A week has passed since Hurricane Sandy struck, and the short subway ride uptown this morning almost seemed normal, except for the bigger crowds getting on at Penn Station and Times Square -- commuters from outside Manhattan, where wind and storm surge water damage were so much worse and, all too often, deadly. Overheard conversations were filled with stories of how people had coped.
I live in Greenwich Village and thought I was ready for the worst -- hatches battened down with emergency food, water, batteries, flashlights, transistor radio, etc. I've stayed put through 9/11, blackouts, blizzards, even other hurricanes. Nonetheless, I wasn't prepared for the electricity and heat leaving us for five nights. I thought for sure they would be back the next day. Or the next... or the next...
But we were stuck in that trendy new Manhattan neighborhood -- SoPo, as in "South of Power" -- and when a friend and colleague offered shelter, warmth and electricity on the Upper West Side, the invitation was gratefully accepted. From that outpost (for the most part, life went on as usual once you got above 34th Street and Herald Square), we watched unfold the disaster and accompanying tragedies and acts of heroism and community.
We also watched people vote. Or try to vote, in Ohio and Florida, where lines were long and attempts to suppress the right to cast a ballot are ongoing. Or in flood-stricken New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie announced that people can vote via email as if they're casting an absentee ballot from overseas, but still need to download the ballot, print, fill it out and fax or scan it back to the board of elections -- a task not easy to accomplish even under the best of conditions.
Yet whatever it takes, your individual vote is more important than ever, making your voice heard despite the money spent on this election -- obscene billions -- and no matter the cynicism, falsehood and other heinous behavior displayed in this pursuit of power and influence. The illustrated cover of this week's issue of The New Yorker magazine says it all. Titled "Undeterred," it shows a determined flood survivor in water up to his backpack, shining his flashlight through the darkness onto a sign: "Vote Here Vote Aqui."
Its illustrator, Adrian Tomine, told the magazine's Mina Kaneko:
"For all its really horrible effects, I feel like the storm has made real a lot of issues in the election that were hypothetical... global warming; and Is Obama enough of a leader to handle a natural disaster?; and Do we need FEMA? It's really interesting, and in a way useful, to see a lot of these things become actual issues that are right at hand."
"Right at hand" -- potent reminders of the role of government and politics in a civil society, especially when that society is in distress.
This will be the 11th presidential election in which I've voted. Every four years around Election Day, I look at a certain short piece of writing and read it again, the way some people trot out Dickens' A Christmas Carol on December 25th. In fact, we used part of it in an essay Bill and I wrote just before the 2008 election:
It will be quiet on Tuesday. No speeches. No motorcades. No paid political announcements. It's a very special day, just for grown-ups. America votes Tuesday... and... on Tuesday, the shouting and the begging and the threatening and the heckling will be silenced. It's very quiet in a voting booth. And nobody's going to help you make up your mind. So -- just for that instant -- you'll know what the man you're voting for will do a thousand times a day for the next four years. Now it's your turn.
Eloquent and to the point. Written in 1968 by an advertising man working for Richard Nixon, five years before the Watergate scandal revealed that any trace of the belief in democracy so beautifully expressed in the words above had been erased by corruption, avarice and hubris. And yet, as Bill noted:
When I say our votes matter, I speak not out of some mystical belief in 'the will of the people' but because elections -- imperfect as they are, twisted and smattered by smears and lies and counter-lies galore, subject to distortion and manipulation -- elections offer an alternative to violence, they keep us from coming apart altogether...
Democracy -- this is still the most radical idea ever let loose in the world -- that masses of people, so feared and loathed by monarchs of old, so distrusted by moneyed and political elites, should be charged with self-government, and get on with it, imperfectly, crudely, but with the idea of creating a prosperous society that leaves no one out. That's not mystical, either. It's been at the heart of the American experience, the hope that sustains one generation to the next. Every election is an effort to retrieve that radical idea and breathe new life into it.
So, please vote! Find out where to vote here. If you're having a problem voting or need assistance, call 1-866-OUR-VOTE (Spanish: 1-888-839-8682). And visit "The Fight to Vote" section of this website to read and respond to the latest on voter suppression tactics nationwide.