Friday, December 03, 2004

Off the Trail. On the Trail.

My original intent for this web log was to mix politics and affairs with my other writings such as the Appalachian trail and nature. Looking back on my posts since I began last June, I see far more of the former and only a few of the latter (here, here and here). The War on Iraq and the US presidential campaign caught my attention. Hell, they had me by the throat. I’m off the campaign trail now. And I am back on the Appalachian Trail, at least mentally. I will return east next year to hike the miles I missed in 2002. Suddenly, the planning, figuring, arranging and anticipation of that adventure are taking a space in my brain and time. Good thing, too. I’m pretty burned out on the campaign trail. A real trail offers opportunity for a soothing respite.

Only a romantic could have written that last sentence. Any time spent remembering my 2002 thru-hike (hiking the entire 2,000 miles in one shot) will soon recall times of hardship, discomfort and discouragement. My journal records numerous days when just getting to the next camp was hard. But even in difficult times, there was a solace, an apartness from the rest of the world, that was a relief. War, destruction, self-serving politicians and greedy corporations were not much part of a world where staying dry and warm was all that mattered, where eating a pot of instant mashed potatoes was a pleasure. My mind focused on the immediate.

Solace came from my immediate surroundings as a thru-hiker. As often as not, the days were beautiful (sometimes in the midst of hardship), the walking was good and the company pleasant. Even at these times, when the mind was (somewhat) free of survival thoughts, the outside world was not a great concern. Thoughts turned to the forest around me, the ground underfoot and the sky above. More than once did I see some glorious scene or event and say, “THIS is why I hiked.” These moments are gifts in my life that I will always cherish. Reason enough to hike again.

Logistics for the hike are already lining up in my mind. I need to cover 16 miles in Georgia, 35 miles in North Carolina and 172 miles in Pennsylvania. The Carolina and Georgia miles are close enough that my brother in Atlanta can shuttle me between them. My friends from the 2002 hike, Kutsa and Montreal, will be hiking the trail again next year; I think I can link up with them in Carolina. I can visit my Aunt Peg in Pennsylvania. At 86 years, Peg is the last survivor of my parent’s generation. This trip offers companionship and adventure sufficient to relieve the intensity and trauma of this year’s presidential campaign.

Taking an active part in the campaign was good for me, however hard it may have been emotionally. I stood up for a democratic America and actively encouraged others to do so. I look the future in the eye and tell myself that I supported democracy when it was endangered. My hope is that I will see a future America still true to its ideals of individual freedom, dignity of all individuals. If the future America is otherwise, I can say I did what I could. I will be forever proud of what I did this year. Now that I have stood up for democracy, I won’t be sitting down again.

But I will be hiking, which will offer the balance I need to stay active and involved. The campaign kept me away from my trail manuscript, which I wrote and edited in 2003. I plan to spend more time working on it now. I hope the time away from it will give me fresh insights about merging two incompatible (so far) formats. My previous posts about the trail have been the thought pieces. Maybe I’ll post a few journal excerpts. My 2005 hiking plans may also offer new insights on what I have written; I’ll want to explore that. But don’t expect me to ignore current events. My country is killing people in my name. The Dark Forces control the federal government (thank god for the states), plundering this nation’s wealth and resources at the expense of most Americans and many others throughout the world not to mention future generations. As long as I can think, write and act, I will not remain sielent about what I see. But for a few months next year I will see mostly earth and sky.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Democracy Now

Four years too late for American democracy, Ukrainians are showing the world how to take back a stolen election. Protesters numbering in the hundreds of thousands fill the streets of Kiev to support their candidate whose likely victory was stolen by state action. The protest ranks are swelling. Police and security personnel have joined the outcry. State media, once firmly in the so-called victor’s control, have rebelled; reporters have publically refused to broadcast one sided state/party propaganda and forced management to accede to their demand. Democracy is on the march in Ukraine, led by its people. The United States could have used some of that democratic spirit in 2000 when BushCheney stole their way into office.

American media report the Ukraine demonstrations as an article of democratic hope. Yet in 2000, these same media reported challenges to BushCheney post-election day maneuvering as sour grapes, rejectionism and sore loser behavior. Americans outraged by BushCheney’s naked power grab were dismissed, their claim to an accurate, accountable electoral process regarded as an unnecessary hindrance to the proper transfer of authority in Washington, DC. Yet Al Gore and the Democrats had the right and claim to victory in the 2000 election. I, for one, am glad Gore pressed his claim as far as he did. Gore’s claims in no way impeded the presidential transition required by the Constitution.

So why weren’t we out in the streets demonstrating, vowing to shut the nation down if our vote was ignored, our election stolen? Why did so many Americans believe that no action was necessary? To a large degree, we did not act more directly because, we’ve rarely done so in the past and never about an election. Elections have always been straightforward events. You vote. They count. They report. It’s over. Sometimes you hear stories about manipulation and fraud, but “that’s rare”. Florida 2000 exposed the dark underside of American elections. But even there, we did not react on a large scale, putting our confidence in state officials and, if necessary, the courts. Electoral instability is not something that happens in America, we told ourselves.

The American response to electoral fraud has been legal and technical. Batteries of lawyers monitored elections across the nation. Experts debated the merits and problems fo voting technology. Somehow Americans retain confidence in elections officials and how they collect, count and report vote totals, even after four years of ineffective, confusing voting reforms and officials’ failure to fully monitor their systems and, at times, even to operate voting machines. A major voting machine manufacturer openly supports the Republican Party; all manufacturers resist scrutiny of “proprietary systems” built into their machines. Combine this with an obsessively right-wing media and America’s passivity and confidence puts democracy at risk.

So far, the 2004 election offers some hope for electoral reform in the US. State and local election officials are under far more scrutiny, their procedures and actions subject to careful review. The counting, recounting and certifying process takes place this year without the political shadow of an uncertain outcome. No one expects the results to give John Kerry a victory, so resistance and interference is considerably reduced. As a result, the public may have a better understanding of how elections work and don’t work. (The SF Chronicle describes some hopeful trends in a recent article.) Perhaps this understanding will translate into improved election procedures and accountability. Given the stakes involved and the experience of the last four years, Americans will be fortunate if real reform takes place. If not, we may need to take lessons from Ukrainians on how to insist on democracy.