Monday, June 05, 2017

World Worry

I'm at a point in life where I've got plenty to worry about. I've had doctors screwing appliances into my back where discs should be. Like most seniors, I fret about whether we have sufficient income and savings to make our way to the grand exit without adversely affecting our family. I've got two marvelous grandchildren and I want them to live as full and meaningful lives as possible. I've been disfavored with an insidious disease (Parkinson's) that has its way with me without warning, slowing me to a snail's pace for a while and then sneaking away to visit another day. There's more, but I don't want to whine.

All of that is sufficient to make me feel that I've got enough on my plate. Surely someone else can worry about the world? Aren't there some people out there who are smart, responsible, and caring and who have the expertise to fix the big problems? If an asteroid is heading our way, somebody would shoot it out of the sky before it hits us, right? We are doing everything we can with our abundant resources to prevent famines, right? We'll keep atomic bombs out of the hands of dictators and deranged leaders, right? We understand the fragile nature of our world and will join with the international community to deal with climate change on behalf of the next generation and others to come, right? We realize that we live in a global society and cannot possibly exist as a country that proclaims a "me first" policy and ignores the larger world of which we are a part, right?

I'm right, right? Please tell me I don't have to worry about that stuff. I'm kind of busy with arthritis.

Alas, I'm beginning to feel that I'm not right, that our world is slowly coming apart and that it is time to worry about that world. I might even suggest a mild panic. 

The nexus of the problem is with the incendiary and divisive leadership of our president and his unprincipled administration. This piece isn't a critique of Trump. Pundits smarter than me have written about this incompetent and dangerous president, his litany of deeds and misdeeds, the twittering away of a privilege the American people have bestowed upon him to lead our nation and represent our values and interests on the world's stage. 

It has become an embarrassment of epic proportions. It's less than five months since inauguration and this country's stock in the world has dropped like a rock into the sea. A bully dressed up like a diplomat/negotiator has been to one meeting of European heads of state and managed to threaten the very existence of a coalition that has served the security interests of its members since 1949. Promised health care reform has become a sham, with the lives of millions in the balance. So-called tax reform has the wealthy lined up with wheelbarrows at the Federal Reserve or whatever agency dispenses welfare checks for the rich. (Photo ID's are recommended but not required; they know who you are.)

I could go on. I want to go on. But as I said, this isn't about him. It's about me and how this sudden sense of World Worry is burrowing into my soul and raising troublesome questions about the fate of our planet and the survival of the human race. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but I'm dead serious. And I don't think I'm the only one.

Back in August 2015, I posted on this blog a piece entitled "And the Walls Came Tumbling Up." This is how it began:

Early on the morning of November 10, 1989, I rousted my two sons, aged 11 and 15, out of their beds and parked their sleepy bodies in front of the television so they could see what had been happening overnight. The Berlin Wall was coming down.
This was obviously something that was significant to me. I mean, how often does one awaken sleeping children on an early morning to watch the news? I have referred to it in several places, but the impression that historic event made on me was not how wonderful it is that the Cold War is over and our enemy Russia is coming undone. Instead, I was set to pondering about how quickly these powerful adversaries had fallen. In the twinkling of an eye it happened, or so it seemed. If it could happen to them why couldn't it happen to us? 

I began to worry about our world.

I think of World Worry as a time when ordinary people going about everyday life begin to experience fear about the stability of their world, concern about their overall well-being, and a sense of helplessness to do anything about it. Some might call it angst, which one dictionary defines as "a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one, about the human condition or the state of the world in general."

That comes pretty close to what I've been feeling these days. But why?

