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Posts Tagged ‘American Democracy’

Juan Williams

Image by Fairfax County Public Library via Flickr

It has become politically incorrect to voice one’s fears and anxieties publicly. Any insecurities one might have around a group of people are a social weakness and must be left unvoiced.  At least this is my take on recent events in the news.  The most glaring example is the firing of Juan Williams from NPR over expressing momentary personal anxieties he experiences when he gets on a plane with others overtly dressed as Muslims.

Keeping our fears and insecurities silent is precisely part of our problem. Where is the public forum to express openly and talk honestly about the experiences that frighten us?  When is there an opportunity to have a civil discussion about what are or are not rational fears public fears?  Dismissing and glossing over them only causes greater paranoia, I believe.

As a parent, when my children express a fear – rational or not – I want to talk with them about it. A healthy discussion with them helps me to address the difference between reality and perception.  Some fears are healthy and some are not, but telling my child they are “phobic” or dismissing them as immature will not help them.  Yet, it seems to me this is precisely the way those in government and media are attempting to treat the American people.

Anyone who expresses an anxiety or fear is labeled “phobic” – islamaphobe, homophobe, xenophobe, etc. This is intended to silence us and make us bury those fears deep within our psyche.  There is no public place to express them.  So, we do not talk about them.  We do not acknowledge our insecurities over those differences.  Instead, like the good stoic Northern Europeans we are, we are expected to get over them, move on and embrace everyone in every place regardless of how we really feel.  Don’t talk about “it.”  Don’t deal with “it.”  Hide “it.”

I do not think this is a long-term workable solution for peace and unity among humankind. Sooner or later, these unspoken fears will come out.  Precisely because they were not dealt with in a suitable manner today, their dormancy will give way to hatred towards those we fear in some tomorrow; especially in times of greater turmoil.  Consider past human actions against one another: Rwanda, European-Jewish history, American treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII, Sunnis and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan-India, South African Apartheid, and the Jim Crow laws of 20th century America.  The list is as endless as human history.

Our silent fears will not lie unspoken for very long. Human history has taught us that when it comes to conflict of any kind, we will bunch into “tribes” that will attack one another.  These “tribes” might not necessarily have their identity around ethnic or social affinities.  Today they are just as likely to form around ideological affinities: conservatives, liberals, socialists, capitalists, religionist, non-religionists and on the list goes into “pro-this” and “pro-that” or “anti-this” and “anti-that.”

Waterfall Above Hyas Lake, Washington State, September 2010

Waterfall Above Hyas Lake, Washington State, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The greatest idea of founding American democracy was, I believe, the creation of a society where an open market place of ideas can be shared by everyone. This means that we must give voice to our differences and fears as well as our commonalities and passions.  Sure, we may even have to listen to people we disagree with on the most visceral level.  However, allowing their voices to be heard is much better for society overall than demanding it be silenced and relegated to the underground.

Giving air time in a public place for all ideas allows the larger public to determine the cogency and vitality of ideas and arguments. We need not censure the American public from them.  They will do so by themselves with thought and action.  If our ideas and ideals – political or religious – cannot stand on their own two feet in a public debate then perhaps it is time to reconsider our own position.

Vivian Schilling, the CEO of National Public Radio, and the other leaders of PRI (Public Radio International) should be ashamed of the way they handled the firing of Juan Williams. However, even more so, they need to reconsider how they treat sincere expressions of fear, anxieties and social concerns.  It is not enough to dismiss them as Vivian Schilling did with a suggestion that Juan Williams take his issues up with his psychiatrist.  There is a whole nation of people who know that twinge of fear, even if it is only momentary, when they get on a plane with people dressed as Muslims.  It is simply our current reality.

Would Juan Williams, who is himself of African-American descent, have received the similar discipline if he expressed the same fear about going into a poor African-American neighborhood with a history of drug and gang violence? Would he have been expected to not voice any fear if he had gone into a Ku Klux Klan meeting to do a reporting job?  The fact is that reporters, even NPR reporters, have a history of relaying personal impressions and expressions.  So, what makes this any different?  Oh, yeah.  It was on Fox News.  Well, that is another story.

Even in our current negative financial climate, the American people are chided for their fears. We are daily reminded that the problem is “the consumer confidence index.”  It indicates that we are fearful for the future and its uncertainty.  The expectation seems to be to overlook our fears and keep on buying and going into debt.  Until our own fears are conquered and we gain a positive consumer financial index, the economy is our fault.  Right.

