American history teaches us that political discourse has always been very volatile: from the earliest Jefferson-Hamilton rivalry to the question of slavery to the Vietnam War to our current financial meltdown. War times and tough economic times will always flush out sharply divergent opinions and philosophies, as well as everything in between. We are going through both right now. This "war on terrorism" and its various battlefields is one of the most confusing conflicts in our history. Each action and its intended (or unintended!) consequences have created a bevy of hot button issues--debt, torture, America's role in foreign affairs, rights of detainees, responsibilities toward veterans, energy and where it is purchased, troop withdrawal, what it means to "win," etc. No doubt you have your own opinions about many or all of these things.
When all of these truly difficult problems are thrown together with our sliding economy after a culmination of years of bad choices both by governments and individuals, well . . .
It is no wonder that people disagree. Even violently disagree. Yet, even with this understanding, and a legitimate desire to things from other perspectives, something happened several weeks ago that shocked me. I was talking with an older woman for whom I have enormous respect. She grew up during the Depression and is part of that "greatest generation" about whom we hear so much. She lived during the second great war and the upheaval of Communism and the Cold War. Her children came of age during the cultural revolution of the sixties and seventies. She saw the way the money made in the 80's and 90's spoiled her grandchildren, but also gave them opportunities she had never even dreamed possible at their age. Her life experience--politically, socially, historically and culturally is rich and full.
During a visit with her, the conversation drifted to politics (not my idea, believe it or not) and she became very angry when speaking about the current course of our government and commended with great fervor one of her children for being involved in a local "tea party." Her vitriol was aimed mostly at our current commander-in-chief, but also at Democrats in general. Though I don't remember hardly any specifics from her rant (was she specific?), she did say, "All this stuff going on lately, and all that they are talking about doing! It is no better than living in Nazi Germany!"
Um . . . .
Again, I have too much love and respect for this person to have even dreamed of contradicting her. But her words greatly disturbed me. Maybe in part because it isn't the first time, or from that single source, that I've heard such language.
I didn't post about this earlier because I didn't want this to turn into an I LOVE DEMOCRATS campaign platform, nor did I want it to be perceived as such. In fact, I think it is safe to say that I don't really like political parties at all. I like good ideas. I'm also the first to admit that what I see as a good idea might not at all match what you think is a good idea. Sometimes only time and perspective can judge whether an idea is good or bad; I think this is especially true in politics where new ideas might change things dramatically, but slowly. I guess I'm more of a wait and see person when it comes to government involvement in most things.
So why am I bringing this up at all, if it happened weeks ago and it was something I didn't intend to post about? I'm reading a book called Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is memoir written by a woman who left Iranian academia (she'd been a lit professor) when the Ayatollah's government just made it too oppressive to teach any longer. On the sly, she started a book group that met weekly over the course of a couple of years. They read only banned books. (And before you start thinking, well, what is the good of reading banned books???!!!??? Please note that one of the titles the group read was Pride and Prejudice. It is safe to say that the Iranian censors have a very strict standard of "acceptable.")
Reading Lolita is a good book, though a bit intellectual for my taste. These women read deeply and can create a whole morning's discussion out of a single obscure passage. I've been a lot more interested in the bits where the author describes the women's lives and how this little act of rebellion--this studying of literature--helped them cope with all they are dealing with. Glimpsing a world outside their own gave them to hope for a different future. Studying the diverse and strong women in the works helped them maintain their individuality. Instead of feeling like cogs in a machine to be acted on, the felt some measure of control over their own lives.
I read the following passage today and it prompted this post,
Gradually my life and family became part of the landscape . . . . one day my daughter, Negar, burst in crying . . . between tears [I] held her in my arms and tried to calm her. Gently I took off her navy scarf and robe; under the thick scarf her hair was damp with sweat. . . I asked her to tell us what had happened. That day in the middle of her last class, the principal and the morality teacher had barged in and told the girls to put their hands on their desks. The entire class had been escorted out of the classroom, without explanation, their school bags searched for weapons and contraband: tapes, novels, friendship bracelets. Their bodies were searched, their nails inspected. One student, a girl who had returned from the United States the previous year with her family, was taken to the principals' office; her nails were too long. There, the principal herself had cut the girl's nails, so close that she had drawn blood. Negar had seen her classmate after they were dismissed in the school yard, waiting to go home, nursing the guilty finger. The morality teacher stood beside her, discouraging other students from approaching. For Negar, the fact that she couldn't even go near and console her friend was as bad the the whole trauma of the search. She kept saying, "Mom, she just doesn't know about our rules and regulations; you know, she just came back from America--how do you think she feels when they force us to trample on the American flag and shout, Death to America? I hate myself, I hate myself, " she repeated as I rocked her back and forth and wiped the mixture of sweat and tears from her soft skin . . . . Everyone tried to distract Negar by joking and telling her stories of their own, how once Nassrin had been sent to the disciplinary committee to have her eyelashes checked. Her lashes were long, and she was suspected of using mascara. "That's nothing!" said Manna, "next to what happened to my sister's friends at the . . . .university. During lunch three of the girls were in the yard eating apples. They were reprimanded by the guards: they were biting their apples too seductively!"
I'm not sure what my older friend meant by our country starting to resemble Nazi Germany. Did she mean the government had begun to infiltrate too many aspects of our lives? (Interesting observation--not long ago she had a major surgery that would not have been possible without Medicare. Her ability to live alone would not be possible without her social security payments. The medicine she takes regularly for her various health issues would not be affordable without government subsidy.) Did she mean that taxes are too high? Though, truthfully, even if she paid taxes, they would be as low as at any time since the Depression. If she meant the cultural and political acceptability of homosexuality and other moral issues, then she can only be dead wrong: in Nazi Germany homosexuals were sent to concentration camps by the thousands, a purple triangle on their prison garb instead of a yellow star.
Next time you want to criticize the government, great! Criticize away. It is this dialogue that makes America great.
You hate high taxes? Wonderful! Write your Congressman without fear that your words will land you in prison.
You think a government-run health care plan is the equivalence of Communism? Fantastic! Say whatever you want about it on your blog without anxiety that website will be pulled and your name being put on a watch list.
Do you hate Obama? No worries! You can vilify him (even using racist language if you are so inclined) and as long as you don't make a direct threat, nobody can touch you.
But as you rant and rave, please consider two things, particularly if your criticism involves complaining about the government getting too involved in your life. First, the very fact that you can complain, criticize or even condemn any course of action pursued by the American government makes you a member of the most free society anywhere on earth. Not just at this time, but ever. And if you are a woman making these complaints, well, that makes you part of an even more elite group. Never have women, ever, in the history of the world, enjoyed the freedom that American women have now.
And secondly, say a silent prayer for our Iranian brothers and sisters who have shown this week that they too love liberty. There may not be enough of them yet to stand up and make a difference. It may be years yet before there is a critical mass who insists on their agency, even as imperfect as we all are, but the news this week out of Iran is heartening to freedom-loving people everywhere. America can never impose our democracy in the Middle East, but it doesn't mean that the people are incapable of choosing it for themselves. As we pass the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and watch the Iranian riots unfold in stolen cell-phone transmissions, let us each take a moment to remember that it isn't just our own brave men and women who have died in the cause of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Democracy and agency can never be forced on a people. It must be chosen.
As we each chose our own path and allow others to do the same, let us not forget just how good we really have it. Go America!