I lived in Brooklyn, New York during the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. I had only been living there for a month or so at the time, just beginning my junior year of high school. Yet that day forever changed the course of my young adult life, and my interest in political affairs, as it did for many others around the entire world.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing on September 11, 2001? If you were over the age of five at the time, I bet you do.
A Brief History of My Interest in Politics Prior to 9/11/2001
Prior to the September 11th attacks, I was never interested in political affairs or what the U.S. government did, not really. I didn’t even understand what voting entailed and how fundamentally important it is.
Growing up, the only time I remember anyone ever talking about politics in earnest was when my grandmother mentioned not liking Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was on the news one evening because Hillary was known to have used a curse word or two, which my grandmother deemed as being unforgivably unchristian. I also vaguely remember my father laughing once or twice when Ross Perot was on the television and once or twice (in between intelligible grumbles) during the Clinton impeachment trial. But other than that, and the very limited information offered to me in school, I really knew nothing about political affairs. That is, until the September 11th attacks. And even then, I came to discover only that I didn’t know much.
Around the time of the attacks, I wasn’t interested in being a writer either. I wanted to be in and near The City (NY, NY) because I thought that there would be infinite opportunities there after I graduated from high school. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do yet, but whatever it was, I knew that I was going to do it well. I was unsure of the future, you see, not necessarily lacking confidence in my adolescent cloud of naivety. I still had a lot to learn about a lot of things, that’s for sure. At the time I mentioned, I was actually more interested in studying math in school. And I was pretty good at it. It was the only subject in school that truly challenged me at the time and pushed me to infinite limits. (Pun intended. Sorry, not sorry.)
I mention a little bit of my background here because as I work on my current book project about current socio-political concerns, I am beginning to see that I need to explore and understand what has influenced my own socio-political state of being. And from what I understand thus far, what was mostly intuitive to me, via my background and observances of others, was forced out of me post 9/11. At least, until more recently. Because at a young age, I was more or less socially and institutionally coerced into picking a political side.
A Brief History of My Interest in Politics Post 9/11/2001
As you can imagine, after 9/11 in New York everyone (regardless of their official political party affiliation) was concerned with beefing up security and finding the perpetrators of the attacks to bring them to justice. And in my youth, I wasn’t immune to these sentiments. In fact, I was profoundly affected by them and moved by them to act in any way that I could. My mother was in the city that day looking for work. And in my mind at the time, she could have easily been one of the many who were dead or missing.
Confusion, greif, anger, community, and camaraderie were palpable everywhere you turned in New York at that time, both during and after the attacks, and all at once. A vivid memory of mine includes a middle-aged woman from the Middle East on a public bus I was riding a week or so after the attacks. She was almost inconsolable, tears streaming down her face. From what I could gather, she was distraught because someone had destroyed her family’s shop shortly after the attacks. As I was getting off the bus, I saw a man staring at her with intense hatred in his eyes. That moment struck a lasting cord with me. I didn’t fully understand his reaction. She was a victim of unnecessary violence too, right? But, luckily, there was another woman there too, in front of the man, who had a sincere and empathetic expression on her face.
The following summer, I attended a Junior State of America summer-long program at Princeton University. I was ready to become civically engaged and seek out opportunities to do so, regardless of my age. And the entire experience turned my entire life upside down, in many many ways.
The Junior State of America, abbreviated JSA, is an American non-partisan youth organization. The purpose of JSA is to help high school students acquire leadership skills and the knowledge necessary to be effective debaters and civic participants. And I was indeed becoming very interested in becoming civically engaged after the 9/11 attacks. I discovered that I was also pretty good at debating that summer. I ended up winning my main debate while attending the program, which boosted my confidence in the field that was then completely new to me.
While at the summer program, I also began to realize my own socio-economic status more profoundly, more than I ever had before. I started to understand that I was poor. And most of the kids there were not. They were part of more elite circles, and even some middle-class circles, that I just couldn’t understand. While there, I also started to see how big the world was after we took a day trip to visit the United Nations in New York. And, most importantly, I started to gain some profound insight into party politics. I had to pick a side in order to fully participate whether I liked it or not. The program didn’t necessarily mandate this, but the social conditions there did. Was I a Republican or was I a Democrat?
I ended up loosely choosing a side because I went to a lot of effort to be there. But I didn’t like being backed into a corner. I also had no clue what picking a party affiliation meant in the greater world, and how institutionalized party politics were. At the time, I didn’t even think that it was a big deal to pick a side because we were debating real issues, right? Issues that mattered and deserved real attention. What did my party affiliation have to do with the evidence and arguments I brought to the forefront during a debate? What did my party affiliation have to do with discussing real issues with my peers and reaching a resolution that would represent what people felt and wanted?
Needless to say, those naive, ignorant, adolescent, and spur-of-the-moment choices—combined with my post 9/11 desire for what I thought at the time was justice — did end up forming a half-assed political identity. Yes, half-assed, is exactly what it was. One that I didn’t even realize I was forming. One that I didn’t see as having real weight in the real world at the time.
By the end of that year, I was back in Florida for my senior year of high school. I remember going to get my Driver’s License and being asked to pick a party affiliation when I registered to vote at the same time. I picked one, and the attendant said that he was sure I would change my party affiliation in the future. I said I wouldn’t. But it was, again, because I just didn’t think that it mattered that much. I would always tell everyone I was “this” or “that” party affiliation because that was what they wanted to hear. And it was assumed that if you didn’t have a party affiliation, you weren’t really civically engaged. You were just another entitled Millennial who wanted a participation trophy, in other words. But I was informed of the issues and what was really going on in the world! Or so I thought. And still, I thought, who cares if I call myself a “this” or “that”?
