Editorial: I Won’t Play

In January, I stood behind some 30 or so people full of hopes, dreams, fantasies, and faith. I was waiting to buy a pack of cigarettes; they, on the other hand, were buying lottery tickets. One of the largest prizes the United States had ever seen was on offer, 1.6 billion dollars. For a few dollars, each of the people in front of me would receive a piece of paper with numbers proving they’d participated.

A few days later, a public ritual would divine a set of numbers, and if those numbers matched what was printed on the tickets, the bearer of that receipt would win and become unfathomably wealthy.

As I watched the slow procession of the devoted waiting their turn at the register, it was hard not to think about other public rituals I’d witnessed. Add some incense and black clothing, and the counter could easily be a communion rail, the white slips of paper the sacred host conveying a chance at divine blessing. It also felt a bit like election day, each lottery participant registering their preference and performing a civic duty, compelled by their fear of poverty and their hopes for a better world.

It was difficult to ignore the emotions of those around me, their hearts swelling with possibility. No more worries. No more trudging to work each morning after waking the kids for school, coming home tired to make dinner and scrape some moment of their own out of the evening before the cycle began again. Their kids could go to college. They could move somewhere better, help their mother get that surgery she needed, put their grandfather in a better hospice.  Life might finally change. Freedom from fear and struggle. Travel, luxury, a good life.

No spiritually-minded person can miss the metaphysical aspects of a lottery. Each person certainly had their heart and mind full of intention, millions of people holding images of what-might-be as they handed over their last $5 in exchange for symbols and ciphers on slips of paper. Though each had probably heard the odds (292 million, or a little less than the population of the United States, to 1), each nonetheless held a faith that they might be unique, be chosen, and receive the power to manifest their will.

Watching them, feeling the pressure of their process, I found myself thinking of my own hopes, what I might do with that much money. The commercial slogan of many state lotteries resounded in my head, echoed verbally by the people in front of me:

“You can’t win if you don’t play”

Wasn’t I being foolish to spend money on cigarettes instead of a chance to change my life? Wasn’t my abstention from the collective fantasy an empty protest and a self-defeating prophesy? I wouldn’t win one and a half billion dollars, because I wouldn’t buy a ticket. I couldn’t, because I wouldn’t play.

When it was finally my turn at the counter, I bought my pack of cigarettes, rode my bike back to my sister’s place, and chain-smoked by a fire pit the rest of the night, contemplating my stubborn refusal to participate in a rigged system.

It’s election season in the United States, a period which began a full year-and-a-half ago, one that will start again two-and-a-half years from now. Millions of people will be casting their ballots on paper or automated machines, registering their hopes and fears and awaiting the pronouncements of the civic oracles.

I don’t vote in national elections. I’m one of those people, the stubborn cynics who refuse to participate no matter the stakes. I’m told the stakes for this election are higher than they’ve ever been, not 1.6 billion dollars, but the fate of America, of women and minorities, of peace and prosperity. My own fate as a queer leftist, the fate of my Black lover (who likewise doesn’t vote), the fates of all my women and trans friends. Healthcare, foreign war, domestic security, and global warming all hang in the balance.

But all I can do is shake my head and shrug.

I wasn’t always so cynical about American elections.  In 2000, I gave a lot of my time to the campaign of Ralph Nader, helping to disrupt a rally by Al Gore with a group of other queers. Al Gore opposed equal rights for gays, opposed marriage equality, and was greenwashing capitalism. Despite the fact that the other major party’s candidate scared me dreadfully, I decided I was too young to be ruled by fear and coerced into voting against my conscience.

Four years later, I participated in the caucuses and attended rallies for Howard Dean, whose campaign was suddenly obliterated by the strangest logic I’d ever heard. “Kerry is Electable,” went the party-line at the caucus, uttered by the well-dressed upper-class whites who looked at the rest of us as unruly, unrealistic dreamers.  Embittered at the Democratic Party machine, I voted for Róger Calero, the Socialist Worker’s Party candidate–technically ineligible because he’s Nicaraguan.

