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Lowering the Bar on Activism

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"I'm just not that into politics" is the tag line of the man-on-the street-interview I'm hearing every day on every media platform, with some young 2008 Obama voter saying that Obama didn't carry out her liberal agenda so she's not going to vote this year.

This has led me to reconsider the nature of political activism.

I've always been reluctant to claim that I'm a political activist. Yes, I write about art and politics, including feminism, in ways that go against the grain of power. But my model of political activism includes the people featured in the Nation's recent article "The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century," or Fannie Lou Hamer, whose testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention was for me an early model of the courage that political activism entailed. So I knew from an early age that, 1) there was such a thing as courageous political activism, and 2) I didn't have that kind of guts.

So I don't claim to be a model and I share disappointment with the current administration. But hearing "I'm just not that into politics," I worry. And I wonder what is the minimum that an individual can do to try to avoid the triumphal return of just the kind of politics that people who voted for Obama hoped to "change."

Since I agree that political activism can be time-consuming, dangerous, and often seems futile, I suggest that these days activism can grow from very modest gestures in daily life.

Gesture number one: look at and listen to the human beings around you when you're in a public space. I'm not a Luddite and I don't mean to be snarky, but at this point I'm convinced that, today, just to fully be in the space you are in is practically a radical act. A case in point: a couple of days ago I was waiting for a sandwich in a small shop in Tribeca. Everyone but me had their head bent down, fixed to the little screens in their hand. It was a typical moment, on the street, in restaurants, on trains, in cars, and now practically in the cradle.

Situational awareness is so important and informative. In that shop, look up and see the close-knit, hard-working, unfailingly polite team of mainly young Latinas serving you. Or, on the New York subway, a great social equalizer in that you are in the same physical space with people of all social classes and backgrounds, look and listen and you have at least a basic sense of other lives... if you aren't staring at your device.

That device wards off boredom and loneliness. But it's important to work through boredom occasionally or risk feeling lonely even for a minute. It can be incredibly productive. Where do you think poetry comes from? The loved one is not here, the heart feels empty, despair looms, one turns to writing a poem, a song, or to painting a painting. An engaged loneliness, a struggle through the terror of the mind left to listen to itself can lead to closer observation of what is quiet and unspectacular in the world around you. Perhaps it can even lead to political empathy. Our fate is linked to the people around us no matter apparent financial and social discrepancies.

Now let's raise the lowered bar of activism a notch! Vote even if your candidates may lose. My father became a naturalized citizen in 1947 after forced immigration from Europe in 1941. His first vote in 1948 was for Henry A. Wallace, the left wing Progressive Party candidate. Wallace finished in third place with 2.4% of the popular vote. His second and third presidential votes were for Adlai Stevenson. Loser, loser, loser. He didn't vote for a winner until JFK in 1960. I voted as soon as I was able: I cast my first presidential vote for George McGovern. (FYI: record to date in my career as a voter in Presidential elections alone: loser, winner, loser, loser, loser, winner, winner, loser, loser, winner).

So, disaffected Obama voters, please be "into politics" enough to vote in the mid-term elections (see the great TurboVote project), because I don't want to look at John Boehner's orange face any more than I have to already, and I don't want my next "loser" to lose to Sarah Palin. Then we are all losers, even you with your face in your iPhone.

And be "into politics" because politics is always into you.