Why ‘Vote Your Conscience’ Is Flawed Advice

“Vote your conscience.”

I have heard this adage repeated with great regularity in political discourse. It is most often issued as advice to young and undecided voters – those who are “on the fence,” so to speak. And while I do not doubt that those who issue this advice may be doing so benignly, I strongly encourage them to reconsider just the shallowness of those words.

Imagine being given a question on a standard multiple-choice exam with four possible answers. However, by processes of your own reasoning, you were able to eliminate two of the four options. Imagine, then, that you were offered a “lifeline,” which allows you to consult with your teacher only once for advice on selecting the best answer of the two viable options. Would you not be offended if this teacher’s only advice to you is to “select with your conscience”?

Many may take objection to my analogy, and rightfully so. It is, in a sense, incongruous to compare the voting process to responding to a multiple-choice question. After all, in a true multiple-choice question it is understood that each choice is equally plausible. The same cannot be said about the voting process. If I were to use this analogy, I would first have to assume that elections are fair playgrounds.

I sadly cannot hold this assumption to be true. In any election, there will be clear outsiders who have much lower chances of winning. It is simply pretension that some names are placed on the ballot for the sake of appearances only. Whether those outsiders are disadvantaged because they lack the political resource to be true contenders or because they hold unpopular views, the truth of the matter still remains: They are outsiders and not equal players on the playground.

Another factor leading to this imbalance is the ‘flocking’ that usually occurs during elections. In life, people prefer to associate with (or flock to) winners. The larger the flock, the more likely the candidate is to attract followers. These followers may even be outsiders who were once contenders.

In theory, voting is a declaration of individualism and self-expression. In reality, it is a deliberate act that is best described as placing one’s penny in the right jar. In theory, voting is conscience-driven. In practice, it is very much group-driven. This glaring discrepancy between what voting should be and the reality is the source of much voter frustration and cynicism.

My first quarrel with telling people to vote their conscience is that it seems so detached from reality that it appears almost nonsensical. In fact, I’m tempted to believe that those giving this lackluster advice are doing so evasively. It is a nice, easy answer that shifts the full burden of responsibility to the one receiving the advice. This is the case in the example I provided above, in which the teacher, in a very subtle, devious way, tasks the test-taker with finding the answer. This response from the teacher chides and befuddles the test-taker more than it helps. If such is the case, one is better off not seeking the advice in the first place.

Finally, I take offense with the assertion implicit in the phrase “vote your conscience.” I find it quite condescending, actually. Never is the question asked “what if your conscience is wrong?” In real life, people make informed decisions based on the facts available and the options presented to them. Many of us are misled in good faith. Plenty of us have regretted occasions when we have acted purely on our gut instincts. Human beings are Homo sapiens, “wise men,” beings of sapience and sentience that act not just in good conscience but with good reason.

I completely understand why some people are quick to tell others to vote their conscience. It is, in less-offensive terms, another way of saying “make up your own mind.” It upholds the delusion that voting is the only decision one makes in which reason is subsidiary to conscience. It is in keeping with the false notion that elections are fair playgrounds where each player is equal in stature and each vote is equal in measure, while at the same time renouncing the unpleasant pennies-in-a-jar view of the voting process.

I find this advice particularly appalling when used to discolor the attitudes of our young voters who may already be estranged from the voting process. Young people are not unreasonable or foolish, they just need informed advice. And if we want to give our young citizens good advice, let’s not talk in abstractions by telling them offhandedly to “vote their conscience.”

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Police Slayings: Our Pain Becomes Our Poison

After Police Slayings, One Asks: What is Our Night?

Editor’s note: This column, written in response to the 2016 murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, was originally published July 27, 2016 in the York Daily Record.

Imagine waking up to a fog of pure blackness. It’s 8:30 in the morning, and there’s night all around. You’ve risen from bed and stand ready to charge ahead, toward another workday, expecting daylight to brighten the skies just as it did the day before. Yet, there is only the curtain of night.

Only in The Twilight Zone could such an unimaginable scenario become imaginable. Those familiar with Rod Sterling’s surreal anthology know of the rich trove of allegories. From Death posing as a hitchhiker to an accident victim (“The Hitch-hiker”) to a witch hunt unfolding in a suburban neighborhood beset by small-town hysteria (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”), Sterling’s catalogue explores the depth of man’s fears and the magnitude of his faults. Of all the entries, “I Am the Night—Color Me Black” is my favorite from the collection.

