The Price of Democracy

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blog-picture-2If you’re anything like me, right now, you’re pretty sick of politics. And by “sick of”, I don’t mean “bored with”. I don’t mean that the Superbowl or the upcoming Oscars are being cheated of the attention they deserve, or that I’m annoyed with my Facebook friends who frequently post reactions to current events or links to political articles. No, I mean that I’m sick of politics because current events are so significant. I’m sick of watching upsetting things happen in my country and not being able to do anything about it. I’m sick of hearing antagonistic, even hateful, rhetoric from people that I care about. I’m sick of watching people gobble up and repost not only content with opinions that I disagree with, but often blatant propaganda or “alternative facts”. (For the record, I’d like to point out that I’ve been jokingly using the phrase “creative truth” for years prior to this new terminology.) I’m sick of feeling like there’s nobody out there who has the same set of political values and priorities that I have. And I’m bothered by the realization that all of this vitriol is inevitable.

I expect that history will recall the late 2010’s and early 2020’s as a momentous cultural crossroads in America’s history, and by extension, in world history. The events of these next few years will determine many things about the future of our country. Naturally, Americans are very emotionally invested in politics right now, and naturally, we’re all upset about the problems we see and angry at those who are causing or perpetuating the problems that upset us the most. That’s not very pleasant for any of us. I, for one, would feel much more comfortable ignoring politics completely, or at least spending my life in a bubble that no one can enter unless they have the same political and social priorities, values, and opinions that I do. (Also, there’s a password, just because. Yes, I’ve already chosen the password. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.)

But we can’t really do that. Not only is it impossible to live inside a literal password-sealed bubble, but it’s also impossible to ignore politics. Sure, you can refrain from participating in any type of political activism, arguing about politics, mentioning politics on social media or even casting your vote on election day. But even if you don’t participate in politics in any way, you can’t entirely ignore it because it defines the world around you. Technically, even the most obvious laws, like the ones about murder and theft, are defined and enforced via government. And it’s the government that ensures every right and freedom you have. Regardless of which laws you do or don’t agree with, which things you do or don’t believe should be considered “rights”, and whether you agree with how your tax money is spent, it’s undeniably true that those things are all factors that impact your life. One freedom that our government does not guarantee you is the freedom from politics. Since our country believes in freedom of speech, it cannot guarantee you freedom from hearing. And since the government cannot control your thoughts, (at least not entirely, at least not yet) you are not free from caring about political issues. The result of this is that you are also not free from political disagreement. That’s the price of democracy.

blog-pictureDuring this 2016-2017 campaign/ election/ inauguration season, I’ve avoided posting much about politics on social media. Not only have I not expressed my support or enthusiasm for any particular candidate, but I haven’t said much about specific issues or discussed which ones are most important to me. Admittedly, that’s partly because I’m an extreme people-pleaser; I don’t want to say things that could damage relationships, even those kinds of not-really-relationships where we haven’t talked in years and never knew each other well, but we’re still Facebook friends. But it’s also because I’m realizing more and more that my political views don’t even come close to aligning with any one political party, and I don’t want people to assume that I agree with stance X just because I expressed my support for an unrelated stance Y that happens to be associated with the same political party. But I’m guessing that most people who have read this far are curious about where I stand, unless they are assuming that they already know. So I might as well finish this post by making a few things clear.

I don’t trust or like Donald Trump. I didn’t like any of the candidates in the 2016 presidential election, but I ended up voting third party because it was, in my opinion, the least bad of several bad choices. I’m decidedly pro-life, but also very anti-misogyny, and I’m pretty horrified at some of the things I’ve heard people say about women and justify with “because I’m conservative” or “I guess I’m just old-fashioned.” I’m anti-illegal-immigration but pro-legal-immigration, so I want to see policies that facilitate legal immigration rather than policies that block entire demographic groups from crossing the border. I definitely agree that “Black Lives Matter,” but there have been some unacceptable things done in the name of that movement. I believe that the Muslim religion is incorrect, but I also consider it contrary to foundational American values to discriminate or segregate based on religion. I believe that any economic system (communism, socialism, capitalism…) would work well if everyone was honest and moral, but no economic system works perfectly because there will always be some people who find ways to take advantage of the system for personal gain. In general, I think history shows that there are more advantages than disadvantages to international trade and minimal restrictions and regulations, especially on small businesses. I agree that it’s positive for the government to play some role in ensuring quality of education, labor conditions, and health care, to provide some types of welfare for the underprivileged, and to offer funding for things such as scientific research, arts, and (obviously) public libraries, but I also think that most of those systems and programs are either overly-regulated, inefficiently-budgeted, or seriously flawed in some other way. I could go on, but I’ve already said enough in this paragraph to risk defeating the point of this blog post.

