Yesterday morning, I entered a room filled with foreigners. By the time I left, there were 240 new American citizens, myself included.
My journey to this moment is one that, in retrospect, would pretty much a given. Since 1992, I’ve been involved on the outer periphery of presidential elections. In the mid-1990s, for a brief period, I was even lucky enough to be present when policies and legal precedents that continue to shape the Internet were established.
In the last presidential election, I took a week off from work to put my money where my mouth was, volunteering with the ACLU to help protect individual citizens’ right to free assembly and free speech during the New York Republican convention. I’ve had many memories from that week but what stuck most, in my mind, was the courageous group of three Republicans who, one night during that week, went down to Union Square, where most people were protesting against the GOP, and set up individual spot asking the protesters to debate them. The exchanges were both fiercely partisan and cordial and I am still amazed by the fact that people who sat on opposite extremes of the political spectrum could not only sit down and talk with each other but do so in a manner that may have helped all participants.
And yet the time passed and it took me another few years to even apply for American citizenship. But last year, I finally decided to make the leap. And the leap was made on one small but crucial and all to often taken for granted right: the right to vote.
I have not posted any partisan thoughts on this site when it comes to American politics. It was a conscious decision: back then I was a resident alien (yes, that’s the technical term) and I felt that to use this bully pulpit to discuss American politics would be in bad taste. As a non-citizen, I felt that I had little or no right to really voice my opinion as loudly because I considered it to be in bad taste.
But things started bugging me. It’s not that I was starting to dislike America but rather that I started to dislike how the administration was dismantling the idea of America that has been set down by the founding fathers. People who know me well know that I can be a bit obsessive about the US constitution and the bill of right. And what I felt, after a few more years of the Bush era, was that this administration was going against a substantial amount of what the founding fathers intended.
A worse crime than attacking the foundation of the American republic though, was in the way it was done, attempting through twisted logic, to paint that attack as in line with what the founding fathers intended. To besmirch their names in such a way was, I think one of the final straw.
The people who assembled in Philadelphia in 1776 and declared that enough was enough put their necks on the line for us with the declaration of independence. And the people who, 11 years later, came up with the US constitution did the improbable: they decided that, having defeated the mightiest army of the time, they would not accumulate and aggregate the power amongst themselves but rather, they would form a country where checks and balances would rule the day to ensure that the people had the strongest voice possible.
So the states would act as a check on federal powers; 3 branches of government would balance each other out to ensure that none became too strong; even those would be balanced as internal mechanisms would limit the authority of any single person within that branch.
George Washington, who had initially had a hard time prosecuting the war but eventually turned things around to win a country was given a chance at becoming the country’s new king. But not only did he turn down that opportunity, he did not seem to argue for a strong executive branch. Once in power, he not only avoided the trappings of royalty, but also set foreign policy precedents by declaring the US as a neutral nation in foreign conflicts, and eschewed any attempts at war, preferring peace.
Alexander Hamilton believed that the country’s burden ought to be shared by all. However, while heading the house of representative, he decided to sway votes to ensure that his political opponent (and a fierce advocate against that idea), Thomas Jefferson, could become president because he felt that doing otherwise would undermine the legitimacy of the country.
Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, decided to deride the practice of slavery in his initial draft of the declaration of independence and time and time again, pushed for laws that ended up dismantling some of his own interests.
The men intended on building a new country based on equality and justice for all, even if that meant that they would no longer be guaranteed worship but instead would be considered equals to all. And for this, I would say that they were not just mere men, they were supermen.
But somewhere, somehow, things started going horribly wrong in our times. And I suspect that the main issue has been one based on economics, with many people believing that the golden rule (“he who’s got the gold makes the rule”) should be the basis for our nation. That golden rule led to a belief that each American is an individual and, as such, has little or no responsibility to the rest of society. It elevated the individual to a place where kings would be OK, and thus, the belief of a strong president, stronger than congress or the courts, started to take hold.
And so, a new era of selfishness replaced the basis of selflessness that our founding fathers intended.
I could recount the ways in which those things can be illustrated by the actions of this administration. Whether it is a rush to war (and here, I do not talk about Afghanistan, a war that was based on facts and a real enemy but rather about Iraq, a war that was “sold” because it appealed to a certain group) or the belief that corporations can be above the law (for example, the telecom prosecution exemptions currently being discussed which, I’m sure, are leaving every criminal trying to figure out how they can present their trade in a way that will make them benefit from the same approach large telcos do), something went amiss.
But things going amiss are not the reason to become citizen of a country like the United States, a country that was founded on optimism, hope, and renewal.
And hope, renewal and optimism seems to be the flavor of our times. While we are still living in dark ages, there is a sense that a new breed of politics, a new breath of fresh air, may be allowed its place at the public table. In fact, I would even be so bold as to say that wild concepts like substance over style could have a chance to enter this election cycle.
Granted, Obama oozes style, with the type of delivery that not only presents new ideas but voices them in a way that people find it inspiring. Granted, McCain offers substantive policy but I am not wild about that sustance, as it provides a view of an America angry at the world, and fearful of others.
And that, ultimately, is what this precious voting right comes down to. By now, having lost half of the people who generally read my site (an assumption I’m making because I suspect that the previous few paragraphs will leave many of my Republican readers angry), I can say that a lot of my thinking about getting US citizenship revolved around the right to vote and the right to belong. The USA, only 7 years ago, was a country that, for the most part, welcomed non-Americans. But since 9/11, things have changed and there seems to be a growing resentment of foreigners, largely dictated through policy pronouncements that would make the founding fathers spin in their graves.
So I am now a new citizen and, on election day, I will most probably go out and vote FOR Barack Obama. Voting FOR someone is an opportunity I missed in the 2000 election cycle (I have to admit that, had I been a citizen in 2004, I would have been more intent to vote AGAINST George Bush than FOR John Kerry).
But of course, there is a lot of work to do between now and then, and there is more than one election to go. This country, my country, is in trouble and I, like many others, have worked to do. And I hope that one or more people, having read this, will consider reconnecting with their civic duty.
But do not take this for my telling you who to vote for. Whether you believe in John McCain or Barack Obama only matters to me inasmuch as I might have to work with or against you politically. However, what would really touch me more than anything is if you, reader in any country where leaders are chosen by election, could reconnect with your community and help improve it by restoring real political dialogue, just like those republicans, with whom I respectfully disagreed on a warm night in August 2004, who decided to talk to their non-republican counterparts. On that night, all those involved may have come from different political factions but they talked in the language of exchange of ideas that so many decades ago inspired the world and defined one country, my country, the United States of America.