Then, when I was in college, after U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, I joined Army ROTC elective courses. I, again, was mostly viewed as an outsider (perhaps mostly by myself, but probably not). Everyone in the corps seemed to be studying criminology. But after a semester or two, I ended up choosing both Philosophy and English as my majors. At the time, I planned on going to law school and becoming a JAG officer. I wanted to see how I could help administer justice in the world via the military. But as I was entering my senior year of college, I started questioning things and my so-called half-assed political affiliations after a few things happened.
- My mother passed away suddenly of a brain aneurysm. And after someone loses a parent, they question everything about themselves, their lives, and the entire world, regardless of their age.
- In 2007 and early 2008, the economy was taking a nosedive and everything about the future was uncertain for a soon-to-be college graduate.
- I had a dream… or, rather, a nightmare, depending on how you want to look at it. In the nightmare, I was facing an enemy combatant in the line of fire somewhere in the desert. The combatant was a young boy. In my stunned state (he was just a child!), I couldn’t pull the trigger fast enough. He fired first. And as a result, many lives that I was responsible for were lost. I’m pretty sure that something I was reading at the time had triggered this dream/nightmare, as well as the impending choice I had to make soon regarding whether or not I was going to officially enlist after graduation.
- A lot of my peers and friends on campus were decrying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They had compelling arguments and evidence against the wars. And so did a lot of the studies and research I started to come across. I started to learn more about the U.S. oil industry and industries in general across the world at this time. I started paying attention to larger conversations and how political institutions work. And this had a huge impact on my political identity, especially in the wake of a devastating economic recession, which was occurring after incurring thousands of dollars of debt in student loans, all with no viable job prospects anywhere because there just weren’t any jobs.
How Do You Understand Your Political Identity? And Other Questions to Consider.
So, what is the point of sharing the brief version of my very personal political history here? Mostly, the point of all of it all involves intentional reflection and wanting to be intentional about my political identity and how I show up in the world.
Be honest. When’s the last time you sincerely reflected on your own political identity and how you came to own it, or how it might even be changing before your own two eyes in the current political climate? In the midst of your busy and demanding schedule? In between recurring meetings and familial obligations?
In my reflection, and based on what I know now, there are a few things that stick out to me:
- Traumatic events have long-lasting and profound effects on one’s understanding of the world and its politics, especially at a young age. Traumatic events can include both large-scale international events and more private and personal events. But such events don’t necessarily need to determine the entirety of one’s future political identity, with careful and regular intentional reflection. Although, they do matter and have their weight during moments of reflection.
- Whenever you enter the world of politics, whether you’re ten or fifty, you’re usually forced to choose a side before you even understand what the side fully represents. Because that’s just the way it is, you’re told. There aren’t any other truly viable options, you’re told. Whether the side you choose comes from viewpoints expressed by your immediate family or community or viewpoints that you come across in interactions with other groups at school or other organizations, you will have to choose a side or be ignored, if you want to be civically engaged. And this choice can have long-lasting effects on one’s political identity, without careful and regular intentional reflection.
- There aren’t any existing institutions that help us understand our real political history or help us understand what it means to hold a political identity, or how to responsibly and meaningfully exercise such an identity. Educational institutions offer obscure and whitewashed facts and show us the animated video where Bill becomes a law. But they don’t tell us about lobbying for a bill, or how to politically engage and organize with others responsibly or productively, or even the basics of how to register to vote and cast a ballot. Even institutions of higher education don’t cover these things. Of course, this is mostly on purpose. But still, it should be considered: how will citizens learn what they need to know in order to be responsibly engaged citizens?
Since 2008 I have been on a quest to understand my own political identity outside of already established and institutionalized party politics. It’s not that easy in the current world, so this quest started out as more of a slow crawl. But after much reflection, it’s pretty clear that I have never been a part of “this” or “that” party 100% of the time, and never will be. And I don’t really want that to be the essence of my political identity either. Are any of us really “this” or “that” 100% of the time, when we think outside of the political party boxes premade for us? Of course, this probably only applies to those of us who aren’t wielding funds and power irresponsibly all over Washington…
During and after the 2106 presidential election, this quest of mine has only become more intense and all-encompassing. And for a change, I am starting to see that I am not alone in this.
Many others are also starting to ask things like:
- Why must I be a Republican or a Democrat to be counted or truly seen in current political discourse? Both parties have a lot of baggage and don’t really represent and exemplify the ideals that I want to see in the world. What do these political parties actually represent and exemplify? Why can’t I change my party affiliation, or not have one at all, without being viewed as morally devoid or traitorous, or politically inept?
- Do I have to get entangled in he-said-she-said shouting matches with name-calling involved in order to participate in political civic discourse nowadays? Because that is just unproductive and exhausting. And, no thanks.
- Is it even possible to agree with every facet of what a particular political party believes? Should that be a political goal of mine? Why aren’t we able to talk about issues that matter in the real world, like healthcare, income inequality, and climate change, outside of party politics?
- Are political parties designed to prevent people from thinking about issues critically? Or without a spirit of progress and advancement? What purpose do they actually serve with everyday citizens?
Bottom line: it’s important to understand political identities and baggage on a personal, national, and institutional level. And it seems that careful and regular intentional reflection is tantamount to understanding them. What questions do you have about your own political identity? Or about how political identities are formed?
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