Oct. 31, 2004

Puzzled at Americans laziness toward freedom


I won't be voting Tuesday, and that frustrates me to no end. Though I'm not an American, my wife is, and just a few months after this election, we will move to Western North Carolina, in all likelihood for good. So it should be easy to understand why my lack of a say in what may be the most important election in modern history gets under my skin.

The failure of nearly half of all eligible Americans to exercise their hard-fought democratic right troubles me as well. True, Canadian voter turnout isn't much to be proud of these days. But an apathetic electorate doesn't evoke the same level of irony in Canada as it does in the United States of America. After all, your Founding Fathers practically defined modern democracy. Your Constitution still inspires nation-builders around the world.

But what really gives me pause is the way so many Americans have rejected those things once held self-evident. It's not just that the country is polarized, it's the nature of the division. Let me share my perspective, as a Canadian raised in the shadow of America, and all that it represents.

In Canada the operative description of the responsibility of our Parliament is the maintenance of "peace, order and good government." Not the most inspiring of mandates, to be sure, and one that pales in comparison with "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." While most Canadians are smugly pleased with consistently superior scores on international quality-of-life lists, I and many others secretly wish we could be a little more like you in the freedom category. I know there are millions of Americans who haven't given up on the dream of a nation founded on the power of reason, one that finds strength in diversity, one that welcomes the input of both filmmaker Michael Moore and Vice President Dick Cheney.

So it puzzles me greatly when I see freedom given such short shrift in the U.S. For example, why must any serious candidate for the office of president pledge allegiance, not just to the flag, but to a Christian God? Surely, if the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state means anything, religion should have no place in politics. How can it be that the right of homosexuals to marry should come to be such a critical campaign issue? Does America really believe that the state has a place in the bedrooms of the nation? And how is it that an American can no longer check out a book from a public library without fear of reprisal from a suspicious intelligence agency? Pursuit of happiness is meaningless without the right to pursue knowledge.

Canadians are struggling with the same issues, but somehow your failure to deal with them is less comprehensible, more tragic. You have the opportunity to set an example, to show the world how individual choice can be reconciled with diversity, how creativity and curiosity can be forces of good, and how freedom and security are not mutually exclusive.

There are no simple solutions, or even simple questions, when it comes to freedom. Sorting through them requires a great deal of effort and patience. Sadly, too many Americans don't even bother. They have chosen a simpler vision of good and evil handed down from the pulpit and talk radio, one in which you're either for us or against us. Half the nation shares this delusion, and the result is a nation divided.

It would be easy to turn my back on half a country that doesn't believe in middle grounds, rejects the value of intellectual inquiry and refuses to tolerate differences of opinion. But I strongly suspect that if all Americans thought about freedom and the role it plays in their country's history and future instead of letting preachers and pundits to do their thinking for them, you wouldn't be so divided after all. And that's a United States I look forward to embracing.

Freelance writer James Hrynyshyn lives, for a few more months, in Vancouver, Canada. He welcomes responses to jamesh@cyamid.net.

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