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Opinion: A reluctant vote for an illusory victory

At the time of this writing, Joe Biden’s presidency seems all but certain.  Discernible – and eagerly anticipated – overnight progress was made despite the four painstaking years it took to get here.  We ousted a monster of dastardly, misogynistic, fascist proportions; we tolerated myriad statements, decrees and yes, tweets, that have both created and revealed a great polarized divide throughout the country.  And yet, amid all the justifiable vitriol toward this embodiment of terror, I sit here utterly disappointed and unenthusiastic about this “win,” dissatisfied not only with our new president, but with the great investment we continue to make in our so-called democracy.

“The lesser of two evils” has become a common idiom these days; the ultimate justification in favoring one con-didate over another; a means of settling for something that ultimately goes against our core, primal values, yet somehow is presented in a way to justify our narratives for inevitable change.  Voting is our ace in the hole.  It’s an irrevocable power that we citizens wield every four years.  And it is we, the people, who nominate the person most fit for the job to satisfy the interests and wellbeing of the masses.  Perhaps this was true once upon a time, but if there is anything my experiences and subsequent disillusionment have taught me, I cannot help but feel this to be the makings of brilliantly manufactured deception.  Joe Biden, like the presidents who came before him, is just as much a threat; a distraction from the inherent human needs that require our attention.

The vast majority of my friends and loved ones have disagreed with me to relative extents on this debate that knows no bounds, which inevitably spawns many questions.  Who is right?  Who is wrong?  Am I being too naïve?  Am I not appropriately seeing the bigger picture?  Is a short-term fix better than no fix at all?  The answers to these questions may resolve themselves with time, but meanwhile I find it necessary – and cathartic – to acknowledge and convey my innate reactions toward politics, toward media, toward presidential debates, toward post-industrial society.  And it all comes from a very, very personal place.

In 2008, When Barack Obama was announced to be president, I was one of thousands cheering in Seattle’s streets.  I was beside myself, feeling the energy of people from all walks of life, dancing, singing, drinking, celebrating.  It was a school night, but who cared? We won!  And we would have eight years of seemingly progressive change under his rule, which would ultimately, somehow, pave the way to Donald Trump becoming president.  Of course, no one could have predicted this.  But in a country – and world – with so many moving parts, so many vested interests, how can one predict much of anything?  Surely, as I danced in the streets at 22 years old, slamming tequila shots with friends in celebration of his victory, never would I have predicted that at 28 years old I would be sitting across the table from President Obama, in the White House, months after my brother, Luke, lost his life.

The White House President Barack Obama holds a discussion with families of former American hostages regarding the U.S. Government Hostage Policy dealing with American citizens held captive, during a meeting in Room 350 of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House, June 24, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

It took months to get Obama to agree to have a one-on-one conversation with me and my mom.  It seemed only fair, as he was the one who secretly authorized two Navy Seal raids to rescue my brother, who was being held captive in Yemen for 13 months from September 2013 to December 2014.  The first raid came one day too late as my brother was already transported to another location.  The second raid ended up costing him his life, as the captors were allegedly alerted of the rescue attempt, leading them to shoot my brother and his cellmate. 

Neither of the two Obama-approved raids were brought to my or mom’s attention at any point.  We were led to believe, as we had been for 13 straight agonizing months, that the government was doing everything in their power, peacefully, methodically, to ensure Luke’s safety and inevitable return.  It took their final actions, months of new information after the fact, and a newly inherited existential view on reality to realize they were doing anything but that.

Astro Pittman | The Seattle Collegian The author and his mom meet with President Obama

Luke, mom and I were a little family of three, and as close as could be.  If anyone knew my brother, they would understand what brought him to Yemen.  They would also understand how sensitive, how vastly intelligent, how passionate he was; how much he chased discomfort as a means of understanding and relating to others, to solving life’s unsolvable puzzle.  Luke lived life as organically and intentionally, in many ways, as one truly can – appreciating the little things like a cup of tea, while halibut fishing in unruly conditions in Alaska.  He had a belly laugh, absolute charm, he would challenge others, especially himself, playing devil’s advocate in endearing, humorous and provocative ways.  He gave a damn, and he defied the cultural fabric and institutions that hindered anyone’s ability to express themselves.  He propelled people in very subtle, non-abrasive ways to discover their own potential, to ride their own, unique wave.

Astro Pittman | The Seattle Collegian Luke, on the right, in Yemen

In the headlines, Luke might as well have been a reckless fool, devoid of any true, complex life story, who endangered the lives of the Navy Seals who attempted to rescue him.  Obama proclaimed, after all, that his life was in their hands.  This, of course, came after a failed first raid after which Luke was reported to have been safe, well-fed, treated respectfully and carefully by his captors.  Mom and I would also discover after the fact that the American government knew of Luke’s whereabouts for the majority of his captivity, while periodically informing us that they had no updates to report.  Why they decided to withhold the truth, to act when they did, the way they did, my mom and I may never know.  And it haunts us.

Astro Pittman | The Seattle Collegian Left to right: Luke, mom, and the author.

