal. Working on a campaign is not simply a way of getting a candidate elected to office; it is a way of making your own story. It’s a way of acting upon belief and a form of empowerment. If you get one person to change her vote because of you, youve accomplished something. And if you’re working on a major party campaign, that’s really all they want you to accomplish. Just get out the vote, and make sure they know how to mark the ballot.
But working on a campaign like Nader’s–or, I would imagine, McGovern’s–gives you a lot more than that. You know you aren’t going to win–not in the numerical sense, that is. But you might win in other ways. When I talk to people about Nader, or sweatshops, or why there shouldn’t be a new jail, I am doing so only partially in the hope that they will change their votes. What I am really hoping is that they will start to think differently.
If you think a little harder about why it is that the average CEO in the United States now makes 475 times as much as his lowest paid employee or why African-Americans make up 26% of Iowa’s prison population but only 2% of its overall population or why Steve Alford gets a $25,000 bonus if 70% of his team graduates in four years, I regard that as a victory.
Sanders may wish, in retrospect, that he hadn’t volunteered for McGovern because he think that it ended up helping Nixon win the election. But I wonder, would he really have wanted to miss the experience? I imagine that in a way it must have been pretty great–hitching a ride to New Hampshire, knocking on doors with groups of other kids, talking about things they believed in and about a man whom they felt stood for those things. I imagine that there are victories that come from that experience that are more important than where McGovern placed in the primary, victories that continue to fuel Sanders’s indefatigable work on local and national progressive causes and which make him proud to be a member of “the party not only of Al Gore, but of Tom Harkin, Paul Wellstone, Maxine Waters, Barney Frank, and Jesse Jackson.” Are those experiences which Sanders really wants to deny the next generation?
In 1994, when I was graduating from high school, what I mostly heard about people my age was that we were apathetic and uneducated. We mourned the death of Kurt Cobain, not JFK; we were unqualified to do anything but flip burgers and unmotivated to do anything else; we’d rather change the channel than rock the vote.
Now that the public has begun to take note of some of the things we do care about, largely because of the Nader campaign, we’re being characterized as hopelessly misguided idealists instead of hopelessly lazy cynics. Either way, though, we’re supposedly ruining the future of America.
Well, I never felt America had much of a future to be certain about, but I’ve been working for some kind of future since about a year after I first heard that Bob Dylan song, and for me, and many others, I suspect, the political continues to be personal. We work because it gives us not only a sense of political power but also one of personal authenticity. The movement gives back to you tenfold what you give to it. It gives you camaraderie, education, experience, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of hope. And there’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you: I know that that hope is crucial.