“It’s better than a ballgame!” my neighbor exclaimed. Coming from an avid baseball fan, this meant something. He had only ceased following the baseball stats when he moved to Australia because it was too difficult to navigate the time zones.
I agree with him. Politics is like a ballgame that is never dull, whether it’s a close score or an absolute blow-out. My family devours news about the latest contests in all forms of media. Often we stand talking in the kitchen predicting our preferred outcomes and laughing over the mistakes.
In many ways, this addiction isn’t new for me. Before I could read, I looked over my father’s shoulder at the photos as he read US News & World Report by lamplight at the end of the day. I grew up discussing politics at the supper table, and still seldom pass on an opportunity to read a new story or angle on the day’s events. Political participation is part of believing in a better world, isn’t it?
Even as a young child, I quickly caught on to the game. I carefully studied all the presidential primary candidates, pushing my special one to the top. If enough bad news came out about someone, I’d drop them for someone else. Those names were so important then, but who knows them now?
I moved from following to involvement. Small attempts were important for me, such as boycotting table grapes to support the United Farm Worker. My middle school class raised money for a local soup kitchen and made posters to raise awareness. In college I took time to attend political campaign events. The candidates chopped the air with their hands and called for better times, or “bread and butter on the table for everyone,” before leaving campus in their shiny BMWs.
After meeting the family of a death row prisoner and learning about flaws in the criminal justice system, I became an activist and not only petitioned politicians, but also started protesting and speaking out. Yet in my mind, my hopes were always tied to electoral politics. It always seemed possible that someone who got in really could make a difference. The day would come when the death penalty would be abolished in America, prisons reformed, the poor given a helping hand, wars ended, and wealth redistributed. True, it hadn’t happened much, but there was always that special candidate coming up. I was confident that a person with enough power could fix big problems, and I loved to spend time following how they were going to do it.
While I still find politics entertaining at times, I am now much more aware of the limits of human strength and power. Why was I so confident that good human beings could fix every problem? Even if we can make the world better, our power only goes so far.
Certainly following someone else’s strengths and failings does little to change the world. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Precisely because our political speeches are meant to be reported, they are not worth reporting.” What does that say about those of us who so enjoy reading them?
Should this healthy awareness of the corruption and limitations of politics, and of our own powerlessness, discourage us from remaining engaged and involved? Not at all. In fact, the two moments that stand out as the most formative and meaningful in my own political awakening accomplished nothing. They were certainly not the euphoric protest marches or campaign rallies. They didn’t change the world, but they changed me.
In middle school our class wrote to Cesar Chavez and asked him to visit our school, and he accepted! Only three students were permitted to fetch him from the airport, and I was lucky. When Cesar walked out of the passenger line towards us, I couldn’t believe how small and frail he was. Then he spoke, and we could hardly hear him. The only thing he wanted on the trip home from the airport was a cup of tea. During his visit, Cesar declined all talks with adults about his cause, fulfilling only his promise to be there for us, the children.
In July 1999, I joined a few friends who drove hours to stand on the side of a busy road near Rockview prison in Pennsylvania with lighted candles as a death row inmate was executed. It was a black night, nobody stopped, the wind continually blew out our candles, and our singing could not be heard over the passing trucks. About twenty minutes after midnight we saw the hearse leave the prison and drive off into the night. Arriving home in the early morning, we had no time to sleep before the day began. Who noticed or cared? No newspaper covered our candlelight vigil. Most newspapers expressed relief that a serial killer was finally dead.
In life, is it perhaps not more important to say a prayer for the condemned, or respond to a child, than to triumph at the polls? We should remember that, while every well-meant human effort has limitations, none is wasted.