Published on Friday, June 8, 2001 in the St Paul Pioneer Press
America is Still a Frontier
by Farai Chideya
Last weekend I had the great honor of giving my first graduation speech. Before I got up on stage, President Elnora D. Daniel of Chicago State University, who has fought her way through the fiscal bureaucracy to raise money for her school, advised me to be brief because folks were there to get their diplomas.
Last year, the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks passed away, and Chicago State runs a literary center named in her honor. So I began:
"What shall I give my children? who are poor,
Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land,
Who are my sweetest lepers, who demand
No velvet and no velvety velour . . . "
Brooks' poem, written half a century ago, couldn't be more relevant today. We live in a wealthy nation that ignores the poverty of 12 million children and the families in which they live. We seem to think discarding the lives of poor children and families puts us in tiptop shape for global capitalism, sort of like running a sweatshop. That not only lacks "compassion," a fuzzy word that is meaningless until implemented. It defies common sense. (Just look at the stock market.)
We have lost the poetic language of politics, the ability to speak to each other with open heart and uplifted voice about the problems we face and the battles we have won. We can only joke about politics, sneer at politics, bemoan politics because we can't possibly believe. In order to deflect attention from his own rhetorical failings -- let alone his policy disasters -- President George W. Bush has gone one for one with his detractors in defining himself as a joke, while carefully wielding power nonetheless.
Most of my peers, young and well-educated, treat politics as an abstraction, if not an outright farce. They figure that those Beltway people, doing their Beltway things, couldn't be more removed from real life. If we look at the last election, we can see the collective image of Americans throwing their hands up over politics.
Here we had quite possibly the closest election in history, and only about half of the voters went to the polls. For the first time ever, voters who were middle-class, working-class and poor made up less than half of the voting pool, even though they make up fully 80 percent of the population. Let's flip that -- 20 percent of Americans decided most of the election. Politics, in case you were wondering, is now about money.
I like money. Often, I like it way too much. It's the American way; you get it, you spend it. Sometimes you spend it before you get it. I still have the credit card I got before I graduated from college. Sometimes I think debt is the most addictive drug in American society.
But politics is not supposed to be about money . . . one man, one vote, and all that. With the voter participation rate hovering around 50 percent, we are about to slip into a zone where the choices of the many are determined by the voices of the few. Not only that, but the few will be a very select few -- only those who have the financial power to really believe in the American dream.
What if we all believed? What if we all thought we had choices about how to run this country? It's awfully big, and maddeningly diverse. We might fight even more than we already do. But you'd be surprised what you have in common with people who look nothing like you. I've been to every state except five or six and met creeps and cool people everywhere. I think I've traveled so much precisely because I've had a great fear of what I'd find. America is still a frontier.
On that note, I bid you adieu. I'm going back to school for a year, to learn more about global politics, because America is in the forefront of an even greater frontier. This nation leads the world. It's a big country, worth voting for, at the very least.Chideya, a New York journalist, will study as a Knight Fellow at Stanford University. Her website is PopandPolitics.com. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.