Some years ago, Ginger and I were walking along the sidewalk in Davis Square in Somerville, Mass. when we passed a homeless man sitting in a doorway. Just as we drew even with him, he barked, “Change!” loudly enough for the people across the street to hear him.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any,” Ginger said.
“I’m trying, I’m trying,” I pleaded.
Same word, different ears.
The story came back to mind over the last few days, as the election hysteria crescendoed, along with the predictions of the Democrats’ demise, and most of the news analysts couldn’t complete a sentence without talking about change. And I wondered about their working definition of the word. It can mean to alter or transform; it can also mean to swap out, as in exchange. Then, of course, there’s the pocket-full-of-change variety, or as far as this election was concerned, the truckloads full of change.
I found some comfort in looking up the word, though I felt I knew the definition, because it helped me come to terms with the reality that the “change” our politicians talk about, particularly when they are the ones out of power, is about the swapping out and the change I dream of has more of a revolutionary edge. Our political process is more pendulum than promise, more vengeance than virtue, more hubris than hope. Based on their track record, to see tonight’s election as profound change in Congress makes as much sense as thinking it’s a whole new ball game because two football teams swapped ends of the field at halftime.
When I look at the rest of the world, I am amazed that we move from one party in power to the other with little or none of the violence that plagues some nations. Then again, none of those nations have the resources we do. And we can only see our process as relatively violence free if we ignore the way we talk to each other. This election season has been a verbal bloodbath. We have little to be proud of. We are angrier, meaner, and more extravagant in both our budgets and belligerence than we have ever been. And we are obsessed with elections. Everyday is election season. By Monday, people will begin announcing they are running for President in 2012 so we can all pick sides ands scream at each other some more.
Politicians and special interest groups whose donors remain anonymous spent more money and aired more attack ads than just about any other election. I heard one party pundit praise his candidates for “not getting mired down in talking about the issues.” Mitch O’Connell made a point of saying his top concern is to make sure Obama is a one term president. Not the war in Afghanistan. Not the economy. Not anything other than win, win, win. And he’s far from alone in his sentiment, on either side of the fight.
I voted today, and I also wondered if my actions did anything more than perpetuate the system. I work hard not to shop at Wal Mart because of the way they have chosen to run their business over the years. Why do I keep participating in a system that is invested in making sure people with money have the most influence, holds a warped view of power and what it means to be in charge, and has no appetite for transformation?
The question is not rhetorical. Neither is it a cheap cynical shot. It’s very alive to me. Whatever the issue – immigration, poverty, nuclear arms, foreign policy, health care – shouting each other down is not the same thing as a meaningful discussion. Making political or parliamentary maneuvers to block legislation is not the same as honest dialogue. Well-financed sound bytes are not legitimate substitutes for substantive articulation.
And simply repeating the regurgitation is not reporting, either.
I have no illusion that anyone beyond the fellow members of my neighborhood board listen to me, when it comes to politics. I’ve no money to give, no constituency to offer, even if I am a straight white guy. But speaking up does not feel as futile as voting to me because I believe words do change things – transform things. And I trust what I see in the life of Jesus and in the gospels: real change is not instigated by the powerful, or by appealing to them, or, perhaps, voting for them.
I’ve made several attempts at ending this piece that have moved from overly sincere to sanctimonious to sappy, none of them satisfactory. So I think I’ll go for small. I can’t fix the big issues, so I will choose to look into faces. Anar, a man who works at one of our local grocery stores, works with Bhutanese refugees moving to the area and needs Target gift cards to help them set up house. I can do that. We teach English classes on Wednesday nights at our church for local Latino immigrants. I can do that. I can cook for whoever I can find. I can keep making Kiva loans. I can help my students live through high school. I can love my wife. I can have a lifetime of hope and opportunity by choosing to meet the needs in front of my face.
What do you hear?