It seems to me that there are a few things that lead to World Worry these days. Here's a beginning list:

  • Lack of confidence in leaders. Regardless of political or philosophical differences, there is a general belief that the world's leaders, and certainly our own, have our best interests at heart, seek the common good, and despite a few bad apples will generally do the right thing. When that bond of trust is broken the social contract we depend on can crack or even shatter. I worry about this.
  • Things seem out of control. Whether it's climate change that threatens to do damage to the earth or a terrorist culture that proclaims that no one anywhere is safe, there is a feeling that things are happening that we cannot control, leaving all of us to wonder who will be affected next. Perhaps it will be a tourist in New Orleans when the floods come, a third grader doing multiplication tables in the presumed safety of her school, or a modest investor unaware of the coming bank collapse or hedge fund fraud. Things happen, and the fact that we can't anticipate or stop them gives us abundant reasons to fret. I worry about this.
  • Random interpersonal conflict. We seem to be in a time when internal struggles are expressed as external anger. An ill-advised turn in front of someone on the highway results in a hail of bullets from the offended vehicle. A fired employee returns to his workplace with an AK47 and sprays ammunition everywhere, killing and maiming those who don't even know the termination occurred. Confrontation is commonplace, no longer limited to drunken bar fights, but in the grocery store, the library, even churches. These days anyone can be my enemy, even if I don't know who they are. A sense of community is broken down by suspicion and fear. I worry about this.
  • Economic disparity. The vast gulf between rich and poor, the middle class and the top one percent, is growing by leaps and bounds and threatens to worsen if proposed "tax reforms" make their way into law. While horrendous problems like ethnic cleansings, pandemic viruses, and widespread famine contribute to worldwide concerns, the income disparity probably has the most damaging impact in the United States. In other nations, this has led to violent protests in the streets and there is no reason to think we will escape the same result if we continue down this path. I worry about this.
  • Lack of respect for cultural diversity. America has always been the melting pot, embracing religious and ethnic differences and believing that cultural diversity strengthens our nation. But now there is movement at the highest levels of government to ban certain religious and cultural groups from entering the country, despite clear evidence that they pose little or no threat to national security. Acts of violence toward mosques and synagogues are increasing, fueled by ignorance and hatred. Calming words from respected leaders are muted and shouted down. Normal people are confused, wondering whether to succumb to their fears or support voices of reason. I worry about this.
  • Science gets replaced by politicians. This is a startling development. We have an issue such as climate change for which there is widespread and global agreement among scientists, but people are clamoring to hear what Trump thinks. He, of course, has not a clue and his opinion is totally irrelevant, but we wait breathlessly to see if he supports the almost 200 signatories of the Paris Agreement, including ours. He doesn't. Remember how Nero fiddled while Rome burned? Same thing, except that Trump twittered while the world burns. I worry about this.
  • When words become bullets. I have a high regard for the power and importance of words. Properly used, they can inspire and encourage and challenge. Improperly used, they can become a cudgel reaping hate and fear and confusion. Incredibly, we find ourselves at a time when 140 character tweets shape foreign policy or denounce political adversaries from the White House at three o'clock in the morning. Words lose their beauty and nuance and are transformed into fake facts and alternate truths. One yells by typing in all caps and emotes by clicking a smiley face. No one believes what is written anymore. I worry about this.
Nobody likes a worry wart. Chicken Little was convinced that the sky is falling. Jewish mothers are stereotypically depicted as sitting in the corner, steadily rocking away, fretting about the family. But on the other hand, worry is not an intrinsically bad thing. It is a side effect of caring. When a loved one is sick it is reasonable to worry. It's hard to imagine a parent who doesn't worry when they send their kids off for their first day of college. And it is impossible to read the newspaper without growing concern about violence in the streets and epidemics of drug and alcohol abuse everywhere. This is natural worry stitched into our everyday life.

World Worry is of a different order. It comes when those bigger, cosmic concerns become personal, indistinguishable from your kid's ear ache or figuring out how to afford a new car. It's when we internalize climate change, religious persecution, and leadership failures, making them seem like our problems. The difficulty is that we can do something about ear aches, much less about global warming. And that's where the angst sets in.

I watch several hours of news and analysis every day. It's probably more than is good for my mental health. World affairs are frequent points of discussions within my circles of friends and family. Some people think we should "get a life" if that's all we can talk about. They're wrong; I can talk about my pills and Medicare Plan B. So there!

But there is no question that I'm suffering from early stages of World Worry. Am I losing hope for our earth and its people? Have I lost trust in the folks I once counted on to give me hope and to infect me with a heart filled with joy and laughter? Is my soul too jaundiced to be surprised by the best instead of succumbing to the worst? Can I live today with an eye on tomorrow rather than incessantly glancing back at yesterday?

