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To Rock the Vote, Knock It, or Block It?
Tuesday, March 9, 2004

“Voting is for Old People.”

That’s the phrase on an Urban Outfitters t-shirt that’s drawing Al Jourgensen’s ire.

Who’s Al Jourgensen? Al Jourgensen is the founder of the self-described “post-punk dance unit”—i.e., band—Ministry. He’s also involved with a group called Punk Voter, whose goal is to “organize, educate, and invigorate today’s youth” with an eye towards political proactivity. Item No. 1 on their modest agenda: Mobilize half a million kids over the age of 18 in an effort to vote out George Bush.

That’s where Urban Outfitters’ “Voting is for Old People” t-shirt comes in. In a letter to company president Richard Hayne, Jourgensen writes that the shirt is “irresponsible”—a mark of “recklessness.” He writes: “Voting is the right and obligation of all voting age citizens. Your company markets to a young clientele and a voting demographic that are severely under-represented and need to be encouraged to exercise their Constitutional Rights as Americans.”

“In an ideal world, I would love to have your product removed from your stores,” Jourgensen adds. “In a next to ideal world, you could sell ‘Voting Matters’ shirts.”

Well, that’s bunk.

I’ve only been to Urban Outfitters once. It was last summer during a trip to Chicago. While there, I bought a model DeLorean from Back to the Future, which sits on my shelf, unassembled, still in its box. I also bought a t-shirt. It depicts the Son of God, arms outstretched, bearing peace signs a la Dick Nixon. The words beneath it? “Vote Jesus.”

Want to guess how many 18-year-olds will be writing-in Christ at the ballot box this year? Odds are: Not many, if any at all.

This is what gets me. On the one hand, Mr. Jourgensen wants kids to roll out of bed and head to the polls on Election Day because it’s their “obligation” as “voting age citizens.” But on the other hand, he’d have us believe their minds are so manipulable that they can’t be subjected to a sheet of cloth with five words on it, for fear that they’ll stay home instead.

Well, if your average high school senior’s brain is as empty as this guy’s suggesting, why do we need their input at all? I mean, if they’re only going to go with whatever they’re told to go with—such as the openly partisan politics on Punk Voter’s anti-Bush Web site—then I’ll take a non-voting varsity football star over a voting one any day. I don’t need some teenaged dreamer telling the government how to spend my money. Ya dig?

I don’t know Jourgensen. I don’t know his true intentions. If he says he cares about kids, I’m willing to take him at his word. Quite frankly, though, I question the positive impact these get-out-the-vote youth groups are so often said to have. They push for a sort of political engagement that, to me, seems self-serving. Vote for the sake of voting. Vote because it “matters.” Vote because “you should.”

Take Rock the Vote, for example. Rock the Vote was founded by recording artists “in response to a wave of attacks on freedom of speech and artistic expression.” An MTV staple throughout the ‘90s, and the host of a Democratic presidential debate last fall on CNN, Rock the Vote aims to “empower young people to create change in their communities and take action on the issues they care about.” So far, so good.

But while I applaud Rock the Vote for so vigorously fighting in the name of free speech, its energies seem misspent. I’d much rather see them focus on things such as Clear Channel’s recent firing of Howard Stern. That decision had nothing to do with so-called decency standards. He didn’t even do anything indecent! As Stern himself has pointed out, he was yanked for condemning the government a day before Clear Channel was set to testify before Congress. He was sacrificed on the altar of the FCC.

Yet, instead of fighting the good fight against said government agency, Rock the Vote’s devotion is voter turnout. Its street teams and online registration programs, along with its support for laws like the Motor Voter Act, serve to feed the same federal beast threatening free speech in the first place.

This makes me wonder which matters more here, quantity or quality? And if it’s the former, what’s the point of voting at all?

Think about it. Kids are being taught to believe that voting is noble, in and of itself. When I was a kid, I was taught the same thing. The fact that you vote—“no matter who you vote for”—is all that counts.

A few weeks ago, I came across New Jersey’s Republican Party Web site, on which they proclaimed: “It’s your civic duty. Register to vote.” Small wonder they’d say that. After all, they want you to vote for them. But don’t you see what they’re trying to do here? They’re trying to shame you into going to the polls. Not just the Garden State GOP, either, but every GOP, and DNC, in every state across the country. They want you to think staying home on Election Day means you simply don’t care.

Well, here’s an idea: Stay home because you do.

If you think this sounds like giving up, I say voting out of “duty” sounds like giving in. And look who you’re giving in to: Career politicians who vote themselves tax-subsidized raises, who pass laws like the “Bipartisan” Campaign Reform Act.

Do you know what the BCRA does? It paves the way for a full-fledged police state right here on American soil. Think I’m kidding? Imagine there’s an attack on NYC the day Bush is there accepting his nomination later this year (September 2nd). Thanks to info collected through that other bipartisan gem, the Patriot Act, the feds can round up average Americans—dissenters, “enemy combatants,” and so on. And because the BCRA makes it illegal to take out an “issue ad” 60 days before the election (November 2nd), groups like the NRA and ACLU will be powerless to warn us not to answer the SWAT teams knock-knock-knocking at our doors.

I’m not saying this stuff is going to happen. It’s certainly quite a stretch. But the mechanisms are in place now. It would all be perfectly legal. And it’d only be the next logical step for a government which kidnaps Cuban toddlers at gunpoint.

I look at it like this. Your choices for president this November are John Kerry and George Bush. Both parties will tell you it’s crucial the other guys lose. Even if you don’t care for the man your party trots out, they’re going to tell you to vote for “the lesser of two evils.” This makes no sense. The lesser of two evils is still evil, isn’t he? Why should we give whoever wins—not just “our guy,” but that dreaded other—permission to mess with our lives? So he can blow a few billion more on the miseducation of kids so fragile they need protection from $28 t-shirts? Hey, look: I know a bargain when I see one. And this? This isn’t a bargain.

I’m not trying to sound the death knell on democracy here. But I do believe we should ditch this idea that democracy automatically means freedom. Democratically elected officials can commit “a long train of abuses”—as Thomas Jefferson called it in the Declaration of Independence—just like the tyrants we claim to despise abroad. Showing up at the polls out of loyalty only means you’re giving them “the consent of the governed.” So call it civil disobedience, call it conscientious objection, call it whatever you want, but I say it’s entirely possible to stay home without “throwing your vote away.” I’ve got to believe there’s more to free speech than the privilege of picking your poison.

This government didn’t give us our rights and our freedoms. God did. That’s in the Declaration, too. But what do I know? You’re talking to a guy with a “Vote Jesus” t-shirt here.

Jonathan David Morris is the author of Versus Nurture. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/readjdm.

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