Thursday, May 26, 2011


I've been thinking lately about crossroads. A crossroad is, generally, the place where two roads or paths come together.  It is at the crossroads that we made choices - go left, right, ahead, back?  Change direction or continue along the same way?  Stop for a while at the side of the road, have lunch and a cup of tea, and ponder where each path will go?  Wander off into the grassy spaces between the roads, blazing our own trail?

America is at another crossroads.  There have been many over the past 200+ years.  Join a global organization?  Enter a world war?  Treat all of our citizens equally, no matter their gender or skin color, or disenfranchise and enslave them?  Welcome immigrants and give them a path to citizenship, or put up fences and throw them in jail?  Who is entitled to the American Dream, anyways?

Who are we, as a country, as a society, as a people?  Are we all rugged individualists, each accountable only to him/herself, responsible for no one else?  Are we a diverse collection of tribes, banding together to form one country but retaining tribal loyalties?  Are we citizens of a larger global community, with responsibility to that community?  All of these?  None?

How do we care for our neighbors in need?  Does "personal responsibility" mean letting the children of irresponsible parents suffer?  Does "the common good" mean intervening unnecessarily?  Where would you rather error - take the risk of intruding in the wrong place, or letting defenseless people fall through the cracks?  Does personal freedom always trump collective responsibility?

How to we allocate shared resources?  Do we allow the tragedy of the commons to prevail?  Or do we recognize that shared space requires shared commitment?

How do we decide who represents us?  Is the politician that I favor answerable to only me and my opinions, or is he/she answerable to all constituents?  Would I be just as angry at a "bad" decision if it is made by a politician I favor as at one I do not?

These are questions each person must answer for themselves.  But how each person answers will in aggregate answer the question of who we are as Americans.

I always marvel that every two years we have a change in leadership without (much) rioting in the streets; there are not many countries in the world that can say that.  I think it's a tribute to the grand American experiment.  We bicker, we complain, we shout, we throw tea bags, and once in a while we shoot each other, but generally we restrict our weapons to words.  

But recently the rhetoric has taken a particularly nasty edge.  I know that historically there have been acrimonious elections, particular presidential, but no one (to my knowledge) has questioned the legitimacy of a sitting president.  We now have a politician - openly, in a town forum, knowing he was being recorded - calling not-wealthy people "moochers" and telling a retiree that she would be "happier living in another country" if she expects to receive the Medicare that she's entitled to (and paid for)... wow.  Is this politician really representing his constituents... or his corporate overlords?  (but that's a post for another day)

Until about 20 years ago, I thought politics was a fascinating spectator sport.  No longer - it's too important for me to just watch from the sidelines.  But how to change the debate?  How can I, individually, bring civility back to the public discourse?  How can I express my disapproval of those who try to divide us into haves/have-nots, rich/poor, white/other?

With my words, emailed, phoned, or in person to the offender in question.

With my actions, supporting candidates I believe in, finding the flaws of the positions of those I do not, and questioning all of them.

And with my vote.  Bottom line, this is the only expression that matters.

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