I was recently stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway (as usual) behind a bumper sticker proclaiming "Proud to be an American." Since I wasn't going anywhere, I spent some time pondering this.
"An American" means a resident of the Americas, in our case, North America, or "the United States of . . ." I worry that some of us let it be just a label, a noun or adjective. Grammarians might argue with me, but I'd rather think of "American" as a muscular verb that demonstrates pride in our hard-won freedom. We are not just residents, but active participants without whom the government would be a sham.
But even more, being American is not just a lucky jackpot of residence or relocation; it's a responsibility to not sit idly by while an impersonal government makes rules to suit itself. Being American means being an active, informed, voting member of a giant, multi-tiered organization. Our choices ARE the government.
It is our right and our responsibility to find out who our candidates are, at every level of government for which we are voting -- what they stand for, where their financial support comes from, and how their actions will affect us.
With so many of us picking up our lives after Sandy left Long Island in the dark, voting on Tuesday will really test our civic commitment. The uncertainty of polling itself will require us to be vigilant to know where to go. But more than that, we must not allow the storm to let us think of the privilege as irrelevant.
The fact is that local voter participation can be disappointing. For example, in 2010, with control of Congress on the line, only 42 percent of Suffolk County's registered voters came to the polls; in Nassau it was 43 percent. In an "off-year election" like last year, the numbers were 26 percent for Suffolk, 23 percent in Nassau. It would be heartening to see 2012 match 2008's 70 percent participation rate on Long Island.
This year, when our political parties are bogged down in ever-greater paralysis, it's "We, the People" who must make careful choices about who will represent us. Now is not the time to vote for a candidate because he or she is in the party of our parents, or because we like her hair or his campaign ads (or the campaign ads of their super PACs, paid for by special interests).
Now is when we must look beyond sound bites and do the research. What do the candidates actually stand for? Who best reflects your internal moral compass? Being American is hard work, not for the faint of heart. But think of the alternative.
People in other countries have died to win this right. So have people of color and women in our own country in the not-so-distant past. If we choose to disregard the heavy price they paid, we dishonor them, and ourselves.
Voting can be inconvenient, frustrating, intimidating and annoying. This year, even more so. But as Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing."
Perhaps you'll cast a vote against one candidate rather than for another, or to maintain the status quo. So be it. There is no errand or task more important than going to the voting booth on Tuesday.
Casting informed votes for the people you think best able to uphold your vision of a just country is your right and responsibility. Fellow Americans, please vote!