Monday, November 14, 2011

The Brookswood Bums

Category: Mind Change

Whenever there’s an election, the cynics come out in droves.  Not necessarily to vote, because they are cynical; but they can usually be lured into talking about whether they’re going to vote or not, and if not, why not. 

One of the main reasons that people give for not planning to vote, or for not voting as a matter of principle, is that “It won’t make any difference.”

Now, there are two distinct possible things that this might mean, and both of them are enough to get me standing on my chair and yelling and waving my arms around, potentially knocking everyone’s beer over.  One of the two possible things is just plain unacceptable and I won’t buy it!  I wave my arms around a lot because I disagree with it as a good reason for not voting.  The other of the two possible things is kind of worrisomely possibly true, I think, and I do sort of buy it.  I wave my arms around a lot over this one because I have a really good anecdote which illustrates the possible worrisome truth of the matter about voting.  I’ll save the latter (and the anecdote) for last and debunk the former first.

Interpretaton Number One of “It won’t make any difference.” 

The first thing that “It won’t make any difference” often means, when given as a reason for not bothering to vote, is that hey, just one person’s measly little vote only counts as one person’s measly little vote.  Nobody is going to notice if one person does or does not vote.  Usually when election results come in, the candidates win by much bigger numbers than ONE!  So if I don’t vote, it’s not going to make any difference anyway.  Even if I do vote, it’s only one vote, and won’t make any difference anyway.  There are so many other voters.  Either my preferred candidate will win or not; and he or she will win or not, whether or not I vote.  So I’m not going to vote, because it won’t make any difference anyway. 

This can actually be a tempting way to think, especially when you live in an area (and KNOW you live in an area) where you are vastly outnumbered by people who do NOT support your favorite candidate or party.  I have lived in such areas almost ALL MY LIFE.  Only once in my long and frustrating history of trudging out to vote has my preferred candidate/party actually won an election!!  And that time, they won by enough votes that they would have won anyway, even if I hadn’t voted.  So in fact, it wouldn’t have made any difference if I hadn’t voted. One is tempted to just move somewhere where people share your political views, just to be on the winning side once in awhile.  (And you wouldn’t have to trudge out and vote, in that case!)

It’s really depressing in western Canada during a national election, if you are hoping to elect a particular Prime Minister, because by the time the polls close in B.C., the result is usually already pretty obvious, based on what everyone did in the east a few hours earlier.  There are so many people living and voting in eastern Canada that not a few westerners have just shrugged bitterly and not bothered to vote, because “it won’t make any difference”.  (We had this problem with Canadian Idol, too.  The pasty lame guy from Ontario who looked like a waiter won, when it was obvious that the cool cowboy guy from Calgary was the much better singer.  There were just more people in Ontario and that was that.) 

Well, tempting as it may be to think that you shouldn’t bother to vote, based on this kind of reason, you had better not think this, because I will stand on my chair and wave my arms around and knock your beer over.  Here is what I will say: 

“You idiot!  What if everybody thought that way?  Then nobody would vote!  The people whose candidates were losing in the polls would not vote because they’d expect other people to outvote them, and the people whose candidates were winning would not vote because they’d expect other people to do the voting for them!  But then… aha!  Suppose YOU are the only person who does NOT think that way?  You could determine the whole election all by yourself just by going out and voting!  Go vote!  Geeze!!!  You never know!  If YOU think that you have a good reason for not voting, it’s just possible that other voters will think so too (what, you think you are the only rational agent in the country?); in which case they won’t vote, and YOU can (irrationally) make a difference!

“Apart from these paradoxical game-theoretical considerations,” I will shriek, “people DIED so YOU would have a right to have an input into what kind of government we have.  You sit there complaining about the government all the time but you don’t even vote!  If you aren’t even going to exercise your rights and try to DO something about it, you shouldn’t complain about the government!” 

As you can see, I am a lot of fun to go out for drinks with.  And not in a nice way.  Especially if you try to argue that you shouldn’t bother to vote based on Interpretaton Number One of “It won’t make any difference.” 

