An original copy of the Declaration of Independence, printed the evening of July 4, 1776, is seen at the exhibition “Democracy Plaza” at Rockefeller Center in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Inas Younis was born in Mosul, Iraq, and emigrated to the United States as a child. She is a writer and commentator who has been widely published in various magazines, websites and anthologies.
I was almost 10 years old when my family came from Baghdad, Iraq, to the United States. Life in America, though challenging at first, was gracious and straightforward compared to life under authoritarianism, characterized by unpredictability and fear.
Even as a child I intuitively understood that the comforts of living in America were not a given, but a function of something bigger. Well-paved roads punctuated with regulatory signs, reliable electricity, traffic signals that were fail-safe and not just government props designed to create the pretense of order, and law enforcement that did not exercise arbitrary power or invoke panic. These features of a well-organized society inspired a sense of reverence towards a nation that felt automated by an invisible force.
A force that many Americans took for granted, as if it were merely a fact of nature.
In my naivety I could not grasp how a society with freedom as its organizing principle could be so organized. Everything about my early childhood living in a police state had ingrained in me the belief that freedom equates chaos and that society needed the restraint of deprivation to maintain its morals.
Too young to indulge in philosophical speculation, I surrendered to my Americanization and inevitably developed the audacity to dream. My first adolescent dream was to perform in my school theater production. That dream was swiftly halted by my first on-stage audition.
I was humiliated by the offstage snickering of my peers while attempting to sing an accented rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is your Land.” I walked off stage feeling like an uninvited guest in someone else’s land, someone else’s dream. But rather than make a permanent exit from that stage and all it represented, I took on all the backstage duties of our remaining school productions.
This proved to be a consequential and rewarding experience because it helped me to learn two pivotal lessons. The first was the importance of collaboration and its corollary, division of labor. The second was the importance of backstage support in ensuring that every performance was masterfully executed. The more invisible our behind-the-scenes efforts were, the more potent the performance.
Although the backstage crew does not solicit the kind of applause that onstage talent does, I walked away from that encounter with the firm conviction that being backstage is a noble and heroic role, well worth playing.
In time, theater became an apt metaphor in helping me understand how a good government should run. The invisible force responsible for making my life so comfortable and efficient was not just the behind-the-scenes labor of thousands of people fulfilling their assigned roles, or the sensible decision-making of public officials. It was also a set of ideas with a plot and a narrative; in other words, a story.
– Inas Younis
In time, theater became an apt metaphor in helping me understand how a good government should run. The invisible force responsible for making my life so comfortable and efficient was not just the behind-the-scenes labor of thousands of people fulfilling their assigned roles, or the sensible decision-making of public officials. It was also a set of ideas with a plot and a narrative; in other words, a story. How this story plays out does not just depend on the coordination of individuals, all operating in good faith, but on a system and a narrative that can stand independently of them.
Freedom was the organizing principle that allowed this magnificent American way of life to evolve, but it was also discipline, responsibility, and a set of nonnegotiable ideals and principles.
From that point on, my pathway to citizenship became more than just an application process. It became an ideological embrace of those very ideas. The idea that freedom is a political, not metaphysical, concept. The idea that morality is a product of choice, not coercion. The idea that freedom is constrained by principles made possible by, dare I say it, the government.
Now don’t get me wrong, as an immigrant who suffered under the tyranny of authoritarianism, I could not have been more mistrustful of government power. In fact, there was a point in my life when I developed a fear of the system. It was all too good to be true, so I concluded it must not be true.
The system became a mysterious nonentity that was responsible for all that was wrong with the world. I became an anti-establishment radical and took on a religious persona that trafficked in conspiratorial thinking, characterized by paranoid speculation and fear of the boogeyman of my generation: communism.
I was saved by my love of reading. I was also blessed that I grew up in a time when that love was confined to books rather than becoming a gateway to the internet, a world without. I made a conscious effort to educate myself on the mechanics of government.
Education became my inoculation against misinformation and propaganda. Demystifying the process and recognizing how very tedious and slow American democracy was and is became the antidote to my paranoia.
I am so blessed to be living in one of the greatest cities in America. As a resident of Overland Park, a forward-thinking city that nurtures civil society and the public realm, I get to observe the tensions and challenges of every mundane aspect of my life being litigated and relitigated with enthusiasm.
People take matters such as different kinds of road surfacing, whether we should have chickens in our backyards, and the location of stop signs very seriously. I observe the process, the long and tedious and at times slow process, with a great sense of relief, because it serves as a reminder that the system is still working exactly the way it should.
What I love about Overland Park, a city that employs practical solutions to our practical problems, is what I love about America. Some people find politics on this level incredibly boring. But politics should be boring. And for someone with my lived experience the more boring it is, the more exciting it becomes.
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