Saturday, November 1, 2008




It's a beautiful day in South Dakota--windy, as usual, but warm and bright. My husband is catching walleye at a nearby lake. The phone call came this morning from a friend of his. They had caught four "keepers" in an hour of fishing. The husband was out of bed and gone in a flash.

I am inside looking out my office window. I've been composing a job recommendation letter for a graduate student with whom I work. He's a great guy and a promising scholar. Just received email from another student. She's finished next week's reading early and wants to get a start on her next paper. We won't be discussing the book until Tuesday, but she wants me to email my thoughts on the characters and events to her, so she can begin work. Earlier today I wrote a long blog about my graduate student years and erased the whole thing with one click. I felt awful for having wasted an hour writing when I could have been working. Working?

Have I mentioned that "It's a beautiful day in South Dakota--windy, as usual, but warm and bright." It's Saturday. I feel guilty for not working. I want to reply to my student: "Sorry, I don't work on Saturday." Or: "I am only teaching that book in class--not once to you in email over the weekend and then again in class next week." It's nice that she's so committed. An "exceeds expectations" teacher would probably meet her for coffee this afternoon and have a discussion about the book. Before I got the email, I was reading the "balancing life and work" forum thread in the Higher Chronicle. This is the thread where some faculty go to complain about their jobs and support one another in trying to muster the gumption to quit. One writer says that she has already quit and now feels much, much better. I have already quit, too, but I really don't feel that much better. I still feel manacled to the computer and guilty when I'm not doing something job-related. I constantly have to remind myself that I can relax, find something enjoyable to do, keep the work contained within certain hours. I don't need any more lines on my cv.

I'll be voting on Tuesday. I'm afraid my parents are both voting for McCain, and just thinking about it makes my heart race. I was mulling over whether I might be a Federalist in the car the other day, and Thoreau's words on voting kept coming to mind. He wrote that to vote is pretty much a game of craps, that no choice of moral importance can be made in such a way--at least not for people who feel deeply invested in a question. Thoreau writes, "All voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voter is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men" ("Resistance to Civil Government" Thoreau).

What Thoreau says about the character of the voter's not being staked is true. In some sense, we are not supposed to care too much about the outcome of a vote; after casting our ballots, we are encouraged to let go of an issue and let the process do its work. The vote substitutes for my continuing identification with a stance or my moral connection to a decision. I put my preference in the vote and send it out to join the other votes, punchcards. My vote goes into a box and separates from me. Hours later, a decision emerges. The social contract which impels/implies my consent dictates that the decision, the output, be accepted as my law, even if, as Thoreau points out, that output is morally repugnant to me. As a citizen in a republic, I agree to respect the system that allots power to a majority. But the republican form adheres to the majority decision not because the majority is right or wise or moral, but because the system of accepting its decisions is expedient. I wonder if voting itself may be worse than amoral and, in truth, immoral, since it forces a buffer between my knowledge of what is morally right and my ability to live out that knowledge. "Cast your whole vote," Thoreau writes, "not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight." These are brave words, but it's difficult to conceive of what they would look like in action. I've read and seen movies about the people in this country who won't pay their income taxes because, as they argue, the federal government has no jurisdiction to collect taxes on individual income. Nothing ever seems to come of the claim or the resistance--except jail time for the tax-evading individuals. When the Patriot Act passed, one might have expected to see a movement of some sort, but nothing significant emerged. Elections are sometimes called quiet or peaceful revolutions, and certainly they can bring about changes. But I think Thoreau is right to recognize that the changes are morally neutral in as much as they reflect no decision of right and wrong and may be immoral in that they separate decision making from moral responsibility. I will vote, but I am not very excited about it.

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