Let us take the mute off of our fears and openly express them. We must not give in to our silent fears.  Instead, we are more apt to find solutions, overcome our fears and move confidently into our future side-by-side if we work together to address them.  Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed to the American people after the dark days of the beginning of The Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  By going on to acknowledging America’s fears he dis-empowered those fears.  Maybe he was only partially correct.  Maybe what we have to fear is our silent fears.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Pluribus and Unum

The United States of America has somewhat of a schizophrenic community identity.  On the one hand, we relish in the idea that we are a “melting pot” of cultures; a country where people from any culture are welcome to legally come and establish a new home.  However, on the other hand, we worship the idea or myth of the rugged individual who comes to this country or who pioneers a new horizon; a country where an individual can realize the potential of all that he or she can become with enough hard work and luck.

For some time now, I have been pondering the sources of these attitudes within our American culture.  More specifically, I have wondered about our idea of the rugged individual who makes it on his or her own and how that shapes our relationships, politics and religion.  We love our pioneer stories.  We almost worship the entrepreneur who starts out with nothing and produces something out of a garage or shop that not only attains success but also produces wealth.  Our movies make heroes of the rebellious individual who beats the system or the status quo accepted by the larger majority.

This heightened sense of the individual over the community gives rise to many tensions in our society. Loyalty is no longer given to any one group but to the self.  So, individuals move from church to church, job to job, and even community to community for personal advantage.  Loyalty is passe’, whether it is to a marriage union or workers union.  Most Americans are looking for the “best deal” and “for the right price.”  We have taken the American Founders ideal of an individual’s freedom to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” to individualistic twisted ends.

Individualism fractures society more than it unifies it.  It seems to be the human tendency to move toward separateness until there is something that unites us – a common enemy, a common problem, or a common experience in the midst of disaster.  Once the threat has passed, however, jockeying begins all over for the selfishly personal “best seat at the table.”  Jesus’ disciples exhibited this same behavior despite the fact that it was Jesus who brought them all together and was the unifying factor.  Perhaps church bodies could learn something from their example and Jesus’ instructions to them.

Of course, the fracture of civilization and its relationships is nothing new to human existence. It is as old as the Garden of Eden where the break in community with other humans and with their Creator began.  However you tell the story and understand it, it perfectly illustrates the human condition.  From Genesis chapter three through history up to today, we witness the effects of the rips and tears in our social fabric.  The story of the Tower of Babel, when God caused confusion through language and culture, is only the pinnacle of this story.  Humanity has been on a steady descent ever since despite the attempts of world rulers and empires to bring a return to a one-world order according to their terms.  This has only led to resistance and further fractures in the global human community.

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, conveyors of conspiracy theories like to point to one of the Latin phrases on the reverse side of the United States’ Great Seal to show that the U.S. is involved in the same scheme. The Latin words

Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States.

Image via Wikipedia

Novus ordo seclorum” are taken by them to mean “New World Order” when, in fact, they truly mean “New Order of the Ages;” signifying the beginning of a new era with the birth of the United States of America.  The other Latin phrase appearing with it is “Annuit coeptis,” which means “God favored our undertakings.”  So, there is a bit of irony in the theories of conspiratists in that it would seem that they believe the U.S. is involved in some diabolical plan to take over the world with God’s blessings.

At any rate, the Latin phrase on the U.S. Great Seal which most Americans are more familiar with is “E Pluribus Unum.” This is roughly translated “out of many, one” or “one from many.”  In recent American history, it has been embraced to refer to the great cultural “melting pot” of this country.  However, at the beginning of American independence from Great Britain, it was an attempt to directly reflect the unity of the diverse thirteen colonies.

Modern Americans tend to forget just how fractious those early colonies were based upon their religious preferences, politics, loyalties to England, economies and ideals of the ruling classes. The contentions were never really settled until after the Civil War – and some would argue, especially from the southern United States, that it is still not settled.  Early on, the threat of secession from the federal union was always present; first from the northern states and then from the south.  Politics became divided very early over the preeminence of individual and state rights versus federal rights.  We still wage political battle over those ideas today.  This conflict may always be in flux and never really settled in our American democracy.

Interestingly, E Pluribus Unum was the motto of the United States of America until 1956, when it replaced with In God We Trust.” Until then, it appears on most U.S. coinage since it was mandated by law in 1873.  It first appeared on U.S. coinage in 1795 even though it was first proposed for the Great Seal of the U.S. in August of 1776 and finally formally adopted in 1782.  In the 1776 proposal, which Benjamin Franklin had a hand in, the seal had a shield with six symbols; each symbol representing the six main countries that provided immigrants to the colonies: the rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), and an imperial two-headed eagle (Germany).  Those six symbols were surrounded by thirteen smaller shields, which were to represent “the thirteen independent States of America.”  Of course, the “independence” of those states and the others to follow would greatly change with the new constitution of 1883.

