Election Year Antics


by John Tyler Connoley

May 4, 2004


One night, during the build-up to war with Iraq, my spouse, Rob, turned to me and said, "I feel like I have the voice of an ant in a field full of lawnmowers." He wasn't against the war, as I was, but he wanted the country to slow down and take the planning more carefully. He was writing letters to his representatives and the president, and doing what he could, but he felt like an ant fighting the lawnmowers of the Defense Department. As we move toward the next election, I can't help thinking about ants again. While I know one ant isn't much against a lawnmower, I've seen some amazing ant activity in my lifetime.


In Zambia, we had army ants. These were larger-than-average, black, carnivorous ants that marched in long columns. They would occasionally make a swath across our yard, a foot or so wide and hundreds of feet long. When you saw one of these dark patches in the grass, you avoided it, because a few army ants up your pant leg was like rolling naked in stinging nettles. If army ants were in your yard, you didn't mow until they left. Period.


Once, a particularly wide column of army ants marched through our yard. When it had left, I found a neatly cleaned snake skeleton in the grass. I don't know if the snake was alive when the ants got there, but it was certainly dead when they left. As children, we heard horror stories of huge ant contingents marching through villages, and killing old people and animals who were too slow to get out of their way. Even the Zambian soldiers, with their machine guns, didn't stand in the way of army ants.


We also had anthills in Zambia. I'm not talking little mounds around a hole, but hills made entirely by ants. One of my favorite places to play as a child was a meadow full of anthills. The field always looked to me like a lake of tall grass dotted by anthill islands. Each one had a name we had given it: for example, there was Trash Hill, where locals left old appliances in a hollow; Snake Hill, with its thick grove of trees where snakes could hide; and Picnic Hill, the one where we played most often, because of a big clearing on the top. As you can tell, these hills were bigger than a breadbox, with room for trees, clearings, and in the case of Trash Hill even a rusted car. And ants carrying dirt, one pincher-full at a time, made every one of those hills.


In Loony Tunes cartoons, the artists like to portray ants swooping in on a picnic and carrying away everything, including the blanket. Or, the ants will surround a piece of cake, and for a moment you'll see nothing but ants, and then they disperse leaving a clean plate. Of course, it doesn't happen quite like that, but those little insects sure can carry a lot when they work together. And I think people are the same.


Every time I see pictures of marches on Washington I always think of army ants. There's something about aerial photographs of all those people, moving in the same direction but not really in unison, that reminds me of the ants in our yard in Zambia. I think that's part of the effectiveness of these demonstrations -- if I were a politician, I would step carefully around such a crowd in my back yard, just as I once did around army ants.


And what about the hills? No ant has a vision of the huge pile of dirt it's creating, but each one makes the hill bigger. For a moment, each ant carrying its grain of dirt is responsible for creating the biggest mound in the history of its colony. Then the next ant creates the biggest mound again.


I was reminded of this when I heard about the defeat of the state Constitutional marriage amendment in Indiana. Of course, being who I am, I'm opposed to such an amendment, and I heard that 32 votes in my district made the difference in that decision. As it happened, the amendment didn't make it to the floor for a vote (where it would have passed), because the Democratic Speaker of the House wouldn't allow it. The Democrats held the speakership because they were in control of the House by one seat -- and in my district the Democratic Representative had won by 32 votes. I voted for the Democrat (my neighbor, and someone I respected) in that election, so it seems that I and 31 other people defeated the Indiana Constitutional marriage amendment. But that's not exactly true.


The fact is, 19,781 people voted in that election in my district, and 9,909 voted for the Democrat. Each person who cast a vote that day was like an ant adding another pincher-full of dirt to its colony's anthill. At the end of the day, it just happened that the Democrat's anthill was bigger, but both party's piles were bigger than a breadbox.


As we move into election season, and you begin to think about whether or not your vote matters this year, remember the army ants and the anthills. You may feel you have the voice of an ant, but enough ants working together can keep a guy from mowing his lawn.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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