Politics and postcards: What I learned at the Belfast Co-op
On Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 9 and 10, I sat at a card table outside the Belfast Co-op with Cathy Mink, giving out postcards proclaiming we should stay out of Syria and instead offer asylum to the 5 million refugees trapped in the civil war. The cards were addressed to Senators King and Collins because the Senate would vote first on whether to authorize the use of force. In just two days we gathered signatures on nearly 600 postcards, and collected enough donations to stamp and mail them individually. Because the situation was later diffused through diplomatic means (we hope), the real value is what we learned about how political power and change work, from talking with the equivalent of 10 percent of the town.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. As people rushed by to shop, we made our short pitch: "Would you like to sign post cards saying don't bomb Syria?" Most would suddenly halt, pause and come over. "Where do I sign," they would say, eager to do something concrete.
Some were undecided, feeling we have to do something about President Bashar al-Assad's terrible chemical attack and the civil war. We agreed, something had to be done. But, we argued, a military response was useless, given that Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced military aid to Syria in the event of an attack. On the other hand, practically the entire next generation of Syrians is living in refugee camps. Offering asylum is an excellent long-term opportunity to win their hearts and minds, help move Syria toward ending Assad's brutal dictatorship, and do far more to save lives.
That argument convinced a few, and persuaded some to take postcards and think about it. Others just didn’t want to discuss it.
One woman said about granting asylum, “That will never happen.” She had a point: how can a country that cannot agree on what to do with the millions of undocumented immigrants already living here possibly see its way to offering asylum on a mass scale? But, I responded, every movement for change goes through a period of being impossible. In the 1950s the Civil Rights movement was impossible. In 1962 the anti-Vietnam War effort was unheard of. In the 1990s, many sympathizers of gay rights pointed out that gay marriage was just too big a leap. She signed a postcard. Later, Sweden would get there first, granting asylum to thousands of Syrians.
A man approached, wagging a finger, saying, “Tit for tat, that’s the only way.” He was talking about game theory proposed by Anatol Rapoport for winning one highly-structured game. The strategy was to cooperate with opponents, but punish them if they didn't reciprocate. It was the only winning strategy in this simple face off. I pointed out that what is unfolding internationally is vastly more complex, and that therefore there were more options. “Tit for tat,” he repeated, unmoved.
I realized that it was just this kind of thinking, we either strike or do nothing, that had prompted me to set up the postcard project in the first place. Two years ago, at Maine’s Juice Conference on the Creative Economy, Angus King gave a show-stopping speech. He was at that point a constituent, albeit an illustrious one, having served as governor. No one knew then that he would run to replace Senator Snowe; she had not yet announced she was stepping down.
King strode on stage carrying a pair of racing bike handle bars that curled downward, and a bike seat, and set them aside. He then told stories of his adventures in the energy industry, creating a company with no apparent value and building it up. He sold it for what he said was a technical term on Wall Street, a “s**t load.” The audience roared.
King talked about the need for new ways of seeing things, “like Picasso.” Then he picked up the two bike parts and held them to show the handlebars as horns, and the seat as the face of a cow skull. It was a fantastic illustration of the need to search for new configurations. He closed by reciting a lengthy quote from Abraham Lincoln that begins, “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present.”
In today’s stormy times, where was our political Picasso? What became clear during the Syrian crisis was that King, the creative constituent and builder of successful companies, had become Senator, choosing between going to war or doing nothing. To Senator Collins’s credit, she kept arguing that there were alternatives.
At the Co-op, King’s constituents had no problem understanding both a range of options and the difference between taking a short-term action that would have done little if anything to save lives, on the one hand, and constructive long-term choices on the other.
What came across most clearly during those two days outside the Co-op is this: The freedom to think creatively, the impetus for change and the power to enact it, does not belong to elected politicians. It resides with us.
Greg Bates is a freelance editor and publisher living in Monroe.