For those who haven’t seen this episode, I strongly recommend that you do. The narrative follows the final days of a condemned man convicted of murder. On the morning of the man’s execution, darkness replaces daylight in the small town. The town’s newspaper editor arrives at the sheriff’s station to interview the murderer – a self-described “bad guy” – who has no regrets about taking the life of a racist tormentor.

A crowd of eager spectators show up to witness the execution, including the newspaperman and a town reverend. The reverend, a black man, speaks to the condemned man, who is unrepentant even in his final moments. “I know it all too well,” says the reverend, searching the man’s heart. “You’re guilty.” The man rebukes the reverend for siding with the majority opinion. Recognizing that injustice cannot be repaid with injustice, the reverend laments: “the minority must have died on the cross, 2,000 years ago.”

color-me-black-screengrab1
A reverend (Ivan Dixon), left, and a newspaperman (Paul Fix), right, speculate about the source of the town’s night.

When he is finally hanged, there is no solace. There is no satisfaction in schadenfreude and little comfort in revenge – only horror. Talking to the speechless gawkers, the reverend explains the source of their night. “It’s the hate he felt. The hate you felt. The hate all of us feel.” As more darkness smothers the town, the townsfolk begin to realize that they are the night. Hate, like personal poison, can never be contained. It festers inside us, bubbles to the surface and darkens our vision.

Returning to the station after the execution, the newspaperman, the wearied sheriff and his deputy contemplate the day’s events. As they turn on the radio, they realize that night has also descended upon other places of hate around the world: West Berlin, Vietnam, Birmingham, Chicago, and in Dallas. Dallas, at the time, was where an assassin’s bullet claimed the life of a charismatic president. The wounds of history would be reopened decades later, in much the same way, again in Dallas.

It seems, sometimes, that night is followed only by night; hate reciprocated by hate. But in the deluge of darkness, eyes cannot discriminate between black and white, or, I dare say, black bodies and blue uniforms. In the deluge, we seek only the outline of our fellow man. In the deluge, our own insecurities become abundantly clear to us, as we fumble and seek the touch of others. “In the darkest times,” tweeted actress Rashida Jones in response to the shootings in Dallas, “we must love even harder.”

It might be more reassuring if there were some mystical explanation. Perhaps, the darkness would be more tolerable if it were the act of a divine power or the result of some incursion by extraterrestrial forces. Instead, it so happens that we are the source. We are all hurting over the loss of black lives as well as the loss of blue lives. It should suffice to say we grieve the loss of all human life. As we wrestle with our pain, we guard it just as well, because suffering is no great leap from hate. And hate, when it boils and brews, spills into our streets and byways, with malice like that displayed in Dallas and, most recently, in Baton Rouge.

That is the nature of our country’s unprecedented “crisis,” as hailed by cynical pundits and a certain presidential candidate. However, these challenges, while doing nothing to diminish the emotional toll, are not unique to our time and certainly not unconquerable. Our country has faced racial tension and violence. The 1920s, with the explosion of organized crime fueled by Prohibition, was one of the deadliest decades for law enforcement, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. In that same decade, our country also witnessed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the spread of its “Invisible Empire.” The challenges of today, as painful as they are, must be treated with caution and perspective, as to not inflame the wound.

At what point does our pain become our poison? At what point does hate begin to seep into our lives? The hate felt by those cop-killers in Dallas and Baton Rouge was the result of a hurt shared by many in this country. It spilled over and became our night.

I remember the terrifying feeling of waking up to more night, the night after those five officers were killed in Dallas. I have become wary of the night, just as a small child is wary of the unseen monsters lurking in his closet. It is the intimate fear of an imaginative threat. Maybe the monsters will never leave that vault. Maybe the darkness will never fully descend over the waking world. Still, the child will be in a state of constant worry each fretful night, always imagining what abominable beasts may be prowling. Only, it is hate, begotten of suffering and lurking within the soul, which occupies my fears.

All Things Desired

Strive for love, virtue and placidity in a world of hatred, blindness and drudgery. This is the resonating message from Max Ehrmann’s inspirational poem, Desiderata, which helped shape my personal philosophy on love and desire. The poem underlines that we all desire certain things – be it fame, success or admiration. Yet we are kept in bounds by what I believe is a very conflicted and cynical world. Why are we so critical of dreamers? Why must we dilute hope? Why must we tell our children to dream freely only to then assert that dreams, wishes and wants are nothing more than mere flights of fancy?

