What shall we do?
I was born in Canada. I become an American citizen in 2010. Four years ago less a day, I began to realize how much I had to learn about what it meant to be a citizen.
Since 2016, I’ve written –and mostly not published — thousands of words over the past four years as I’ve tried to find my way to greater understanding and connection with my fellow citizens in a country I chose. So here are four of my conclusions, along with calls to action.
How Did We (Well, I) Get Here?
I came to the U.S in 1988 on a diplomatic A-2 visa. In 2002 I began an ultimately successful application for the infamous “green card,” which gave me continued legal status to live and work in the U.S. once after I left the Embassy.
When I left the Embassy in 2003 George W. Bush was still President. I did not have a high opinion of him, and felt he was spoiling for a reason to deepen the United States’ military involvement in the Middle East after 9/11… but none of that was really my problem because I didn’t elect him and couldn’t vote. I lived here, I worked here, I still didn’t really know how long I’d be here, and it wasn’t my country anyway. I was a guest.
I had learned many things about this country since moving here in 1988. I knew a lot more about regional and popular cultures (and accents, and histories, and rivalries) than I had when I arrived. I knew this country as being more than a moderately scary racist country populated largely by militaristic ignorant evangelical rednecks.
I had met thousands of Americans, not all of them inside the beltway, who were none of these things. I had come to understand how narrow electoral margins were. I had come to observe the electoral college with a furrowed brow, especially after Bush/Gore in 2000. I had gotten used to explaining to my fellow Canadians that, in a spirit of neighborliness, it was important to remember that, no matter who got elected President, pretty close to half the people who voted voted for the other guy.
Not all the citizens in my home away from home supported a President a lot of us didn’t care for, so don’t condemn all Americans before you get to know them. If you were talking to someone who voted (60 percent of citizens, and 86% of registered voters, in 2000) nearly half those who voted did NOT support the policies of the Bush Administration. I still thought of the United States as a place that didn’t always feel safe — and certainly not uniformly safe for everyone who lived here.
Everything to do with racism — which I didn’t follow particularly closely but just left me with a feeling of vague discomfort about something that I didn’t think was my problem, as I wasn’t a citizen anyway — was something I saw as how the United States was different from Canada, but also not my problem. Not a citizen, not my problem.
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected.
This was, in my view, such a stunningly positive, powerful, outcome. I figured that a country that could elect Barack Obama had fixed racism. The country was clearly filled with an ever-growing majority of enlightened, educated, liberally-minded citizens who truly believed… well, something. I felt safe.
And inspired. Hope. Change. The whole nine yards. The revolution was clearly complete.
So I submitted my application for citizenship on July 4th 2009. That application wasn’t particularly necessary. So long as I didn’t ever leave the United States for more than six months, and generally behaved myself, I’d be able to apply to renew that status every ten years.
I became a U.S. citizen in February of 2010.
I still remember the citizenship ceremony. A hundred of us, and our allotted guests, were squeezed into a windowless room in a suburban northern Virginia office building.
The ceremony was fairly brief but sweet: we were all seated, and then the Citizenship and Immigration Services officer asked us each to stand when the name of our country of origin was read aloud. A remarkable number of nations were represented, and eventually all 100 of us were standing.
And we swore the oath of allegiance together.
Then we were asked to “…give our attention to the screen for a message from the President. My heart sank as it had for most of the previous eight years every time I had heard those words…
And then the picture of Barack Obama filled the screen.
Yes. I thought. I’m in the right place.
For a little less than six years, all was well. Health Care was won — a major victory on par with Social Security and the Civil Rights Act. By 2016, we were headed to elect the first woman president. The right things were happening. My country, ‘tis of …
My team had lost, and in a fairly spectacular fashion.
After I lay awake in the dark listening to the 6 am National Public Radio news, I fought back wave after wave of fear and horror.
And then I paused between waves to realize that, if those who voted represented the will of those who did not, then right now about half the country was having its first morning in eight years of NOT waking up with feelings of horror, fear, and revulsion that overwhelmed me in that moment.
To be realistic, there was probably a lot more staunch indifference, disappointment, resignation and ignorance in that mix among what would eventually be called “…a lot of good people on both sides…”, but for me everything from that moment flipped to an epic perception of good and evil.
I had forgotten the dark side of my own simple American civics lesson for Canadians: Some of the people around me (possibly up to half of them) would have gladly said yes to the most loathsome force imaginable if Obama and his whole family could have been put out of existence.
Electing Donald Trump, I feared, was their way of getting as close to that outcome as they could get.
All the evil demons of civil society that I had feared Before Barack had not gone away for the past eight years. Banished to the basement, perhaps, they had just been down there plotting and lifting weights, and had now come up ready to take back their country.
So maybe I’d be paying less tax…but I could expect to spend a lot more time and money contributing to efforts to protect reproductive rights, immigrant children, indigenous people, the environment.
Was this what I signed up for?
1. Citizenship Is Our Full Time Job.
Being a citizen is a full time job, whether or not the candidate you voted for wins.
