Voting is a right. But should you?

 

Let’s have a discussion. The topic may seem controversial at first glance but one that is worthy of thought. In fact, think of this as a thought experiment; an idea you may not agree with, yet is not without merit.

As I write this America is celebrating Memorial Day. A national holiday that asks us to collectively reflect on the sacrifices made by those who have died serving in our armed forces. Did you know that today less than 1% of Americans serve in the armed forces? This is a stunning number given how many “patriots” we have on social media ready to cry “Treason!” when they see or hear something that causes offense. Given today’s climate you would think half of our country served some time in the armed forces. 9% of our population are veterans. Fewer and fewer people are signing up to serve. I can only hope this trend continues and becomes a driving reason for fewer wars and more diplomacy.

If only 1% is willing to defend our country, what should the other 99% do? What is the least we should be willing to do to serve our nation?

If you had asked me this question an month ago I would have said, Vote. “Voting in elections”, I would have said, “is not only a right, but a duty that every American should exercise”. In the past, I have argued that America should make presidential election day a National Holiday just as they do in other countries. My conviction about voting was strong, and it was my long held belief that those who did not vote were doing the country a disservice and were partially responsible for the D.C swamp that is the American government. But then I heard about Walter Lippmann, and I had to seriously reconsider my opinion.

Most of you know I am a huge, huge fan of podcasts; so much so that I dedicated a past blog to some of my favorites. One that has grown on me is Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know. It started out as a web series that looked at the lighter side of conspiracies, but is now a be-weekly podcast that looks at the darker side of history.

A few weeks ago an episode aired titled Is Democracy Impossible (May 2, 2018) in which the hosts talked about the controversial subject that pushes against democracy. This is how I came to learn about Walter Lippmann.

Lippmann was a newspaper columnist whose influence was felt worldwide. By the time of his retirement Lippmann was the most respected political columnist in the world. Here is a quick political bio on Lippmann.

“While studying at Harvard (B.A., 1909), Lippmann was influenced by the philosophers William James and George Santayana. He helped to found (1914) The New Republic and served as its assistant editor under Herbert David Croly. Through his writings in that liberal weekly and through direct consultation, he influenced Pres. Woodrow Wilson, who is said to have drawn on Lippmann’s ideas for the post-World War I settlement plan (Fourteen Points) and for the concept of the League of Nations. Lippmann was briefly (1917) an assistant to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Wilson sent him to take part in the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles (1919)”.

Lippmann started out as a champion of voting rights and felt it was a duty of all American citizens. But as time went on, as the world become smaller and global relationships became more complex, and witnessed less than ideal candidates being voted into office Lippmann developed a startling argument; he came to believe that “the general public could no longer judge public issues rationally, since the speed and condensation required in the mass media tend to produce slogans rather than interpretations”.

This is a two-pronged argument. Lippmann believed that the general public was unable to fully comprehend the complex global issues facing the country and that the media was unable or unwilling to educate the public; it was easier to dissect and strip the issues into digestible sound bites. Ouch! That cut may run deep, but can we truly argue against it given our current state of media and collective short attention span?

Lippmann published a book in 1922 titled Public Opinion. In part he argues that: 

A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power…. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.

In a nutshell, Lippmann is arguing that the world is now intertwined and complex. Most people are incapable of understanding this complexity and don’t take the time to learn how the actions taken by governments will impact the economic and social fabric of society. It is no longer useful to think we can vote from our conscience, since our conscience may be deluding and keeping us ill-informed. The media feeds on this delusion be spinning casual opinions that do not fully inform us as to what is in our best interest.

Again, it is hard to argue against him. Many Americans no longer balance their own checkbooks and or are deep in debt and can’t understand why. How are they to fully understand what lifting or putting more restrictions on Iran will do to gas prices or cause fuller ripples in the Middle East? How about Trump’s slogan, “America First”? It may sound good to working Americans, (sound bite) but what does it really mean, and how will this attitude reflect on the cost of consumer goods? Do you know? Does the media tell us the truth? And if they do, whose truth are they repeating?

Lippmann didn’t just argue against what we now term “low informed voters”, he was dismayed to see one-issue voters; those who would vote for a candidate based on his or her stand on a certain issue alone. These voters, Lippmann argued often voted against their overall self-interest. A good example of this is when a voter decides on a candidate based on his or her anti-abortion stand. This is hot button issue today that sees mass voting for politicians who want to limit or outright strip away abortion rights on one hand, and on the other, making it hard to get access to birth control, leading to more abortions. Where is the logic is this?