I don't know for sure about any of it but I'll tell you one thing. I worry about this.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Justice, the Unjust, and Just Us

Judge Neil Gorsuch has been nominated by President Trump
to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died almost a year ago on February 13, 2016, I was struck by the moving tributes that came from a wide array of people, including those who did not share in any way his judicial philosophy. The following day I posted on this blog a short piece entitled The Justice and the Unjust, which contrasted the rhetoric of the ongoing presidential debates with the behavior of the late justice. I posed the question of whether the presidential candidates who lauded his judicial legacy might have anything to learn from his style and temperament.

Since then, the vacancy on the Supreme Court occasioned by his death has been the target of internecine squabbling caused by the refusal of the Republican majority to allow a vote on President Obama's nominee, arguing that the seat should not be filled in the last year of the president's term and should await the outcome of the presidential election. Never mind that such an argument is preposterous and unconstitutional, it worked. A newly inaugurated President Trump has nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch, and a deeply divided Senate will take up the question of who will fill this position so crucial to the country's future. 

It seemed that it might be useful to revisit the previous essay and update the key ideas to the present circumstances. What follows is a major rewrite of the original piece, with a minor but perhaps significant adjustment to the title. I need to be clear and state unequivocally that I am no fan of Scalia's legal philosophy, and I believe that many of his decisions have been damaging to the country. Nonetheless, there are things he can teach us.

Justice Antonin Scalia was known for
his sense of humor

Unfortunately for the country, there was a Republican debate scheduled within hours of Scalia's passing. How grand it would have been if one message emanating from the death of a doctrinaire but widely respected Supreme Court justice--sometimes acerbic but often playful, willing to befriend those he opposed--would have been to see those values embraced in that debate. Within a matter of minutes, however, it was obvious that such was not to be. Instead, we got children playing in the sandbox and arguing over a pale of water and a plastic shovel.

I was struck by the glaring contrast between the whining, backbiting, inelegant, and completely shameful performances of those who would be president, and he whose death was being measured as much by the person he was as the views he held. 

But the more I reflected upon it, the more I thought that sometimes style can be just as important as substance, and may even be a pathway to achieving one's goals and fulfilling one's hopes. There is a long-standing American principle, and perhaps a larger human principle as well, suggesting that one does not have to make enemies of those who hold differing philosophical, religious, or political views. It appears that Justice Scalia was one who shared that perspective.

Justices Ginsburg and Scalia were judicial opposites
but were also the best of friends.

Justice Ruth Ginsburg, arguably the most liberal justice on the Supreme Court, was one of Scalia's closest friends. While he was the most intellectually rigorous conservative voice on the Court, he is also known for constantly seeking new insights, This can be illustrated by his role in transforming the importance of oral arguments.

Prior to Scalia coming on the Court, justices rarely asked more than a few questions and were mostly silent during Court hearings. Scalia changed all that, peppering the lawyers appearing before him with many questions in an effort to explore the legal boundaries and learn something. And most importantly, the warmth of his personality, his sense of humor, and his love of life injected a human element into his decisions and his relationships. Reading and watching television tributes about him changed my view of the man, although not my view of his jurisprudence.

The 2016 presidential election demonstrated how far we have moved away from the standards of public discourse we once knew and embodied. Now it seems that arguments are often demeaning, replete with name-calling, and accusations that opponents are liars. But rarely are these tactics constructive or informative. These politicians seem unable to prevent themselves from uttering outbursts that are immediately destined to become soundbites for hundreds, if not thousands, of replays on the 24/7 media. To the casual observer and to the international community, this is what our country is all about. Perhaps they are right. Soon we will see.

In the next few weeks, we will have a chance to test our mettle. If confirmed, Judge Gorsuch will be in a position to influence American jurisprudence, and many aspects of our lives, for over 30 years. There will be a need to explore his views at great length to determine his perspectives and qualifications. That would be true of any nominee. But there are other issues afoot that threaten to set us off on a destructive path for generations.

There will be political retribution for the intransigence of the Republicans in refusing to even call a hearing on Obama's nominee to replace Scalia. Judge Merrick Garland is a highly regarded and generally moderate judge. For no reason of his own, he was left to hang in limbo as a vacancy went unfilled for what has been a year and will undoubtedly extend for several months. Like it or not, the Democrats will exact their mess of pottage in return for this perceived sleight. It is both understandable and regrettable.