Desiderata warns of a harsh world awash with pain, disenchantment and unfulfilled desires. We are encouraged to separate our wants from our needs. We are encouraged to find our place in this universe and fulfill that place obediently. We are encouraged to live a life without regrets, far removed from earthly vexations and tribulations. Although I came to know Desiderata’s words, I quickly realized that knowledge does not always equate to understanding. The attitude of resignation, a sort of passive resistance against the crushing pressures of the world, contained in Desiderata was quite radical to me at the time.

I know that what exists within this world is a cycle of wanton suffering; a system that is indescribable, indefinable and inevitable. No one desires suffering, but perhaps Desiderata is trying to explain that pain is necessary, and that only by the support of each other can we grow to overcome our personal troubles. Most have heard the common metaphor of walking in another’s shoes, that it is impossible to truly understand a person until you know his or her struggles. Growing up, I had my share of struggles and detested others for not understanding my pain. After hearing that expression, I opened up to the painful experiences of others: poverty, divorce, sickness, loss. I learned in time that I wasn’t the only person living in a world of pain. That realization, prompted by Desiderata’s words, strengthened my resolve, and I sought to understand others more deeply and overcome my own pain in the process.

It is very difficult to leave our personal prisons, but when we do we see that we are not alone. The idea that we bear sole responsibility for our successes and failings is a dangerous proposition. I uphold the belief that no man is alone in his struggles. “All men know something of poverty,” W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote. He went on to state that the true tragedy is that “men know so little of men.” I want those who are depressed and lonely and even those contemplating suicide to genuinely consider this truth: You are not alone. What you are experiencing is not unusual or atypical. You are alive not to suffer alone but to find comfort and acceptance by joining in the universal expression of suffering. As expressed beautifully by Ehrmann, “you have a right to be here.”

We desire to be accepted and be loved – human nature defines it. But it’s hard to see love’s true image and easy to seek fake companionship, false acceptance and selfish lust masquerading as love. We are quick in taking illusions, painting them in our image, and labeling them as love. But that fake love is exclusive, and I only was to see those confined to the cold gloom of hospitals, prisons and slums. The unloved. Our desire to experience true love may ultimately be the sum of all desires. Love is the lifelong hankering which the other desires cannot placate or can only satisfy for brief stretches of time. Success, fame, beauty, admiration and the myriad of other desires serve their purpose in attempting to bring us closer to the true image of love.

One of my favorite biblical passages describes how love is patient and kind. Love is not envious and keeps no record of wrongs. One summer camp experience reinforced my faith in the tremendous human capacity for love and compassion. As a teen, I spent one summer at a lakeside camp in New York with adolescents who, like me, have been diagnosed since birth with mortal illnesses. The camp’s counselors and other supervisors were caring to say the least. I saw them talk to terminal young people – not about the pain that society says they are cursed to be born with, but about their hopes and dreams for the future. These counselors were just ordinary men and women with problems of their own, but who brought light to the blind and hope to the desperate. It is not enough to just be there for the one you love but to be there with them. I am sure that every child who left that camp felt blessed to experience love in its truest sense – not the disillusioned world of false love.

I find it difficult to keep peace in the noisy confusion of life. I still get anxious and weary in the face of adversity, but Desiderata’s words continue to be a source of inspiration and guidance. The world is at times hostile to dreamers, leaving them disarmed, disenchanted, disheartened and discouraged. The coming of age brings with it pain, doubt and the “sham” of lost love as we know it. I desire to dream even when I am rudely awakened by life’s unpredictable turmoil. I desire to learn from past mistakes while continuing the precarious undertaking of balancing my desires and needs.

The Image of Love

The Image of Love
Poetry and other reflections by Thorne McFarlane

In the gallery of memoirs, lies the image of love,
Redeeming with the grace and power from above,
In pursuit of humbler things, of all things desired,
In pursuit of invisible blessings are to be admired,
A quiet home, gentle aspirations, the muse of life,
The unbreakable bond between husband and wife,
The darkest of storms always bring the purest light,
Just one ounce of sunshine can sprout seeds of hope,
And the climbing joys overcome the downhill slope,
I see the stars in your eyes, the portrait now painted,
The picture wasn’t at all perfect, but we still made it.

