"We can't, as a country, keep doing this."
- Brian Williams, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 8/15/12
WARNING: If you do not like to read about politics in any form, look away now. I won't be beligerent, but I am going to discuss the political climate in this country, something I know not everyone wants to read about. Full disclosure: I am a registrered Democrat who plans on voting for Obama in the election. But I am respectful of other people's opinions, and will listen to and participate in civil discussions, and will only speak out loudly, as I discovered yesterday, when the truth is not being told.
Twenty-four years ago, I was twelve years old and newly politicized and standing outside a barricade on the university campus with a friend, holding a Dukakis/Bentsen sign at a Bush (the first one) rally. My mom was not far, holding a sign as well. Earlier this week, when I heard Paul Ryan would be speaking on campus, I knew I'd be there too. This time, I decided not to carry a sign.
The weather, to set the scene, was perfect. Tiny fluffy clouds dotted a bright blue sky, there was a small breeze blowing from the northwest. I borrowed my dad's bike, forgetting how liberating bike rides can feel, pedaling quickly, then coasting, a little lump of happiness collecting in my throat. I was excited for this.
It was difficult for me in New York to be surrounded by people who all believed exactly the same thing I do. I knew that moving to Ohio, I'd come across opposition, and to be honest, the idea made me happy. I don't think it's healthy to be surrounded entirely by people who think the same thing you do. How do we learn and grow from homogeneity? How does sameness improve our experience? So the prospect of encountering other opinions, the prospect of dialogue, was something I looked forward to. I was throwing myself in at the deep end with this one: everyone there would have very little in common with my politics, but surely that was an education to be around. Surely there was still room for a little dialogue here.
I dove in.
At the rally, I ran into the same friend I'd run into in Central Park nearly eleven years ago, on the day when planes were flying into buildings. She'd come to see an old friend from her days working in the media; we whispered a sympathetic "isn't this crazy?" hello to each other as the college Republican representative stirred the crowd. I started to feel parched after my bike ride, and was reminded of how she had shared her diet soda with me on the sixty block walk home that day in September, though it did nothing to help my thirst. How different it felt back then. Back then, politics were a different beast. That was before I marched in two protests, before the wars. Our politics may have already been decided then, but I feel like that was before everyone started moving even further away from each other.
After we said our hellos, she went off looking for her friend in the media, and I decided to investigate the crowd. I had considered wearing my Obama shirt or carrying an Obama sign, but then decided that people would instantly dismiss me if I arrived in the uniform of opposition. Though I didn't disguise my politics very well: in my combat boots and tank top, bike at my side, I looked far more Militant Feminist than Young Republican.
"You definitely don't look like a Romney supporter," said Mom as I climbed on Dad's mountain bike. "You look like Janeane Garofalo." Apparently I looked significantly Other enough to deter a man an his daughter who were handing out Romney signs from even considering handing one to me. I wasn't doing or saying anything overt; no. Not at first.
There were protestors there. They chanted "OUT-source ROM-ney" and other Occupy standards outside the barricades as the line of Romney-Ryan supporters (or curious independents) snaked into the staging area. A blonde girl with a Romney sign stood next to them chanting "U-S-A!" in her cheerleader voice. A young Republican in a plaid top and khakis approached the protestors, grabbed one of their signs and tore it to pieces. A mother and daughter smiled and chanted "GET. A. JOB."
I stood near the protestors for a moment, not chanting (I actually did want to hear what was being said), but watching. And in my proximity, feeling supportive. I agreed with them. But I wasn't ready to be vocal. Not here. Not at first.
Then, between speakers, as the chants died down, I noticed two women walking by with paper fans that read "DEFEND FREEDOM, DEFEAT OBAMA," black on orange. Entirely — and I swear this to you here — from a photographer's observational perspective, I thought they would make a fantastic picture, and so I moved away from the protestors to approach them as I said "Excuse me..."
The woman screamed.
She didn't just shout; she didn't sarcastically mutter and wave me away with her fan. She whipped around and capital letters boldface italic 36-pt no holds barred SCREAMED at me. I was nonplussed; I honestly hadn't expected to be screamed at. My hands were shaking. I raised one hand to my chest and stuttered: "I-I-I'm sorry; I just wanted to take a picture of your sign." Her friend demured and I snapped a picture with my cell phone while she muttered "well I don't trust her." Their male friend looked at me wide-eyed and apologetic. I looked back at them as if to say: Why. WHY do we have to shout at each other like this.
But that door had been opened.
I honestly went there as an observer. I purposefully didn't wear my Obama shirt (or a hot pink balaclava, as I'd threatened on Facebook) because my intent was not to go there already decked out in the uniform of opposition, but instead to observe from the sidelines. I already knew who I was voting for, but I didn't want to be disruptive. But as soon as that woman screamed at me, I was reminded which side I was on. There were no sidelines anymore. I retreated to the back to whisper and eye roll and Heather Mooney with my friend as Kasich and Portman spoke of Ohio's accomplishments, and this great ("public" I said through gritted teeth) university. Not far into Ryan's speech, her ride called and I hugged her goodbye. As soon as she left, I decided to move my bike to the center of an empty part of the field outside the barricades, behind the stare of media cameras, away from Romney supporters and Obama supporters. The snipers on the rooftops followed me with their binoculars, a lone girl looking like Janeane Garofalo rolling a bicycle closer to the action. But I was no harm. I just wanted to listen to the man speak. And I heard nothing more inspiring than "We will lead," which what does that mean anyway. And when I heard things that were questionable — his promise to protect Medicare, which he'd previously sworn to turn into a "premium support" plan — I began to shout. Standing alone in a field shouting at politics.
"BUT YOU WANT TO GET RID OF MEDICARE!"
"Obama promised to be a uniter, not a divider."
"THAT WAS BUSH!"
Standing alone. In a field. Shouting at the backs of politicians.
This is what politics has become. Shouting. Division. I'm looking at you too, Democrats. You too, MSNBC; you can be just as bad as FOX. I don't like any of it. And yet there I was, shouting too.
Why. WHY do we have to shout at each other like this.
Later that night, I sat in my parents' den watching the Daily Show, where Brian Williams and Jon Stewart were talking about how the campaign has so far been about nothing but campaigning. "Now they can finally talk substance. When is that going to happen?" Jon Stewart asked.
Brian Williams answered with my greatest fear as a pragmatist. "You're seeing no grand speeches because both sides are so hardened, everyone has retreated to their corners, there's no changing minds, there is no good decent discourse going on."
It doesn't matter what the politicians say. I heard no substance, nothing that was any different from what I've heard before. Everyone has retreated to their corners. This is our dialogue: sitting in our distant (and yet really not so different) corners and shouting at each other.
As if that will accomplish anything.
(Here is a local news story on the rally. For the record: the part of the report that states that people were turned away because there wasn't enough room is totally false. There was plenty of room, and people were being let in well through the end of the rally; some were advised to move off to the side where there was a wall overlooking the rally if they didn't want to wait in line. Zan McQuade, citizen journalist! UPDATE: This Cincinnati Enquirer piece more accurately describes the rally, including the numbers — no more than 2,000 — and the fact that people were being let in well through the end of the event.)
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.