Likewise, delicate Senate procedures that have been in place for decades are at risk, driven in part by a president that seems to give not a whit about history, tradition, mutual respect or implied agreements. It is often unspoken understandings that make things work, and it is their dismissal that destroys coalitions that have served us well for a long time.

It is not a time for just us, looking out for our own interests and caring only for own victories. 

Nor is is it a time for every perceived injustice of our personal lives to be laundered in the public forum, however consequential those may have been.

Instead, we must find the inner strength to demand of others as well as ourselves that it is only justice for all that should guide our deliberations.

Whatever side we may be on, this is a time for carefully chosen words, respect for institutions and colleagues, understanding of what is really at stake, and a willingness to seek the common good.

And when the debate is over and the decision is made, perhaps our lawmakers can take counsel from Justice Scalia and slap each other on the back, tell a good story, and have dinner together.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A World Spinning on Black Ice

Most of us who have lived in the northern hemisphere have experienced the phenomenon of black ice. Its name is perhaps a bit of a misnomer because the ice is not really black, but a thin, clear sheet of glaze over a black pavement, making the road look normal when in fact it is treacherously slick. When motorists hit it unaware their car can unexpectedly spin out of control, often with tragic results.

Spinning on ice is a terrible feeling. You have all of the normal controls used to navigate the vehicle but none of them work in the usual fashion. Turning left often causes the car to go right. Pressing the brake hard doesn't stop or even slow you down; it only accelerates the spin. Normal reactions are usually the opposite of what you should do.

In these moments you realize that you are out of control and there is nothing you can do to stop it. You are going to spin until something intervenes--a guard rail, a shoulder of grass or dirt, another vehicle equally adrift. And it all happens in a manner of seconds.

I have been feeling just like that since January 20, only nine days into a new administration in Washington, D.C. I say this in a deeply heartfelt way and not as someone whining because my candidate didn't win. I have made no secret of my distaste for Donald Trump and for the entire 2016 presidential election, whatever party or person one may prefer. I posted an essay about seeing the election through the eyes of a Canadian immigrant and another trying to find some sense of equilibrium as I sorted through the voting outcome. Many of my friends checked out of watching the news, blocking out their despair over the new world order that seemed to be on its way. I didn't go that far, but my pain was palpable and made manifest in many ways.

I didn't even have time to articulate my desire to "give the guy a chance" before the executive orders and cabinet appointments made that impossible. I won't try to expand upon all the things that immediately became troubling, but the list is long. 

But it's not the list so much as the underlying issues that need to be sorted out. The real problem is the need to disentangle policies from their foundations. Where does immigration policy separate from racist and religious foundations? Where does economic policy separate from class and ethnic foundations? Where does foreign affairs policy separate from corporate profit foundations?  Where does domestic policy separate from human rights and special interest foundations?

And then there is the man who is our president. How does his immense wealth, and the relationships that attend it, shape the decisions that are made on behalf of the American people? To what degree does his personal behavior subject him to potential blackmail or other similar threats? What can we make of his enormous ego needs that push the country into having to deal with competing head counts at marches and other gatherings, or with bogus claims of election fraud?

How can we understand the ridiculous flirtation with the Russian thug who has amassed a vast fortune through theft, bullying, and even murder, all the while using his influences to affect the electoral outcome in the United States? What are we expected to do with policy pronouncements that come in the middle of the night by tweet, or with outraged reactions to SNL skits or movie star critiques? How can we live in a fragile world with a world leader who cannot measure his words or subdue his petty anger?

As I write this, airports are congested in response to an executive order banning a variety of nationals and persons of certain faiths from entering the country, despite being in possession of valid visas and passports. A silly argument about paying for a silly wall is occupying attention around the world. Europe is in an uproar over the future of NATO and questions about trade and treaty abound.

Yes, there have been protests on an impressive scale and around the world. But that is not necessarily a good thing, in comparison to what ought to be. Our president has triggered these marches, but it is our country that ultimately takes the hit. This is too much, too fast, too far.

All this in just nine days.

