Government by the People

we-the-people

Dear Will:

When I was 19, I moved from Montevideo to Rio Branco, Uruguay, while serving a full-time LDS mission. I lived in an uninsulated, cinderblock apartment with a cold tile floor and a bathroom the size of a walk-in shower. In fact, the bathroom was a walk-in shower—exactly as nice as that sounds.

Just over the wall from Casa Frígida lived Doña Celia Terra, the beloved, local matriarch, who watched over and mothered us missionaries. A widow, Doña Celia lived with her adult son (let’s call him Jorge), who treated us with caution and respect. Only rarely would he enter a room with us present, however, and he never left the house. Not ever.

In time I learned that Jorge was not always the Boo Radley of Rio Branco. As best as I could tell with my still-fledgling Spanish, for some time Jorge had been a prisoner of the military leaders of Uruguay, who had seized control of the government a few years prior in an effort to put down a left-wing insurgency group called Los Tupamaros. Whether Jorge was actually affiliated with Los Tupamaros—and more to the point, whether he had actually done anything illegal—I never really knew. What I did know was that he had been tortured over the course of several years prior to his release, and he emerged from his captivity a severely broken man.

As you might guess, all of this was a bit hard for my 19-year-old brain to comprehend—especially in broken Spanish. Plus I knew next to nothing about Uruguayan politics and history. What made matters worse is that the mid-‘70s was an era in Uruguayan history that people were reluctant to talk about at any length. What was clear was that the citizens of Uruguay were deeply ashamed that their once-proud democracy had been transformed into a military dictatorship—this in a country which was once considered a model of stability and democracy, “The Switzerland of South America.”

Later that year, when I was once again living and working in the capital city of Montevideo, there was a widely publicized, constitutional referendum calling for a YES/NO vote. Once again, I understood very little of what was taking place, but the vast majority of the impossible-to-ignore advertising was in support of the proposal. With virtually no discernible campaign to convince people to vote NO, I assumed that the referendum would pass in a landslide.

At last, on November 30, 1980, over 86% of eligible voters cast ballots as required by law. To my utter astonishment, the referendum was soundly defeated, with over 57% voting against it. It seemed impossible. It was only later that I learned that the purpose of the referendum was to legalize in a new constitution the military control of government that so many Uruguayans found so appalling.

It was a remarkable day in the history of democracy—remarkable (to be fair) that the military allowed the vote to begin with, and remarkable that so many were able to see through prevailing propaganda to reaffirm “government by the people” in keeping with established constitutional law. For me it was also the most powerful example I have witnessed of a the truth taught in the Book of Mormon: “Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right” (Mosiah 29:26).

As we face an election of our own in the days and months ahead, I invite you to ponder that truism and the obligation it implies. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, let your voice be heard. Truth and right will win out so long as good people refuse to sit idly by. Please vote.

PW

The Fellowship of Less-Than-Basic Cable

Dear Will:

When we moved to Orange in 1998, we owned a single, 13-inch color TV with rabbit ears. For the first 12 years of our marriage it served us well, both as an entertainment medium and as a symbol of the importance of television in our lives. Unfortunately, tucked in among the hills of Orange we found it virtually impossible to get television reception through old-fashioned , over-the-air technology. And so it was with reluctance that we phoned TimeWarner and, for the first time ever, we signed up for cable, or I should say, the cheapest cable possible: local channels and not much else. It’s the less-than-basic package they refuse to advertise and will sell to you—reluctantly—only if you ask.

Which is to say, the only TV programs we get at our house are mostly unwatchable. (That may also be true if we got the Gazillion Channel Package, but we would never know.) We don’t get HBO or FSN or even Animal Planet for that matter. Its just UPN, ABC, and several others which are incomprehensible even with the subtitles.

So how is it, you might wonder, that my seven-year-old sports nut, Seth, is in the grips of World Cup Fever? Since we don’t get ESPN, most of the games are available to us only in Spanish on Univision. And Seth doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish. In spite of it all, there he is at 6 a.m.—watching Lithuania versus Bora Bora or whatever—and trying to explain to me why the officiating is so bad. At the same time, he has developed a curious vocabulary: falta, tiro de esquina, fuera de lugar, and the one word we all understand, ¡gooooooooooooooooooool!

What I find so interesting is how this event has begun to introduce Seth to other lands and other cultures. (Do you know where Trinidad & Tobago is? I didn’t. Seth does.) It’s not just that the announcers are speaking in a foreign tongue, but he gets a chance to see the passion of the spectacle which isn’t present at all in the United States. When I was on my mission in Uruguay, I witnessed firsthand the way in which the sport both divided the country (Nacional and Peñarol were the Yankees and Red Sox of their pro soccer league) and united it (in international competition anyway). I even found myself out working one night when Uruguay won the Gold Cup soccer tournament, and all 1.5 million citizens of Montevideo (or so it seemed) streamed into my neighborhood to celebrate. It was as if I had stepped into a completely different universe where I watched, agog, as the citizenry joined in song, deliriously happy, united by a silly game.

Or perhaps not so silly. After all, the World Cup brings people from all over the world into close proximity and forces them, for a couple of hours anyway, to give some thought to another place and people. I witnessed, for example, a moment at the conclusion of one of these matches in which players from opposing teams exchanged jerseys in a traditional display of post-game sportsmanship. One of the players noticed blood on his shirt—the result, no doubt, of rough play—and then good-naturedly insisted on giving his opponent a clean, unstained one instead. It was a marvelous moment of international goodwill, and I was pleased to have Seth see it.

I’m even pleased to have him watching in Spanish inasmuch as we now find ourselves living in an increasingly multi-cultural, bilingual city. Watching a game is helping him to resist the ethnocentric tendencies to which we all fall prey, and if we can begin that process at seven instead of seventeen, I’m all for it. One of the things that the gospel of Jesus Christ is supposed to do is make us “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens” (Ephesians 2:19). I just never imagined that less-than-basic cable could contribute to that end.

PW