We live in a time of paramount disconnect and misinformation, acquiring our news, consumer goods and human interactions from global mega-corporations that have millions of dollars to spend on mass manipulation, cultivating our dependencies, and yes, wielding massive influence on our presidential candidates.  The political system we call “democracy” has become a mere offshoot of these capitalist-laden powers; a centuries-in-the-making oligarchy.  And in the same ways that the U.S. government very personally and directly assured mom and I that they were acting in Luke’s interest, they, too, command the same type of trust of its citizens, providing us with the deceitfully crafted impression that they care.

During his first term, I celebrated President Obama.  I was oblivious, distracted by his glow, having possessed for him a shallow adoration, discounting the record number of citizens he was deporting in his tenure, the foundations he laid for ICE, the record number of drone strikes he authorized in the Middle East, the millions upon millions of dollars in weapons he provided to Saudi Arabia (the country that has decimated what’s left of Yemen), bailing out Wall Street and big banks with taxpayer money, vilifying a whistleblower, Edward Snowden, who revealed the unconstitutional surveillance of its country’s citizens.  Now, I understand that I only revered a vague notion of what Obama represented. 

In the months that followed my brother’s death, Obama’s reign was coming to a close.  Meanwhile, mom and I were constantly re-traumatized by media efforts to paint Luke in a certain way, as they evoked and pried whatever emotions they could from a grieving mother and brother.  We were on the cusp of being interviewed by Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, but after weeks of planning and rehashing every granular detail of our experience, they changed their minds, because they didn’t find the story to be compelling enough.  I have seen the ins and outs of how this particular game is played, from the FBI lying to us for 13 straight months, to news outlets taking our story out of context for more viewership, to spectators recklessly drawing rash, offensive conclusions about my brother.   

Whichever the case, I lament that I, personally, and a great deal of us in general, continue to miss the mark as we project our sentiments and energies onto people like Trump and Biden, not acknowledging that they are mere bi-products of the very system that must be uprooted and transformed.  And this necessary change defies the invisible country borders that distinguish “us” and “them,” the blue and red votes that distinguish “us” from “them,” the prisons, the wealth gaps, cruelty toward animals, police brutality, the exploitation of cultures worldwide, that distinguish “us” and “them.”  It is how we lead our day-to-day lives, how we challenge our deeply entrenched habit loops that derive from this mal-intentioned construct, that truly sets us free.

I don’t intend for the tone of this message to be so bleak nor biting, for I have not touched on the evident, perseverant strides we continue to make as individuals, both autonomously and collectively; our remarkable ability to heal, to come together and lean into a direction that serves the ubiquitous needs of our communities.  This year alone has led many to embark on a quest of spiritual, peace-seeking ways of co-existence.  And in the end, we ultimately purged ourselves of an orange walking nightmare named Trump.  And most everyone will be better off, I think, as a result.  For now, at least.

Biden is a temporary Band-Aid that meagerly sticks to a more divisively ominous gaping wound.  He must be scrutinized just as harshly for his traditional, questionable right-leaning ideals, and for his continued silence toward oppressors in uniform and to those being severely oppressed and marginalized.  But above all, he, like Trump, shouldn’t demand the amount of attention and energy we’ve already given him thus far.  He is a distraction that steers us astray from the change that truly needs to take place – a change within ourselves. 

We live in a failed social experiment called ‘America,’ and I hope that in sincerely acknowledging this, we remember just how bright, unique, capable and connected all of us truly are.  Rarely does change happen overnight, but with a Biden victory we’ve seen what hope and expectations can do.  We’ve become enlivened once more.  We’ve been made aware of the power of the collective consciousness through collective effort.   My hope, now, is that we recognize this power lies latent in all of us, and it doesn’t need to take an unfathomable trauma or a passing of the presidential torch for us to get there.  Though, I know it helps.

My brother once wrote some words about Yemen and its people in 2012.   Although this pertains to a specific period in time in a specific region of the world, I think these words will still resonate with all of us, and they speak to my hopes for this country as well as all parts of the globe as we continue to re-discover the truth, love and freedom that binds us all.

“If I speak using my mouth, you will not understand a word that I say, so please allow me to say a few words from my heart.  I have been in Sana’a for one year. In this time, I have seen good men die and good men breathe freedom.

In February of last year, the first time I walked into the camp, a man told me “thank you.” I didn’t know why he said it, but hopefully in some small ways I have earned it.  In truth, it is you that I thank. To be allowed to be here for this long historical moment has been a tremendous gift.

I have learned that freedom needs to be alive for it to matter. When freedom sits, freedom becomes sleepy.  Here in Sana’a, I have seen freedom march through the streets.  I have seen freedom fired upon with bullets. I learned that a friend was murdered because he believed in freedom, a beautiful young man named Helmi. But I have also seen that freedom exists because of such people.

Your rewards do not match your efforts. But I believe that your efforts demand a better future, success is the child of belief.  Here at Change Square and at other squares around Yemen, the birth of a new Yemen has taken place.

The prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) said, “Faith is Yemeni, wisdom is Yemeni.”  With your permission, let me say one more thing: Revolution, peaceful revolution, is Yemeni.”


Jordan Somers

Jordan Somers is currently in his second year of Visual Media at Seattle Central College. He specializes in photojournalism and documentary work, with a particular emphasis on social movements happening throughout the city. His 2020 documentary, Hope is Not Cancelled, was an official selection at the Local Sightings Film Festival, and won an award for best editing at the Oregon Documentary Film Festival. Jordan is an avid traveler when granted the opportunity, and has a keen interest in psychology and existential philosophy.

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