Point of View

Despite our discord, others yearn for America

April 2, 2014 

The past week brought a welter of ugly headlines in North Carolina politics. A mayor arrested for corruption, troubles at the Department of Health and Human Services, another round of bitter accusations between environmentalists and Duke Energy.

We’ve grown accustomed to protests, indictments and recrimination, believing ourselves to live in a deeply divisive age.

Our fellow residents, the polls tell us, disapprove of the Republican legislature, aren’t thrilled with the governor and don’t like out-of-power Democrats any better. We’re grumpy about the health care law, divided about unemployment insurance and annoyed — always and forever annoyed — about tax rates. Six in 10 of our countrymen believe America is heading in the wrong direction, an improvement from the 8 in 10 who thought so last fall.

Small wonder that we hear constant pleas for civility, for an end to discord and partisanship.

But there was another event in the political life of North Carolina last week, one so common it didn’t merit a headline or even a mention.

On March 28, men and women from 19 countries stood at the front of a UNC auditorium, their right hands raised, and pledged to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

“I’m proud to call you fellow Americans and fellow Tar Heels,” said Ron Strauss, the University’s Chief International Officer. “Thank you for choosing to call the United States home.”

A clutch of spectators looked on as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, friends and future neighbors from Albania to Vietnam collected their naturalization papers and joined our little civic experiment. Similar ceremonies happen in North Carolina every week, though not always with the benefit of an ROTC color guard and a student a cappella group singing the national anthem. Nearly 12,000 new citizens were naturalized in North Carolina In 2012, the last year statistics are available.

There was no mention of what drew these new citizens to America. Some for work, certainly. Others for love. Some may have come for school and decided to stay for life.

But at least a few of those newly sworn Americans may have been drawn by the very politics we bemoan. While we throw up our hands at the latest outrage, it’s worth remembering that one man’s dysfunction is another’s vibrant democracy. Through the eyes of a young woman from Burma or a recent graduate from China, our quarrelsome political system is a wonder.

There is a certain majesty in the indictment of an allegedly corrupt politician, along with the presumption of innocence and the opportunity to face a judge and jury. A cabinet secretary called to publicly answer tough questions is a workaday matter in our fine state, and also a miracle of civic accountability. It’s depressing that North Carolina’s largest utility was able to co-opt state regulators for so long, but remarkable that we’ll get to read subpoenaed documents and hold officials responsible.

Our political culture is absolutely a mess, a riot of argument and accusation laid bare in a free and ornery press. It was meant to be; the American experiment was never designed to end political debate, but to promote it.

“Conditions in this yet young Republic, with all its crudeness and aspiration, its innately splendid virtues as well as its vulgarities, cannot have less than the thrill of a challenge,” UNC President Edward Kidder Graham wrote in 1908.

Graham understood that “the eternally new business of making a civilization” is noisy and contentious. He’d be proud to see a new generation of citizens — taking their obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion — joining the cause.

Welcome, fellow Tar Heels. Now grab a bullhorn.

Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill.

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