American Democracy, Ideal Versus Real

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday July 31, 2008 - 10:10:00 AM

One day this week, much to my surprise, I pledged allegiance, sang the national anthem, and had my picture taken next to an American flag with an immigration service official. Why? one might ask, as I asked myself. Because a friend was being admitted to an exclusive society, becoming a naturalized American citizen, and despite all of our griping about what’s wrong with this country of ours, he thinks it’s great, and so do I. 

Mind you, he’s not the stereotypical right-leaning superpatriotic immigrant, not by a long shot. He’s French by birth. His Jewish-Tunisian-French mother was a “soixant-huitard,” one of the students who took to the barricades in 1968 in France’s version of the Free Speech Movement. His father is of African-French descent, a one-time labor leader from Martinique.  

The family legend is that he was conceived on a trip to San Francisco in the early 1970s. His African ancestry is accentuated by vigorous dreadlocks. His political outlook is leftish, like that of his parents. His wife is thoroughly Indian-American, born in Los Angeles of Indian parents. He’s also a computer whiz, graduate of one of France’s best technical institutes, now launching his own international entrepreneurial venture in the Bay Area.  

In other words, he’s a citizen of the world. So why does he say, and why do I agree, that the United States is where he belongs? 

Like many young people in his cohort around the world, including one of our current presidential candidates, he was brought up on images of the American civil rights movement. We haven’t gotten it right yet, not by a long shot, but in this country in his perception racial equality is a widely shared national goal. Affirmative action or at least equal opportunity are given lip service, if not always practiced.  

In his judgment, France is way behind the United States in dealing with its increasing minority population. He’s worried about the growing strength of anti-immigrant politicians in French elections. 

An incident which seems to have crystallized his decision to apply for U.S. citizenship was an encounter in a park in a Paris suburb. Some African immigrants having a picnic were being harassed by the ever-present “flics” (police), he spoke up to ask what was going on, and for his pains spent a weekend in jail with no charges ever filed. He hopes and believes that this couldn’t happen here in exactly this way, or at least that it’s not public policy, and he’s probably right in principle. 

And the great strength of this country, still true despite continuous attempts by some to change it, is that we’re a nation of immigrants. People who don’t exactly belong anywhere else belong here, by definition and tradition. 

We native-born Americans benefit enormously from this. My friend is a great catch for the United States, the kind of person who will add a lot of spice and a lot of substance to the national stew.  

The swearing-in took place in Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, with the applicants for citizenship seated on the first floor and friend and family in the balcony. Our little party including three of our own family and his wife, mother-in-law and sister-in-law. We could spot him easily in the crowd below because of the dreads. 

While we waited for the event to start, he texted his wife: “Should I register with the Democratic Party? Ask Becky.” Honored to be part of such an important decision, I said yes, with reservations that I’d explain later. 

When it came time for everyone to join in singing the national anthem, we could see him singing lustily from the cheat sheet supplied by our hosts, the Department of Homeland Security. I don’t usually join in such ostentatious displays of patriotism, out of respect for my neighbors’ musical sensibilities as well as incurable cynicism, but when I saw him singing I couldn’t resist.  

And when I heard a loud, in-tune and clear voice coming from somewhere around my knees, I looked down and saw a little Asian boy, not more than four at the most, wearing a red white and blue striped T-shirt and singing away, with all the words correct from memory. Was I touched, tempted to shed the odd tear or two? You bet. 

We did all snicker in our little group when the video of the president came on. Someone threatened to start an “O-bam-a” chant. We all gathered on the stage afterwards for a picture with the genial official who presided over the event and his large American flag, but also for a joking shot with the equally large Homeland Security flag on the other side of the stage. 

Outside the hall the Democrats and Republicans had set up voter registration tables. The Republicans looked forlorn—their life-size cutout of John McCain only called attention to the lack of actual humans talking to them. The Dems were a bit busier, but were delighted to receive my photogenic friend into their midst and set up pictures with their Obama cutout.  

I explained to him that party registration meant that you could vote in primaries, but you could still vote for anyone you wanted from whatever party in the general election, and change parties if you wanted between elections. He was very impressed that Americans felt free to reveal their party leanings. In France, he said, people kept their choices a secret—even his very political mother would never tell him how she voted. He was amazed to learn that he could now run for office if he wanted. 

But after this uplifting encounter with idealized democracy on parade, do I now believe, like Dr. Pangloss in Candide, that this is the best of all possible worlds? Not exactly.  

After all, last week I also attended the two-hour charade wherein the Berkeley City Council pretended to listen to the public’s comments on whether they should appeal the lower court decision in the gymnasium lawsuit against UC. By my count it was about 50 or 60 pro-appeal, with just two or three con. There was, of course, the usual fact-free claim of the existence of a silent majority in opposition, too busy or too self-important perhaps to show up in person. 

(As a card-carrying member of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, I was embarrassed to see that the Chamber came out on the wrong side yet again. How can Chamber members ask Berkeley residents to shop in Berkeley with this record? Don’t members know that UC no longer purchases its office supplies or even its airline tickets from local vendors?) 

Other able writers in this issue explain exactly why the undemocratic nature of this whole performance—complete with the unreleased offer letter from the UC official and the “I had my fingers crossed” non-vote votes on the appeal decision which councilmembers sophistically claim that they don’t have to disclose—was so shocking to anyone who believes in open democratic process. We don’t need to rehash the whole sorry story in this space.  

Let’s just say, now addressing my newly naturalized friend, that it doesn’t have to be this way, but it does take a lot of work on the part of a lot of people to keep our politicians honest. The good news is that an enormous number of Berkeley citizens, breathtaking in their diversity, showed up last Thursday to speak out for they believe is right, and they deserve the thanks of all the rest of us for doing so on our behalf.