For the past fifteen weeks, the people of Hong Kong have engaged in pro-democracy demonstrations in the face of proposed legislation by Beijing that would cut further into the semi-autonomous states’ sovereignty. The rest of the world has watched as the small island has vehemently protested the government’s bill that would allow for the extradition to the mainland. Through peaceful protests in one of the world’s largest airports, to urban melees cloaked in tear gas, the people of Hong Kong have shown resolve in their defense of democratic principles. While the protestors have covered their faces to avoid prosecution, one symbol has flown unabashed and unmistakable—the American flag. Even as the people of Hong Kong use the Flag to personify the democratic principles they hold dear, it is difficult to remember a time in which the Flag meant less to Americans than it does today.
America is nearly as divided as it has ever been. Meaningful engagement continues to be drowned out by the nonsensical wailings of two groups moving farther and farther to their respective extremes. Patriotism has dissipated, as has the belief that America and its founding principles are good. In short, it seems that there is little that binds the nation together. Given all of this, it seems puzzling why the people of Hong Kong would rally around our flag—are they not aware of the woes our country is enduring? Do they not see how messy our democratic processes are? Maybe it is their own naiveté that leads them to believe that the grass is greener on the other side, that a truly democratic, autonomous state is better than their one country, two systems arrangement.
Or, maybe it is us Americans who are naïve, and who do not appreciate the incredible rights we have to express ourselves, disagree with one another, and do so freely.
Is it possible that the great turmoil and civil unrest our country faces are, in fact, bi-products of the very principles that make our country so great? Yes, these two things can be true at the same time—we as a nation have many serious issues, but we also live in one of the only states in history where these issues could be brought to light, discussed, and amended. Democracy is messy. It is an imperfect system, created for imperfect people, by imperfect individuals. The biting words, uncomfortable realizations, and ire in today’s politics are agonizing but necessary growing pains towards a better society. They are, in fact, indicative of a democratic nation.
To be clear, there is a concerning lack of decorum in America today. The political climate is toxic and civil society is in peril. There is much room to improve and improve we must. However, the contentious environment of America today is far preferable to the cold, subdued realities in countries with authoritarian regimes. Unbridled, hotly contested discourse, even in its lowest form, is infinitely more comfortable than a land in utter silence.
As Hong Kong continues to fight for its independence and democratic rights, I hope to see them continue to rally behind the American flag. For while America is not perfect, indeed it is far from it, it is a land where people can engage freely, challenge one another, and expect to be challenged. Democracy is not for the faint of heart; it is not something that can be achieved and then put to rest. It is, rather, something worth striving towards, fighting for, and if necessary, dying in the name of. The differences of opinion, religion, race, and identity in the United States is what makes the nation so great – I believe that the protestors in Hong Kong recognize this and I hope one day Americans will too.
Jack Scalia, Denison University