April 23, 2020

Institutional Skepticism

I was sitting in a tea shop with around a dozen men (this was long before the current pandemic). Each of these men were from South Sudan. Each of them had lived through civil war and experienced the untold horror that comes with state sanctioned violence. Like most cafes and restaurants I've visited in Texas, there were TV's hanging in the corners of the establishment. News headlines brandished the name of Donald Trump as his image flashed across screens.

Chuckles and chatter in a language I do not speak ensued across the table from me.

I asked what they thought of the current president.

They found the president plain spoken, non-technical–which is helpful when English isn't your first language and America not your first culture. They also found him entertaining. They liked these things.

One gentleman said that in another time and place, yes, he would likely have been a dictator. Yet, the checks and balances of U.S. government and institutions ensured that he was simply plain spoken ... and entertaining.

It's hard to argue with someone that has lived through such atrocities. The subtext of these comments was effectively, "You think this is bad? ... You have no idea what bad is."

These men had lived in contexts without reliable institutions and therefore valued those in the U.S.

I'm reminded of this exchange–and others like it–when I hear the doubt and distrust consistently expressed and popularized.

No system is perfect–certainly not ours–but it is important to remind ourselves of the many benefits of our systems. Maybe before we sow skepticism–which is at times appropriate–we should temper this with gratitude.

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