23 October 2009

I used to be politically active.  Then I went to sleep for a few years.  And then I woke up again.  What the hell happened to me?

It started in my teens, with a passion about Watergate and bringing the Nixon White House to its knees.  I grew up in a staunchly Democratic family, but one which valued an intelligent opposition.  With Nixon, we had only a compromised opposition, and I, along with my family and many of my friends were righteously outraged.  Political awareness became a constant in my life.

In my twenties, my political leanings moved farther left, and my activism grew.  I worked for the end of the US-sponsored wars in Central America, I marched for women’s rights and gay rights, worked on little ‘zines for lefty causes, helped keep my local women’s shelter open, read voraciously on the causes of my times, and spent endless hours hashing it all out with my friends and family. 

When I was about 30, I moved, along with my nine year old daughter and my girlfriend of five years, to a county and state that was deeply immersed in an intense battle over gay rights.  My daughter was entering public school for the first time (she’d been in parent-run schools up to that point), and I went back into the closet a bit.  I retreated from most of my political activity as well.  That retreat was in part due to worries about my daughter being targeted as coming from a gay family, and in part also to a very different schedule (new job, no extended family to share child-raising with).  And it was due also to a kind of weariness that comes over you at times.

And there’s no doubt that 12 years of Reagan-Bush was wearing me out.

By the time Bill Clinton came into office, I was working for a non-profit women’s health clinic, immersed in the struggle to help women obtain decent, respectful reproductive health care.  My clinic offered abortions among its many services, so I was also immersed in the abortion wars.  My activism was practical – helping women find information and services for all kinds of health care, publicizing the attacks on the clinics, fundraising and the like.  (An aside here:  it really made a difference when Bush Sr. exited the scene, and Clinton stepped into the White House – the gag rule was lifted, and we could give our clients better information and services.  In just that microcosm, you can’t tell me it makes no difference which party holds the White House.)

And then we got Bush Jr., the Boy King.  I groaned, but tried to buck up.  He was awful, inane, snotty.  He was an embarrassment.  I hadn’t liked his dad much, but at least Sr. wasn’t so embarrassing on the world stage (okay, I admit the vomiting-on-a-foreign-dignitary episode was pretty effing bad…) If I’d realized the power which Cheney and Rumsfeld were wielding, I’d have been more depressed, but as it was, I was keeping my chin up.  And then 9-11 happened.  And then Bush’s awful response, and the incredible war-mongering began, and the reactionary anger against anything Muslim.  And then the Patriot Act.  And then Afghanistan.  And then Iraq.  And then the awfulness of our dead and our maimed coming home, and the utter despair of knowing that even greater numbers of people were dead and maimed in the countries where we’d been making war.

It just kept getting worse.  And I kind of went into hibernation, politically.

I was hiding, but at the same time, it wasn’t that I wasn’t aware, or wasn’t angry, or far too frequently frightened about what was going on around me.  Still, I could not muster the political energy to do much more than vote.  Compared to my usual verbose self (this post proves my point) I could barely talk about what I thought.  I wrote almost nothing.  I made myself listen to the daily NPR reports with increasing grim determination.  I scanned headlines, but couldn’t bear to venture into the articles.  I let my newspaper subscriptions go.  I didn’t protest Bush.  I didn’t protest the war, at least outside of my circle of acquaintances.  The world was in the hands of mad men, and everything felt futile. 

I muttered, at times, to sympathetic friends on the source of my political frustrations.  We muttered and cursed and stomped our feet together, and I don’t think I was alone in feeling otherwise immobilized.  To come up against the paranoia of the Bush administration made me feel like any effort would make no dent in the brick wall I was banging my head against, and damage my head plenty.

But there was a dim light at the end of the tunnel. 

Bush himself could only stay in office eight years.  In my most paranoid moments I wondered if the Bush administration would declare martial law to stay in power, but, fortunately, that didn’t happen.  My paranoia was ill-founded, or Bush just wanted to get back to Crawford, or something.  I thought it also possible that the Republicans would hold the White House for another term, minus Baby Bush, but in 2006 it no longer seemed inevitable.  I did worry about some of their candidates, particularly McCain.  And I worried that Hillary Clinton, for whom I have great respect, might be moving too early for the presidency, but at least she was a strong voice, a strong thinker.  She had more fire than Kerry and Gore put together, and that made me hopeful.  Maybe the Democrats would pull something out of their usually lame hat!