The idea that a country not formed by, from or for any one ethnic group can exist without fracturing into hundreds of splintering self-interest groups is still being tested.  The United States and its people are still very much a democratic experiment in the making.  The strength of our union requires every citizen and local and state government to bow to higher ideals than self-interest.  This, in part, was the empowering force behind Abraham Lincoln’s administration and other leaders to seek to preserve the union with southern states who attempted to go their own way.

Even in many American churches, the unity of the church fellowship takes pre-eminence over selfish desires and goals. There is a desire on the part of the individual to be a part of something larger than just the small cosmic consciousness that the individual inhabits.  Becoming and being a part of a community of faith enlarges one’s life and capacity for living in and through the lives of others as believers pray, worship and serve together.  The essence of the Gospel and the Church’s theology is that the Creator, through His incarnation in His Son, Jesus, has come to bring true unity in human and divine relationships.  As the apostle Paul would have it, the enmity or hostilities created by cultures, languages, skin colors and offenses to God have been removed by the peace offering made by Jesus the Messiah on the cross.

So, we are not merely “pluribus” – many independent individuals or states of being seeking to find out own way. We are also “unum” – formed as Americans in our democracy to unite around those ideals that make us a unique light to the rest of the world.  We are a cosmic declaration that people from different parts of the world, with different skin colors, abiding by different religious convictions can not just merely co-exist but also become unified for the common good of each individual in its society to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  It was this very audacious and precarious idea that caused most of the America’s Founders and the truly wise and understanding today to constantly invoke the help and aid of Providence.  And so, it seems, as long as the help of heaven preserves our union and democracy, we will continue to be E Pluribus Unum.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Bloodless Revolutions

The great American democratic experiment stands in marked contrast to many other struggling nations in the world today.  It is something for which every person living in the good ol’ U.S. of A. should be thankful for but seems too few really recognize – at least if one thinks the popular news outlets and local newspapers ‘Letters to the Editor’ is any indicator.  Once again, too many people seem to be ignorant of American history specifically and world history in general.

In American democracy, every two years to four years the American voting public can change its government without shedding a drop of blood.  This is not the case in many countries around the world.  Change in government structures and powers can only come through bloody revolutions that cost the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, and wreck havoc on the economy, safety and well-being of its citizens.  Oppressive governments stay in power by subjugating protesters to imprisonment, torture and the threat of death.

Today, in American democracy, the common people can rise up in open protest without threat of violence or imprisonment from the governing powers.  This was not always the case, however.  The unrest of the 1960’s helped to change all of this for future generations, whether it was the peaceful protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King, student sit-ins or more violent student protests.  In the early 20th century unionists, socialists and communists were openly persecuted and jailed.  The McCarthy era communist scare of the 1950’s involved the blacklisting and even jailing of individuals.  Despite all of this, America has always been able to absorb social change and movements and find or rediscover its equilibrium.

Thankfully, peaceful protests and gathering people from opposing political viewpoints is not against the law.  In fact, it is a vital part of American democracy.  Town hall meetings, mass gatherings and forming new political alliances or parties can take place openly.  Police even offer protection to the most obnoxious protesters among us.  Take for instance the Westboro Baptist Church protesting at military funerals or Anarchists at world leader events or anti-abortionists with their gruesome pictures in front of Planned Parenthood buildings.  As much as they may be repulsive to some people, they have the freedom in an open democratic system to voice their views.  (What is appropriate and inappropriate communication of those views will be left for another time.)

On the other hand, recently around the world we have witnessed countless bloody revolutions, coups and violent protests.  Recently it was Kyrgyzstan.  However, since America’s most recent presidential election, other countries have gone through similar convulsions: Guatemala, Honduras, Myanmar, Sudan, Iran, Georgia, Mozambique, Congo, Moldova, Nepal, Tibet, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Timor, and Gaza to name the ones that I know.  There may be others.  Many other places in the world have small revolutionary groups at work; far too many to attempt to name here.

The United States of America has always had its own revolutionaries at work behind the scenes.  Whether it is the White Supremacists, the Black Panthers, the Anarchists, the Militia Movement, the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front, the Army of God, the Black Liberation Army, the Communist Party or many other smaller fractured groups, groups like them have always been present among us from the earliest days of the American democracy.  For now, they remain on the fringe of American society.

Orange and Purple Starfish, June 2003

Orange and Purple Starfish, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I believe that we who live in America should be thankful for two things1) That we have a system of replacing or changing our government and its officials through a bloodless means – a bloodless revolution, and 2) That there is an allowable system of protestation that gives voice to the variant messages in America – no matter how much we might disagree with them or even find them repulsive.  The alternative is no alternative.

