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Commusings: A Solemn Pledge

commusings Nov 01, 2020

In 1987, I ran for high school president. It was a hotly contested race with many worthy candidates. I ran on a populist, if flimsy, platform of pizza Fridays and Van Halen on the snack bar jukebox. My campaign relied heavily on superlative slogans: Krasno Knows, JPK All the Way, It’s About Jeffin’ Time. And we made appeals to foreign-language speakers with Jeff Pour Le Chef and Jefe Por El Jefe. I glad-handed the beefcakes and lugged the girls’ textbooks to class. I affixed placards to the signposts and stuffed lockers with handbills. I suffered through supplemental chapel sessions to underscore my scrupulous moral character. Had there been babies, I would have kissed them, a strategy I assiduously refused to deploy with the cheerleaders. I went careening into election day brimming with confidence.

The poll results were typed on a notecard and tacked to the student bulletin board the next morning. People crowded around the notice like locusts, a gossipy buzz permeating the halls. I elbowed my way to the front and my heart sank like a sack of sand. Amanda Tuttle, the spunky blond lacrosse player with the ski jump nose, would be the president. Finishing second, I would fulfill the drab ceremonial burdens of Vice President, which largely consisted of wretched flag duty. Stunned, I searched for answers. Maybe it was the fake dossier alleging lurid entanglements with my Russian teacher? Maybe I shouldn’t have joined the Adrenochrome Club?

Rejected and dejected, I moped off to English Lit, Death of a Salesman in hand. 

My English teacher, Blair Torrey, was a tree-trunk of a man, short and stocky yet full of vigor. He embodied every facet of the Renaissance man; a skilled sportsman schooled in the classics of Latin and Greek, able to quote Burns and Eliot at the drop of a Tudor flat cap. His keen emotional intelligence picked up on my dolefulness, as I slumped into my chair like Willie Loman. 

“Mr. Krasno,” he barked, “What is the etymology of the word ‘vote’?”

Bothered and bewildered, I shrugged.  

And then, in an act right out of Dead Poet’s Society, Torrey scooped up a weighty and frayed antediluvian Webster’s dictionary and hurled it at me from across the room. Like a fat tuna, it landed with a sonorous thud on my desk. He peered over his spectacles, the edges of eyes tightening, spurring me along.

I flipped through the timeworn yellowed pages until I found the entry. I knew better than to simply recite the definition, so I skipped to the derivation.

The word “vote” is derived from the Latin votum “a vow, wish, promise to a god, dedication, a solemn pledge.”

“Krasno, you weren’t running for school president.” Torrey loved the pregnant pause, cueing up a statement of great gravitas. “You were asking for the solemn pledge of your classmates.”

It’s quite difficult to remember amidst the mud-slinging morass of our current political bog that there is anything remotely solemn or spiritual afoot. This spectacular rite of self-determination has been tainted to resemble an all-day slog at the DMV.

But, of course, many of history’s most revered spiritual icons were engaged in profoundly political acts. Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Jesus was crucified for fighting against the exploitation of the poor and meek. Jeanne D’Arc was martyred at 19 for crusading against English domination. Gandhi, armed with the unassailable moral integrity of ahimsa, marched for Indian independence. Reverend King and many others including John Lewis and Ralph Abernathy prayed with their feet in the quest for racial equity. These heroes, and scores of others, dedicated their lives to giving a voice to the voiceless.  

But our human narrative is also rife with countless examples of miscreant leaders, some of them history’s darlings, steadfast to keeping the powerless in their place.  Our American story is certainly no exception, from conception onward.

From the mid 17th-century and for a hundred years after, suffrage in the American colonies was restricted to white, male, Christian property owners. The United States Constitution, ratified in 1787, did not define voter eligibility, allowing each state to determine its own regulations. And, sluggishly, bit by painstaking bit, for nearly 250 years, we have inched along the arc of the moral universe to extend the franchise. The expansion of voting rights can be principally attributed to the courageous battles waged by passionate citizens generation after generation including the aforementioned civil rights champions as well as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Lucy Stone and Ida B. Wells. 