Win or lose, every one of us is responsible to stay engaged, to hold the winners to account, to protect those who are at risk, prepare for the next round, and bring more people with you.
We don’t get a four year vacation if our candidates win. Our responsibility as citizens is to work hard, and spend time and resources to enlist understanding and support from the other side.
If your candidate loses, you don’t get to sulk or seek vengeance.
2. To Go Fast, Go Alone. To Go Far, Go Together.
Margins are thin. Half the people around you weren’t really happy about how things turned out four years ago. And the other half aren’t happy now. But we need to move ahead together.
One of the hardest, and most important, things I did over the past four years was to find the emotional currency and courage to seek out friends who I knew didn’t vote the way I did.
I had to find the communication skills it took to have actual conversations, where the objective was simply civil engagement despite a difference of opinion. That was hard for me to do, as I had spent my recreational time in university as a competitive debater. I grew up thinking that every conversation, from formal events to casual chats, all had winners and losers.
A lot of my friends, a lot of people I knew, simply couldn’t be bothered trying to understand or appreciate or engage with the Other Side, as America became increasingly polarized.
What I saw and heard, what I perceived, disturbed and shocked me. Four years of dog-whistle racism. Of national leadership that inspired and brought out into the light and encouraged the most vile elements of the ugly, ignorant, redneck, racist, violent, America that I thought had gone away because I simply decided not to see them.
I had many civil conversations. Smart people of all ages and skin colors and origins. Veterans, business owners. I managed to ask, “What were you thinking?” (and not “what were you THINKING!), and then listen to their answers without trying to persuade them of anything.
I do not understand QAnon any better. I still disagreed with my friends about some things, but my discovery was very similar to this:
Political polarization has shifted our range of emotional response. It used to span disappointment or resignation on one end, and patient activism on the other. I discovered that the left was just as capable of ugly beliefs and behavior as the right. I hadn’t noticed that before. Anyone who has spent the last four years sipping (or chugging) a toxic cocktail of fear and anger will find it difficult to access the part of our brain and emotions that is rational enough to let us connect with others who don’t think the way we do.
So, let’s start by changing what we’re drinking (and what we’re thinking). We need to commit to new conversations across differences we might only be imagining or presuming. Before someone will listen, they need to feel heard. Sit down and chat with me or someone else who thinks differently from you over a cup of something else. Even borrow a tradition from my country of birth, and join me for a nice cup of tea.
3. Re-Discover Civility and Generosity
In some ways, America just won big: whatever their motivation, people showed up to vote in record numbers. As a nation, we are more politically engaged. Voter turnout was 67%, the highest in 120 years. Millions more people registered and voted, period. Over 800,000 new voters were registered in Georgia alone (thank you, Stacey Abrams).
Did it have to cost us four years of rampant incivility, of “us versus them” politics, to get there?
Was it necessary for us to let the bar that represents the level of civility, credibility, integrity, the country demands of a president get buried so deep in the dust that we wonder why there’s a bump in the road?
I admit it’s a lot easier (and occasionally feels more satisfying) to cast things in simple, polar, terms and just hate people I disagree with than it is to invest the energy to actually try to understand them.
But the people I admire most are the ones who are relentlessly, persistently, willing to keep asking questions, keep listening, stay engaged, with people they disagreed with. Like Nelson Mandela. Or Daryl Davis, the Black man who befriended the KKK. As he explained in the documentary, “Accidental Courtesy,”
Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform~ Daryl Davis
Also anyone who’s willing to get into Good Trouble, Necessary Trouble. Thank you, John Lewis.
Winners do not get to put on golf cleats and tap dance on the heads of the losers. Winners have the duty to heal, to build common cause among people whose views are different from theirs, and to create a stronger and more diverse coalitions so that even those who lost feel they have a voice.
Now, our leaders need to build common cause among people whose views are different from theirs, to create a stronger and more diverse coalition so that even those whose candidates lost feel they have a voice.
Are there universal, inarguable truths? Are there injustices so deep that violence is the only way to be heard? I’m hoping not. I’m still learning about that.
4. Keep Having Tough Conversations.
Ever join a community or a club or an association and notice on the bottom of the membership application the question, “Which committee will you join?”
It takes time and patience to build a coalition, to broaden the base of support and understanding on an issue in order to get things done. That’s what committees are for.
If you’re having second thoughts about whether or not you’ll get involved, realize that those who are contrary-minded and passionate are already hard at work. Shaping the direction of a country is a long game. If there’s somewhere you’d like us all to be four years from now, the journey has already begun. Are you coming?
Here’s how I think it works: We are all in the American community. Lots of us are already actively engaged in the issues we’re passionate about. We need to keep conversations going. Every voice matters, and not just on election day. You can never know when the conversation you have, that difficult conversation you’re not really sure whether it mattered, shifted how someone thought. and what they said. And what they did.
You matter. We all do.
It’s a new day. Let’s re-commit to each other.