Love is a bridge. If we can build and link both sides together, only then can we rise above the rough waters. If we disconnect and go headstrong, we will surely plummet.

Love is not judging,
It does not take advantage,
It is not faithless.
It does not forsake commitment.

Love is a temporary shelter. It keeps an opened entrance, but also allows an opened exit. If you can’t let love in or let it find its path out of your life, then you won’t have love.

Love is not selfish,
It is not jealous,
It is not pretentious,
It does not take,
It does not expect in return.

Love is an amazing force of human nature. Of all the things on this earth which should matter the most to any person, it is love. Nothing else brings reason to life, essence to humble souls, and redemption to all things. Nothing else is as universal as the image of love. Love is the cure for pain and the answer to injustice. It is timeless each moment and momentous each time. Cherish every moment of love. Don’t let anything obstruct something as precious and prized as the jewel of love.

Place of Placidity

 

Place of Placidity: Seeking Inspiration and Balance through Yoga

I was never a fan of high school gym class. Sports left me humiliated in a puddle of my own inadequacy. In trying to keep pace with my classmates, I was often left breathless. So you can imagine my hesitancies when I enrolled in a requisite yoga class in college. Standing in the gymnasium with my black roll-up mat, I never imagined that this form of exercise would have such an enduring impact on my life.

Since birth, I have always struggled with chronic and debilitating medical complications triggered by my disease. Sickle-cell anemia is a disease which mutates the body’s blood cells, turning them sickle-shaped. Normal blood cells are donut-shaped, but sickle-cell disease turns these cells sickle-shaped. The irregularly-shaped blood cells do not carry oxygen efficiently, do not survive very long, and can get lodged in the bloodstream, causing constant pain. One of the most frustrating things about this disease is that it presents itself as an invisible disability, leading to a general lack of understanding among the sickle-cell community.

However, I refuse to let this disease seize my life and silence my aspirations. Instead, I hope to shed some light on the disease, while also delving into how I use yoga to cope with the disease’s limitations. The aforementioned lack of awareness about the disease remains an object worthy of illumination in the sickle-cell community. The sad reality is that far too often sickle-cell sufferers overextend themselves in their attempts to remain fit. The disease has been blamed for the deaths of a handful of aspiring athletes. It is an unfair reminder of the physical limitations imposed by the disease.  While there is no danger in recognizing our limitations, there is great danger in being polarized by them. The polarization process is a process of overcompensation, goading us to internalize these limitations until they become ingrained into our very thought patterns.

When I practice yoga, I embrace a consciousness of liberation. I listen to my body and respect its limitations using warm-up exercises. I gradually condition my body to try more advanced poses. It’s a very organic approach to exercise. I don’t believe that there is only one path to fitness; we are all at different stages in terms of our health and conditioning. Sickle-cell anemia causes a deficiency of healthy red blood cells in the body. This description can be shorted down into one word: energy. Those who have donated large amounts of blood can relate to the depleted feeling that may follow. For those with sickle-cell anemia, this energy drain is felt on a daily basis. To counteract this, sickle-cell patients often require blood transfusions to boost their low blood count.

Few things are as demoralizing as not having the physical energy to do the activities that bring meaning and purpose to one’s life. On a spiritual level, it conveys a feeling of helplessness and inadequacy. With yoga, I appreciate the fact that I do not have to struggle to “find” energy. It invigorates me beyond the physical level. Breathing is a core component of yoga, and illustrates the vital importance of energy. Each breath we take should not be taken for granted; it should be used to energize and imbue us with a sense of purpose. Dum spiro, spero.

The loss of energy felt by sickle-cell sufferers brings a sense of imbalance. When your body is starved of oxygen, it becomes exceedingly difficult to maintain physical stability. Even simple tasks like walking up a flight of stairs can leave one disoriented. One of the first poses I learned in yoga, the star pose, helped me to regain balance and physical stability. I have also benefitted from the ways yoga uses the lymphatic system to flush away the body’s toxins.

