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America: Warts and all

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In last Thursday’s Addison Independent, we covered the naturalization ceremony in which 36 Vermont residents became American citizens. The ceremony was held at the Middlebury Union Middle School, and is one of about a dozen held throughout the state each year. Along with friends and family, more than 120 MUMS students observed the 40-minute ceremony — an event that was made all that much more meaningful by the thoughtful comments of U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Colleen A. Brown.

The oath of allegiance to their new country, Brown told the 36 Vermonters seeking nationalization, “requires you to ‘absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty to which you were previously a subject or citizen.’�

“The oath makes clear what is it you are giving up and what duties you are undertaking in order to become a U.S. citizen. What I would therefore like to comment upon is the way in which your participation in our society will enrich the United States. It is by welcoming and integrating people from around the world that the United States has become as vibrant a country as it is today.

“Unlike many other countries in the world, the United States is a blending of cultures that combine to become a new culture. What distinguishes us is that we combine all of our many traditions and natural attributes, but retain and are able to identify the flavor of each ingredient. That is why I believe the U.S. is more like a quilt or a collage than a melting pot…

“One cannot have a collage if all the pieces are exactly the same; and we cannot have the United States of America without its ethnic, social, religious and cultural diversity. By becoming American citizens you are helping to enrich the United States’ diversity … As you may know if you have ever made a collage, the more varied the pieces are, the more difficult it is to get them to fit together and sometimes it is hard to arrange the parts in a way that is harmonious. Likewise, it is not always easy to accept others who are different or those who do not agree with us. The country was formed, however, in large measure by people who did not feel accepted or free to speak their minds in their own countries. They came here and founded a society governed by the principles inherent in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. These principles ensure that each of us has freedom to speak our own views without fear of prosecution, to worship in our own faith without fear of persecution and to pursue our own dreams without fear of repression.

“For each right we have there is a corresponding and substantial responsibility. If you are to enjoy the rights of American citizenry, you must also be ready, willing and able to fulfill the duties that correspond to those rights. In order for these rights to have meaning, we each have an unwavering obligation to respect and encourage every other American’s exercise of these rights too. We must be able to tolerate — and appreciate — views we may disagree with vehemently. If we are to have our right to free expression, others must too…

“This country’s history is replete with examples of the tragedies that ensue when we do not conduct ourselves in a way that is consistent with the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The United States is not proud of how she treated Native Americans or of the racial and ethnic hatred and discrimination that has been tolerated and ignored in so many often insidious ways over the course of these last 200 years, or of the atrocities we now know occurred at Abu Ghraib Prison, or of what we have done to denigrate the natural splendor of the Earth. But we do not hide what has happened and we have made great strides in trying to find ways to deal with these wrongs in the best way we can…

“But please remember that democracy breaks down when people abandon the process and leave it to the few to make the decisions that affect us all. Democracy is often slow and is sometimes a very frustrating way to make decisions, but it is important that the government operate on democratic principles, that it operate openly, and that we come to important decisions based upon input from all who wish to be heard…�

Apt words, also, for many Americans born and raised in this country, but who have forgotten the values of tolerance, of open government, of ethnic and racial diversity, of government restraint (particularly in its ability to spy on its own citizens), and of the importance of freedom of speech. America is a great country — warts and all — but never more so than when tolerance and freedom reign supreme.

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