It was in this argument that I stopped mentally arguing against Lippmann’s ideas. I shut my mouth and opened my mind. As the hosts of Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know gave more and more examples of how one-issue voting can cause over-all damage to democracy I started to form a thought experiment; what if only those who are truly informed on all things that mattered voted? Of course the first obvious problem that comes from this thought experiment is figuring out who decides who can vote and do they have democracy’s best interest at heart?

Recently Bill Maher had guest Dambisa Moyo on Real Time with Bill Maher. Moyo is an international economist and author who analyzes the macroeconomy and global affairs. She has witnessed democracy in several forms and is in the same camp as Lippmann. One of her suggestions regarding voting is to test voters, much like the test we give to new citizens. She was criticized for suggesting what seemed like a type of Poll Test. Something the Southern states tried to employ to weed out African American voters. No, I don’t think the answer is to test people; after all voting is a right and we should be able to freely exercise that right without restrictions. But Lippmann and Moyo’s view does beg the question; must you vote? I say no. Not if you vote based on a gut feeling, or one-issue without doing some homework and reflection on what your vote will do for your over-all self-interest as well as the country’s.

If you can’t bring yourself to watch debates, if you can’t take an afternoon or evening to read about candidates and how their views and voting record will effect us all, please stay home. Don’t vote. That is the very least you can do for our country.

Now, it’s your turn to weigh in. Tell me what you think.

Works Cited

New York Times As Fewer Americans Serve, Growing Gap Is Found Between Civilians and Military
https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/25/us/civilian-military-gap-grows-as-fewer-americans-serve

Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, episode Is Democracy Impossible (May 2, 2018)

Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion. 1922 https://wwnorton.com/college/history/america-essential-learning/docs/WLippmann-Public_Opinion-1922.pdf

Walter Lippmann. Britannica.com https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walter-Lippmann#ref101232

Does our mind a prison make? Hag-Seed a review

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About a year ago Hogarth Publishing reached out to a group of authors for what seemed like an impossible task; take a Shakespeare play and redo it for a modern audience. Eight authors took up the challenge: Tracy Chevalier; Margaret Atwood; Howard Jacobs; Anne Tyler; Jeanette Winterson; Edward St Aubyn; Gillain Flynn, and Joe Nesbo. You can read about it here http://hogarthshakespeare.com/

Although the lineup is impressive the news was met by a lot of criticism by authors, scholars, and the public alike. Why attempt to update the master when it is clear that his works still hold up? There were many an online discussions about the subject, and blog posts blasting the idea of modernizing Shakespeare. I had to laugh at the hypocrisy of one author who took a dim view to the Hogarth’s undertaking while making sure to let his readers knew he would be retelling Hamlet from Marcellus’ point of view.

The publishing house did not do its self any favors by the lack of explanation of how the authors were going to go about it. Many understood it to mean that these eight authors thought themselves worthy of changing words and scenes. The outcry over the “retooling” went on a little to long before it was announced in subsequent interviews that the author were simply taking the plots and retelling them as modern works literature.

Yet the unease that many felt was not allayed when the first go, Winterson’s book, The Gap of Time based on The Winter’s Tale, did not do well with mature book readers and critics alike. I picked it up while at the library one day and found that it read like a sappy young-adult novel, complete with short sentences and a heroine that sounded like a Disney Princess. I had to agree with the critics of the endeavor; if this was to be the norm then this was not going to turn out well. At least that was my opinion at the time. Oh but soon, I would learn just how wrong I was at least when it comes to Atwood’s book, Hag-Seed based on the Tempest.

Now, I have to be honest. I am no fan of Atwood. I read her book The Handmaiden’s Tale years ago and found it mildly disturbing. But I understand that she is a popular author so when the favorable reviews for Hag-Seed started popping up I simply chalked it up to her popularity with the masses. But once again Twitter prompted me to do a double take. Readers from all over started posting about how good it was. And so, one rainy day I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

One of my favorite things about the Amazon Kindle app is the ability to download a free book sample. So on this rainy day, I downloaded the sample and started reading. And to my amazement, I couldn’t put it down. Oh I had to read this book! The first two pages pull you in and demand your complete attention. Felix, the Prospero of this book had placed a spell on me, but not enough for me to purchase the Kindle edition. $13.00 for the opportunity to read a book that cannot be placed in a shelf of honor or passed to a close friend? Never!

