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Another round of elections have passed, both at Harvard and around the country, and in their wake have come the usual attacks on Generation X apathy. Plato warned that "one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." But before condemning us Generation X slackers, let's make an important distinction: there's good apathy and there's bad apathy.
First, the good kind. Good (or acceptable) apathy involves not caring about some things at the expense of other things. A case in point is the problem of student government at Harvard. After mustering a small handful of votes, those students who are elected to the Undergraduate Council quickly hit a brick wall of student apathy. Students complain about us, the council members claim, but no one cares enough to do anything about it. Students, if they care enough to listen, become defensive and lash out at the group.
It's time to stop being defensive. The students are guilty as charged. They don't care much about the council or its agenda--and understandably so. In the competition for the precious waking hours of Harvard students, they're bound to lose. When the competition for our attention is between campaigning for universal keycard access and tutoring underprivileged kids, or between set, it's no surprise that the council will lose every time.
The problem is not that we don't care. It's that we care too much about too many things. The abundance of student groups for every conceivable cause, ethnic group and interest reveals that hyperactivity, not apathy, is our problem. When students aren't so busy caring, they're studying. Is it any wonder, then, that the council has such a hard time capturing the imagination of its constituency? Next to saving the world and keeping one's head above water in the classroom, the concerns of the council can't help but seem, well, trivial.
While this selective apathy of Harvard students is understandable and, probably okay in the grand scheme of things, not voting in state and national elections isn't. This is definitely bad apathy.
Unfortunately, last Tuesday's election saw the lowest turnout since 1942. Only about a third (36 percent) of America's eligible voters bothered to turn in a ballot. And, based on coverage in The Crimson and conversations with students, it seems that more than a few Harvard students also failed to vote.
We all know we should vote. We understand what our civic obligations are and what government "of the people, by the people and for the people" means. Yet finding a compelling argument to move us from "should vote" to actually voting is tough. Guilt, by itself, is a weak motivator because it fails us if there are other things we feel more guilty about not doing. For example, one could rationalize: "They might have died on the beaches at Normandy for my right to vote, but I'm going to fail if I don't write this paper."
The MTV "Rock the Vote" push to "Vote because it's cool" doesn't work either. Not only is it patronizing and superficial, it's just not true. The gang on "Friends" and the hipsters in music videos rarely hang out at polling places.
Finally, the claim that "every vote counts" is suspect. It's just self-delusional to think that a single vote cast among millions makes a mathematical difference in determining who wins.
Why then should we vote? For one thing, it's a lot of fun. Not the act itself, but the vicarious thrill in knowing that you had a hand in dumping AI D'Amato or in electing Jesse "The Body" Ventura. A voter watching the returns come in on election night is like a football fan watching the Super Bowl, except the voter knows he actually helped the team win.
Also, unlike the results of Super Bowl, what happens on election day actually matters beyond the locker room celebration. It's no mystery why the government spends so much money on Social Security and Medicare while millions of younger Americans go without health care--the fogeys vote and the young'uns don't. Not convinced? Consider this: if every college-age citizen voted consistently, don't you think some enterprising candidates would start reconsidering that misguided minimum drinking age of 21?
Even if you think that all of those politicians are a bunch of bums, voting is still important--maybe more so. As the old saying goes, if you don't vote, you can't complain. Whining without voting is just whining. But whining with voting is exercising a principled right of dissent. If you hate your choices on the ballot, leave it blank. Millions of blank ballots are sure to get the attention of those despised bums in Washington.
For the big elections, Plato was right. The costs of denying yourself a say are just too high. But when it comes to student government, students really shouldn't be faulted for pursuing less than the Platonic ideal of political participation. The challenge, then, is to not confuse the good with the bad. We should care about the big questions and select our apathies wisely for the smaller ones.
Rustin C. Silverstein '99 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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