On a deeper level, balance carries different connotations. Some people struggle to balance several jobs. Others seek balance in what they eat or by what they do. Put simply, balance is difficult. Happiness, Thomas Merton once wrote, is not a matter of intensity, but of balance. One of the most interesting poses, the plank pose, epitomizes this balance. The plank pose is a supine pose that is meant to ease physical tension and mental disquiet. In the course of an intensive workout, the plank prose provides a nice juxtaposition. Reflecting the turbulence of life, yoga takes one from a state of high energy to a state of low energy, representing the duality of activity and inactivity needed to maintain balance. In a society that often equates intensity with happiness, yoga reinforces the importance of stillness. Stillness, however, is not synonymous with latency. It is not a place of absence. It is a place of searching and contemplation.

I would have never assumed that yoga would have such relevance in my life. Make no mistake; my goal is not to champion yoga above all forms of exercise, but to encourage others to consider options that make sense to them. Fitness becomes all the more meaningful when it opens up unexpected avenues of self-exploration and consciousness. Max Ehrmann’s influential poem “Desiderata” has always been a source of inspiration in my life. In it, Ehrmann offers this piece of advice: “regardless of your trials and tribulations, keep peace in your soul.” When I practice yoga, I’m not in competition with myself or with others. I am practicing fitness while also seeking placidity.

Note: I do not claim to have any expert, medical knowledge about the disease. I speak only through experience and research I have done on the topic. The South Central Pennsylvania Sickle-Cell Association is a great resource for those with sickle-cell disease/trait living in the area.

 

Handsworth Revolution

Thorne’s Critique:

Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution is a daring, politically-charged album that holds no punches in its bare critique of social inequality.
Rating: 8.5/10

Handsworth Revolution (1978) strays from the typical reggae blueprint of sun-drenched grooves and carefree themes. Breaking free from this mold, Handsworth Revolution is an exquisite roots reggae album by a band looking to establish its musical identity. The album is every bit as raw and contentious as its title would suggest. Don’t let the grungy exterior fool you though, Handsworth Revolution is a diamond in the rough.

Immediately, Steel Pulse establishes the pace with the titular track. “Handsworth Revolution” is a heartfelt yearning for widespread change, coming from the steely Handsworth area that seems to grace the band’s album cover. Confronting racial discrimination, injustice and corruption, the band sings about reclaiming its hometown for future generations. The deceivingly-collected rhythm quickly erupts into a rapid-fire, impromptu spoken-word verse towards the end of the song. “Handsworth Revolution” holds no punches and serves as a solid introduction to prelude the rest of the album.

Steel Pulse follows with the derelict “Bad Man” – a song so primal in its delivery that it almost sounds as though it was produced deep within the jungle badlands. Lead singer David Hinds’ taunts to “leave town” are embellished by guitar riffs and a cacophony of guttural chants from the background singers. Hinds also uses clever metaphors to illustrate his point: there can be no sharing of power, because he is the “badder” man. Make no mistake; “Bad Man” is full of bravado and pretension. However, if one examines the song more closely, there are also subtle signs of weakness and insecurity. “Bad Man” is also a message about slavery. “Four-hundred years” and “strange fruit” are meaningful historical references that give the song its intellectual edge.

One of the more reserved tracks on the album, “Sound Check” is an odd, but thoughtful ode to music and dance. “Prodigal Son” highlights the album, with its foreboding rhythm and highly critical lyrics. The song artfully uses the jeremiad rhetorical device and draws upon the Biblical parable to craft a transcendent narrative of redemption. “Prodigal Son” is a powerful, apocalyptic admonishment of a wayward, materialistic society on the brink of collapse. Finally, “Ku Klux Klan” is every bit as fiery as the title would suggest. The rebellious “Ku Klux Klan” is quintessential Steel Pulse material.

Uncompromising and politically-charged, Handsworth Revolution is an anomaly in the reggae genre. With one foot in the Caribbean roots reggae scene and the other foot in the punk movement in England at the time, the album would eventually become representative of Steel Pulse’s unique sphere of influence.

What makes the album such a gem is that it retains its edginess without losing its feel for the music. A common dilemma among politically-themed artists is getting the message across without becoming preachy. Handsworth Revolution effortlessly avoids such pitfalls. What’s more, Steel Pulse needed only eight strong tracks to accomplish this difficult task. Cries of injustice reverberate throughout the concourses of this album, but the album never loses its cadence. The rhythms, though minimalistic, compliment the band’s evocative lyrics. And though Steel Pulse is noted for its great passion and energy, Handsworth Revolution is entirely focused. Deserving of its critical acclaim, the album not only established the Steel Pulse identity, but also solidified the band as a top-tier reggae talent.