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?

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