The UN General Assembly agreed in 2000 that June 20, today, would be celebrated as World Refugee Day. It is designed to be a day on which the world takes time to recognise the resilience of forcibly displaced people throughout the world.
It is good to celebrate. We can often think of people who have had to flee their home country due to war or persecution primarily in terms of their suffering. But so many refugees show themselves to be not only resilient, but incredibly gracious and compassionate, going on to make incredible contributions to the lives of people in their new home countries and around the world.
Did you know authors Victor Hugo and Joseph Conrad were refugees? As were actors Andy Garcia, Rachel Weisz, Marlene Dietrich and Jackie Chan, scientist Albert Einstein, artist Peter Carl Faberge, businessman Aristotle Onassis, philosophers Sigmund Freud and Freidrich…
It’s commonly accepted that US politics has been polarised for quite a while. People openly identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats; most people tend to associate with those who share their political opinions; media outlets appear to be divided along partisan lines so that people can catch up with what is going on in the world from a perspective that already aligns with their own.
And so it seems that the temptation to disagree with someone simply because they belong to the other side, or to support someone simply because they belong to your side, is becoming harder and harder to avoid.
Using words like ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’, as the sole basis for dismissing another person’s point of view is essentially saying that you disagree with them because they are on the other side to you. That you don’t even need to listen or take into account their perspective because you have already decided that it is opposed to where you stand. That the world can be neatly divided into two opposite and opposing perspectives, one of which is completely right and one of which is completely wrong.
And it’s often marked not by the language of debate, but by the language of war.
The end result of this, I fear, is what we’ve been seeing more and more in the lead up to this year’s presidential election. It is particularly exemplified in the farcical (but not funny) situation where we see people attempting to defend the behaviour and views of their political party’s candidate no matter how far he strays from what they have previously stated to be their core values. It doesn’t seem to matter how terrible he acts or sounds, the fact that he is on their ‘side’ overrides everything else. From the outside looking in, it’s almost impossible to understand.
Obviously there is much more I could say about the trainwreck that is Trump v Clinton, but for now I want to confine myself to this one idea and the question I have about its impact going forward from here. What will the fact that this tribalism and deep division between two sides, with little room for nuance between them, is being played out in such a public and global way mean for our future public interactions?
What is the pattern being set for how civic debate is to be conducted?
While here in Australia it is still quite rare for the average person to identify themselves day to day by which political party they vote for, the same kind of tribalistic language does seem to be creeping in. I’m certainly seeing words like ‘leftist’ and ‘right-wing’ increasingly used to dismiss an opinion in place of reasoned responses to coherent and valid points of discussion. And these kinds of words are almost always used in an attempt to shut the debate down. To dismiss the other point of view for the sole reason that it is perceived to be the ‘other’ point of view.
It bothers me greatly and to be honest it generally makes me want to disengage. We are talking about the exchange of ideas in a free society, people putting forward their views on what they genuinely believe it best for all of us. But as soon as we start using the language of warfare and tribalism, when we put one another into two simple boxes and stop listening to those who are not in the same box as us, then it seems to me that we have all lost.
How can we find ways to move beyond the simplistic categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘us’ and ‘them’?
How can we recognise that good ideas can come from both sides of the political aisle, and that when we listen to one another we might even find middle ground? How can we change the tone from one of war to one of genuine engagement, accepting that we can all learn something from one another, even from those with whom we disagree, if we will really take time to listen?
I haven’t done a Monday morning travel post for a while, when I take some time to reflect on a place I have visited and what I loved about and learned from it. It’s been a little while since I have travelled and there has been a lot else going on. But as I’m starting to prepare for a trip to the US, including Washington DC, in just over three weeks time, I’m thinking it would be great to pop in today to one of the most iconic buildings in the world, and be reminded again about the responsibilities and opportunities of influence and power, as well as its limitations.
As a foreigner, it’s not easy to organise a visit to the White House. Apparently it is possible to book months in advance through the Australian embassy, but I have not yet come across anyone visiting as a tourist who has actually made that work. For me, it was arranged through a friend of a family member who was working at the White House and got me onto the public tour – as well as taking me to a couple of places “behind the scenes” (no photos from there – and only mobile phone photos from the tour so apologies for the lack of quality!)
What did I love about visiting the White House?
First of all, I’m a huge fan of the TV series The West Wing, so it actually felt like I was already very familiar with the place 🙂
A number of scenes in various episodes were shot outside these gates …
… I’m pretty sure this entrance hall looked familiar …
… I remember that the OEOB building next door is where the VP and other “less important” staffers work …
… and for bonus points there was even an episode with protestors about what is in this room!
It was December when I visited, so there were all kinds of beautifully decorated Christmas trees everywhere.
Some had ornaments belonging to various dignitaries,
while others stood in places normally occupied by a podium from which the “leader of the free world” speaks.
And the gingerbread version of the White House certainly puts my annual attempts to shame.
Like most people who visit, I think there is an excitement in getting to see just a small glimpse of the corridors of power and places where so many significant decisions have been made and worked out.
As a lover of history of all kinds, the portraits of previous Presidents remind me of the stories of the different times and situations through which they led,
… and the various ways in which the world has been shaped by those who have passed through this place.
What did I learn from visiting the White House?
As well as touring the White House, I managed to secure tickets in the annual lottery to attend the National Christmas Tree Lighting at which the President speaks and numerous entertainers perform.
(This did involve about five hours of sitting in the pouring rain on a cold, December, Washington night, which wasn’t the most fun I (or my Dad!) have ever had).
But it was really interesting to see the patriotism on display, a challenge perhaps to someone like me who comes from a country where we do not always show our political leaders respect or even courtesy.
It was also fascinating to compare and contrast this event with our Aussie traditions of Carols by Candlelight.
My main reason for wanting to go, however, was to hear the President in person. As a lifelong student of politics and history, for me it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear anyone who occupies such an office and try to get a sense of them for yourselves. And I thought Obama lived up to his reputation as an inspirational and persuasive orator.
But something else that sticks with me from that night is the contrast between the trappings of power and wealth and influence seen in this place, and the message that we were there to celebrate. The story of the most powerful king of all, who chose humility, service and sacrifice as the way He showed His glory.
The White House represents power and status in this world, and I will always be keen to understand what takes place there, to recognise its influence in the world and to reflect on the lessons to be learned from the decisions made there. But in the end, I follow an even greater leader, a leader who speaks a message that seems upside-down to everything I see here and throughout this world: that the way to true greatness is found in service, and that the way to exaltation is found in humbly giving yourself up for others.