In fact, the sacredness of this right can be judged by the measure of the sacrifice made by others to secure it. 

No less than four of the fifteen post-Civil War constitutional amendments have been ratified to extend suffrage to various groups of disenfranchised citizens. The 15th Amendment (1870) prohibited the denial of voting rights based upon “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Women’s suffrage was codified by the 19th Amendment (1920). The 24th Amendment (1964) illegalized the poll tax. And the 26th Amendment (1971) established the national minimum age standard of eighteen.

The fight to deny and abridge these rights has been leveraged with equal passion. Almost as fast as rights were won, barriers were erected to undermine the enfranchisement of minority groups: Religious requirements, property qualifications, poll taxes, and literacy tests. The powerful, left and right, employ a sinister dexterity in their quest to preserve their toehold on sovereignty.

This dark treachery of American history continues to haunt us today in a number of states, including the battleground of Florida. For years, convicted felons were denied the right to vote in the Sunshine state. In a 2018 referendum, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to restore the franchise to those with felony convictions who have served their sentences, as long as the crime committed was not murder or sexual abuse. This initiative added an astounding 1.4 million voters to the rolls. However, this year an appeals court deemed that the governor and legislature could impose a ruling that made felons ineligible unless they paid back all their outstanding court fines and fees. Of course, many are, understandably, unable to afford it. Thus, the battle rages on.

If you ever feel that your vote is inconsequential then ask yourself why the denial of that right is the wicked project of so many.

Once you have embraced the imperative of exercising your civic duty, take a step further. Ask yourself how you might shift the narrative of voting from a political salvo, discharged once every few years, to a deeper commitment, practiced daily. 

This ritual of election is not merely transactional but, on an individual level, a spiritual expression. The right to pull a lever does not just register an assent for a candidate or proposition but is itself tethered to the heartstrings of your most profound moral convictions. Your vote is a wish to instantiate a world in greater alignment with your highest principles. And a vow to preserve the rights previously and often arduously gained. 

Most of us subscribe to the universal spiritual and moral principles of love and empathy. And these precepts may foster, in our mind’s eye, a vision of a world that is more just and equitable, more harmonious and sustainable. Our vote is the distillation, if an imperfect one, of this imagined world our hearts know is possible. Such an understanding of this civic exercise may serve as a potent lens through which to contemplate to whom and what we offer our solemn pledge.

We cast our vote for people and ideas in the form of leaders and policies on federal, state and local levels. If we embrace this rite as not just a civic duty but also as an expression of our highest self, what are the traits and attributes we seek in our presidents and congress people, in our bills and propositions?

Very often, our civic mindedness is galvanized by what we are against. But it is ultimately far more sustainable to be mobilized by what we are for. In superlative leadership, the body politic thirsts for the elixir of wisdom and compassion. 

Wisdom emerges from a critical study of one’s own experiences, particularly one’s failures. It is reflected in sound judgment and discernment. It is characterized by contemplative, unbiased and decisive responsiveness to situations, not impulsive reactivity.

Wisdom can be considered a moral quality, both separate and connected to knowledge. The French Renaissance philosopher, Michel de Montaigne wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men's knowledge but we cannot be wise with other men's wisdom.” Sapient leadership is not boastful nor does it not revel in the accumulation of facts and figures. Instead, it cultivates an awareness of what it does not know. The wisest leaders surround themselves with others who have capacities and talents that infill the empty caves of inadequacy. Great leadership recognizes its own deficiencies and opportunities for growth. In this way, wisdom and humility are interwoven. Consider these sage writings on leadership from Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism: 

A great nation is like a great man:

When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.

Having realized it, he admits it.

Having admitted it, he corrects it.

He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers.

He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.

And:

All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are.

Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them.

If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them.

That these quotations are as prescient today as they were 2,500 years ago, during the time of the warring states, illustrate simultaneously their perennial truthfulness and humanity’s staggeringly protracted moral evolution.

Great leadership must also embody compassion: lovingkindness in the presence of suffering. Through an empathetic emotional connection to others, the eminent leader inhabits a psychological state predisposed to alleviating another’s suffering.

