Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How Chalk Saved Me from the Belly of the Political Machine

By the end of this summer I was unemployed, but flush with OSAP cash. Eager to mark an item off my bucket list I volunteered for an NDP campaign in the provincial elections. I really dove into this head first, and so most of my waking hours in August and September were spent standing on the front porches of North York voters. Yesterday we finished picking up 15 thousand dollars worth of campaign signs, and today as I sit at my computer, eating an ungodly amount of cold pizza scavenged in the waning hours of the campaign party, I feel disoriented by both the lack of daily linear goals, and the sudden inpouring of free time. I guess I feel the need to reflect on this experience

Above all, I will miss the sense of community which was fostered on the campaign. Every night the core team would gather around a cheap plastic table piled with wrinkled maps, and swap election battle stories. Someone would suggest that the Liberals had stolen an NDP campaign sign, and we would unanimously agree that the only appropriate response would be to slash their tires (for the record, we never did!). We coalesced around a shared affinity to the NDP banner, and strengthened the bond by painting the Liberals into boogeymen. When we sat around telling these stories I felt a deep sense of belonging. This is what kept me coming back.   

Most voters with whom I spoke to fell into the broad categories of the staunch traditionalists, who always vote for the same party, or the apolitical apathetic, who have given up on politics altogether. While knocking on doors I shocked myself with how quickly I was able to throw away my youthful idealism and simply say anything to lock up a vote. When I was standing in front of a Conservative I would deliver my rehearsed spiel on strategically voting NDP to block a Liberal seat. If a Social Conservative launched into a creepy racist tirade filled with code words like, “the immigrant problem” or “the moral decay of the country”, I would frantically mask my discomfort by shifting the conversation to fiscal policy, or garbage removal (even though garbage is a city issue). Ultimately, the experience became a numbers game with layers of strategy.  I was constantly dancing from one side of the aisle to the other, hoping to appease whomever was listening.

Honestly, I got really burnt out near the end. The first signs of frustration surfaced while I was helping out with the creation of a piece of artwork. The piece was a large scale chalk drawing, and I vividly remember colouring in a portion and feeling really excited because I was free to choose any colour I wanted. It felt as if the NDP was some controlling mistress who was letting me watch the hockey game because I behaved myself at a party! I guess I was very accustomed to calibrating my actions relative to the singular goal of winning the election, and somehow the creativity of the chalk drawing tapped into an expressive freedom which I had suppressed. From that point on, instead of reading Huffington-post election clippings, I would spend my mornings scanning web comics. In the evenings, rather than volunteering to stay late and enter voter data, I would sneak off to read comics, re-watch old movies, and toss around ideas for short stories. It was pretty clear that the thrill of the campaign was fading.

I think these reflections connect in interesting ways. For one thing, my feelings towards both the party fundamentalist and the apathetic shifted from frustration to understanding. Over the last two months I definitely took a few sips of the NDP Kool-Aid, and so I can understand how holding a party so close to your sense of identity can develop into irrational, unconditional supportIt is pretty easy to start thinking of politics in terms of “we are the righteous, and they are from the depths of hell! On the other hand, by the end of the campaign I felt a certain kinship with the apathetic constituent (I mean screw it, I’m in my early twenties, if there’s ever a time to go through a nihilistic punk rock phase it's now!). The time I spent saying almost anything to get votes probably shows that there is a kernel of truth to the argument that “politicians are all the same”. The representatives on our ballet have each been processed and packaged through a massive machine designed to produce the person who will appeal to the most voters and generate the most campaign dollars.

 I understand the appeal of the apathetic position, but please do not understand this as an endorsement to not vote. Young people today have incredible challenges ahead of them, facing down a collapsing economic system as capitalism takes its last, wheezing gasps of life. If we ever hope to achieve true change and start the healing process, it won’t be through apathy or blind partisanship, it will be through people. People with different viewpoints, ideas and dreams, gathering and doing things both inside and outside the political machine. I will continue to support the NDP, because for the time being their platform correlates the closest with my personal ideals and convictions. However, I will now seek to balance my involvement with action outside of formal politics – in this sense I am very thankful to be a part of Feminist Action.

    Oh, I should probably mention that we lost the election, but I feel ok with this. I met inspiring people, and had some great experiences! When McGuinty’s minority falls you will probably see me helping the NDP again, but my activism will no longer begin and end on the front porch of North York voters.       


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