Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #028. First published in the St. Cloud Times Nov. 24, 2009

Veterans Day always has a somber seriousness, but this year’s was especially solemn because of the horror at Fort Hood.

Those of us who have never served in the military can barely imagine the sacrifice, sometimes of life, and often of sight or hearing or limbs or mental stability, of those who willingly put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf.

A neighbor whose house we pass almost daily when walking our dogs has a Vietnam Vet license plate. From bumper stickers I know that his political views and mine clash head on, but I make a point each Memorial Day and Veterans Day of thanking him for his service, and my thanks are totally ungrudging. There is nothing I can do that would adequately express my gratitude to him and all the other men and women, living and dead, who have worn our armed forces uniforms.

Yes, nothing suffices for thanks. But there is something I was able to do even earlier in November that I couldn’t have done had it not been for what our military has helped guarantee for us — the right to vote.

In the strictest sense, of course, we in America have the freedom to choose whether to vote, and I do not favor a policy like that of Australia and Belgium, where you’re fined if you don’t.

But on Veterans Day I found myself disappointed, even ashamed that, just a week before, a mere 18.7 percent of the eligible voters in my hometown, Waite Park, bothered to go to the polls and cast a ballot in the mayoral election. On Nov. 3 there were 3,621 registered voters in Waite Park; 678 of us showed up. The winning candidate, with 385 votes, got 56.78 percent, which means he was chosen by one in 10 of the city’s registered voters.

If you were to line up a random hundred registered voters in Waite Park, 10 of them would have voted for the incumbent, eight for the challenger — and 82 wouldn’t have shown up at the polls at all.

Waite Park was not an anomaly, which in these sweepstakes is hardly something to brag about. Minneapolis had 19.4 percent, St. Paul 21.4 percent. And this is Minnesota, proud of its reputation as the state with the highest voter turnout.

We talk about “off-year” elections, as if somehow elections that don’t include statewide and national offices are insignificant, even inconsequential, not worth taking a half-hour out of the 8,760 hours in our year to participate in choosing our leaders.

But the late Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House from 1977-87, was on to something more than cliche when he said, “All politics is local.” When our soldiers have fought for us, they have fought for our right to choose our mayor as much as our right to choose our president. What does it say about us when 82 out of a hundred treat an “off-year” as a vacation from responsibility?

There are people in other parts of the world today who are as desperate for the right to choose their leaders as our forebears were in the 18th century, and I suspect that if they — both our contemporaries and our ancestors — knew how nonchalant we are, how ready to pass up the chance to have a say, they would be appalled.

As I think about the apparent disconnect between the high decibels of political rhetoric and the scarcely-a-blip-on-the-screen political involvement in this recent election, I begin to suspect that the two are sides of the same coin. Real civic engagement, paying attention to issues and learning how many shades of gray there are in the world we actually inhabit, tends to tone down all-or-nothing rants. In the voting booth hardly anyone ever gets to choose “perfection.” If you don’t bother to vote, you can continue to pretend that reality matches precisely your version of it.

On Veterans Day, those of us who aren’t veterans owe it to those who are to make it Responsibility Day.