Friday, November 11, 2016

Stronger Together

This photo will make sense in a minute. I promise.
My original title for this post (which I planned on posting before the election) was going to be "I'm Proud Not to Vote." But then I was late in posting, the election happened, and after some soul-searching I ended up deciding to re-orient my thoughts in a more positive direction.

Although I never consciously thought about it this way, for my entire childhood and teen years, politics were somewhat analogous to a spectator sport.

You pick a "team" and root for them, no matter what. Of course, we tell ourselves that it's a matter of principle; that our political leanings are based on our firmly-held (possibly God-given) beliefs, and that our opinions are anything but arbitrary. My parents were Republicans who were heavily involved in a Word of Faith church for most of my childhood. I remember cheering for the Dallas Cowboys with my family at home during the 1996 Super Bowl. We'd cheer at the Cowboys' victories, boo at the Steelers' victories, and laugh at the Steelers' mistakes. It was a black-and-white scenario. Good guys versus bad guys. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Which was perfectly fine for the Super Bowl, because in the end it's just a game. Sports don't matter, other than for entertainment's sake. If you want to only cheer for your home team and throw insults at the opposition, that's fine. The world doesn't hurt over that. Politics, however, are a little different.

During the 2000 election, the vibe at home was the same as the Super Bowl. It was a spectator sport; a boxing match. My parents have never been mean-spirited, so it wasn't too bad, but we did laugh plenty at how "godless" and generally-bad the Democrats were, and how their defeat would be hilarious. That kind of talk would bother me now.

In high school, politics made sense to my friends and I for the first time, and we were encouraged to take part in discussions—which were ultimately just excuses to remind ourselves, as a group, how godless and wrong the Democrats were in all their policies, and how righteous and brave the Republicans were.

A funny thing happened, sometime in 2006-ish. See, my grandmother has been a social worker for many, many years. "She's so far left, she has to turn right to see left," my uncle once said of her. (Which is funny, because he's equally far-right, if not farther.) Anyhow, sometime around 2006 she said that she and her other social worker friends had come to believe that every woman working in the Bush administration was part of an actual harem—because that was the only way they could rationalize how any woman would dare work for such an obviously misogynist and evil administration. Now, to me and the rest of my family, that sounded insane. Laughably ridiculous, for a plethora of reasons. And it is. But my grandmother isn't insane or laughably ridiculous. She's an extremely intelligent, sweet old lady who's dedicated her life to helping other people. And yet even she got swept up in the negative conspiracy theories and general willingness to demonize "the other team." It occurred to me that if the situation were reversed, perhaps I'd believe equally ridiculous things about a Democratic administration as well. And, of course, as the Bush administration was coming to an end, it seemed perfectly obvious that a Democratic president was indeed in the near future. I promised myself then that no matter what, I'd never go that far; that I'd always keep perspective, and always try be fair-minded.

There's not really a reason for this photo of my school;
I just need photos to break up the massive blocks of text.
I had a government teacher in my first semester of college, Laura Wood. She consistently challenged her students' beliefs while always being entirely respectful of us as people. She used verifiably true facts and statistics to make her point, never wandering into the gray area of political philosophy. Essentially, she told us to look at the world without the rose-colored glasses that our parents unwittingly handed us when we were children. It was around this point that I began questioning the concept of unwavering loyalty to the Republican party.

One thing that becomes painfully clear over time is that political parties are not perfect paragons of the values they claim to uphold. Generally speaking, they only even pretend to care about those values while they think their voters are watching. That goes for every politician on both sides equally.

While I held to my political beliefs to a large extent in my first two years of college, I altered them. Instead of identifying as Republican, I would now identify as Conservative. Watching Bill O'Rielly, the preeminent Independent Conservative, probably helped with that. Instead of rooting for a team, I'd root for a philosophy. I had beliefs now, and ones not dependent upon fallible politicians. Progress. (But not that darned Liberal definition of "progress!" Perish the thought.)

A funny thing happened after that, however: I made new friends.