However, there is the odd occasion where the person who isn’t planning to vote, because “It won’t make any difference,” means something else, and at these times I get kind of pensive and nod sagely, and then I jump up on my chair and wave my arms around trying to get people to listen to my anecdote about democracy in the (so-called) free world. 

Interpretaton Number Two of “It won’t make any difference.”

The idea here is that there is no point in voting because the candidates, parties, platforms on offer (at least, the main contenders) are so similar that no matter how you vote, you are going to get essentially the same result anyway.  Sure, so-and-so says he is going to cut spending, and so-and-so says he is going to fix the roads and create employment… whatever, whatever… in the long run, no matter what the party in power is, it’s still going to be checked and balanced by the other party or parties, by whatever corrupting influences are operating (be as cynical as you like here; let’s assume there are lots!), and furthermore, the ability to do anything is so incredibly dependent on factors, both domestic and global (and obviously intertwined) which are not in the government’s control. 

Ideologically, the main contenders in, say, both Canada and the United States are not REALLY very different.  America’s Democrats and Republicans are both to the right of Canada’s most right-wing main contender in any election; from a Canadian’s point of view, there isn’t all THAT much to choose between them.  No matter who wins the next election in the States, America is not going to change all THAT much.  In Canada, the Conservatives are “conservative,” but so are the Liberals, really.  They aren’t going to make any really radical changes if they get elected next time.  There are other parties, but not enough people ever vote for them.  So what’s the point in voting?  It won’t make any difference anyway. 

This is the argument, anyway.  It’s the “I’m not going to vote because there’s nothing to choose from” argument. 

Now, in Canada, at least, it’s not literally the case that there is nothing to choose from.  In a federal election, there are always lots of parties on the ballot, and you can even vote for the Communist Party if you want to.  There are lots of loony parties you can vote for if you want to.  This is a democracy!  Yeah!  You have a choice!  Get out and vote!  If you think the Communist Party, or the Marijuana Party, or whoever, should be in charge, go vote! If they win, they win!  This is a democracy!  Right?

This is the part where I get pensive.  And now comes the part where I start waving my arms around and try to get people to listen to my anecdote.  I start out by yelling, “Do you REALLY believe that you would be allowed to vote for the Marijuana Party if there were really a remote chance that they would get elected??” 

Anecdote:  The Brookswood Bums

Back in Grade 9, in BC’s lower mainland, I moved to a neighbourhood where the population was increasing and they had to build a new school.  I was lucky enough to be one of the students at Brookswood Secondary School (because the subdivision was called Brookswood) when it came time to decide on the school motto and team name.  This was B.C., back in the late 70’s, and we were an open-minded, progressive, democratic type of province.  So the principal, who was open-minded, progressive and democratic, called an assembly after lunch on a Friday and told us all that we were supposed to democratically decide what we wanted our school team name and motto to be.  Suggestions were submitted in writing by the students, put into a hat, and then these were read out loud on the podium by the vice-principal, who was also open-minded, progressive and democratic.

We got the usual range of boring stuff:  “Brookswood Tigers: Let’s Roar!”; “Brookswood Broncos: Let’s Stomp ‘em!” ... whatever.  We were all sitting there on the floor of the gym thinking about what we were going to do after school (by this time it was about two in the afternoon and we were supposed to go home at three).

But then the vice-principal pulled another piece of foolscap out of the hat. He looked at it and he paused and he probably remembers making the decision, but he decided to read it to us.

“Brookswood Bums: Let’s Wipe Em!”

YES!  The whole gym went wild.  This is what we wanted!  We wanted to be the Brookswood Bums!  We wanted to Wipe Em! 

At first the vice-principal thought it was funny.  Everybody did.  He read a few other boring submissions (we were all still chuckling and weren’t really listening anymore) and then it was time to vote.  The first time we voted, none of the other contenders got any votes, and when “Brookswood Bums: Let’s Wipe Em” was read, we all went wild again.  Every hand went up. 

Ha ha, the vice-principal still thought it was funny, but he was looking concerned.  He said something along the lines of, “Yes, kids, that is funny but now let’s get down to business,” and read all the choices to us again.

