Rev. Steve Felker, of Ithaca, holds out an "I Voted" sticker at the polling place at Alice Cook House last year.

Cameron Pollack / Sun File Photo

Rev. Steve Felker, of Ithaca, holds out an "I Voted" sticker at the polling place at Alice Cook House last year.

November 6, 2018

JEONG | The Symbolic Redemption of Voting

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Growing up, my local library in tiny Leonia, N.J. carried this collection of biographies called “Childhood of Famous Americans.” Every weekend, I would go to the library with my mom and brother, and carefully select my famous American of choice, be it Walt Disney or Franklin Roosevelt. As an immigrant kid, reading these books gave me a sense of normalcy — knowing that if I worked hard and was kind, that I, too, could be like JFK or Joe DiMaggio. At the time, I was too young to understand the complications that came with being a minority and blissfully oblivious of the fact that I would turn out to be of underwhelming build and unathletic ability. The only thing of substance that grounded me was this idea that, in America, I would have as fair a shot as any other kid at success.

America is an idea. We are taught that this idea was what won us the Revolutionary War and all the other wars for that matter. To the outside world, we regard American democracy and liberalism as our champion export, far greater in global importance and reach than Tom Cruise movies or McDonalds. This idea shepherded the tired, the poor and the huddled masses to Ellis Island in the 20th century, and this idea somehow persevered through Jim Crow, McCarthyism and Japanese internment. The grand narrative of American hope and the promise of equality is rife with hypocrisy, prejudice and violence, but it has proven to be indomitable in the face of any challenge, be it the 1980 Canadian hockey team or Ivan Drago in Rocky III.

Similarly, the President is neither the ultimate arbitrator of policy nor the final adjudicator of constitutional right and wrong. Above all else, he is a symbol. He is the symbol projected into the domestic and international spotlight of what the country stands for and needs in a specific time. The power of the presidency is not in its ability to move markets or to build nice hotels, but rather the emotional weight it bears in times of good and bad. He is the cheerleader we look to in times of victory and the guidance we seek in times of tragedy. That’s why, despite every moral and political objection I have to his presidency, I will always clap to the video of George W. Bush ripping a fastball over home plate at Yankees Stadium after 9/11.

There is nothing materially or symbolically redeeming about Trump’s presidency and the political environment he has nurtured. After the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, President Obama addressed church congregants and the nation through song. In that moment, Obama’s “Amazing Grace” temporarily soothed America of the deep-rooted pain of racial divide. After his visit last week to Pittsburgh in the wake of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation, President Trump chose to address his Twitter constituents by celebrating himself: “The Office of the President was shown great respect on a very sad & solemn day. We were treated so warmly. Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away. The Fake News stories were just the opposite-Disgraceful!” Trump’s infantile, incessant need to focus on himself in response to habitual incidents of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia is not only morally repugnant, but it also trickles down to the every fiber of the morally hazy America that he has fostered.

Tuesday, Nov. 6 is Election Day. Though we’ll find out the specifics in a few hours, early polls show a resurrection in the number of young voters, the majority of whom will vote Democrat down the ballot. Anecdotally, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds have been inundated with posts reminding friends to vote and canvassing trips to Maine and New Hampshire. Now, when the symbolism of American politics is more fragile than ever before, we have the ability to change the image and the undertones of our culture as a whole.

David Foster Wallace famously said that postmodernism is dead and with it, so is irony. We have now entered an age colored by irreverence toward the morals once considered sacred and established. Now that irony and cynicism has been woven into the fabric of pop culture, they are no longer meaningful tools to critique a society that is fundamentally built on cynicism. We see this in shows like Family Guy or Rick and Morty, and in the political sphere in The Colbert Report or Saturday Night Live. Sure, they garner laughs, but they ultimately offer no moral resolution to the global chaos they try to critique.

For a generation that entertains ourselves through Tide pods and Mannequin Challenges, this resurgence in voting is an act of moral redemption — doing good purely for the sake of doing good. Voting because we unironically care. And that’s pretty metal.

Jason Jeong is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Jeongism runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at jjeong@cornellsun.com.