You can agree with me or you can disagree with me, and you can ignore me or discuss these things with me. (If you do, I’d appreciate if you’d keep it relatively polite and non-aggressive, please and thank you) Maybe, you can even cause me to reconsider some of my political views. But one thing that you cannot do is live in a society where we all have the right to be involved in politics and we all agree and get along. That just isn’t the way it works.

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Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence

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Declaration of IndependenceOnce upon a time, on July 4, 1776, in the city of Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress officially finalized the final draft of the document known as the Declaration of Independence. This document, written by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the continental congress, stated that the United Colonies were “free and independent” and “absolved from all allegiance to the British crown,” on the basis of the accusations that the British government was oppressive. The words of this declaration are famous and familiar, especially the first sentence of the second paragraph, and they have often been quoted as the quintessential statement of American ideology. It is perhaps worth noting that the ideas expressed in this document are not original, and the Declaration of Independence is reminiscent of the Magna Carta in several ways. Technically, the Magna Carta is the more historically significant of the two documents. Even within the story of the birth of our country, there are other occasions that held more significance than the writing and signing of the Declaration. Other important dates include the official beginning of the Revolutionary War, (April 19, 1775) the end of the war (in October 1781) the Treaty of Paris formalizing the end of the war, (signed on September 3, 1783, and finalized when the ratified documents were exchanged on May 12, 1784) and the signing of the constitution which we still use. (September 17, 1787) But it is the Declaration of Independence that we remember as the true beginning of the United States of America.

A screenshot from the very end of the musical 1776

A screenshot from the very end of the musical 1776

And this raises the question: What if the Declaration of Independence had never existed? The historical comedy musical 1776 (which is a pretty reliable source, right?) gives the impression that the suggestion of writing such a declaration was made in order to put off the vote and win over more delegates who weren’t so enthusiastic about the issue of independency. If the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been written, if the colonies had declared independence only by waging war and not by writing a famous statement justifying it, what would the historical effect have been?

Would the constitution perhaps have been different if it hadn’t had the precedent of the Declaration of Independence? In particular, would the Bill of Rights have been necessary in order for the constitution to be ratified? Would things such as the freedom of religion, (Amendment I) the right to bear arms, (Amendment II) or the various rights concerning law enforcement trial, have needed to have a place in the constitution if the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been all about the existence and importance of rights? And if not, how long would it have taken for those rights to be officially included in the law, and what repercussions would that delay have had on subsequent historical events and cultural mindsets?

What about the Civil War? Would the South have tried to secede over the issue of states’ rights if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were only doing what their ancestors had done less than a century previously? (After all, in both cases, the conflict largely had to do with the geographical distance and cultural chasm been the governing authorities and the relevant sector of the population.) And would the abolishment of slavery perhaps taken a few more decades to bring about if slavery hadn’t been contrary to an important American historical document? After all, the Jim Crow laws existed until close to a century after the end of slavery. I think we can all agree that it’s good that slavery ended in our country a long time ago, but I think we can also agree that the end of slavery was not equivalent to the end of extreme racism, and that the Civil War did little to solve the latter of those two problems. If it hadn’t been for the precedents and principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, could the Civil War have been avoided? And if so, would the Confederacy be a separate country or would it have remained part of the Union, but also retained its culture, including slavery, for a longer time?