Same result.  We wanted to be The Brookswood Bums and we wanted to Wipe Em!

By this time it was about 2:45 and we were supposed to go home in fifteen minutes. 

A consultation was held between the vice-principal and the principal.  The principal then got up on the stage and tried to reason with us.  He said, as I recall, that we shouldn’t choose that name because other schools would laugh at us.  He was in favor of “Brookswood Tigers: Let’s Roar!”

Another vote.  Same result.  We wanted to be the Brookswood Bums.  We wanted to Wipe Em!  It was now after three.

Everyone wanted to go home, but it became apparent that we weren’t going to be allowed to leave until we had decided on our team name and motto.  Never mind that we HAD decided on our team name and motto.  Another vote was taken. 

This time, a few people capitulated and voted for “Tigers”.  They still weren’t allowed to leave, because the rest of us stuck to our vote. 

It was about four o’clock when the principal finally got a majority vote for “Brookswood Tigers: Let’s Roar!”  I was among the minority who were still voting for the Bums, but even I was getting fed up by that point.  What difference did it make? I wanted to go home. 

In fact, it didn’t make any difference to my life that our school’s team name was “Brookswood Tigers”, but I have never forgotten the fact that we weren’t allowed to vote for what we wanted to vote for.  What kind of vote was that? 

So when this “It won’t make any difference” thing comes up, I always wonder what would happen if, by some incredible stretch of the imagination, all of the Canadian people went into their polling booths and actually voted for, say, the Communist Party or the Marijuana Party.  Not that we’re going to, or course.  But what if we did? 

I bet that a Mistake would be declared and we’d all have to keep going back into the booths until most people had voted either Liberal or Conservative!  That’s what I think!  And if such a thing ever did happen, it would never, never, be allowed to happen again!  That’s what I think! 

There.  That’s my anecdote.  Thanks for listening, and sorry for spilling your beer.  Let me buy you another one.  Just to be clear here:  I still think people should vote; I still think I should vote.  There are small but important differences between the parties that everyone expects us to vote for, and it’s cool that we have the right to contribute to making small but important differences. 

I’m just a bit cynical, that’s all. 

Back to Voting

Old Comments

  • I love your work, but DON’T spill my beer. I mean, really, anything but the beer. Oh, I don’t vote but not for those reasons, because the system says I have to choose between the lesser of to evils and I refuse to do that. I vote for a new system.

    Posted by deminizer  on  11/14  at  01:33 PM
  • I always vote for the Hippopotamus party. For one, I think hippopotamuses are cute, and for two, their mighty teeth will come in handy if we are ever attacked by zombies.

    I love this piece, although I hate the harsh reality of it. Being Canadian, I can totally see your point of view - although I guess I could see it being anything but, as well. I’m not even sure real democracy has ever existed.

    And hell, I wish you could spill my beer just because it would mean I would be drinking one. Or a dirty martini.

    Posted by StarLizard  on  11/22  at  01:59 AM
  • Democracy is supposed to be the lesser evil of all the alternatives.  A real democracy would require that people were well-educated enough to make an informed choice and no, I don’t think a real democracy has ever existed.

    Posted by julianyway  on  11/22  at  02:32 AM
  • downer

    Posted by julianyway  on  11/22  at  02:34 AM
  • This piece was very well put.

    I only wish that people would check out Voluntaryism (http://www.voluntaryist.com).  Consider what it is we vote for when (and if) we vote: What group of people will we use to decide who among us will be forced under color of law to give up some of what they earn and who among us will receive what those earners have been forced to give up?  It doesn’t have to be that way, but taxes are collected by force, and so it is.  It’s sick on the face of it, destructive on many levels, and morally reprehensible.  For example, I can hear the wheels in the heads of many readers:

    “But if taxes were not collected by force, the government would have no money and be unable to function and we’d have no schools and no streets and no justice.”  Likewise, if I don’t force you to give me money so I can buy your food, you’ll starve, right? 