Which brings me back to black ice.

We have entered the road at full speed. There is no attention given to speaking with clarity and purpose, having taken the time to iron out the language and make certain that key players understand. There is little respect for the leaders of other nations and even less for other cultures. There is no room for subtlety. Where a small Phillips screwdriver is needed a jackhammer is preferred. We are led by someone on a huge learning curve who thinks he is always the smartest person in the room. There are too many earth-shattering, globe-changing issues on the table.

We've got to slow down. We must.

Nah! We're pushing the pedal all the way to the floor.

And why shouldn't we?

After all, there's just that long beautiful stretch of black road ahead.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Healing Voices in the Night

Tuesday night, for the first time since I was a teenager, I went to bed before a presidential race was called and without hearing the expected speeches of concession and victory. By the time I slid beneath the covers, the outcome was all but certain, awaiting only the final stamp of approval from the pollsters, most of whom were already hard at work framing excuses for their monumental failure to accurately project the grizzled anger of the country.

A political junkie for most of my life, I have spent untold hours reading about issues and listening to the candidates and pundits examine them. I have loved the inside stories, the inner workings, the gossip and the strategy of campaigns. Canadian by birth, I saw myself as an outsider looking in (as I chronicled in a recent post), until I became a naturalized citizen in 1965.

I first voted in a presidential election in 1968 and this year marks my thirteenth presidential vote; I cast winning ballots six times and losing ballots seven times. In only one case did I ultimately regret my choice and in no case did I believe that the candidate I opposed would either destroy Western civilization or promote the killing of puppies. Peaceful transitions were made; we licked our wounds and waited for the next cycle.

I approached this election much the same way but quickly began to see that we were in for a slog--an election cycle that began to imitate life itself, interminable debates between insufferable candidates, a 24/7 media frenzy that sopped up anything that would fill airtime, and a new low in civility that should alarm anyone concerned with the political process.

We ended up with two deeply flawed candidates. One was fighting a historically symbolic battle with a sterling resume but with accusations of corruption that cost her the trust of the electorate. The other was the consummate outsider, flaunting traditional values, brutal in his characterization of others, paying his own way from his vast personal resources, and promising change with nothing to offer by way of policy or program except "trust me."

For me, the choice was clear. My abhorrence of one candidate's appeal to the dark underbelly of our country--racism, bigotry, misogyny, and many others--was more than sufficient to nullify my disappointment in the other's mishandling of emails and a questionable interplay between fund-raising and political access.

An ignorance of critical foreign policy issues and a cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons left me deeply concerned about global stability. I had never experienced an election that featured a candidate so frightening to me and so dangerous for the world. I took solace in believing in my heart and thinking in my head that he could never be elected.

I wrote the previous two paragraphs not to stir emotions or rekindle the political firestorm, but only to explain the depth of feelings that prompt these reflections. I do understand that people of goodwill were deeply committed to the other candidate. I wish it was possible for both sides to engage in a dialogue that might not change minds but would at least help us to understand each other. That seems a bit elusive at the moment, but perhaps it will come another day.

Feeling as I did, one can perhaps imagine how the story that began to crawl across my television screen became a horrifying truth. The impossible was happening, the unelectable was being elected, the so-called carnival barker was to become the leader of the free world.

There was a lot to listen to and learn, but my body was rebelling. I couldn't deflect the fist that kept pounding me in the gut every time the networks announced they had a new projection. And my Parkinson's Disease, which usually behaves when I take my pills, announced it was going to have its way with me this night. It doesn't play well with stress, and it had apparently discerned that I was experiencing a fair measure of that. So here came the tremors and dyskinesia and other annoyances. I wasn't about to let the specter of this frightening moment in history invade my nervous system. I went to bed and slept soundly.

When I awoke, I first reached over to my iPhone to make sure it wasn't just a bad dream. Alas, no. Then I realized I had been processing ideas during the night because new thoughts were swirling within me. The most prevalent one was personal defiance. It went something like this:

"You know what? I'm 69 years old and I don't have to take this. If this is the kind of country you people want, go for it. I've got hundreds of books in my library that I would love to read, while sipping good coffee. I can watch basebalI, which imitates life better than almost anything. I don't know much about music, but I enjoy the haunting beat and unruly experimentation of great jazz. With a few clicks of a key, I can bring the world's finest movies into my living room. I can turn off the news, quit watching Rachel and skip the New York Times daily update. Let the victors reap the spoils and be damned."

