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Piece of Mind: Lessons from Billy Jack

Posted: Thursday, Oct 25th, 2012

I voted today. As it was in 2008 and 2010, my vote was silent. The only sound was of my window of my car rolling down as I slid my ballot into the post office box. I dropped my ballot off in the same way I would a credit card payment or a letter to my sister. No one at the post office knew I was voting. There was no one loitering with a clipboard asking people how they voted and why. There were no reporters with expensive video cameras capturing “voter turnout”. There was just me and my car.

Mail-in voting is analogous with many of the ways we engage our political system. I like and repost politically charged comments and photos on Facebook. I write letters to the editor. I sign petitions on change.org. I educate myself about the issues by reading local and national news and grumble about what I read over dinner. I donate to local charities and a few international charities. Like voting, all of these actions are done on my own time and my own terms. And like voting, just as my ballot slid silently through the mail slot, most of these actions feel equally mute.

While working with Tim in the Friends of the Library sale space behind the Alamosa post office this weekend, we came across Billy Jack, a 1971 action movie with Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor. Billy Jack is about vigilante Billy Jack, a reborn American Cherokee Indian, Vietnam Veteran, and hapkido master and the way he defends a hippie-themed Freedom School and its students from racist and discriminatory townsfolk. I had never heard of or seen the movie so we took it home. With just a few words and a slight smile on his face, Tim told me to watch the action and acting styles closely. “I’m curious what you’ll think.”

Before even taking the movie out of its case, I was already stuck in one of my “woe is me and my country” moments where I overthink everything and am safer behind a philosophy book than in the company of other humans. Normally in this state, I’m liable to go off on some opinionated tangent only slightly related to whatever the initial conversation was about.

So, unsurprisingly, by the end of the movie I found myself jealous of the Freedom School, so jealous that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say about the acting or action scenes. I guess the acting was bad.

What struck me was that the students had something clear that they were standing up against. They were also taking clear action. They weren’t huddled behind computers or their smart phones hoping that their collective action in the form of words and images would transform their community or the fabric of their nation. There is plenty to get fired up about today. Perhaps there is too much and that’s why I feel slightly paralyzed not knowing which problem to attack first.

David Shields in his book Reality Hunger has, what seems to me to be, a fairly accurate or at least poetic explanation of how we got to a place of comfortable inaction: “Historians had difficulty deciding whether history was the result of the remarkable actions of remarkable men or the significant consequences of powerful forces, of climate, custom, and economic consequences, or of social structure, diet, geography, by whatever was the boss, the boss was big, massive, all-powerful, and hogged the center of the stage; however, as machines began to replicate objects, little people began to multiply faster than wars or famines could reduce their numbers, democracy arrived to flatter the multitude and tell them they ruled, commerce flourished, sales grew, money became the risen god, numbers replaced individuals, the trivial assumed the throne, and history looked about for gossip, not for laws, preferring lies about secret lives to the intentions of fate.”

The risen god of money and rumor reinforces every barrier and distraction that stands in our way from taking real and possibly uncomfortable action for or against something. Billy Jack and the fictionalized story of a time I never knew reminded me of this. It didn’t show me how to change this fact or find a better outlet for my “woe is me” thoughts, but for now, I have a grounded opinion to start from. With that and my ballot in the mail, it’s a good enough place to begin.

Gena Akers can be contacted at gena.leneigh@gmail.com.

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