    No, because you’ll buy your own food.  Duh.  The same goes for schools and streets and justice.  Oh but this is supposed to be an example of sick and destructive immorality caused by coercive taxation, right?  So I will connect the dots for you.  Were you indoctrinated by a public school and told over and over again by media companies that only *I* could provide you with food that will keep you well nourished?  No, you weren’t.  In that respect, you haven’t been brainwashed.  Were you indoctrinated by a public school and told over and over again by media companies that only *the government* could provide you with schools and streets and justice?  Why yes!  We have been brainwashed in that respect.  Go study it for a while, and then come back and see if coercive taxation isn’t a destructive and immoral sickness.

    And if you have to vote, see if you can vote for a voluntaryist.  Ron Paul is pretty close.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/03  at  01:46 AM
  • I once flung a ten dollar bill at a beggar on the street here in Phnom Penh.  (Cambodia uses both US dollars and Cambodian reil for day-to-day currency.) It was early morning, we were sitting outside a pub, a bit punchy.  The beggars and the sun were just getting up for their day’s work.  When the beggar grabbed the ten dollar bill he stared at it for a couple of seconds and then scuttled away.  I’m sure he thought I mistook it for a one dollar bill and would go chasing after him. 

    In Cambodia the average income is very low… it’s so low that I keep forgetting what it is, but it’s in the low hundreds.  And that’s for people who are employed.  So that $10 was quite a windfall for the beggar.  I just wonder what he did with it.  Sometimes I am glad I flung it at him and sometimes I wish I had it back for myself. 

    I wonder if he spent it on education for himself or his children.

    Posted by julianyway  on  12/08  at  04:03 AM
  • If everyone voted, the process of evolution would take over, and we’d start getting marginally better candidates. Over time the “suckage” factor would diminish. Our choice might change from “shit or shit sandwiches” to “shit sandwiches or stale bread.”

    But maybe I’m just an optimist!

    P.S. There’s a reason Churchills observation, “A democracy is the worst possible form of government, except for all the others,” rings true!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/08  at  12:43 PM
  • The education that teaches you to hang around white people because they sometimes emit useful green paper is free grin.  My bet is on food.

    What is the root cause of poverty over there?  Is it lack of education?  What level of human quality does your typical beggar reflect?  I bet most Cambodians who aren’t beggars are in business for themselves, but I have no idea.  You’re my only source.  Do you have a job, and if so, who employs you, the state or a private company? If not, are you in business for yourself?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/08  at  12:52 PM
  • Root cause of poverty: Kind of a long story. Getting bombed during the Vietnam war and then decimated by the Khmer Rouge didn’t help.  I wouldn’t know anything about it if I hadn’t moved here. 

    Not a lot of tax-payers here because most people don’t have any money or fixed addresses.  I have to pay 10% income tax (they just thought of this since I got here) because I am a foreigner and I work in a school and they can take the money from the school directly.  Lots of land-grabbing by people in powerful positions.  Most people are indeed self-employed (eg. as farmers, moto-taxi drivers, “hostesses”, etc.), and there is no point taxing them because they haven’t got any money worth chasing them for.  That said, there are more and more and more and more big big cars on the road every day and they are being driven by Cambodians.  My students have big cars.

    There isn’t really a very effective democracy here, although there is a “democracy.”  But the main worry around here is that there is an awful lot of corruption, and there’s no point in saying they should get rid of government, because oh boy, they’ve tried all that.

    Well, you asked.  sigh. http://kamome.lib.ynu.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/10131/3127/1/4-Te.pdf

    I haven’t read most of this.  Cheer up.  Life is short!

    Posted by julianyway  on  12/08  at  01:40 PM
  • OH… postscript:  I was just reading today about the first elections that were held in Cambodia under UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority) in 1993.  The Cambodians voted (90% voted!) decisively for the party they wanted, in spite of all kinds of threats that they would be killed if they voted, etc., but they still weren’t allowed to have what they voted for!  The CPP party insisted on having a joint leadership role and there was nothing anyone could do but compromise if they wanted to see any progress here at all.  And now the CPP is still in power.  This is the Brookswood Bums, Asia Episode.

    Posted by julianyway  on  12/08  at  01:56 PM
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