Compassionate leadership also seeks to empower and encourage others, decentralizing decision-making through distributed leadership. It seeks not credit but accepts responsibility. Here, again, are the wise musings of Lao Tzu from the 17th verse of the Tao Te Ching:

The best leaders are those their people hardly know exist.

The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.

Next comes the one who is feared.

The worst one is the leader that is despised.

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.

When they have accomplished their task,

the people say, "Amazing! We did it, all by ourselves!"

The specific policies championed by consummate leadership are too many and diverse to enumerate in a measly weekend newsletter. However, as we peer inward to determine the initiatives we will support and oppose, we would do well to understand them inside these parentheses: Does the policy minimize suffering and maximize well-being for as many people as possible?

The diminishment of suffering and the maximization of human well-being can be mapped onto policies that help us either survive or thrive, that protect us or foster prosperity.

If government were to fulfill a hierarchy of needs, the wide foundation of the political pyramid would be the task of keeping citizens safe. Humanity currently faces myriad existential threats, and a willingness and ability to understand the complex, shifting nature of these menaces is of paramount importance in our prospective leaders.

Misinformation is more likely to be weaponized in the 21st century than green men on a battlefield. The impending infocalypse may deep fake us into further social incoherence. When fact and fiction become utterly indistinguishable, our ability to cooperate in the projects of humanity will shatter into a million of shards of fragmented reality.

Climate cancer, as Simon Sinek aptly dubs it, is threatening our coastlines, intensifying weather events, acidifying our oceans, reducing biodiversity, reducing our agricultural land to desert, and spawning millions of environmental refugees. 

While food scarcity looms on the horizon, obesity and associated chronic disease may be as perilous in some parts of the world as famine is in others.  

Of course, there is a biological pathogen to reckon with and learn from. As destructive as the current one is, the fatality rate of the next one may be twenty-fold.

These hazards, among others, will only further stress the centuries old project for racial equity that still cries out for criminal justice reform and equal access to housing, education and economic advancement. 

As a bulwark against these shape-shifting menaces and challenges, we need leadership committed to sound and comprehensive technological, environmental, public health and social justice policy. 

Beyond protecting our ability to survive, we seek policy that helps us thrive. 

We look for innovative approaches to spur economic vitality while also protecting our most vulnerable from the sharper edges of capitalism. 

Gross domestic product per capita can surely be a metric to measure our fiscal vibrancy. But, increasingly, we need to develop other metrics that more accurately depict our societal well-being beyond the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

We are capable of creating a S&P 500 of happiness and human fulfillment based upon a combination of these measurements: Life expectancy, homelessness, literacy and education levels, peace, child poverty statistics, renewable energy usage, ocean and forest sustainability, rates of incarceration, wealth distribution, sane drug policy, comprehensive treatment of chronic disease and mental illness, social cohesion, and public good will and trust.

If well-being is a shared goal, then the policies we support must ladder into these metrics.

The problems confronting us are immense, and you may feel at times paralyzed or numb in the face of them. But the world is not something happening to you. You are an active part of it. The human condition is merely the aggregate of billions of little decisions. Your vote is a recognition of self as a mere modification of a greater consciousness. 

When you go to yoga class or sit in meditation, you may have an intention for that practice. Perhaps you vow to send lovingkindness to a friend in need or forgive someone who has done you wrong. Maybe you simply want to cultivate mindfulness, to sit in a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. No matter your purpose, when the practice finishes, the intention does not simply disappear. In fact, in many instances, that intention is further fortified. 

The same is true when exercising your right to vote. You will certainly have an intention with your vote. However, when the practice of voting concludes and the returns are tabulated, this intention does not evaporate. Maybe your candidate wins, maybe not. But your vote is merely a snapshot of a life’s journey. An election will surely have substantial consequences. It will set the ranks for a period. But your right work and right action will endure and persist.

Take your vow, express your voice, make your solemn pledge. Rejoice and cheer, bellow and cry. And get back to work. The world needs you.

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