Why I must be a better citizen

 

It happened. The thing we all laughed about, but no one took seriously. The thing that was too tinted by a surreal, orange haze to be considered a true threat. We elected a candidate whose rhetoric is openly misogynistic, racist and xenophobic, who is largely unfit to be president. What were we thinking? This isn’t the America we all know and love.

Except it is.

The current rhetoric is not new. It is not special to this election and it negatively affects millions of neighbors around the world in their day-to-day lives. We are all joking about moving to Canada to sing kumbaya with Justin Trudeau and the mounties, but the thing is, we can make those jokes. In most parts of the world, if your leader sucks, you can’t just leave. You don’t have a universal passport to get you to a safer, less stressful place. You have to go through miles of desert or years of legal paperwork. You have to get on an overcrowded boat, even though you know the conditions aren’t safe.

In the words of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire:

“you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land.

So we are privileged to make these jokes about Canada and third-party candidates and how it’s the end of civilization as we know it.

Except it’s not the end of civilization as we know it. If you’re like me, a white, college-educated woman who comes from an upper middle class background, not much will change. Yes, I will worry about equal rights and gender wage gaps, but no more than I have for the past 24 years. Sexism is still going to be there; my vagina will still be up for debate.

But let’s talk about those who this rhetoric really affects, who it has always affected: the most vulnerable populations in our society. Before we go any further, I want to note that vulnerable does not mean weak. Vulnerable does not mean less. Here, vulnerable means you’ve had centuries of historical bullshit thrown at you and you still managed to make it. It means you might have given up everything you own and know to make a better world for your kids. It means you are strong and you don’t need my platitudes.

So this rhetoric affects the vulnerable in society: minority groups, people with disabilities, people sorting through their mental health, women and girls, families living in poverty, indigenous peoples, the elderly and people who have fled their place of origin.

This nationalistic rhetoric, which has been used as a political tool by both sides, created scapegoats of certain groups in order to win elections. And until today, most of us were pretending it wasn’t happening.

I read a joke recently that said, how can I speak about the horrors of privilege without giving up my own? We would love to help make this society a more just place, until we are faced with the reality of what that means.

Let’s take me for example: who made my clothes? Where did my food come from? The materials to make this laptop I’m typing on? Who helped pay for my education? How did I get my job?

We demonize our politicians, but it’s time to take a hard look at ourselves. It’s time to focus on what we are doing on a local level. How do we treat people in our everyday lives? What kind of policies are we promoting that affect the most vulnerable? Right now, in my state, our governor pulled out of the refugee resettlement program. Why? Because of fear. Because of reelections, because we have not been an informed populace, because we have not stood up as a society to say this isn’t right.

I will never know the fear my Muslim, Latino, undocumented and international friends and family feel. I will never understand what it’s like to come home and see that a family member was taken away while I was at school. I will not live with PTSD from fighting in wars or fleeing them. I will not know what it’s like to see my place of worship burned down or be harassed for what I choose to wear to express my faith.

But I can listen. I can learn. I can use these opportunities I was born with to be a more informed citizen. I can stop quoting Gandhi, singing stolen protest songs, get up and do something.

It’s time to be a better citizen. We can’t go everywhere. We can’t be everything, but we do have one corner of the world we can improve. We can still speak up and out about the harsh realities most of the world faces. We can educate. We can vote.

The major candidate’s words are not new. Racism is not new. Xenophobia is not new. But now that we see it so openly and clearly, we have to make a choice. Will we say enough and move forward to become better people? Or will we play it safe? Will we hide behind our privileges and move to Canada?

For most of my loved ones, the last option is not possible. So we stay. We work. We have conversations. We shut up. We listen. We move forward together.

I’m going to end with the words of Joseph Brodsky, from what some consider the greatest commencement address of all time:

Try not to set too much store by politicians — not so much because they are dumb or dishonest, which is more often than not the case, but because of the size of their job, which is too big even for the best among them, by this or that political party, doctrine, system or a blueprint thereof. All they or those can do, at best, is to diminish a social evil, not eradicate it.

No matter how substantial an improvement may be, ethically speaking it will always be negligible, because there will always be those — say, just one person — who won’t profit from this improvement.

The world is not perfect; the Golden Age never was or will be. The only thing that’s going to happen to the world is that it will get bigger, i.e., more populated while not growing in size.

No matter how fairly the man you’ve elected will promise to cut the pie, it won’t grow in size; as a matter of fact, the portions are bound to get smaller. In light of that, or, rather, in dark of that — you ought to rely on your own home cooking, that is, on managing the world yourselves — at least that part of it that lies within your reach, within your radius.

Yet in doing this, you must also prepare yourselves for the heart-rending realization that even that pie of yours won’t suffice; you must prepare yourselves that you’re likely to dine as much in disappointment as in gratitude.

The most difficult lesson to learn here is to be steady in the kitchen, since by serving this pie just once you create quite a lot of expectations.

Ask yourself whether you can afford a steady supply of those pies, or would you rather bargain on a politician?

Whatever the outcome of this soul-searching may be — however much you think the world can bet on your baking — you might start right away by insisting that those corporations, banks, schools, labs and whatnot where you’ll be working, and whose premises are heated and policed round the clock anyway, permit the homeless in for the night, now that it’s winter.

Right now I am angry with myself and the way the world usually is, but love will come.

 Let’s get to work.

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