This is why violence and the threat of violence are so dangerous to the democratic process.  Whether it is instituted at the government level or at the grassroots level of our society, the end result can only be the violent demise of democracy altogether.  The former will lead to an oppressive government that holds its people in bondage to one way of thinking and acting.  The latter will lead to an anarchy in which fractured groups will impose their will and ideals over others.  One will lead down the path to dictatorships and government by an elite and ruling class.  The other will lead to more Oklahoma City bombings.

When the government oversteps its boundaries, the self-governing institutions of our society kick into play through the scrutiny of conservative or liberal presses, public inquiries and social outcries from the public. 

When individuals and groups overstep their boundaries of protesting by moving into violence and the threat of violence, then the self-governing institutions of the local police and sheriffs, federal investigative agencies and the outcries from the public offer correction.

In either case, we still have a way of self-correcting the future course of America without shedding a drop of blood.  As long as the American public…

  1. remains educated about current issues,
  2. learns from its own history and world history,
  3. actively participates in the political and social process of our democracy, and
  4. demands civil discourse rather than violence or the threat of violence,

…then I am confident in the future of American democracy and society.  I believe there are enough sensible and educated citizens within its borders to navigate the issues the lay ahead of us.  We may not always agree on what the outcomes should be but we will always have a voice and a choice to be involved in the process.  Even as I write this, I hear the rumblings of another bloodless revolution this next November.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Towards A More Civil Public Discourse

One of the strengths of a true democratic system of government is the ability to have open public debates concerning the issues that matter to our nation.  No one individual, political party or system of thought controls or sensors the discussion; even to the point of publicly protesting before governmental buildings, outside political gatherings and in town meetings.  In many other countries of this world, such open protestations would be met with government oppression, brutality and even imprisonment and possibly death.

American citizens should appreciate these freedoms.  I strongly believe that they should be guarded and practiced.  However, I also believe that there is a danger today of allowing this form of public debate and open protest to degenerate into a deconstructive melee that will damage our system of public debate rather than promote it by the way we conduct ourselves.  Too often in today’s political climate the open discussions in our newspapers, talk-radio stations and sidewalk protests devolve into a hostile mob that demonizes everyone who does not think like they do.

This is group-think at its worst.  There is no open and honest dialogue with the opposing viewpoint in many cases.  Instead, they are rallies to cheerlead a particular political or social agenda without regard to the other side of the argument.  The other side is not even welcome to the table.  They are seen as “the enemy”.

This is not about the political left or the political right.  It is not about Republicans, Democrats, the Tea Party or Coffee Party advocates.  I am more concerned about America’s tone and tenor in the discussion.  Where is the “civil” in our civil public debate and discourse?  What happened to dealing with issues rationally and objectively?  Is there really an honest discussion taking place for the benefit of all people if one side of the debate is not present?

I am not suggesting that debate be dispassionate.  Neither am I suggesting that individuals or groups should not boldly and strongly affirm and assert their position.  What I am suggesting is that there is a way to do that without demonizing and alienating the other side of the debate.  When our debate descends from dealing with issues and facts to finger-pointing, name calling and generating misinformation about the other side’s position, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we really accomplishing?”  I would venture to answer, “Not much.”

Granted, from America’s earliest political days, public discourse has been heated and mean.  (Something I address in an earlier Blog Post: “Let’s All Calm Down!”)  For a great picture of how mean it could get, I recommend William Safire‘s book Scandalmonger.  After the colonies won their independence from England, some of our earliest leaders were dismayed  how fractious and uncivil American politics quickly became.  George Washington despaired over the hostile divisions of the American political arena.  Individuals who were compatriots in the Revolution became bitter enemies afterward.

Another period of American history that turned into civil war instead of civil discourse was prior to and during Abraham Lincoln’s term in office.  The issues of states rights, federal government powers and slavery were issues that consumed American politics from its earliest days.  Reading the diatribes of the times, one senses a growing hostility between parties to the point that by the time Abraham Lincoln gained office he despaired whether the divide could even be healed.  It turns out he was both right and wrong.  The great divide in American politics and society could be bridged, but only by war.

It is precisely this type of “war” language that we are hearing once again on the fringes of the public discourse surrounding American politics and the accompanying agendas.  Whether it is the Health Care Reform Bill, abortion, socialism versus capitalism, taxes, gun ownership or any of the other number of “hot button” issues, the divide between the sides is growing into an unbreachable wall that will not permit constructive dialogue and problem solving.