As of this moment, that is still sounding like a pretty good plan, But this incessant voice keeps muttering from deep down inside me. It first came in the night and stirred me awake with inelegant phrasings and incomplete sentences. Stuff like this:

-- "pretty cute granddaughters you've got there, Grant"

-- "be gracious, give him a chance to succeed"

-- "coward"

-- "in Missouri, if you don't like today's weather just wait until tomorrow"

-- "all persons are of inestimable worth in the sight of God"

-- "first the Royals, then the Cubs...see, hope can never die"

-- "that peace and justice thing you've talked about all these years--do you really buy into that?"

-- "about those blog posts you put up over the last ten years -- did you believe that stuff?"

-- "you're not so old -- sounds like an excuse"

-- "dream big dreams"

-- "pretty smart granddaughters you've got there, Grant"

I turn in my bed and stare at the ceiling. I am angry and hurt and frightened. Then I hear those soft voices again, over and over, still quiet, but unrelenting.

The sun sneaks through the slats in the blind and begins to draw lines of light across the ceiling. I get up and go get my pills.

It is the dawn of a new day.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Canadian Immigrant Ponders the U.S. Election

In the summer of 1959 my mother, sister, grandmother, and I packed all our worldly possessions into a North American Van Lines truck and sent it on its way to Independence, Missouri, USA, where we were moving from our home in a small town near Toronto, Canada.

It took the moving van a month to make it to Missouri, but for our family it was the journey of a lifetime. As we crossed the Windsor/Detroit border, I can still remember pressing my nose against the rear window of the car, watching with complicated feelings as my Canadian homeland disappeared in the distance. We also left behind my father, who had deserted our family because he was unable to control his addiction to alcohol. Gone also was a host of friends and family. I was twelve years old.

It's a lonely job patrolling the
US/Canada border. No walls are planned.
I was an alien, and I had a green card to prove it. I was in a strange land where my classmates thought Canadians lived in igloos, hockey was played on a horse, and a Chesterfield was a cigarette instead of a divan.

But before long I was assimilated. It was easier for our family than some immigrants. This was a time before Canada became a bilingual nation, and it could be reasonably argued that Canadians speak the same language as Americans. Mostly, eh?

Over the years as I adapted to a new country, I learned some things. One might call them takeaways.

I found it a bit disconcerting to discover that few Americans knew anything about Canadian history or culture, whereas I had been schooled about our neighbors to the south. Many Americans couldn't find Canada on a map, and were surprised to discover that it was considerably larger than the U.S., although admittedly a lot of that land is frozen tundra. A takeaway: American exceptionalism sets a nice framework for patriotic speeches, but it might be helpful if we understood more about the rest of the world, especially if one aspires to lead the nation.

Even at that tender age in Canada, I remember being interested in politics. I figured all I had to do was exchange names like Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker for those of Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. It turned out to be a bit more complicated than that. There are various forms of democracies--a parliamentary system is different than a republic. A takeaway: There are different ways of governing, and we can learn from many of them,

In an eighth-grade social studies class, I recall having to debate another student about a proposal in the 1960 election having to do with farm subsidies. I knew little about the issues of that election, let alone anything to do with farming. But debate it I did. A takeaway: It was perhaps my first inkling that maybe some aspirants to public office don't know what they're talking about.

In those days there was a pretty clear pathway to citizenship. I had to live in the country for five years, take a test to prove that I understood the basic principles of the Constitution, and repeat an oath denouncing any allegiance I might have to my country of origin and swearing my absolute fealty to the United States of America. In 1965 I went with my mother and sister to a courtroom in Kansas City and there we participated with 20 or 30 others in a ceremony that would make us citizens of this land. The judge picked me out of the group to lead the pledge of allegiance. I gulped and hesitatingly started it with "I pledge allegiance to...", hoping that others would cover for me if I couldn't remember the words all the way to the end. They did, and I was an alien no more. A takeaway: Maybe native born Americans should take a test to prove they understand the Constitution too.