In 2009, I made a lot of new friends who were as different from me and my other social circles as possible, most of them being part of one particular circle. I was literally the only conservative voice in a group of very far-left people. Example: one of these new friends once posted a link to an article titled "The Republicans Literally Want to Kill Puppies." (I explained that that article was stupid, and eventually she ended up agreeing.) I found this new group to be fascinating. I watched and listened as these liberal people ranted about the Right, about Republicans, spouting Leftist dogma—and I found that a lot of the things they said were stupid. They said things about conservative values, Christian values, and Republicans that I knew for a fact to be false. Sometimes I'd chime in and let them know. Other times I'd just sit back and sigh. But what I discovered was that they listened to liberal personalities and dogma the same way I'd listened to conservative personalities—who I was only now realizing were also spouting dogma. The commentators on Fox News and conservative radio were entertaining to listen to, but the things they were saying didn't line up with reality anymore.

The same way I could hear my new friends say, "conservatives are stupid, hateful people for X reason" and know for a fact that they were wrong, I could also hear my old friends and their families say, "liberals are amoral and stupid for X reason," and know that they were also wrong. I also met a lot of new people in college: gay people, muslims, etc. I had one friend that I didn't even realize was gay for a year or more; when I finally realized he was gay, it taught me a lot about how, in the end, people are just people, no matter what label you want to throw at them. Hearing every side of every situation gave me an odd kind of insight that I never realized I didn't have. I'm sure that there's still so much that I'm missing—and that's why I want to learn as much as I can. There's a line from Disney's Pocahontas: "If you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you'll learn things you never knew you never knew."

So then I'm left here to wonder: where do I stand, politically? I'm not a politician, so I don't expressly need to be a highly political person, but I do have the right to vote, so I do need to know what my standards are in order to make good decisions.

One of my good friends that I made in my college years, Robert, was/is a diehard libertarian. I had a history teacher, also a diehard libertarian, who explained libertarianism as "do what you want, as long as I don't have to pay for it." Essentially: conservative economic values, with a hands-off liberal stance on social issues—because social issues aren't the government's business to decide. I liked that idea in general. Abortion is the one big leftist issue that I do not at all support, but other than that I could care less. Legal marijuana I'm not concerned about. Gay marriage might not be biblical, but I don't believe that my faith needs to be everyone's faith and determine their lives for them. I can't even begin to describe how little I care about which bathroom people use.

So am I a libertarian? Maybe? I guess? Centrist-Libertarian is probably closest. But here's the thing: I honestly don't want to put a label on myself because I don't want to ever arrive at the point where I reduce the issues that affect Americans' lives down to a checklist of pre-determined stances. My values should determine my choices.

Because this is me we're talking about, at some point I have to use a metaphor from fiction. I already used Pocahontas. In this case, it's the one that means the most to me:


When I was four, I first watched Superman on TV. He quickly became my favorite character of all time. I watched every episode of Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, and Smallville growing up. In high school, I wore a Superman T-shirt so often it was practically a uniform. Here's a photo of me from my high school yearbook in an art class: wearing a Superman shirt while critically eyeing the Superman shield I'd drawn.

No idea why I was wearing a shirt two sizes too big for me, but whatever. I didn't know any better. The point is: the shield means something to me.

Once a ten-year-old asked me what my favorite color was.
"Blue," I said.
"Is that why Superman is your hero?" he asked.
"What? No!" I replied, baffled as to why he would even assume that. But it's a fair question: why do I like Superman so much?

It's not the cool powers or the sweet cape. It's not just that he was "the first" superhero, for which all others are named. It's that he's the representation of truth, justice, and the American way: the promise that we can always fight for a better future.

Superman was created in the 1930s by two Jewish kids living in America during the Great Depression. Unemployment wasn't the only problem during the Depression; crime and corruption were rampant.

That cover image was the first anyone ever saw of Superman. He's not saving a kitten from a tree or doing something nice. He's not even flying. He's picking a car full of criminals up over his head and smashing it into a mountain. Superman didn't deal with aliens or other sci-fi threats at first; in his early years, he cared about people. As Clark Kent, he was an investigative journalist because he wanted to fight corruption and arm ordinary people with the truth to protect themselves. And as the issue itself puts it, Clark decided that "he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind, and so was created 'Superman,' champion of the oppressed."

The first issue, Action Comics #1, has Superman:
-Fighting street crime
-Busting down a door to stop a man from beating his wife
-Saving a woman from a man who kidnapped her after she rejected his advances at a nightclub
-Traveling to Washington, D.C. to expose a corrupt senator
-All the while taking zero credit for any of it, and purposely leaving himself out of the story when he writes about these happenings for the newspaper.

