Disclaimer: I finally know what I want to say to my friends here that voted for Bush: You made a mistake. That's okay. I've made enough mistakes, including choosing for whom to vote, for both of us. You may discover your mistake at some point over the next four years. If and when you do, it will be important for you, personally and politically, to understand it. I hope this essay will help. Until that discovery, though, what I have to say is likely to make (at least some of) you angry. I'm sorry for that, it's not personal, what I am discussing here is for my own journey of personal discovery, it is in no way meant to pass judgment on your character, your devotion to this country, or your commitment to making the right choices at the polls. I could be wrong. The older I get, the less certain I am of anything. Bear with me, this is about me, not you.
I had some significant walking to do today (9.65 miles according to my pedometer), which I welcome, because it gives me an opportunity to think. I have recovered from my initial reaction to the election, my emotions have settled into place, and it was time to think. My initial reaction, and the reaction of many of my political ilk, was to separate--to get the hell away from the red state people, to let them lie in the bed they've made, and to try to get somewhere as far away from the mess as I could, both geographically and politically. Somewhere deep inside me, on a completely intuitive level, I knew that was wrong. Separation is not the answer, I didn't understand why, but I knew that getting away was not going to help anyone, most importantly myself.
I am from Texas. I grew up in rural areas, I actually worked cattle as a kid, I had a horse as a teenager, I was country before country was cool. I went to a Church of Christ as a kid (my own idea and desire, my parents were atheists), I went to a Catholic High School. I still, to this day, like any horse better than most people, the only vehicle I have owned as an adult was a Ford F-150 with a tool box AND a gun rack. So, by any external measure, I am a red state voter. At the very least, I have consorted with them my entire life, and I know, love and admire many, many people who probably voted for George Bush on Tuesday.
So, I began to try to understand what happened on Tuesday by looking within to find the Bush voter inside me. As I hope you're guessing by now, it didn't take long for me to find him.
During the campaign, I talked to a lot of people who were voting for Bush, I heard many more of them on the radio, and every opportunity I had I wanted to hear the answer to the question "why are you voting for him?" Every time, and I mean every time, their answer began with the same two words: "I believe...." What would follow after that is as individual as the voter, but the answer always started with "I believe." When you asked a Kerry voter why they supported their candidate, there was no similarly singular prefix. At least half the time, the answer was at least in part some version of "he's not George Bush."
There's a political lesson there, but I am going to go into that at another time.
11/02/2004 was, at the most fundamental level, a triumph of belief over facts. I don't mean that as a smear. Some of the most beautiful and admirable things about human beings involve their ability to hold fast to beliefs. We would have never entered or won WWII without this proclivity, Gandhi and Martin Luther King would have gotten nowhere, there would be no comfort for the grieving, no source of inspiration for those facing long odds without this fundamental bit of humanity. It is not, ipso facto, a bad thing. Like any human strength, however, it can also be a weakness.
For example, for me personally, it was this weakness that enabled my morbid obesity for 20-odd years of my adult life. Just three years ago, I was convinced that I ate approximately the same number of calories as any normal-weight man, that I was just as active, and that my obesity was actually caused by some mysterious, yet undiscovered freak of a combination of bad luck with regard to metabolism, genetics and nature. There was no amount of argument, display of facts, or persuasion by the example of others that could have changed my mind.
Furthermore, I didn't want to challenge this belief. It took six months of intensive psychotherapy to get me to the point where I would keep a food journal, and even then I kept it for a few months as a fraud, to fool my therapist. I wrote down what I thought she would approve of me eating, and continued to eat in secret. For the next two years, I would resolve to keep it about every two weeks, then I would get sidetracked and "forget." I just closed the cover on the very first one I kept daily for any length of time. I have a record of every morsel of food that passed my lips from August 1 to October 29th of this year in one little Moleskin journal. I have another one going now, this is going to be a habit of mine long into the future now.