Or was the Declaration of Independence simply a formality, and would the original American ideology have been exactly the same even without the document that first defined and explained it? Is the Declaration of Independence just a famous piece of paper that technically has no more influence than any of the older documents and writings that say much the same things? Was July 4, 1776 really one of the most important landmarks in American history, or was it just a regular day that we arbitrarily selected to observe as the birthday of our country? I guess there’s no way to know for sure, unless we went back in time and somehow prevented the Declaration of Independence from coming into existence. And I, for one, would like to highly discourage that course of action, because I’m in favor of the Declaration of Independence regardless of whether it was historically monumental or ultimately insignificant.

The Weirdness of Going North

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SouthConsidering the fact that I lived in the Midwest for the first 11 years and 9 months of my life before moving to the South, it wouldn’t seem like it should be such a big culture shock to be back up North. But I guess that over the past ten years, I’ve gotten more accustomed to being a Southerner than I realized. That is, I’ve gotten accustomed to being around Southerners. I’m not sure I ever entirely counted as a Southerner; I’ve gotten into the habit of interchangeably referring to myself as a Southerner or Northerner depending upon the context. For example, if it’s too hot, I can complain about it because I’m a Northerner and am not used to having temperatures exceeding a hundred degrees for weeks on end, but when it’s cold, I can complain about it because I’m a Southerner and don’t even know what’s happening when there’s white stuff falling from the sky. I can drink iced tea either with or without sugar. I can make nostalgic and affectionate remarks about both corn fields and cotton fields.  I can claim that everyone else has an accent, and when someone tells me that I have an accent, I can attribute it to ancestors who came from fascinating distant places, even though those ancestors died years before I was even born. If someone asks me whether I consider myself a Northerner or a Southerner, I can tell them that I have the best of both sides. At the moment, though, I feel like a Southerner living in the North.

Roll TideFor one thing, the “Roll Tide” bumper sticker on my car is the only one I’ve seen since coming here, and I have not seen any Razorbacks references, either. I also haven’t heard anything about LSU, Auburn, or any of the other various teams whose names make up at least forty percent of conversational topics in the South. People around here aren’t as obsessed with college football as they are in Alabama, and any individuals who do watch college football are going to cheer for different teams and are probably not going to be particularly devoted to football this time of year, since it’s not even football season. Actually, I myself have never been a really big football fan. I think that the fan culture is actually just as important to me as the game itself. And really, I’ve been a Chicago Cubs fan for much longer than I’ve been an Alabama Crimson Tide fan, and I understand and enjoy baseball more than football anyway. But I’m sure that one of these days, I’m going to slip and use the phrase “Roll tide” in public, and it’ll come as a shock when no one knows what I mean. In fact, I’m a little tempted to start saying, “Roll tide, y’all”, instead of “Hello”, just to see how people react. In Alabama, this would not be a weird or unusual thing to do.

Another weird thing is that it’s cold here. I don’t mean that it snows more in the winter; that’s obvious and I’m prepared for the fact that next winter is going to feel long and cold to me no matter how mild it is by Northern standards. I mean that non-winter temperatures are surprisingly cold here. It’s still a bit chilly now, in the middle of June. There have been days that it’s been in the 60s. In Alabama, we have a word for this kind of weather, and that word is “freezing”.  Admittedly, I’ve always been amused by the way that Southerners panic every time it drops below eighty degrees, but even I have gotten to the point that it really doesn’t feel like summer unless it’s so hot that you can bake things by holding them out of an open window for a few minutes. Okay, I admit that I’m exaggerating there, but it’s literally true that in the summer, you can brew tea in just a couple minutes using no heat source except sunlight. I’ve done that in my dorm room many times. Then I’d stick it in the refrigerator for a while and put some sugar in it. There’s something very satisfying and summery about a cup of sweetened iced tea, or, as we call it in the South, “tea”.

