Joseph Campbell asserted that "ritual is the enactment of a myth. And through the enactment it brings to mind the implications of the life act that you are engaged in." If that's true, then we all have reason to feel diminished by the stated intention of Olympia to end precinct voting at the ballot box.
Absentee voting came about in response to the needs of shut-ins and the infirm. From these understandable beginnings, the procedure has been transformed into an excuse for avoiding participation in a most traditional civic ritual. A modest involvement at that. Civic sanitization, we might better call it. Government, once again, in its ever-dismal effort to replace effectiveness with efficiency, is about to deny us all that precious ritual.
Do not dismiss this concern. Rituals matter. They serve to give definition to what we deem important and to distinguish the important from the trivial. Campbell makes mention of T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party, which is portrayed as a ritual. "It is a religious function in that way, and those people are engaged in a human relationship thing. This is the Chinese idea, the Confucian idea, that human relationships are the way you experience the Tao. Realize what you're doing when you're giving a cocktail party. You are performing a social ritual. You are conducting it when you sit down to eat a meal, you are consuming a life."
I am reminded of the wonderful movie Babette's Feast, where the preparation of a meal is portrayed as just such a ritual, a ritual that can and does open hearts long hardened by formalisms.
Was not the recent election in Iraq so dramatic, so much a human statement, not just because of the vote count, but because of the images we saw of those long lines of people braving suicide bombers as they waited to make a public statement by participating on this ritual so long lost to them?
Imagine your response to that election had you heard nothing more than Peter Jennings or Dan Rather announce the voting tally. No images. No human involvement. Just numbers on a screen. Those lines breathed life into the election. Why? Because they served as a ritual that was acting out our long-held belief in democracy, which, Campbell would say, is the enactment of myth -- something not to be dismissed.
The absentee ballot, in its own perverse way, symbolizes modern life. It reflects so much our automobile culture, our highly fragmented suburban lifestyle where use of time and space is reduced to a series of highly specialized drills each clock-bound day. It's a place where human interaction outside the nuclear family -- certainly on a civic level -- is transformed into what Edward Banfield termed "amoral familism." As a symbol, absentee voting, I must admit, presents a far more accurate picture of who we are than does ballot box voting. But then again, through ritual we seek myth, and through myth we discover who we are, albeit in a more ideal form. At least it's something we might continue to aspire to realize.
What's wrong with walking (or, for most of us, driving) to the local elementary school, or church, there to say hello to neighbors who are giving of their time so that our civic ritual can be played out? What's wrong with bumping into neighbors, most of whom you may not have seen for awhile? After all, when you live life in specialized boxes that float in time and space, you don't have much occasion to see anyone else. Isn't it worth that brief moment at the ballot box -- a moment that serves to remind you that politics is, after all, a social process, one that shouldn't be transformed into an object you might find on a sale table at Target?
Standing in line? Is that the problem? We don't even have the time to breathe in a bit of the neighborhood? To rub elbows, even for a moment? Is signing in that much of a problem? Is the cost too high to take a little time to reaffirm Civics 101? You don't have to believe in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to believe that the physical act of voting matters, not just for you but also for your neighborhood and larger community.
We are told that the public has decided -- that market-based notion of civic life dictates we do what's convenient. To the contrary, I suggest that we need to examine the proposal to end voting booths as not a simple matter of seeking more efficiency in response to perceived "market demand," but as a political problem that goes to the larger question of citizenship and what it means to be a member of American society. If the issue is recast in this light, then we need to address related questions of values. Is the act of voting nothing more than a kind of civic bill-paying? Isn't there more at stake? Won't we enrich our civic lives by caring enough to take the time to go to a voting booth?
Think of those long lines of Iraqis and tell me that civic rituals don't matter.
Publication date: 04/14/04