The point is, the food journal was a direct challenge to my belief that I was "special" with regard to obesity. It doesn't take long to go back and add up the calories in the days I kept in 2001, when I weighed 460 pounds, and see that I was eating about 3600-4000 kcals/day, which is enough to maintain 460 lbs if you're living the sedentary lifestyle of a computer geek who is adverse to exercise. My belief that my obesity was a special case was very important to me. It protected me from the hideously painful reality that the ongoing tragedy of my obesity was in fact something I was doing to myself, that it was something I could fix anytime I chose to do so, that it was in fact an alarmingly complex interaction of a bunch of little problems, not some single mysterious and cryptic mystery, and most of all, that this painful, painful life as a 450+ lb man was in fact a choice I was making daily, not an injustice unfairly visited upon me through no fault or choice of my own. If you asked me why I was overweight, my answer always started with the same two words: "I believe...."
I was greatly assisted in the maintenance of these beliefs by a billion dollar industry--the diet industry. The diet industry does not make it's money by supporting the belief that obesity is an enormously complex interaction of numerous personal lifestyle choices, any single one of which, taken alone, will not produce the condition. It is absolutely essential for the industry to assert that obesity is not the fault of the obese, it is rather caused by something simple and heretofore little understood, and the long nightmare can be ended with the intervention of something you can buy from them. The solutions they offer for sale are simple and straightforward: stop eating carbs/fat/sugars, use artificial sweetener, attend these meetings, eat this prepared food, read this book, take this pill, drink this potion, use this magic exercise equipment, get this surgery. The diet industry, in order to stay in business, needs for people to believe that there is a simple answer (something they can sell you), and that once you acquire this special item, your long nightmare will be over if you just believe.
The facts are out there. Obesity researchers have known for years how you lose weight. Go to this web site. It's all right there. I've reviewed this site--everything you need to know, exactly the advice I am following now to successfully lose weight is on this site. You don't need to buy anything, you don't even need to change the kind of food you eat. However, the remedy is not particularly straightforward. Recovering from obesity is not the easily understood remediation of a single, simple problem. People get and stay obese because of a complex interaction of a dizzying array of little problems, most of which normal-weight people share in some measure, just not in a large enough number or serious enough combination to put the pounds on. Each obese individual has this mixture of a bunch of little causes in different combinations and different levels of severity. Getting to the answer involves a lot of nuance, a lot of trial and error, getting to your own individual answers often involves a process of shifting of opinions and judgments that could be called "flip-flopping" by those inclined to believe the simple assertions of the diet industry.
Meet my inner Bush voter. As a dieter, he believed he was special, he listened to the diet industry. As a voter, he would be inclined to passionately believe the assertion that 9/11 made this election "a special time in our nation's history," he would be greatly comforted by listening to the Fox News Channel. His answers would be simple: support President Bush, invade Iraq, ignore the nay-sayers, dismiss meddling allies, keep the Faith, be strong, stay the course, drop bombs, hate the terrorists. The problem is not complex: it's not our fault, we didn't bring this on ourselves. The terrorists hate our freedom, they hate the fact that we believe in justice. The only answer is killing them. Don't worry about all these facts concerning the failures of the Bush administration at home, in Afghanistan, and Iraq, that will all be sorted out by history. Don't worry about Bush's blind spots, his lies, his massive miscalculations, just believe.
So, I can't claim any particular distinction from the Bush voters. I almost killed myself believing in "specialness" and simple, straightforward answers that relieve me of personal responsibility for the problem of obesity just as they believe in simple, straightforward answers that relieve the USA of any collective responsibility for terrorism. I spent thousands of dollars, bought hundreds of books, joined dozens of gyms, bought an impressive array of exercise equipment and ate several different restrictive diet regimens. When I failed, it didn't matter, there was another thing to try, the next big diet thing out there, always on the horizon. I would passionately swear with every fiber of my being that I would (eventually) prevail, no matter how hopeless things may have looked at any particular moment. We'd all look back and understand in the future why this next idea was finally the right one and why all the others had fallen short before. I just had to stay the course. I just had to believe.
I was wrong.