Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Great again, one act of citizenship at a time

Jan. 31, 2017 Updated Tue., Jan. 31, 2017 at 10:15 p.m.

Maybe this is how it becomes great again.

Citizens using their constitutional authority to gather and protest. Individuals standing up for fundamental American values when their elected officials don’t. Leaders from college presidents to governors to the heads of major employers speaking out to support first principles. Scientists and park rangers and government attorneys refusing to shut up. Truth-loving people speaking against lies, and journalists assailing systemic, intentional falsehoods.

Maybe this is how the country is made great again – by being forced from complacency through a disastrous and dangerous challenge. Not through ignorance. Not through fear. Not through bigotry. Not through blustery lies or cynical wordcraft or proudly ignorant views of the world. Not through tacky ballcaps or childish tweets.

No – like this:

Thousands of Spokane citizens filling the streets on a Saturday, among the largest demonstrations in city history, women and men and children making it clear, peacefully and forcefully, that the values and behavior of the most powerful man in the country are unacceptable to them.

Or this:

Hundreds of Spokane citizens demonstrating on a Sunday against the imperial travel ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries – as others protested peacefully in cities from Seattle to Boise to New York. Then scores more showing up on a Monday night at the City Council to support a declaration against the creation of a religious registry.

Or this:

Clergy across many faiths speaking up, like Cardinal Blase Cupich, the former Catholic bishop of Spokane: “This weekend proved to be a dark moment in U.S. history. Have we not repeated the disastrous decisions of those in the past who turned away other people fleeing violence, leaving certain ethnicities and religions marginalized and excluded?”

Great again, momentarily.

The country’s greatness is always momentary, always in flux, a shifting balance between our values and our actions. The country becomes great again when leaders stand up for its values, even as its president does not. It becomes great again when longtime government workers speak up at the risk of losing their jobs. It becomes great again when even members of the president’s own party part ways – only a few are demonstrating such a moral compass so far, but that number will grow as this presidency inevitably becomes toxic to their political self-interest. It becomes great again one public statement at a time, one act of support, one hand-painted sign, one insistent “no” at a time.

Like this:

“Let us be absolutely clear: We welcome and support all members of the Washington State community – regardless of the country they call home,” said the statement from WSU regarding the travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. “We remain unflinchingly committed to respecting the dignity of each individual – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, gender identity or expression, religion, or sexual orientation.”

Or like this:

“I am personally very disappointed in the recent executive action,” wrote Whitworth President Beck Taylor, “and I will be meeting with various Congressional members in Washington, D.C., tomorrow to discuss my concerns and to encourage them to take immediate action to ensure your safety and protection. As you probably know, there are many people who are working through the courts and legislature on your behalf, and I urge you to remain patient and calm as the democratic process plays out, and as things become clearer.”

Or this:

“We are a country based on the rule of law,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is suing the federal government over the travel ban on constitutional grounds. “In a courtroom, it is not the loudest voice that prevails. It’s the Constitution.”

Right now, reasons for optimism seem so scarce that they may be but wishful thinking. This moment goes far beyond our usual sense of right versus left, conservative versus liberal. Historic and unprecedented problems already cloud this administration, ranging from the pettiest personal shortcomings to the gravest threats to the country’s principles and safety. Every day, the administration tells outright lies with a straight face.

The light, where it exists, has been brightest in recognizing that the system is built to resist tyrants and demagogues, to tie the hands of rash and frivolous authoritarians, to put power into the hands of citizens and the law. The light, where it exists, has come from individuals exercising their authority as citizens.

It will be an exhausting and dispiriting time. But it also might be a thrilling one – a crucible in which the nature of what it means to be American is refined and strengthened by individuals seizing the machinery of citizenship. It’s too soon to say that for sure, but the initial displays of popular resistance are the clearest and most obvious reasons to hope that the country’s better nature can endure and prevail.

Presidents don’t make the country great, after all.

More from this author