Superman is a warrior for justice: someone who makes a difference in ways we wish we could or aren't brave enough to try. He's the dream of two boys living in the Great Depression and desperately wanting to make the world a better place.

But Superman's not merely a hammer against evil; there's a reason his symbol is a shield.

The image on this poster is from the 1940s. Even in the days before the social reforms of the 1960s, Superman was proudly telling children that America is a home for all, and that our mandate is to protect one other and our freedom; not to make enemies. When Superman says that he stands for truth, justice, and the American way, this is what he's talking about. It's almost sad that over 60 years later, we still have to remind ourselves not to judge others by their country of origin, their culture, or any other general category: we still need to remember that people are people.

A really poignant thing for me, as a Superman fan and as a person, has been watching these little moments from the first season of Supergirl:

I've been wearing that emblem my entire life, but it was never really given a meaning until now. Man of Steel said that the symbol means "hope," but that movie was written by David Goyer, an asshat who hates Superman, and "hope" is about as general and flimsy of a positive statement as you can find. I always felt that the S had a deep meaning, but I couldn't really put it into words. Hope was... fine, but something stronger felt appropriate. Compassion, maybe? That is Superman's driving force, as I see it. But then Supergirl drops that suggestion: "Stronger Together."

It's not what I would have thought of, but it makes sense. Superman cares about people, not morality for morality's sake. Putting people first feels right.

My mom watches Supergirl with me a lot of the time. After the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she said to me, "Hey, did you hear that Hillary Clinton stole something from Supergirl?"
"What?" I replied.
"Her new campaign slogan is 'Stronger Together.'"

I looked it up. Sure enough.

"Wait," I said, "does this mean I have to vote for Hillary Clinton?"
"Oh no!" my mom said, "you can't do that!"
"But," I said jokingly, "she's allied with Superman. I think I have to, don't I?"

Then I started thinking about it. After hearing all of the angry, divisive talk from Donald Trump (and pretty much everyone else) over the entire election season, someone taking a stand with the phrase "stronger together" surprised me.

I skimmed through watching both the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. In general, I'd always felt that the Democrats, while well-meaning, rarely had guiding principles, while the Republicans had principles they stuck to almost too closely—whenever it benefitted them, of course. But watching both conventions, I was almost awestruck. The Republicans largely yelled, screamed, and said insane things that didn't make sense and seemed only intended to cause panic—as if they felt like the only way to justify Trump's candidacy was to say that the end times were upon us and Trump was our last great hope of survival. Meanwhile, the Democrats gave out a message of hope and camaraderie. In contrast with much of Trump's rhetoric on the Muslim population, this was said at the DNC: "If you're a Muslim, and you love America and freedom, and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you." They even invited the Muslim parents of a fallen American soldier on stage to demonstrate their willingness to work together. (Donald Trump later insulted them for no real reason, because of course he did.)

It wasn't just me who noticed the stark contrast. The newscasters following the conventions were shocked: this was arguably the first time that the Democrats actually seemed more patriotic and even principled than the Republicans. To be clear, I understand that the televised conventions are purely marketing. They're not necessarily representative of what either party actually believes; only what they want to put out there for us to see. But that's the thing: the Republicans wanted us to be afraid, and the Democrats wanted us to rally together—to become Stronger Together. I understand perfectly well that the Clinton family has had a long history of questionable and probably-corrupt doings. In a few ways, they're not too far off from being the people Superman was fighting in Action Comics #1. The thing is, while I didn't approve of the people running the campaign, I did agree with their platform. I do want America to become stronger together and grow into a new future, more than I want it to revert back to being "great again."

So then I was left with a choice come election season: Trump, Hillary, or 3rd-party. I felt very early on that I could never, under any circumstances, vote for Trump. No matter what he claims his stance on policy is, he disgusts me with every word that comes out of his mouth. He's un-American, as Superman would say. Then there's Hillary. I did quite a lot of research into the Benghazi incident and the email scandals, but I don't entirely buy that she's literally a criminal. However, that's a very sharp technicality. She definitely did things that were careless or perhaps immoral, if not illegal. It's not as though her hands are clean. Then there's the 3rd-party candidates. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein (Evan McMullin, too, if you count notable write-ins). While I thought Gary Johnson was a thoroughly decent guy and the type of person I wouldn't mind having as president, I began to severely doubt his competency. Jill Stein seemed ridiculous. While I liked McMullin, I didn't have enough time to research him in full before election day. So then I was left with a conundrum: Hillary was definitely the candidate I would have chosen if a gun were put to my head, but... a gun wasn't to my head. No one was making me choose the lesser of two evils. America would unfortunately have to decide as a whole, but I was still able to vote my conscience regardless. I live in Texas anyway, so it was reasonably unlikely that my vote would carry much weight.