I refuse to pay over $9.00 for a Kindle book (and even that hurts) so I searched my local library for a copy. The one and only copy was checked out but due back in a few days so I reserved it, and picked it up the following Friday. By Sunday morning I had finished the book.

From the publisher:

Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds.

Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge.

After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall?

This re-imaging of The Tempest has everything a good novel should. An unforgettable character in Felix, a haunting character in Miranda, Felix’s long dead daughter that he cannot let go of, and some light comic relief peppered throughout the story in the guise of the inmates. But the most remarkable thing about this book is Atwood’s keen insight into The Tempest and what it can mean to a modern audience.

Atwood gives us a sympathetic character in Felix. He is man who cannot let of his past, and it becomes his prison. He lost his three year old daughter Miranda to a fever because he was too self-absorbed to notice her illness. He allows Miranda to haunt him. He imagines she is still with him, and over the years he sees her as she would be had she lived. They talk and play Chess. Being a mere wisp of a ghost she cannot leave the house Felix lives in, so she too is imprisoned.

Felix spends his days in a local correctional center producing Shakespeare plays staring the inmates. It is here that Felix hatches a plan for revenge on those who were instrumental to his downfall. And this thirst for revenge is yet another prison as Felix cannot move forward or move from his lowly station. Yet it is the inmates and an unwitting subject caught in Felix’s revenge that finally help him break free.

For those who love to study and even teach Shakespeare, the scenes in which Felix and the inmates discuss the play make the book worth reading. He encourages them to find all of the prisons within the play and they have a serious discussion about what constitutes a prison. Is it a place? Yes. A state of mind? Most certainly. But most importantly to the inmates and to the original play, it is usually circumstances beyond our control.

Arial and Caliban have always lived on the island, but it is not until Prospero shows up do they both find themselves trapped. The inmates identify with these two characters as they see society in the character of Prospero. One inmate noted that Prospero shouldn’t have been surprised when Caliban turned on him and tried to rape Miranda. Prospero made him feel as if he belonged and then “turned natural” when it came to wanting Miranda. “She was the only woman there. What else was he supposed to do”?

Felix does not allow his incarcerated actors to swear so he devises a plan that allows them to pick out Shakespearean insults and fling them at will. Flesh-eater, and a pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog (or several versions of this phrase) are favored by the inmates.

It is in the middle of the book that the inmates take center stage as they work though the play and its message. And it is here that the book really has its heart. It’s just too bad Atwood did not take more time to develop these characters. I felt she used them and then tossed them aside, much like prison inmates feel used by society. Maybe that was her intention, but I felt she could have given us one or two stand-out characters that we could grapple with and debate over just as we debate over Caliban and his role in The Tempest.

This sub-plot of the inmate’s education makes up for the larger plot of revenge. When we get to the revenge scenes we find that Atwood, always imaginative, stretches the bounds of credibility. But in this she is forgiven because the book ends on such a heartfelt note.

It cannot be easy to take on Shakespeare. To look at one of his plays and think, “hum..how can I modernize this, how can I make it appealing to a larger audience?”

Thankfully Atwood does not take us scene by scene or even try to recreate the absurdity of the shipwrecked fools. Doing so would have cheapened her book. The setting is no place for fools; prison life is subject to too many harsh realities and dangers. But this is also what makes this endeavor a little dangerous. By eliminating characters and scenes (and adding a few of her own to the play-within the book) there is the danger that readers may think they’ve read The Tempest, or at least a stand-in for the play, when in fact they’ve hardly scratched the surface. No, Atwood’s book is a nod to Shakespeare, and nothing else.

This is a fine book, and I do recommend it. However, I am not sure Atwood has met Hogarth’s original intent, if their intent was to modernize his plays. But then, their intent is a still a little ambiguous. The one line from the About section their website reads: The Hogarth Shakespeare project sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today. I am still unsure of what this means. You will just have to read the book for yourself and decide if this book is up to the unnecessary task of retelling Shakespeare’s story. Yes, I think the task is unnecessary, but if it produces books like Hag-Seed, I think the endeavor is at least worthy of consideration.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret Hag-Seed Random House. October 11, 2016. Print Edition

Hogarth Shakespeare Online http://hogarthshakespeare.com/

Next up, I thought we would start talking about Shakespeare’s work, in the original. We are going to go thru the plays alphabetically one by one, finding one or two points for consideration and how they relate to our modern era. First up All’s Well that Ends Well and the study of obsession.  Stay tuned!