NYC is a Place of Dissenters and Immigrants

How many times must it be said: “dissent is patriotic.” Maybe saying isn’t enough. Maybe shouting it, over and over, is in order. American history is filled with examples of dissenters who have moved the country forward by helping it realize—in actuality, not abstraction—the ideals on which it was founded. Labor organizers, suffragists, Civil Rights protestors, LGBTQ organizers, anti-war activists. Many of these protesters were immigrants who saw in this country a place that could be transformed into something better, because the mechanisms for transformative change were in place. They had the tools to see it through: a democratic, though flawed, election process, a forward-thinking Constitution, and an active and stand-alone judiciary.

Nearly every single milestone right we’ve won has been the result of years of dissent and provocation, much of it on the streets of this very city. My heart swells when I pass a protest, even when it’s a message I vehemently disagree with. I’d say I’m happier to witness a protest I disagree with, because it furthers the idea that all can be heard here.

We are closer to what we were meant to be because we question, fight, and work for a better future. We openly criticize policies, politicians, and outdated laws. Want more proof that critique is utterly American? Our First Amendment protections are the strongest in the world. In essence, it is our duty to call out, without fear of retribution, what we believe is problematic.

As an immigrant from the Soviet Union, where dissent was verboten and my own great-grandfather was murdered for casually remarking about a life outside the U.S.S.R, I love this country because when it shines, I see the very best of humanity—openness, civility, and liberty. It’s the promise of America that makes it great. Whether it always lives up to that promise is a different story, but as we’ve been taught by our great leaders, progress isn’t linear. Our country’s history is an amalgamation of heroism and tragedy, of puzzling contradictions. As we were preparing to go to the moon, police officers, with tacit approval, were brutalizing peaceful Civil Rights protesters all over the South. As the United States was engaging in a battle to defeat fascism, Japanese-Americans were being held prisoner as possible traitors for simply sharing the same country of origin as America’s enemy. (No such internment took place for German-Americans, who hosted a thousands-strong rally right in Madison Square Garden. Another example of how race has played an ugly role in how this country treats its immigrants.)

But our greatness is carved into our bones. The fact that, despite being seemingly unconcerned with the fact that his own words didn’t apply to enslaved black people or women, Thomas Jefferson was still able to construct one the most powerful statements ever written: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” To me, the most moving part isn’t “all men are created equal”; it’s the first clause, that equality is a truth that doesn’t need explanation. This sentiment is not something anyone needs to prove. It just is, no questions—especially here, in the city of dissenters and immigrants.

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A Recent Encounter

I had one of those unpleasant big-city encounters a few weeks ago, the kind that makes small-town folk say, “see that’s why I could never live in the city.” It was a crowded morning commute and a man who looked mentally unwell singled me out for some very nasty verbal abuse. I put on my headphones and tried to drown it at as best I could for as long as we were stuck between stations. After I transferred trains, I had a strange realization. I wasn’t that affected by it. Yes, I felt disgust toward him, but it was fleeting. It was hurtful, but it wasn’t “real” in the sense that his words didn’t actually mean anything concrete. They weren’t pointed. They didn’t get at true insecurities. But more than that, I realized that I’d grown thicker-skinned since first moving here nearly 15 years ago. I almost expected the encounter? How can you not, when traveling twice a day, for 30 minutes at a time, in a metal tube trapped with total strangers who embody every kind of human. “New York City” makes one thick-skinned, I thought.

And then immediately after, I thought something else: the city makes one more empathetic, too. And somehow those two states of being exist simultaneously. In the same moment as I was observing myself more unbothered than I expected by his abuse, I felt sorry for him. Actually, not so much “sorry,” which is a passive emotion, but truly empathetic. I thought about his brain, how it was misfiring, how hard it must be to live that kind of life, especially when the illness manifests in vitriol towards other people. I wished he’d find help. New York City, if you let it, can make you more empathetic, because the suffering is in your face, you can’t hide from it. Some grow callous, but that’s not a given. Not if you really see our fellow New Yorkers. A thicker skin and greater empathy aren’t inherent contradictions.

The city forces you to confront these layered emotions. It requires constant mental recalibration, which is equal parts exhausting and exhilarating. Once you’re here, it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else.

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