The 1968 DNC Convention took place as much in the streets
as in the hall. Politics were changed as a result.
My interest in politics piddled along throughout high school and college until it came to full bloom in the contentious election of 1968, my senior year in college and the first time I was eligible to vote in a presidential election. Despite attending a small, midwestern, church-sponsored college, I  had relatively liberal views, opposing the War in Vietnam, supporting equality for all regardless of race or gender. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, I favored the long-haired, anti-War demonstrators in the streets over the establishment candidates in the hall trying to thwart the followers of Eugene McCarthy and the inheritors of Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated just a matter of weeks before.

In November that year, partly in a fit of pique over the Democratic Party's handling of the anti-War movement, and partly in a blush of naïveté that convinced me I could trust Richard Nixon when he said he had a secret plan to end the war, I cast my first presidential vote for Nixon. I have been in a state of perpetual penance ever since. But I did get an important takeaway: Don't trust politicians, or at least be wary; trust the process, but keep your eyes open.

Four years later I embraced the quixotic campaign of peace activist George McGovern, only to find it dashed to pieces on the rocks of political reality, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. I was devastated. The takeaway: Follow your dreams, but protect your heart.

In the years that followed, I learned how to be an American. It was kind of like being a Canadian with some nuances of difference. Canadians often sing an appeal that God would save their Queen, whereas Americans sang the hope that their flag would continue to wave.

The U.S. military is a far more powerful presence in the world than Canada's, and is often called upon to protect allied nations from hostile invasions. Canadian forces were less likely to do so, although my father had served in the Canadian army during World War II. However, Canada played a formidable role in the creation of NATO, arguably the most significant treaty of the 20th Century; it is still providing a security safety net for widely disparate nations of the Western world. The takeaway: Embrace our differences, respect those who look, speak, and pray in diverse ways, for we have much to learn from one another.

In the past 40 years the American political landscape has experienced a staggering litany of notable, sometimes earthshaking, events such as these, to name only a few:

  • Nixon's resignation amidst a scandal defined by corruption and cover-up
  • An American election handcuffed by hostages in Iran
  • The rise of an aging but charismatic movie star to become one of the most beloved American presidents
  • A young and effective politician overcoming an impeachment scandal arising from his personal life
  • A pivotal election turning on "hanging chads" from a recount of Florida ballots, ultimately decided by a deeply divided Supreme Court
  • Terrorists killing thousands on 9/11 and defining a presidency, first by widely supported retaliation and then by profound questions about flawed intelligence that led to an unpopular war in Iraq
  • The hope-filled election of the first African American president, unexpectedly stirring racial and cultural wars and Congressional gridlock
  • A 2016 presidential primary that featured the nomination of potentially the first woman to serve as president, a populist revolt from the left, and a 17 candidate GOP field from the right that resulted in the nomination of the most divisive candidate in over a century
The takeaway: The incredible vitality and pluralism of American society is its blessing and its curse, giving rise to our highest aspirations even while stirring the basest forces of hate and ignorance.

All of that and more is on my mind as this Canadian-born, U.S. naturalized, citizen reflects on the American election of 2016. I have voted for 12 presidents, six times with the winning side and six times with the losing side. Some of those elections brought me deep feelings of despair and others literally brought tears of joy to my eyes. I have no doubt that one of those emotions--despair or joy--will burrow into my soul when the ballots are counted and the network projections fill my television screen on November 8, 2016.

I think the takeaways from my modest immigrant journey will continue to inform me, even in this campaign the pundits declare is like no other. There are principles suggested by those takeaways that use words like respect, diversity, humility, constitution, strength, aspiration, vitality, global, process, governance, and trust. They are the words that this Canadian immigrant seized on as he grew from a twelve-year-old boy to a 69-year-old senior, still making his way as an American from Canada. Here are a few musings unpacked from the story of this election, filtered through my life as an immigrant, and contrasted with the American narrative.

When I heard the word "immigrant" I never thought of it as applying to me, until now. Something has happened in this election cycle that has recast a word previously attached to the Statue of Liberty and the admirable notion of "melting pot," and has turned it into something vile and threatening. We have lost sight of the fact that "country of origin" is an accident of birth, not an earned privilege. That is the reason why America has been so generous in welcoming those who have come in search of a better life. I am not suffering any indignities for having migrated here as a young lad, but I am more conscious these days of not being a natural born citizen, as if that somehow makes me a lesser being. Silly, I know. But still.

