Change has happened in America only when individuals have banded together to demand it. This past weekend, America celebrated Independence Day. That celebration, and our country, became possible only because of collective effort to take control and overthrow the power of individuals (specifically the King of England). The result of that revolution was a government created “by the people, for the people”—at least in theory.
Last week, I critiqued some of the cultural assumptions that we take for granted in America: the value and presumed goodness of capitalism, consumerism, and individualism. This week, I’m adding another: control. This assumption is related to individualism, and basically states that we have control over our lives. We see the effects of this assumption in the presumption that people who haven’t been “successful” in America just haven’t tried hard enough. Many of us have been taught to believe, for example, that people who need food stamps are bad or inferior people, rather than the victims of a healthcare system that took everything they had when they got cancer from tainted municipal water.
One aspect of American culture that’s just as tainted is the idea that individuals can, and should, make it on their own—that we have control over our individual lives. The truth of the matter is that we are social creatures. We have banded together for millennia, first to kill wooly mammoths for their meat, and eventually to create the infrastructure that makes our lives so much richer and more efficient (electrical and internet networks that allow you to read this post, for example). We function best when we live and work together in harmony.
COVID-19 has clearly shown us how little control we really have over our lives as individuals. If you choose not to wear a mask in public, you help keep the pandemic alive, forcing my husband, with his chronic lung issues, to remain in self-quarantine at home whenever possible. By choosing not to take reasonable precautions, some Americans are compromising the healthcare system on which all of us depend (along with those who work in it!).
While we don’t really have control over much of our lives, we do have choices, and it is here that we can indeed make a difference. We can choose to learn about our cultural assumptions and begin to question them. We can choose to reach out and listen to those who are different from us and learn what it’s like to walk in their shoes, or live with their skin color. We can also choose to be part of the ongoing revolution that is American democracy.
This is where I connect back to Independence Day and the vote. We have a big election coming up in November, and lots of evidence that others (both foreign and domestic) are trying to take the vote away from many of us—or make it irrelevant altogether. If we are to fulfill the idealistic vision of American democracy, every citizen should have the right to cast a vote, and for that vote to mean something.
It’s not enough to vote ourselves (although that is crucial). We also need to find out who can’t vote, and why, and do what we can to change it (like those initiatives to overturn laws that prevent former felons who have served their sentences from voting). We need to encourage others to exercise their right to vote—regardless of what we think their vote might be. Our social system only works if we do our part, not just individually, but as a community.
Did you/will you vote in your state’s primary? What can you do to support voting rights for others in your community?