Vote Your Conscience (Whatever That Means)

People say that politics ruins everything. What I used to think they meant was that politics infects and forces its way into life, without regard for comfort or anxiety. That’s close. What they actually meant was that politics is the hard edge of life grinding against the lives of others. They just weren't aware that's what they meant. Politics is the friction at the point where two lives meet and many people, myself mostly included, have lived separately until recently.

People exactly like me can live rather separately even now, should we choose. The difference is that the last two years mark the first time that the friction is actually noticeable.  Many people like me simply chose to turn and remark upon the friction at some point during the last two years. For people like me, politics only ruins when we force others into such violent contact with our own needs that they burn up like a rock in the atmosphere. It's a choice we make on behalf of others. 

But politics does ruin a few things; words being chief among them.

Politics in practice often wrings the vitality from words. They’re blunted by and buried under heaps of euphemism or pitched with abandon and lost over the backstop.

One such word is “privilege.” I lament the loss of that particular word. The word has been rotted and worn. So I’m here, on the day Justice Anthony Kennedy retired from the Supreme Court, thirteen-hundred characters into spelling it.

Another such word is “conscience.” We confuse it with intuition. I’m not sure at what point “conscience” became separate from “pragmatism.” The two are not always the same, but they’re not separate either. Pragmatism is vital to conscience. It’s not by accident that both “conscience” and “science” find knowledge at their linguistic root.

It’s impossible to make decisions about right and wrong without considering the implications of the action. We’re not thoughtful people in cloisters. We’re children at the edge of a pond holding rocks. We can’t aim without opening our eyes.

Politics can’t ruin everything. We’ve forgotten that politics doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but it’s more than that. Politics can’t happen in a vacuum. Politics is impossible and unnecessary in a vacuum. Politics happens when our lives – our desires, eccentricities, and needs – collide with others.  We ruin everything because we’ve forgotten that and because we’ve forgotten what conscience means. A conscience that requires me to keep my eyes closed as it hurtles through the air toward someone else’s life is not a conscience at all. It’s something else.