Legion. An amalgamated journal.


* Get off my lawn

Once in a while, I am overcome with a conviction that occupies a lethal intersection: intellectually foolish, massively unpopular, and deeply felt. These are the most pernicious of convictions. It would be convenient, of course, to be at all times correct, popular, and genuine. But these three scalars of value aren’t always lined up, and, in the particular case I am about to describe, they all point crosswise. It should be no surprise that everything I ever write (everything that anybody writes, for that matter) is an artifact of conflicts and hedged bets; however, here, I suppose I should make it explicitly clear.

Right now, my email box has thirty messages containing the phrase “GOTV” received since 22 October. I have been reminded of my express civic duty incessantly and over every medium—by email not only on the Democrats mailing list but nearly every other one as well, by personal communiqué, by blog, by interminable posters, by conversation, by a sort of temporary collective unconscious in which everybody is going up to New Hampshire to shunt Barack Obama over the finish line. My avowed Democrat friends are there; my friends who have never before expressed political opinions to me are there. Even my parents have converted from mere New Hampshire voters into New Hampshire political operatives.

Let me be aboveboard about a few things. Having spent time in campaign offices, I understand the privileged position that field occupies, and the basic assumption of the necessity of canvassing efforts. I know that New Hampshire is pivotal not only to the Presidential election, but also for its contentious Senate and House elections. And, most importantly, I understand that the urge to participate in field efforts in these last days of the election extends out of a genuine good faith. It should furthermore be no secret that I desperately want Obama to win the election.

And yet I cannot help but feel—perhaps unjustifiably but nonetheless deeply—as though my home state is under imperial occupation by an army of misguided crusaders who have enlisted in a crusade that is not fully comprehensible to them.

When the French lost the Franco-Prussian war, they reconvened their national imagination and decided to locate ‘civilization’ as the heirloom jewel of the French people. Convinced of the enlightenment of their cultural convictions, they proceeded to occupy North Africa and the Levant under the banner of the now-famous mission civilisatrice. The French would offer rayonnement to the fanatic hordes living there—that is, an illumination of the modern and progressive way of living. The premises of the mission civilisatrice have often been labeled a pretense for the economic and political greed of the Third Republic, but I don’t think the French were entirely sinister. I think, at some level, they actually believed that they were the most civilized people on earth, and believed that it was their moral duty to proselytize their enlightenment to others.

It is certainly not the only time in history that people convinced of the superiority of their own value systems have shoved it down the throats of others. The introductory image of this post is the first seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, depicting a naked ‘savage’ begging “come over and help us.” Just like the French in North Africa, the Puritans genuinely felt they were doing what was right, as did the Mormon missionaries in Polynesia, the English bureaucrats in India, the Soviet apparatchiks in Eastern Europe—or, to make the parallel blunt, the liberal Ivy League students in New Hampshire and Virginia and the other battleground stakes.

I do not mean to draw a crude metonymy between these historical proselytizers and the many students who are in my state right now telling my countrymen how to vote. The two clearly have plenty of epiphenomenal differences. Still, has it never yet occurred to any of these well-meaning volunteers that fanning out across a state which they do not know in order to tell its residents how to vote is a bit presumptuous? I should hope never to be an instigator of crude regionalism, but it remains true that the different parts of the country have cultural peculiarities which are often inscrutable to those who are not participants in them. I would never go tell Virginians which Senate candidate makes the most sense for them, mostly because I have no idea exactly how Virginians’ hierarchy of values operates.

Perhaps I am too attached to a fiction of a political system in which people are engaged in it every day writing and discussing and thinking, rather than joining up for three days every four years in order to go civilize the yokels. Perhaps I am too fond of the principles of town-meeting style republican democracy. I am willing to admit that I offer these feelings as a practitioner of everyday life, not as an analyst of it. I truly hope that the troops currently converging on New Hampshire have at least thought well and good about this before leaving and that they have merely decided differently from me. One suspects, however, that they haven’t.

Garrett Dash Nelson

November 3rd, 2008 at 9:09 pm

But perhaps you disagree

One response so far

  • [ # ] MarkusNov 3, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    I think the mental calculus here is less “I’m from Massachusetts, let me go tell a New Hampshirite how to vote” than “I’m an American, let me go tell another American how to vote.” Even if there are regional differences, the presidency and Congress are, after all, national offices. And are Virginians’ value systems really that different from ours — so different that we can’t even try to communicate?

    And and, isn’t the point of GOTV mostly to act as a highly targeted personal advertisement, reminding people who have already made up their minds of exactly when and where to vote? Offering rides and reassurance? I don’t see what’s presumptuous about that.