My maternal grandfather came to America in 1910. He was from Lithuania, and by most accounts, things were not very good for the Jews there. So, he came to a country where there was supposed to be more opportunity, more freedom. And he carved out a life that was better than what he would have had if he'd stayed in the Old Country. He never got rich: he was a tailor, and he lacked the kind of education one needed to move up. But he was hopeful that his children would do better than he had done. That was typical of the immigrant experience: immigrants who came here hoped they could build a better life for their kids.
What made me think of my grandfather was a video I saw earlier today, from retired Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman. He spoke of how his father brought him and his brother here from Russia, in search of that better life, with more opportunity and more freedom. And he spoke of how much he loves this country even now, despite the turmoil, violence, and chaos we've seen over the past few weeks. Even though he was forced to leave the military, through no fault of his own, he remains hopeful: he is finishing up his PhD, while serving as a board member at the Renew Democracy Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit organization whose mission is "dedicated to empowering the public to uphold constitutional principles in their civic behavior."
I admit I wasn't familiar with RDI, but I began seeing a number of short videos on Twitter today from some well-known people in media, politics, and entertainment, all taking what Lt. Colonel Vindman referred to as the "Renew Democracy challenge." In a Twitter post, he wrote, "During a dark time, we need to showcase the best of our democracy. Share a short video about what democracy means to you & nominate three friends to do the same!" I watched some of the videos, and while I decided not to make one myself, I thought the question was worth answering.
To me, democracy means my life is not subject to the whim of one man or one political party or one ideology. As someone who likes to think for myself, I don't want to be told what to think or who to vote for. Thus, I don't want to live in a country run by an all-powerful, autocratic ruler who cannot be replaced, and whom everyone is forced to obey.
To me, democracy means acceptance: even though I am a member of a minority religion, I am free to observe and celebrate my faith, with no fear that the government will ban my beliefs (nor imprison me for the way I worship). Similarly, even though I may disagree with my political leaders, I am free to express those views, including on this blog. The First Amendment promises freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and many other rights that folks in some other countries don't have. I value those rights. I don't take them for granted. And I would hate to lose them.
To me, democracy means that even in the worst of times, people can build coalitions and work together to make positive change. Yes, we are going through a difficult and contentious period of time, and some people want to overthrow our government or do harm to those they disagree with. But I refuse to give in to despair, even though the events of the past week have horrified me. I know not everyone agrees with the folks who attacked the Capitol; I know not everyone sees violence or hatred as the answer. In fact, there are millions of us are willing to put our differences aside, to try to move this country forward.
So, there you are. I invite you to consider what democracy means to you, and I'd be eager to hear what you have to say. Now more than ever, we need to remember how important democracy is, and we need to teach our kids why it matters. Lt. Colonel Vindman is right: it's a good time to defend the democratic ideal-- not with violence or threats, but with the determination that we will be part of the solution... not part of the problem.