Appreciating the United States

Carolyn and I recently cruised from Venice to Turkey, with stops in Croatia, Montenegro, and Greece.  It was a time to reflect on America, on democracy, and on freedom.

We had a guide in Turkey, a young Christian woman who loves her country.  She talked to us about the short, bloody war the Turks fought after World War I against the British, Greeks, and others.  The war was marked by abominable human atrocities, particularly between Muslim Turks and Christian Greeks living in Turkey.  When the war ended, the Turks managed to salvage some remains of the Ottoman Empire and create an independent, modern Turkey.  In negotiating the peace settlement, both Greece and Turkey recognized that the existence of a Christian Greek minority in Turkey would lead to continued religious and ethnic violence.  Ultimately, they negotiated a population exchange:  Turkish citizens, Christians of Greek origin who spoke only Turkish, were sent to Greece.  Greek citizens, Muslims of Turkish origin who spoke only Greek, were sent to Turkey.

Because of their religion and the birthplace of their ancestors, 1.5 million people were uprooted and returned to their historic ethnic homelands, despite the fact that those places no longer were home to them.   They lost their jobs, their homes, their lives, all so that both Greece and Turkey could avoid anticipated violence driven by ethnic hatred.

On a national scale, the population exchange made some sense, because the animosity was so great that the lives of those deported peoples, particularly the Greek Christians in Turkey, were in continuing danger.  Peace was restored in both countries, a peace that might not have been possible without the exchange.

On a personal scale for 1.5 million people, however, it was a catastrophe.  People were forcibly removed from their homelands and relocated in countries unfamiliar to them where they did not speak the language.  Poor, Muslim farmers in Greece lost their meagre farms and were transported to the farm country in eastern Turkey, where they were left to make their way.  Urban Christians lost their jobs and wealth in Turkey and were sent to Greece to start their lives over.

Learning about the Greek-Turkey population exchange (I don’t recall ever having heard of it before our trip) caused me to think about the extraordinary things that governments do to people in the furtherance of what some people think are legitimate national interests.   After World War II, the international powers created Pakistan in an effort to give Muslim Indians a homeland and to create some ethnic uniformity.  More than 10 million people moved, voluntarily or otherwise, from India to Pakistan or Pakistan to India, amid rioting that killed hundreds of thousands, and amid horrific human suffering and ethnic violence, directed particularly at women.  It was the greatest forced migration in human history.   Similarly, the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s displaced more than two million people, many fleeing violence, many others effectively forced to leave their countries in an effort to promote ethnic cleansing.

The United States, of course, has not been immune from similar efforts to engineer its population.  It had no problem displacing, repeatedly, the native American population.   When the back-to-Africa movements began, first before the Civil War and later, there seemed to be little question that the government could forcibly repatriate people of African descent.  And, of course, the Japanese interment, although not an actual population transfer, was the same sort of exercise of the unfettered power to deal with a population that the government deemed a threat.

One Saturday morning when we caught up with another guide in Turkey, he told us that President Erdogan had raised the Value Added Tax (VAT) and a specialized VAT.  Friday night the taxes were 18% and 8%, respectively; Saturday morning they were 20% and 10%.  Just like that.  No warning, no previous discussion, at least no discussion that was public.   “What about legislative approval?” we asked.  Not a problem, apparently; most legislators will vote the way they’re told, when they get around to ratifying Erdogan’s actions.

Imagine that the U.S. government ordered you to return to your ancestral homeland.  It’s almost inconceivable.  (I know, in the current state of American politics, nothing is inconceivable, but forget that for a minute.)   My reaction would be something like, “This is my country.  I am a citizen.  I have a right to be here, and that right cannot be taken from me.”  And I would have, I believe, a lot of law to back me up.

Imagine that our President simply declared that the taxes of all of us would be increased, effective immediately.  In unison, we’d say, “Uh, I don’t think so,” and we would expect our legislators and our judges to make it clear that we live in a country that does not permit unfettered, unilateral action that affects the rights and property of individuals.  In fact, our Supreme Court did just when it decided the President Biden could not, unilaterally, forgive $400 billion of debt just because he thought it was a good idea.  Our system doesn’t work like that.

Think about the remarkable freedom that most of us have taken as a given for most of our lives.  Think about what it means to live every day in a country that cannot summarily decide to deport you, cannot deprive you of your freedom to speak, cannot deprive you of your property.  It simply is not the same in many parts of the world.

We should not take our freedom for granted.  Our freedom is something precious, and people around the world envy us our freedom.  We should honor and protect our institutions, institutions that we created to protect our freedom.



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