Saturday, February 4, 2012

American Pluralism - If You Don't Love It, Leave It

My husband is repeatedly exposed to country music at his work, which regretfully gets stuck in his head. Don't get me wrong, there is some good country music with good messages. There's even some country music I enjoy. But just like all music, there's some really bad stuff out there too.

Then of course, there's stuff that makes me want to punch people.

This side of country music represents a certain portion of the population that misses the "good ole days" when everyone was the "same" in America. Fightin' Side of Me and songs like it, represent the provincial white American protestant male. And these boys are scared. They're scared because suddenly there are a lot fewer of them and a lot more "others." While living in the Bay Area, the average person was about five or six indefinable ethnicities. The blond and blue-eyed were much more rare.

The problem with the US is it has never been a country where everyone was "the same." In fact, that is one of the best things about America. Difference defines us. It makes this country stronger because we fight with each other until we figure out a common ground. We have people of every race, culture, creed, and religion in this country. We have people of every political and socio-economic persuasion. It is increasingly impossible to look at a person and know who or what they are. We have to ask. And this characteristic is a pain in the ass, no question. But it makes us better because when we struggle through our differences, we become stronger. We know and love ourselves better, and we adhere to our convictions that much more.

Despite the positives, some would rather not have this high level of difference. This particular characteristic - pluralism - is annoying to those who long for a mythical past where everyone was white bread, drank lemonade, and had mothers who looked like Donna Reed (Sorry guys, but that only happened on television!). In a world where the white American male is already a dying breed, and identities become increasingly complex with lines constantly shifting and blurring, it makes sense this group would get angry.

But I've come to put a little perspective on this. Boys, calm down!

There are reasons why people come to the US. We are ultimately a nation of immigrants. Let me give you a few examples. When I studied abroad in Hungary in 2004, some of the students I met made anti-semitic comments. I distinctly recall my shock at the words coming out of these kids' mouths. Did they not remember the Nazi party of their own country? Could they not see the beautiful but empty synagogues testifying to the systematic destruction of European Jews? I couldn't believe this was still alive and well. It makes sense to me that certain groups would want to leave a place where they were still unwelcome after all these years. But anti-semitism isn't the only reason why someone might come to the states.

When I was visiting Nicaragua in 2002, I saw the deep lingering scars left by their civil war. The abject poverty of mountain villages was astounding; even a 10 cent bag of rice was out of reach. I can understand why those people would struggle to move to a place where they could be safe and have opportunities to make more money to provide for their families. Economy and security are just two more reasons why someone would become American. But America isn't just a land of opportunity - America is the land of equal opportunity.

While I was in India in 2007, it struck me as strange that it was impossible to get away from ethnic origins. Every single surname pinpointed the exact location of a person's family - from their region and dialect, to their caste. As much as someone wanted to be heard and valued, as much as someone wanted to work to better themselves, there was always a painful, and acknowledged, glass ceiling. It makes sense then, for these people to move to a place where they could, in theory, change their economic and social fate.

There are many reasons for people to come to the US. These are personal examples of times when I could see why someone would move here. However, these aren't the only situations. In other places it is still possible to be persecuted for what a person believes or thinks. It is still possible to be jailed for speaking out against the government. Luckily for us, that is something that distinctly goes against the American grain. We have freedom of speech. It's great! I love it! And I will defend that right for those with whom I adamantly disagree. The reason is I think it is important. It is one of the ways we become a better society.

It is patriotic to disagree. It is patriotic to stand up for what we believe in. It is patriotic to say we should work for peace, rather than killing people. It is patriotic to say that corporations should just be companies, and not considered people by law. It is patriotic to say rich people should give back that much more because of all they have taken from their fellow citizens. These are patriotic opinions that have a place in our American political conversation. Why? Because they all strive to make this country better. And they require all of us to address these issues. We really can't ignore these voices when we live in a democracy. It's immoral, and frankly it's un-American.

I'm  willing to put up with the consequences of living in a society of difference. I love it and value it. It's one of the things that truly makes me proud to be American.

And to those who don't have the balls to do the same, well, you can leave.

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