2008 brought a fresh slate, and what felt like a breath of fresh air. Eight years of George W. Bush were over, and there was a Black candidate running for office! Everyone was so excited, as was I. I’d never gotten to vote for a Black presidential candidate before!

No way was I going to miss such a historic opportunity, so I voted for Cynthia McKinney.

Obama won instead. Black, but male. Still, lots of amazing promises, like shutting down Guantanamo Bay and getting US soldiers out of the Middle East. At last check, Guantanamo Bay still exists (but has solar power now!), and, well, you probably know how the Middle East is going.

I didn’t vote in 2012, and I won’t in 2016, either. I won’t be voting for either of the two major party candidates, nor for any of the 29 other candidates running for president.

I won’t be voting at all.

Lots of people have lots of arguments why such a position is wrong. Some suggest it’s a sign of my ‘privilege’ to abstain. Some have told me it’s anti-feminist not to vote for the Democratic candidate, or that immigrants will destroy America if I don’t vote for the Republican candidate, or if I vote for no-one I’m ‘wasting my vote,’ or that by not voting I’m giving tacit consent to evil.

And, like every four years, the tired argument is pulled out that if ‘you don’t vote, you can’t complain.’ It’s not much different from the lottery argument: If you don’t play, you can’t win. Just like the lottery, though, what isn’t said is that even if you do play, you and millions of other people will lose anyway.

Nation-States are mythic constructs which hold the power of life and death over the people they rule. Born at the same time as capitalism and private-property, rising from the ashes of the theocratic power of the Church, the Nation holds the same sway over our souls and bodies as did once Priest and King. Liberal Democracy puts a fascinating facade over the Nation’s power. Rather than unelected Monarchs we have elected Presidents, rather than a community of believers we have a faceless mass of fellow citizens who, like us, supposedly give our consent to be ruled.

I never consented.

I signed no documents, made no verbal agreements, and never once stated I’d like a rich person to make decisions which determine where I can go in the world, how I subsist, whom I love, and how I and others might die. Undoubtedly, none of the recently murdered Blacks gave their consent to be sacrificed on the altars of American Capitalism, none of the indigenous people whose ancestral lands are destroyed for pipelines said ‘yes, please’ to the government who approved their displacement.

Likewise, the land under us never asked to be raped to make way for highways and landfills, there’s no record of rivers and lakes agreeing to be poisoned for the greater good, to sate the extractive lust of the United States and all it claims to represent.

To demand my vote is to demand my consent for the horror that America does in my name, be that the imprisonment of millions for property and drug crimes here or the obliteration of children to get at the oil they’re living atop in the Middle East. Insisting I must ‘play’ in order to ‘win’ is a sick joke at best when the jackpot is only the hope of less slaughter of others and a little less poverty for myself. At worse, it’s the language of the abuser and the rapist. If you don’t say no, it means yes–yet even if you do say no, it still means yes because they have power.

The mass ritual of voting for who will be the new face of the Leviathan sucks everyone into a vortex of celebrity-worship, displacing radical political actions onto candidates resembling our hopes and dreams. Meanwhile, some get richer, drowning in revenue from campaign advertisements, just as State coffers swell with sales from lottery tickets. That the same massive media corporations who shape our perception of the world and the urgency of our vote make the most money from the election frenzy is hardly accidental.

At the end of August, the two major presidential candidates raised over $708 million dollars. By November, this figure may approach $1 billion, not quite as much as the lottery in January but certainly enough to convince millions of people to line up in a massive public ritual.

In the end, the juggernaut of America lurches on, fed by blood of dark-skinned people and black coal and oil. No vote to end the American nightmare will ever be on the ballot, no tick-box asking me if I’d like to end capitalism will ever be available to check.

At the end of this upcoming election night, as the Diviners pronounce to the world who ‘won,’ I’ll be sitting in front of that fire pit again, thinking about the lottery, about the myth of the Nation, and wondering if we’ll ever realize that the world we want isn’t something we can ever vote for.

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd WildermuthRhyd is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals.

Pagan Anarchism, by Christopher Scott Thompson, is currently available..