Friday, August 22, 2014

On Citizenship

Dear Friends, Family, and Fellow Americans (countrymen has a better ring, but that's just so.... archaic):

It's been a while since we've updated this blog, and there are a number of reasons for that.

First, the whiny reasons: We now work in an office, and we don't do as much "cultural" or "interesting" stuff as we used to. We are more used to some of the things that used to make for amusing and dramatic tales of life abroad (like ants), and so we don't think to write about them anymore. Now, since those whiny reasons are out of the way, here are some of the deeper reasons that I, for one, haven't written.

1) There was a coup. And I wasn't sure how I felt about that, or how to write about it, in a public forum, on the internet, while living (as we still do) in a military controlled state.
2) My work this year is specifically focused anti-corruption and integrity education, and that has ripples into democracy education, citizenship rights promotion, and various other things that are harder to understand in a cross-cultural context, harder to write about and make exciting than the ups and downs of life in a rural village, and well, see 1, above.
3) For a while, the world has been somewhat ugly, and to be honest, that gets me down and makes it hard to write about any of the ups, or downs, or funnies that I experience in my life abroad.

I promise that I have a lot of pictures and a lot of fun things that I want to write about and share with you. But right now, I have to say, America's pretty ugly, too. And I have just a few things to say to Americans, a few reminders, if you will. (Reminders I hope to keep in mind, myself, for the rest of my life.)

On citizenship: Americans, we live in a wonderful, incredible country, founded on lofty ideals of equality and citizen participation. And it is the participate of our diverse citizenry that makes our country great, and makes our country strong.

I don't want to go on a long diatribe about anything right now. I just want to say - Americans, you are citizens of a great country. But it cannot be a great country if you do not participate in making it great. Protests. Letters to your local and state representatives. Showing up to vote in local, state, and federal elections. Going to your neighborhood meetings. And protecting your rights to assembly, free speech, due process, and the right to live in the kind of community that is reasonable, respectful, and reflects the values that you hold dear. Participate, debate, respect.

Watching the escalation of protests in Ferguson has been unsettling and scary for me, and is the real reason I feel like I have to write something to America now. Not only do we have the issue of white police officers shooting an unarmed black men and a terribly inept official response - a narrative that has repeated itself far too many times in far too many places - but the show of military force by the police is terrifying. We should not be a country in which the conflict of ideas and the rightful demonstration of anger by citizens becomes a war between the state and those citizens. The show of force is itself a kind of violence wrought against those who would speak out against the state. The raising of guns against citizens, even those who are shouting in protest, is itself a violence. It is a threat, an attempt to suppress. In other countries, we condemn this kind of violence against citizens. We level sanctions and travel warnings when unrest like this occurs. We call for debate. We call for civil engagement. We call for democracy.

We cannot call for democracy elsewhere until we participate in it, until we demand that our government institutions protect our rights within our own democracy, and until we reject the militarization of the force that is supposed to protect us and serve us.

Dear Americans, please remember that you make America. But you don't make it great if you don't speak up and demand that America be the place that you want it to be. I don't want to be the citizen of a country that has tanks in the streets and allows snipers to train their rifles on citizens, no matter how angry those citizens are.

An updated note: A friend of mine posted something on Facebook, something that said, "Stop Blaming the Police." While the GIF that's been going around has a number of statistics that didn't impress me much, I was reminded to step back into my understanding of the situation and look deeper. Ah - the virtues of Facebook debate: Thank you, friend. Later, I heard an interview with Anna Deveare Smith, a playwright who took the tragedy of the Rodney King riots, and wrestled with them in a one-woman show. On Ferguson, she reminded us that "the cops are on the front line, and when these explosions happen, they become the main characters. But we are all involved in this. ... They are acting out the drama - the cop and the kid - for all of us while we sit back and watch." Indeed. We are all involved in this. So don't blame the police. Don't blame "the system." Don't blame the man. Activate your own involvement - and we can start making changes. Participate. Debate. Respect. Change.