History teaches us that the “fringes” of public thought soon become the primary movers for social reform.  Therefore, it would be wise for us to pay attention to how our public discourse is being shaped by them.  Again, I am not addressing the issues or topics discussed.  I am more concerned about the way in which they are being discussed.  The process of debate shapes us as much as the actual decisions that come out of it do.  How are we allowing the way we discuss and debate these issues shape us as a people and nation?

I am particularly dismayed and shocked at how Conservative Christians, or just Christians in general, conduct themselves in this public discourse.  We most often come across as the most angry and hostile.  Our points, which are very good ones, are lost in the screaming and yelling at the opposing side.  However passionate one might feel about a particular political issue, as a Christian, one must ask, “How does the way I conduct myself and communicate my message reflect the Kingdom of God and its King?”

Christians live in the tension of existing in two kingdoms: the Kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of God.  We are primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God first and foremost.  Therefore, as citizens and ambassadors of that Kingdom to this earthly one, we should be concerned with how our actions and words portray the Kingdom of God and its King.

I am not suggesting that silence is the answer.  Neither is not caring what happens to and in this world.  We are called to bring the Kingdom of God to the world in which we live through our lives and our witness.  The issues of righteousness and justice are central to this mission.  However, the manner in which we strive for those things is just as important as their substance.  For by the way we conduct ourselves we reflect the nature and character of not only the Kingdom of God but also the nature and character of its ruler – our Heavenly Father.

Beach Pebbles, Ozette River Camp Site, June 2003

Beach Pebbles, Ozette River Camp Site, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

My experience has taught me that the one who begins yelling the loudest has already lost the debate for he or she has no further substantive content or cogent arguments to make to prove his or her point.  There is a more civil way to conduct a civil public discourse.  Let me humbly recommend a few action points that may help us towards a more healthy and constructive public debate:

  1. Have a first hand knowledge of the issues and their facts.  Do not depend upon the pundits or politically slanted news organizations to give you objective truth.  Remember, they have an agenda that sells and makes them money.  That’s their primary concern.  If they truly worked for resolutions, they would be out of business.  It’s in their best interest to stir up the debate, not resolve it.
  2. Turn off and tune out “the screamers”.  Those yelling the loudest, as I said above, often do not have anything more constructive to bring to the argument other than passion.  While their passion is good, at the end of the day, it will not win the debate of substance.  If you get a conservative or liberal news source – internet, print, TV, or radio – make sure you are balancing it by listening or reading to the opposing side.  Make sure you know the rational points and objections the other side of the argument is making.  This will sharpen your own points.
  3. Read and learn from history.  This is not the first time that American politics has gotten heated and ugly.  It is not the lowest we have reached in the political forum.  However, to avoid delving deeper or repeating the mistakes of the past, it is important to know where we have been and where we have come from in our collective history.
  4. Openly invite and welcome the opposing side to the discussion.  Two things can only be accomplished by this:  First, you will learn the objections and points of the other sided.  Second, you will strengthen your position and ability to communicate your point.  You will also learn the weaknesses in your own argument, which will send you back to studying and learning about the issues and facts.  You may be surprised and change your mind as a result!  Or, you may win a friend and the debate by being better equipped.
  5. Learn the difference between a public rally and public debate.  More of the former takes place than the latter.  Rallies are good for energizing and mobilizing political partners, if that is what is actually happening.  However, in my experience, they too easily devolve into pointless and nasty caricaturizations of the opposition.  A debate will have the opposition present and allow it to fairly communicate its points.  It will require clear and cogent communication, but, just as important, listening.
  6. Finally, for those who are Christians, remember the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God.  It is not bound by the boundaries of a political party or social agenda.  The Church of Christ is growing and propagating in some of the most hostile political and social environments our world has to offer.  God is bigger than either political party.  We are called to represent and be communicators of that Kingdom to this world.  How we do that is just as important as the substance of our agendas.  Do our words and actions reflect the nature and character of the One we way we follow and serve?

There are no easy answers and solutions to resolving differences of opinions.  It is why we call the discussions of these things “debates,” after all.  However, I am firmly convinced and convicted that as mature people interested in the good of all humankind and creation that we can do a better job of being civil in our public discourse.  The way we conduct our public debates shapes us as much or more so than the substances of those debates.  Cherishing and honoring this important democratic process is important to our future as a nation.

Good constructive debate over the issues and facts is healthy for our democracy.  Hostile demonization and threats of violence only send us back into the times of tribal warfare or, worse yet, civil war.  However, I have faith in people, especially the American people, and especially the American democratic experiment that we can turn towards a more civil public discourse.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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