Citizenship and Conversation in a Disjointed Time


 

By Neal Lemery

(Podcast)

In this pandemic year, our craving for “normal” pushes back against the new rules of social interaction. What lies ahead of us grows even murkier.  Uncertainty is the new mantra of who we are as a society, and where we are going with our own out of sorts lives.  Simple acts of normalcy such as going to school, shopping for groceries, dinner with friends, and a weekend getaway take on all the traits of unpredictability.

 

Nothing seems routine anymore. The old patterns of life now can be simply “paused”, the calendar becoming a mess of cross outs, erasures, and question marks.

 

Sound medical advice, scientific wisdom and evidence-based practices run the risk of being politicized in loud, partisan fashion. Wearing a mask at the grocery store now can be a political statement. Nuances and logical development of analysis are discarded if favor of “right vs wrong” and “us vs them” viewpoints. We don’t seem to be able to even agree to disagree or admit we need more information.

 

Serious discussions about racism and discrimination, the role of police, and how we look at history are now mixed into the swirl of our pandemic responses and thinking.  Political rhetoric grows more heated and polarized.   “Them” and “us”, “right” and “wrong”, “liberal” and “conservative” are becoming the short slogans that can fit on a baseball cap.  Efforts to simplify and quickly label perspectives and opinions are pushing out the deep discussions on public policy and the rich stew of community discourse and public debate that are at the heart of a healthy democracy.

 

Instead, we are experiencing a “shoot from the hip” attitude, with no room for civilized conversation and thought.  Being persuasive and convincing in one’s opinions and views is replaced by an angrily shouted slogan and no room for disagreement, however polite or thoughtful.

 

We are all hopefully looking for a sense of civility, order and normalcy in our lives. I find myself weighed down by all the “pausing” of social life, and the angry, strident rhetoric of public opinion.  Sarcasm and rage, and downright nastiness and vitriol now seem to occupy center stage in public forums.  That approach to our collective life is toxic and exhausting.

 

I should remember that, perhaps, I might be wrong in my views, or that the situation is more complex and requires more information than I have been willing to admit.  Like any effective theologian, scientist, or teacher, I just might not have all the facts, and might not be considering other ways to look at an issue.  I might not have all the answers.  And, I might even be wrong.

 

Many turn to social media to air their own views or the rant of their favorite commentator of the day. In their role as a publisher and editor in the public forum, a significant number of Americans ignore their responsibility to be factual, to educate, and to add to thoughtful debate that will improve our society. Be a builder, not a destroyer.  If you are going to be a journalist of sorts on the public stage, then act like a professional.  It is a public trust.

 

 

 

We have “paused” the democratic ideal of thoughtfully listening to others.  We aren’t doing a good job weighing the viewpoints of others, and striving to achieve a collective, informed response and thoughtful viewpoints. Instead, the quick opinion, shot from the hip, seasoned with sarcasm and hostility, dominates. Public conversations have turned into shouting matches.  Snarky slogans and nasty put downs of others fill our screens and public interactions.  We often forget that “conversation” means a respectful interplay and heartfelt communication.

 

Our freedoms of speech and expression are precious and should be cherished.  And with freedom comes responsibility.

 

 

7/17/2020

We Are All Immigrants


We all came from somewhere else. Maybe not in this generation, but somewhere in the not too distant past, we came from somewhere else.

This week, my country celebrated its political beginnings, a time of rebellion and war, a time of rising up against an imperial, oppressive power, and going ahead on our own.

America was a different place in 1776, thirteen separate colonies. Slavery was an accepted economic reality, and times were hard. Only white men who owned property could vote, and earning a living meant hard physical labor and going without much of what we would think are necessities.

Back then, we welcomed immigrants: new blood, new energies, new ideas. We needed more farmers, more merchants, more people in the cultural melting pot we have come to know as America. And, the America today is a result of all of those waves of immigrants, and the optimism and challenges that brought our ancestors here for a new beginning.

On our nation’s birthday, just before my neighbors decided to shoot off their fireworks at dusk, a photo showed up on my phone. My friend had landed at an American airport, and he had just passed through immigration and customs.

The photo told the story: his face ablaze with the biggest smile. He held a paper stamped with the date, and the words “inspected”. It was official. He was now a documented resident of the USA, a big step to becoming a citizen.

Becoming a citizen in this country now is a challenging, difficult journey, far different than when my dad made the trip to the local courthouse, filled out a form, and quickly became “legalized”, a citizen.

My friend’s journey is longer, more convoluted. It involves a lot of expensive paperwork, and a flight to another country and back again. And, he’s only halfway done with the process, even though he came here when he was seven years old.

Now, years later, he’s a college student, and has a career, a marriage. He is finding his way, focused on a profession, giving back to his community, showing his younger siblings they, too, can live the American dream.

His story is my family’s story, too. This anniversary day of independence, of throwing off the oppression of an unjust government, the shackles of poverty and hopelessness, of coming to a new land and being able to work hard and make a new, better life for yourself and your family, is the American story.

It is my story, and now, it is my young friend’s story.

Some of my ancestors left the sweatshops of an English woolen mill, becoming farmers in their new land, working as farm laborers on an unforgiving Iowa farm in the Midwestern heat. They became citizens, raising a new generation of farmers, Americans.

They took the Oregon Trail, finding a new land, and their own farm, becoming homesteaders, new Oregonians. As a child, I heard my grandmother tell the stories of carving out a farm in the forest, a winter spent in a leaky shack with a canvas roof. The next summer, they built a cabin and a barn, herding their new cows for a week through the forest to their new farm.

After the barn and the cabin, they built a school, taking their hard earned money to hire a teacher and educate their kids. Those immigrants, those refugees from an English woolen mill, they built a new life in a new world.

My grandfather came here, too, yet another immigrant, fresh from a prisoner of war camp after the First World War. There was nothing for him where he had come from, except poverty and disease. Coming to American offered hope, opportunity, a new beginning. He, too, worked as a farm laborer, learning English after a long day, taking the steps to become a citizen.

On the other side of the family, there are other stories, of pulling up stakes and moving to a new land, the promise of education, the value of hard work and adjusting to challenges, the possibilities that came with America’s promise.

Looking back, I see that all my family were immigrants. Coming to America, making your life better, working hard, it was who we were, and who we are.

Looking around, I see that my town was built by the sweat and commitment of immigrants, newcomers who didn’t take opportunities for granted, but were willing to work and make this community their home.

American immigration isn’t just Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Not eighty miles away from here, over 100,000 immigrants came to Oregon through the Knappton Quarantine Station on the Columbia River, from the 1880s to the 1920s. We are literally a nation of immigrants, refugees seeking a better life.

They came seeking what my friend wants: opportunity, freedom, a chance to be part of a great freedom-loving nation.

We celebrate the Fourth of July, and in doing so, we also celebrate our history of welcoming others, to make this nation even stronger, even more a land of opportunity.

My family all wanted the same thing: opportunity. They wanted justice, and freedom from violence and a dead-end, oppressive life. They wanted a chance to prove themselves, and make a better life for their kids. They were willing to work hard, and make sacrifices.

They built farms and schools, created communities, and raised their kids. They worked hard, and helped make this country strong and healthy, a place where the rule of law and individual rights are common values.

My friend wants that, too. He sees a bright future for himself and for his family here. He’s working hard, and wants to do his part in making America an even healthier, stronger place, a place where freedom and justice for all is just not a political slogan, but a deeply held belief, and an aspiration for all of us.

–Neal Lemery, July 6, 2016