A curse and a blessing

Opinion

I was one of thousands of New Yorkers who volunteered to canvass in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. I’ve done electoral and other political work for over 30 years, and I’ve never in my life seen this kind of grassroots intensity, enthusiasm, and commitment for a national election. The level of clarity about the need to get rid of Bush, and the appreciation, warmth, and kindness extended to us canvassers was just extraordinary.

The neighborhoods I was in, (predominantly African American and multiracial working-class areas) turned out in record numbers and helped to make Pennsylvania a “Kerry state,” despite the 22-plus Bush visits.

I was so glad to have had that experience to boost my spirits when the bad news came through. My first response was one I’ve never had in my entire life of political work. I thought, “OK, America just doesn’t want me. I should just leave.”

I was kind of shocked at that response because it didn’t fit any of my political beliefs. I’ve always thought that America belongs to me — to us — as much as to any of the people who insist that patriotism is synonymous with war and intolerance. But this time, I admit, I felt more discouraged and frightened than I ever had. Being Jewish and secular in a nation where so many people define themselves as Christian, and being a leftist in a nation where so many people call themselves conservative, I had never felt so isolated or so endangered.

Then I remembered walking through those neighborhoods. I thought of the people who thanked me for knocking on their doors to remind them to vote, who eagerly took the “Voter Bill of Rights” we were handing out, who nodded vigorously when I said, “Know your rights, because we don’t want another Florida.” Often I was interrupting their dinners or their time with their kids or their efforts to get a few hours of sleep between two shifts. Often they were tired, preoccupied or overwhelmed when they answered the door. But when they realized who I was and why I was there, they made a point of saying, “I’m so glad you’re doing this,” or, “All day at work, this election was all I could think about.”

I thought about the new generation of organizers, the people in their teens and twenties who had put together the extraordinary canvassing efforts throughout Philadelphia and elsewhere, many of whom hadn’t even been interested in politics before they got involved.

I thought about the woman in her 50s who had ridden down with me to Philadelphia. She was unemployed for the past year, and yet had still managed to find the energy and the funds to make this trip and make her contribution. I thought about the way that both the neighborhood residents and the organizers I’d worked with were so invisible to the pundits who analyzed the election, before and after Nov. 2, and how if I hadn’t made this trip, they would have been invisible to me, even though I “knew better.”

If there’s one lesson I took from these past weeks, and one I’d want most to share, it’s that we are a huge, diverse, and profoundly American movement. “Our America” includes people who have only just begun to find their public voice and to see the ways in which taking political action can make a difference in their lives.

Figuring out how we can reach the electorate who did not vote — more than the number who voted for either candidate — seems like our next task, along with finding new ways to speak to the people who see voting for Bush as “the right thing” or “the safe thing.” And of course, it would be good to build a political movement that actually gives people something to be for — a candidate, a platform, and a vision of America inspiring as much positive enthusiasm as Bush inspires negative enthusiasm.

So clearly, to paraphrase playwright Tony Kushner, the great work has only just begun. It is an extraordinary beginning. Despair comes, I think, from inaction. Doing the work, even when we lose, even when we suffer, brings extraordinary joy. Love to you all and “bon courage.” It’s both a curse and a blessing to live in such interesting times.



Rachel Kranz is the artistic director of Theater of Necessity and a member of Theaters against War. She is also the author of “Leaps of Faith,” a novel about politics, love and community. She can be reached at pww@pww.org.