Trust is the primary currency we can use to make the American political system work; both parties have squandered much of their collateral in this election.
 I don't appreciate Secretary Clinton parsing her words around accusations of improper use of an email server. Neither do I accept the Democratic National Committee rigging the system to minimize Bernie Sanders' chances of winning the nomination. These missteps are matched by Trump's fury of lies over his business practices and ethical shortcomings. It has left us with two of the most unpopular candidates in history heading the two national tickets. This disillusionment means that many votes will be squandered rather than treasured, an ominous failing that risks the very stability of the country.

The glass ceiling is already shattered; we're just cleaning up the shards. I don't mean to minimize Hillary Clinton's historic campaign to become the first female president. I also want that barrier down so that my granddaughters won't ever have to think about it. But the truth is that the United States is a bit late to the game. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of the UK during the Reagan era. A recent study conducted by the World Economic Forum shows that 63 of 142 nations surveyed have had a female head of state--not great, but notable. When I listen to Hillary Clinton I don't even think about her becoming the first woman to serve as president; I think about what she is saying. That's a good thing. Let's quit crowing so much and just get it done.

The Constitution is neither a list of suggestions nor a cultural straitjacket, but a living document ingeniously written to define foundational principles in a changing world. Sometimes it feels like immigrants understand that idea more clearly than many native born Americans who don't ever have to take an oath to uphold the Constitution. The most memorable moment of either convention was when Khizr Khan, the Muslim father of an American soldier who died in Iraq, reached into his pocket and pulled out his own copy of the Constitution, offering it to Donald Trump. The cavalier attitude of Trump toward the equal protection clause and the religious freedom clause is chilling. It's been over 50 years, but I'm pretty sure I had to understand both of those principles when I took the quiz before I lifted my hand to recite the oath of allegiance.

Political correctness is not the opposite of civility, nor does its rejection mean that one can say anything about anyone with impunity. The idea of political correctness came into the vernacular when advocates of social change began to demand a precision of language around those changes. Words are important, but sometimes it got silly. Now it has swung too far the other direction and common courtesies and normal respect are being labeled as political correctness. It is not a question of freedom of speech; the right to do something does not require one to do it. This is particularly true of those who would lead us, and whose words become a model for discourse in our society. Shame on those who mock and deride others and use rejection of political correctness as their cover.

Declaring we're the greatest nation in the world requires that we understand and respect the world with which we compare ourselves. As I mentioned previously, I was troubled by how little Americans knew about their neighbor to the north, in contrast to what I knew about my neighbor to the south. But there is a difference between childhood innocence and adult ignorance. This election is being characterized as featuring the "most qualified candidate to ever run for president" (perhaps some hyperbole there, but refers to Clinton) and "the least prepared candidate to be commander in chief" (refers to Trump, largely on his claim that his own brain is his primary consultant on foreign policy). Ignorance is becoming increasingly dangerous in a world where subtle differences between cultural or religious groups have life or death consequences. And here's the biggest danger of all: When citizens start letting demagogues do their thinking they relinquish the power of "We the people," the very cornerstone of American democracy.

An adopted child is often reminded that he or she was chosen to be a part of this family, unlike those who were born into it. As an adopted citizen, I have had to learn how to be an American while still valuing my Canadian heritage. I have taken this seriously, studying American history and culture, raising our two sons to respect their country and the blessings it provides.

This election leaves me swirling in discontent and apprehension, different from any previous balloting I have experienced, even those in which I was deeply invested. I think of it as not so much an election of ideas as an election of soul. I don't mean that in a specifically religious sense, but in a human sense. If we allow unprincipled politicians to gain power through divisiveness, ignorance, and hate, our country will be diminished and our place in the world will decline in measurable ways.

It may seem strange coming from a Canadian immigrant, but it is really about patriotism--love of country, respect for each other, generosity of spirit, and a vision of hope.

America, wherever our birthplace, whatever our faith, let's do it together, eh?