I just finished reading Held at a Distance by Rebecca Haile. It’s a memoir about a woman who lived in Ethiopia until she was 10. Her father was wounded by the Derg in the aftermath of the revolution and her family eventually had to flee Ethiopia. The memoir is her experience returning to Ethiopia as a 36-year-old American.
I’ve been reading the book with the backdrop of the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that has sent people into a tizzy—either expressing dismay at how the country is going down the toilet or complete euphoria that justice is coming to health care.
Full disclosure: Personally, I’m happy with the Supreme Court decision, though this doesn’t seem like a perfect law that’s going to fix the mess that is health care. I hope it’s a step forward. But I find the reaction to the decision more interesting than the decision itself. It makes me wonder how people have reacted to other historic court decisions. Were people this dismayed after the landmark 9-0 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that overturned segregation? (I’m not trying to compare this decision to that one in historic terms, just wondering how people have historically reacted)
All the cries of America going down the tubes seem especially disheartening to me. If anything, the will of the people has spoken. A law was passed by a Congress elected by a majority (multiple times—senators and representatives), signed into law by a president the majority elected, and upheld by a Supreme Court made up of justices appointed by past presidents from both parties and approved by a Senate controlled by both parties. Whether or not you agree with the decision, democracy happened. Complain all you want if you don’t like it, but this is government of the people, by the people and for the people. The law is constitutional, if you don’t like it you have all the legal power of democracy to change it. [Sidebar: And I hope my stance in this last paragraph would be the same no matter how the decision came out. It's easy to make this statement when "your side" wins.]
Back to Ethiopia
I say all that because that’s what was going through my mind as I started reading about this family torn apart by military and socialist revolution in Ethiopia. When the government was overthrown in 1974, military rulers took over and imposed socialist ideals on an impoverished country. But it was really just a dictatorship disguised as socialism. Anyone who disagreed with the new government was seen as a threat. They were targeted, harassed, attacked and in many cases killed. The Derg’s iron-fisted rule continued until 1991 when they were overthrown. The government that followed is, according to Haile, less violent but more of the same. Dissenters are still arrested, censorship continues and the press is not truly free (I should note here that my understanding of Ethiopian politics is extremely limited and I’m basing all of these statements on Haile’s 2007 memoir. Take it with a grain of salt.)
An obvious lesson from Ethiopian history would be that when you can no longer disagree well with your political opponents, you’ve got a problem. When you vilify your opponents, you’re in trouble. You’re just a step away from outright attacking them. And when that happens you’re no longer pushing for a democratic ideal, you’re forcing your own opinion on someone else.
Today, the Fourth of July, is about celebrating our American Independence. As we celebrate and approach an election in the fall, we seem more divided than ever. But in our division, we must find a way to be united. We must find a peaceful way to disagree with our opponents. Disagree all you like, but democracy means that we come together and the majority rules under the Constitution (i.e., the majority might not have voted to end segregation, but it was still deemed unconstitutional).
Because the end of our independence happens when we’re afraid to disagree.