Late last week I sat in a gym, the stale scent of sweaty skin fading as the lights dimmed and hundreds of audience members folded into metal chairs fell silent. A man walked up to a podium surrounded by flowers, met with enthusiastic rounds of applause. Offering a humble thank you for the opportunity to speak at our campus on the hill, he began a speech to inspire. Gray haired and smiling, the man positioned before the crowd was the famous Dan Rather, a leading voice in journalism for the past 40 years. He has covered every presidential campaign in the United States since 1952, reported heavily on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and played a large role in broadcasting the events of September 11, 2001 to a distraught nation. He has reported on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and interviewed figures like Fidel Castro and Hosni Mubarak.
Though our audience of St. Olaf College students and faculty sprinkled with members of the Northfield community paled in comparison to Mr. Rather’s impressive accomplishments, he spoke to us with a tone of importance and urgency. He respected our capacity to create change. In fact, he called for it. As a generation he told us that we have the responsibility to stay informed. We have the duty to seek truth and to read the news. We have the obligation to be passionate and to form opinions about right and wrong.
After listening to captivating anecdote after anecdote, several minutes devoted to inspiring the audience to find and aggressively pursue a “calling”, and a lively question and answer session regarding everything from the complexities of the middle East to the hectic life of a renowned journalist, I left that gymnasium inspired and filled with more questions than when I entered. This is the measure of a great speech.
I wondered where I stood on the political spectrum–how many of my beliefs were actually “well-informed,” and how ignorant I really was despite my efforts to read the paper every day. I take pride in my morning forays with the New York Times, often writing about the articles between those headlines in my spare time, but I wonder how much of the “important” and global news I fully understand and internalize. My small effort is significant, but it isn’t enough. I care too much about academic work, running around the ground rubber of our college track, and taking time to catch up with friends while eating in the caf. My everyday life is privileged and well planned. Sitting in the grass outside of the library today with our Campus Ecology class as we discussed the nature of bipartisan politics in the US and the growing discontent with such a dichotomous system that forces a well defined alignment, I wondered how I could go about bringing politics into the organized chaos of my daily life.
How can walking to class be political? Brushing teeth or taking time to sit outside in the sun and record the world around you? How can a conversation be political without approaching that uncomfortable level of American “don’t ask” taboo? How can we train ourselves to see the sidewalks and the streets as products of politics? To see interactions through a political lens? How can we learn to speak about how we feel when it comes to issues like abortion, the education system, sustainable food, or the economy without feeling like constantly judged hypocrites? How do we begin to see parts of life like parenting and studying as political acts?
In reality, everything we do is linked to politics. As is true in so many cases, we fail to see this connection. Reading the paper in the morning we believe that our only connection to politics lies in the facts we glean from carefully pressed print. We don’t stop to think about the way the thin sheets turning beneath our fingers connect us to lumber yards in British Colombia or ink producers overseas. We don’t think about the rubber band that encircled this newspaper when it was delivered as a connection to the Chinese economy. We don’t contemplate the hundreds or thousands of miles of transportation that total the production of this one hour (or less) of morning reading. We don’t contemplate why our paper likely contains chlorine, while the newspapers in Europe are chlorine free by consumer demand. These are all points made in Paul Ryan’s book “Stuff”–a book that explores the politics of the everyday in a series of essays about common household items and their far-reaching impact. Ryan uses a “designing mind” to expose a network of connections, problems, and possible solutions through a political frame of environmentalism. More and more, we need to learn to think in this way. We need to take the advice of Dan Rather and seek out the truth. Though this truth might not ever be absolute, we must look for what best fits our individualized definitions. We must recognize our political impact and decide what matters enough to us to change the way we live our lives. We might begin with an analysis of our habits and our possessions, and make an effort to revise them to reflect our understandings of truth and news. We might think about global economy, minimum wage, or the ideological power of parenting. Despite the individualist tint of our nation, and the fact that it was built on the premise of rebellion, we are afraid of change. Perhaps if we take the time to look at the beliefs we hold and why we hold them, and to see the politics of each part of our scheduled lives, we might determine what in our systems needs altering, and begin the long and rewarding journey of making this shift possible.