July 4, 2010

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? Good Question, Rodney.

Originally posted June 28, 2010

I never had a chance to be a racist.

I grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood. My neighbors, classmates and fellow parishioners were black, white, Japanese, Mexican, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Armenian, representing every continent of the world (with the possible exception of Antarctica). I thought nothing of it at time, but remarkably this melting pot took shape without the benefit of school busing, Affirmative Action, mortgage-lending quotas, or any other type of artificial engineering. People lived and shopped and worshipped where they chose, and were quickly accepted. Like any other community we had our share of interracial scuffles in the schoolyard, but for the most part no one sniffed a budding race war; we attributed it to the normal struggles of youth.

In 1941, at Battle of Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy assumed that they would enjoy a quick decisive victory in their campaign of shock and awe. Why? Among other things, they believed that their own ethnically monolithic society was innately superior to the multiethnic forces of their American adversaries. Surely an integrated force could never come together to fight off a common enemy. As we now know, they were wrong. Dead wrong.

When the nation of Yugloslavia broke free from the yoke of its Soviet oppressors, the citizens danced in the street for about five minutes as a single jolly brotherhood. But then they quickly broke down into ethnic wars between the Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, and Macedonians. They couldn’t bear to run out of enemies; each group wanted to either rule or destroy the others. Today, fortunately, they’ve made peace. Well, sort of. The shooting has stopped, but the cultural and national animosities continue.

In a newly reinvented self-governing Afghanistan, they’ve faced an uphill battle to form a reliable national army. Largely, this is because young soldiers from the South refuse to fight and bleed and die to defend a distant province in the North, and vice-versa. Thousands have deserted, and those who remain are often very selective as to which orders they’ll obey.

After decades of brutal rule by Saddam Hussein, nominally a Sunni Muslim, the rival Shiites sensed a golden opportunity to seize power. The formerly oppressed, now wanted to become oppressors. But wait, what’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite? I looked it up. It’s neither an ethnic designation nor a political party. Upon the death of Mohammed, a dispute arose as to who should succeed him as prophet. The Sunni followed one leader, and the Shia another. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a huge difference in the beliefs or practices of the groups; the religion is the same. So the argument has nothing to do with any sacred principle, or the suppression of some evil heresy, but a simple matter of “who’s the man?” Sad.

Yet somehow, some people can never seem to heed the lessons of history – and in this case, it’s a history of only about 20 years.

In recent weeks, history has repeated itself once again in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgystan. Newly liberated from the iron hand of a foreign occupier, the formerly oppressed now want to become oppressors. Thousands of ethnic Uzbeks were driven from their homes and land, with hundreds killed for no particular reason. Many of these refugees are now gathered at the border of neighboring Uzbekistan, begging for asylum. Having ratified a new constitution just this week, the government now promises free parliamentary elections and – shortly afterward – an official reduction in the powers of the executive branch. But wait, can you really call it “democracy” when you’ve killed, deported, or intimidated the opposition? Can the election results be trusted when everyone knows that a large portion of the electorate was kept away from the polls?

Just in case you can’t tell what I’m getting at with these seemingly unrelated anecdotes, here it is: These things don’t happen around here. We disagree, we argue, we raise our fists and shout. We might even curse, slander, and block traffic at a busy urban intersection. But on out worst day we don’t seek to resolve our disputes with roadside bombs and shoulder-mounted missiles. And that’s one of the things that makes me proud to be an American.

In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, George Bush and Al Gore fought over a few thousand votes in Florida. The outcome would not be known for a few weeks. In a TV interview, former Secretary of State James Baker revealed that he had been contacted by a number of foreign leaders and diplomats eager to heap scorn on the American system. “You foolish Americans, preaching to the world about the virtues of democracy. And look at you now!”

Baker didn’t miss a beat. “Do you see any riots in the streets? Do you see Army generals plotting a coup? Has someone laid siege to the White House or the Supreme Court?” The answer, of course, was no. Once again, as always, we had a peaceful transition of power.

Peace, whether in a neighborhood or a nation, is a decision. It’s a voluntary act of our will. We need not follow the Hatfields and the Coys, or the Capulets and the Montagues, carrying the burdens of ancient rivalries where no one remembers what we were fighting about in the first place. Without a doubt, Bush vs. Gore wasn’t our finest hour. But on our worst day, it still looks pretty good.

I didn’t vote for the Anointed One, but he’s still my president. Hail to the Chief, all day long.

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