The Kenwood Press
: 10/15/2016

Considered choices and decisions

Jim Shere

My mother was descended from landed aristocracy. Her great-grandfather had been an Argonaut, and did well in the goldfields; then Vallejo advised him to invest in California real estate, so he established a ranch here in Sonoma County. My father, on the other hand, was an Oakie, and came out to California by freight train during that second great wave of American migration, out of the Dust Bowl, during the Depression.

I always knew when elections were approaching. They never agreed on politics, and their talk in the kitchen after we had gone to bed upstairs would grow noisier as the nights of the campaign dragged on. Mom believed in Pride of Ownership, and was a staunch Republican; Dad was a vigorous Democrat, who believed instead in The People. Theirs was a marriage of inconvenience.

The arguments would accumulate throughout the weeks until they finally drove off together to the polls, their fists shaking out the windows of our one car. I asked my mother once why they bothered to vote at all, since their votes cancelled one another out; she explained it was still most important to have the courage of your conviction, to vote your conscience, and to let the chips fall where they may. But I wondered – isn’t there a better way to prepare to vote? Less reactive, and more proactive?

Centuries ago Plato warned of the dangers of propaganda, and Aristotle cautioned us against charismatic speakers who would seduce their audiences, even though their arguments prove empty – which is why many candidates work to overwhelm their audiences with bombast and manipulative rhetoric. Critical thinking requires calm observation of what is being said – and why it is being said.

Over the years political campaigns have become increasingly fraught, characterized by rants filled with rancorous rhetorical devices designed to distract from an exploration of policies and issues at hand – hyperboles (exaggeration for effect: “I’ll make America great again”), apophases (saying something while denying it should be brought up: “I refuse to call her a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct”), and ad hominem invectives that insult the speaker rather than disagreeing with what the speaker said.

As I prepare myself to vote I avoid deciding who or what to choose until the very day I vote. If I were to decide these things early on, the entire campaign season would be spent thinking defensively about my choice, rather than simply paying attention. I listen with discernment, comparing what I hear – and the ultimate consequences of what is being said – to my deepest values. Such considered discernment provides the most satisfying decisions.

As the Buddha is said to have said: “when you speak, and when you listen, always ask yourself: is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?” I pay attention not only to what is said, but also to how it is said, the character of the candidate – what is espoused, and how. The character of the candidate – his or her moral behavior – will accomplish the platform promoted or some distortion of it.

Whether we consider ourselves Democrats or Republicans, members of a democracy or of a republic (ambiguous terms all too easily and too often confused), the ruling majority must protect and promote every one of the various minorities that make up that majority, or the whole enterprise will unravel and break down. There is room in this large tent we occupy for discussion, but not dissension.

At all levels of government, from the federal to the local, there is a need for measured consideration of what is needed, and what is wanted. Our world is changing rapidly, and the Valley of the Moon is surely changing as well – quickly, and radically. We, too, struggle with being an attractive place where people want to visit and stay, bringing with them inevitable changes in demography and geography. There really is no wall that can be built to keep them away – nor should there be.

We live in a changing landscape, a dynamic and vulnerable environment upon which many have already imposed their will, and as the climate continues to change we continue to suffer decreasing resources and increasing degradation. Plans and policies must be discussed to address the best use and distribution of our resources – just as they need to be on the national and international levels – if we are to help one another survive and thrive. But to do this we must build a coherent voice, not by competition but by collaboration – and not by the powerful or the majority, but by the sensitive consensus of everyone.

Campaigns need to be discussions of possibilities, what we can do to meet our wants and needs, rather than bluster and braggadocio over who gets to decide how it is done. The coherent voice that emerged from the SDC Coalition spearheaded last year by the Sonoma Land Trust, for example, provided a direction that can be taken to best protect the people there, and the land there.

Deliberation – thoughtful consideration – is the best basis of discussion, as we address the needs of every resident of our valley, human and otherwise, not just those powerful enough to dominate the others. There is room for every voice to be heard in our tent – those who have just arrived and those who are thinking, regretfully, of having to leave. A respectful conversation among all of us will reach a true consensus of useful answers – without resorting to shaking fists outside one’s car window.