I've done a lot of thinking about that phrase, "the lesser of two evils." It reminds me of a conundrum from Star Trek that Dr. McCoy raises: if killing five people saves ten, is it a bargain? I've been mulling over that question for more than half my life, and I've settled on the opinion that I can't and won't accept those terms, no matter how unrealistic or impractical that may seem. We should always, to our last breath, search for the third path—not because we refuse to make hard decisions, but because who we choose to be and what we choose to stand for is more important than blithely accepting the terms of our situation. The problem with accepting the lesser of two evils is that in the end, we still end up endorsing evil.

I couldn't, in full conscience, vote for Hillary, certainly not for Trump, and ultimately not for anyone on the ballot. I decided to refuse all options in protest. I don't want my vote to end up adding to a statistic that says Americans supported one of these candidates. If anything, I want my lack of vote to add to the statistic that says "America does not accept these choices. We deserve better."

According to poll records, this election had the lowest turnout of the past three elections—with both candidates getting less votes than their predecessors. I hear a lot of people online screaming that the people like me who didn't vote are part of the problem, and that the reality of "President Trump" is our fault. No, the people in Washington who supported and chose our awful selection of candidates are to blame. Along with the voters in the primaries, who I couldn't join because I'm proudly independent. Though I do know a guy who still votes in the Republican primaries despite identifying as independent, just so he can still have some influence in the system. Maybe I should do that next time.

So yes, in this instance, I'm proud to not have voted. I'm honestly horrified with the results of the election, but I feel that I've managed to stay true to what I believe is right, and that means a lot to me.

Yeah, there's no point to that GIF. I just think it's cool. :)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Don't Forget - 3 Oct. 10

It would have been a lot cooler if I'd actually published this post on October 3rd. Oh well.

This is meant to be my new personal blog, hopefully with somewhat of a focus. To explain that—and the name of the blog—I'll have to tell a story.

My favorite anime series of all time (and one of my favorite stories of all time) is Fullmetal Alchemist (the original anime from 2003, not 2009's Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood). In that story, two young boys, the Elric brothers, heartbroken after the sudden death of their mother, attempt to use alchemy restore their mother to life. However, the laws of alchemy state that for anything to be gained, something of equal value must be lost—and unbeknownst to the brothers, nothing equals the cost of a human soul. The experiment fails horribly, and the brothers' own bodies are spontaneously used as recompense for their attempt. The older brother loses his his right arm and left leg—forcing him to use full metal prosthetic replacements—while the younger brother is left without a body at all; just a soul clinging to an empty suit of armor. The brothers realize that they've lost their mother completely, but they resolve to go out into the world and search for a new path in life: to discover the hidden truths of the world and find a way to restore their broken bodies. On the day the brothers leave home to start their journey, they burn their house behind them so that they won't have the option of giving up.

The song that plays over the scene is a Russian song, "Bratja" ("Brothers"). A few sections of it (translated to English) are particularly poignant:

              Beautiful mother, soft and sweet
              Once you were gone, we were not complete
              Back through the years, we reached for you
              Alas, 'twas not meant to be

              So where do we go from here 
              And how to forget and forgive?
              What's gone is forever lost
              Now all we can do is live

There's probably something to the idea of dealing with the loss of a parent that resonated with me about Fullmetal Alchemist. My dad died when I was fourteen, and I discovered FMA a couple of years later. The overall vibe of FMA isn't at all what you'd normally expect from a fantasy/sci-fi series; there's no epic heroic quest for the brothers to finally revive their mother. Instead, they're forced to live with the consequences of their actions and say, "what do we do from here?"

I'm not going to go into a ton of detail here (those of you who know me probably already know most of the details), but although I've been through some awful things in life, moving forward has always been difficult for me. It's not that I don't have wants or dreams, but there's a big difference between wanting a better life and being willing to actually leave and burn your old life behind you.

After the Elric brothers leave their home, the older brother scratches the date they burned their house into his pocket watch, along with the words "don't forget." So this blog is my own reminder: from here on out, always move forward.