And then Obama came along.  Quite frankly, I was planning on voting for whatever Democrat the party put on the ballet, but to have two strong candidates was encouraging.  To have a woman and a black man fighting for the lead during the primaries was confusing, but exhilarating.  And scary.  What if they split the vote?  What if we lost the White House because we were divided, because we couldn’t mount a coordinated effort against the conservatives?   But no, there was definitely a ground-swell growing to get the Dems back in the White House.  And, hey, it looked more and more like it was going to be Obama.  And, hey, he was looking pretty good.

I began tuning into the news more and more.  I began to write.  I began to talk.  I began to feel like an oppressive weight was lifting off my political soul. 

The other thing I did was switch what I read.  I have been an almost-strictly fiction reader for years.  News I got mostly via NPR and its local affiliate, searching out an article in print or on the web when I had a particular interest, but really, before the end of 2008, I doubt I spent more than 1 or 2 hours reading news in a given week.  Some weeks it was zero.

Towards the end of the campaign, that all changed.  I became a voracious reader and watcher and listener of the news.  From an hour or two a week, I jumped to probably 3 or 4 hours a day.  I began to haunt the news websites and aggregators obsessively.  I discovered political blogs. I quit reading fiction altogether; I started supplementing my news reading with political biographies and autobiographies.  MSNBC and CNN were almost constantly on my TV (often while I was reading), and I made a point of tuning into PBS political programming whenever I could. C-SPAN made its way into my media consciousness once again.   In the summer and fall of 2008, it was mostly campaign news which absorbed me, but as the economic crisis unfolded, that too because part of my daily perusal.  And as my ability to actually take in news grew, and I came out of my political depression, I started paying attention to other news – the war, climate change, local politics, and so on.

When Obama actually won, I was ecstatic.  I was seriously in danger of having my head explode. And even as the new Obama administration settled into the White House at the end of January, and even as my ecstatic hope settled back into a more realistic knowledge that the Obama administration would do what it could, but couldn’t change everything during its time, my “need” for political news didn’t abate.

And now I am here.  Still haunting the web for news and blogs and discussions and analysis.  Still listening to NPR political programming.  One of the losses of my personal financial woes was a breadth of cable channels, but I still have my PBS and my C-SPAN.  I have my line-up of sites I check for news and opinions every morning, and I have my night time routine as well.  I’ve become fascinated by the ongoing soap opera of the Republican Party’s downward spiral; I’ve become mesmerized by details of the financial industry which used to put me to sleep.

I’ve started reading fiction again, but only light fiction.  There was a pretty good David Baldacci mystery a few months back, and this fall I’ve been taking in a chapter or two a day from my almost-complete Agatha Christie collection (she has about 80 mysteries; I’ve got 76 of them in my library, and I’m reading them in order).  Mysteries are a good complement to heavy politics and economics and war.  The particular ones I’ve been reading are set between the early 1920s and 1930s, which is nice view into how different eras don’t necessarily dictate entirely different political landscapes (Christie sets her stories against a backdrop of whatever England was going through at the time).  The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?

Well, not exactly.  There is a tidal ebb and flow to things – things don’t really stay the same, but they do come at us in waves.  We swing left, we swing right; we open our societies to outsiders, then we hunker down in fear; we learn to interact with the big world in new ways, then we get scared and retreat to our homelands.  And against that backdrop, we live our lives.  Maybe these absorbing, somewhat silly mysteries remind me of that, and help let off some steam when the news hits hard.  

And I ebb and flow a bit too.  Sometimes I get overwhelmed, start to retreat again.  I still read, but can’t articulate my thoughts, can’t write about it, can’t move on anything.  But we’re talking for a few days, maybe a week or two.  It’s not anything like the immobilization I went through for most of the Bush years.

Hope is a good thing.  I repeat: I don’t expect this administration to fix everything, to do everything as I, idealistically, would.  But it feels like things are once again do-able, that the political machine is actually moving, not floundering, both in this country and world wide.  Our president isn’t embarrassing us on the national stage.

Okay.  Life isn’t great.  The economy sucks.  My personal economy sucks.  The right wing is going off the deep end.  My automaker went out of business (boo hoo, Saturn).  I still don’t have healthcare.  The list is long, and sometimes painful.

But still, the tides have turned, at least within my soul.  Hope is a good thing, even when it’s thwarted.  As long as that political brick doesn’t keep pressing on my chest – and it hasn’t since November 2008 – I think it’s going to be okay.