August 30, 2004


Mum's the word
by Rhiannon Ross

I rarely miss taking out the least not since I slapped a sticker on my polycart that reads, "Dump Bush."

Each Wednesday evening, I gleefully roll the cart down the driveway and park it curbside. The look has caught on; my neighbor applied the same sticker to her cart.

And while the sanitation department arrives early the next morning, I usually don't retrieve my empty cart until dusk.

I live in a progressive (as opposed to regressive) community, so perhaps such an act is more smug than brave. But I immensely enjoy exercising my right of free speech.

A couple of friends of mine who live south of 150th Street in Johnson County don't feel as free. They find themselves in a compromising situation: They are Overland Park Democrats. They also are new U.S. citizens, originally from different parts of Asia.

Last spring, while we were sitting on a park bench watching her two children play, my friend confided, in a near whisper that she's a registered Democrat. "I can tell you," she added. I thought she was joking; sadly, she wasn't.

She and her husband have an agreement not to discuss politics in the company of their more politically conservative neighbors. But they will sign and circulate online petitions for their political causes of choice. And they proudly vote.

Another friend of mine, who hails from Down Under, has confessed a similar predicament. She also resides in a largely Republican neighborhood. She reports feeling uncomfortable when the neighborhood moms discuss politics and assume, like them, she's a conservative.

But she's not one to mimic what she terms "Midwest nice," and regularly asserts her viewpoints...but not without occasional fallout.

Recently, one mom informed her that she has no business working for any political candidate since she's not a U.S. citizen.

But my friend's three children are citizens, as is her husband. And she's lived in the U.S. for nearly 15 years. So she certainly has a vested interest in the political direction of this country.

But I like my Aussie friend's response even more. She told the mom, "Would you tell someone she couldn't be involved in an international effort to oppose apartheid in South Africa?"

Still, my friend and her husband sometimes wonder if they should simply forgo political discussions with the "other side."

They're not alone. Silence has become the polite — or politically correct — way to respond to party differences. This code of silence intensifies in an election year, for new immigrants and Mayflower descendants alike.

In America, where we have the constitutional right to freedom of expression, why do we so often choose to go mum? What are we afraid of?

Do we think if we express our political beliefs we'll offend our neighbors and co-workers? Do we want to convert others to our doctrines and failing that, retreat out of frustration? Or is our hesitation more personal, such as anxiety over losing clients or professional standing in one's community? Or perhaps even irrational; maybe we won't be invited to the annual block party or someone will hijack the polycart?

Certainly it's not out of fear of imprisonment or death, as was once possible in many parts of the world and in still too many countries today.

Granted, it may be easier to associate with those who follow the same news, read the same bestsellers, forward the same political email jokes and petitions, and watch the same documentaries.

But what do we — both as individuals and as a nation — potentially stand to lose with this arrangement?

A friend of mine from Bulgaria says that under Soviet rule, they were forbidden to speak about differences. She says this silencing helped to keep the peace.

Is that what we're doing? Keeping the peace?

But we have a choice.

We can speak out, come what may, or self-censor our opinions and dispose of the essence of what it means to live in a democracy.

Rhiannon Ross lives in Kansas. She can be contacted at or



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