NorthThen there’s the accents. I don’t have a Southern accent at all, and neither do I use the word “y’all”, but I no longer really notice Southern accents unless they’re very strong. Now, Midwestern voices sound unusual to me. For the first few days after I got here, I thought that everyone’s voice sounded clipped and harsh. But at least around here, talking takes little enough time that it’s a useful and efficient means of communication. In the South, it’s rather inconvenient to have a four-syllable first name because it takes the average Southerner about five minutes to get through each syllable. Each vowel is a meticulously crafted work of art, the kind that leaves the observer wondering what it’s supposed to be, but agreeing that it is certainly aesthetically pleasing. The stereotype says that Southerners are more talkative than Northerners, and I wonder if that idea comes from the amount of time spent talking rather than the number of words spoken. (Actually, Southerners probably talk more than Northerners according to either form of measurement. But I still think that the difference is much greater if we’re measuring time rather than words.)

If a random stranger does exchange small talk with you, that’s weird and kind of creepy around here. I had forgotten this because in the South, it’s perfectly normal for people to chat with people they see in public places. I’ve never been the type of person to strike up a conversation with a random passerby, but I’m so used to the normality of such encounters that I thought nothing of it when a random man who saw me applying for jobs one day stopped me to offer information about the town and to welcome me to the area. In fact, I appreciated his friendliness until I realized that he was flirting with me and thought that I was going to go on a date with him. Then he continued to follow me even after I said goodbye and told him to have a nice day. In order to escape, I had to give him a fake phone number and then pretend that I was in a hurry to go someplace else. Then I ran away and hid in my car and said to myself, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Alabama anymore.” I really hate lying; I am still very bothered by this even now that it’s been something like two weeks.

Speed Limit infinitySomething else I’ve noticed is that people drive differently here. I think that every single place in the world, with the possible exception of uninhabited areas such as the ocean floor, is known for the fact that people drive more quickly there than anyplace else. This would seem to be statistically impossible, but it would also seem to be true. I definitely have noticed that, both in Alabama and in Illinois, people drive faster there than they do in the other state. This is slightly less paradoxical when you take into account that the speed limit is drastically different; people are supposed to drive significantly faster in Alabama.

In my experience, Alabama drivers are terrible about changing lanes abruptly and not looking where they’re going when they do so, and indeed, I have seen for myself that Illinois drivers are much better about this. But they have their own idiosyncrasies here. (Which is fairly obvious considering that this is, in fact, what the word “idiosyncrasies” means.) For instance, drivers around here tend to pull so far forward at stop signs and stoplights that they’re actually in the intersection. They really will block traffic rather than give up that tiny little head start when it’s their turn to go. It annoys and confuses me, but absolutely everyone does it.

Also, tollways are weird. I don't like tollways.

Also, tollways are weird. I don’t like tollways.

Drivers around here also aren’t very nice about letting someone make a lane change. If you accidentally get into a turn lane when you want to go straight, or don’t get into a turn lane when that’s what you were trying to do, your mistake cannot be rectified. Last-minute lane changes are not things that happen in Illinois, apparently. I am sure this relates to the aforementioned fact that Illinois drivers are slower and safer about their lane changes than Alabama drivers are, but it makes life very difficult for people like me who are unfamiliar with the area and don’t always know which lane they want to be in until the last minute. This issue has in fact inspired the song (To be sung to the tune of “Come Ye Thankful People Come”) which goes like this: “Let me over, let me by/ You don’t want to make me cry/ If I get lost I’ll be sad/ I am likely to go mad/ At this rate I’ll ne’er arrive/ I will never end this drive/ Let me get into that lane/ You are driving me insane.” Yes, I did make this up on the spur of the moment and sing it out loud with my windows open when it was entirely possible that other drivers could hear. I apologize for the irreverent use of a hymn tune, but I could not help it, for the song was so relevant to the situation that my conscious mind was not involved in its invention.

One thing that I do not miss at all is the cockroaches. I don’t think I’ve seen a single cockroach since I left campus, and that is definitely a very good thing. And there are fewer mosquitoes and wasps, as well. And the roads tend to go in straight lines and intersect other roads frequently, which makes it easier to get back on track if you’ve gotten yourself lost. Around here, there seem to be fewer car crashes, probably because of the aforementioned reckless lane changes in Alabama. Also, there is no risk of hurricanes in this area, and storms can usually be predicted somewhat farther in advance. So these are all good things.