Nearly two decades ago, just as war grabbed the world by the throat following the September 11th terrorist attacks, I was serving in the military with a white guy from the Deep South named Rob. He would come to be one of my closest shipmates, and we’ve stayed connected over the years. He’s the same guy today that he was then — light-hearted, pragmatic, facts-driven, sees the best in others. 

But a few weeks back, he reached out to me with an uncharacteristically gloomy message: “I am really concerned with everything that’s going on,” he wrote. “We are being torn apart, and race seems to be the main reason. How have we — a black guy and a white guy with different worldviews — managed to keep our friendship alive? Maybe there’s a lesson in it?”

My friend is not alone in his malaise. Many of us feel it. Slightly more than three in four Americans believe the country is not headed in the right direction. Nearly 75 percent say race relations are bad. Over 60 percent say economic inequality is a problem, and national pride has fallen to a record low. An overwhelming majority disapproves of the job our government and elected officials are doing. And perhaps most telling, we see declining trust in each other as the root of the major challenges plaguing the nation.

These sobering figures seem to describe a society whose structural supports have grown rickety. They suggest that we’ve passed some point of no return. Perhaps most of all, they beg the question facing democracies around the world, especially those that are increasingly multiracial and multiethnic: What do we have left that still binds us together?

The answer, from my perspective, is a civil religion.

The concept of civil religion dates back hundreds of years. Every nation has one. Eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau conceptualized civil religion as a set of beliefs that define what it means to be a virtuous citizen. But sociologist Robert Bellah gave the thing teeth when he conceived of an American iteration of it in 1967.

Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr

What do we have left that still binds us together? The answer, from my perspective, is a civil religion.

The American civil religion is a sociological theory that suggests there’s a semi-religious dimension to civic and public life. Like most religions, it’s a faith expressed through a set of beliefs, symbols, sacraments and rituals that bind unlike people together. The high-minded ideals of equality, liberty, justice and opportunity become the basis for a shared identity consecrated in American cultural cornerstones — in documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; in rhetoric like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; in observances like Independence Day and Memorial Day; in symbols like the flag and the Statue of Liberty; and in rituals like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the peaceful transfer of power on Inauguration Day.

An appropriately conceived civil religion establishes the duties of citizenship, provides a transcendent national identity, is accommodating of social diversity and provides a point of allegiance. In effect, by each of us agreeing to become parishioners of sorts of the American civil religion, we have agreed to fight for a common vision of the future and defend each other’s access to the full rights, privileges and protections of citizenship.

But civil religion is not without its risks. Its power has caused many political figures to hijack it, translating it into a tool for exclusion that proclaims that its principles belong only to some. The corrupted version weaponizes things like the flag and national anthem and demands an unquestioning and uncritical fealty. It is why kneeling during the national anthem divides us instead of inspiring a national conversation about race. It is why the wearing of masks becomes a debate about freedom instead of a common sense measure to protect public health. And it is why elections are filled with politicians demonizing one another by claiming their opponents hate America.

Conflicts like these have caused some to wonder whether it’s even possible to establish effective bonds between citizens in large, diverse democracies. It’s certainly trickier. The ancient Greek philosophers thought cities were the ideal size for societies — the word “citizen” is derived from this idea. Perhaps a nation is just too big to govern.

Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr

By each of us agreeing to become parishioners of sorts of the American civil religion, we have agreed to fight for a common vision of the future and defend each other’s access to the full rights, privileges and protections of citizenship.

Consider the United States, the world’s third-largest nation. It just isn’t possible for each American to know and feel connected to 330 million others. At times, we’ve tried to deny this obvious fact with misguided claims of a single national identity. One of the country’s founding documents argued as much, declaring that Americans “descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion.”

Those words were untrue in 1787, and are even more untrue today. In the United States, Native Americans, the descendants of enslaved Black Africans and immigrants from all corners of the world have contributed a multitude of origins, languages and cultures to help fashion a new nation. Today, one’s American experience remains heavily influenced by race, ethnicity, class and immigration status. Even the coronavirus pandemic has not spurred a sense of national solidarity, and people of color are dying from it at disproportionately high rates.

And yet, my buddy’s question seemed to suggest we had defied the odds: How did we — a black guy and a white guy with different worldviews — manage to form and maintain a friendship that has lasted decades? I think ours is what you would call a civic friendship. A civic friendship is civil religion scaled down to the level of the individual; civic friends, in multitudes, are a civil religion’s flock.

The concept of civic friendship dates back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It’s grounded in a shared sense of morality, common values and compassion for one another. It is infused with the understanding that civic friendships — and the collective civil religion they comprise — underpin the strength and integrity of society to the benefit of all. The concept is vital. As Princeton professor Robert George puts it, “Civic friendship is an absolutely indispensable condition of self-government… If you don’t have civic friendship, disagreements turn us into enemies, and you cannot sustain a republic among people who regard themselves as each other’s enemies.”

Being civic friends is hard work. It requires a commitment from the citizenry to do for each other so that all of us can access the full rights and privileges of citizenship. There have always been — and will always be — well-resourced efforts to prevent this from happening by those who hold onto power by undermining a solidarity that crosses lines of race, class, ethnicity, region and religion. But if we are to leave a functioning, stable and just democracy to future generations, establishing and maintaining these civic friendships is our only option.

The task may not be as daunting as it sounds. Even amid all the division broadcast across traditional and social media, most of us want similar things from our society. We want to be treated equally. We want to be included and respected. We want access to opportunities and to feel safe in our communities. We want our institutions and systems to be fair and just. And if government derives its power from our consent, then we have the ability to make our country more unified if we are willing to focus on what we have in common so we can work through the areas where we differ.

I had no epiphanies for Rob. But I did have some reasons to be hopeful to share with him. I told him that as disconnected as people may feel from one another, more than half of us are optimistic about the future. We agree on what it means to be a good citizen and the democratic values that should define our nation. I told him that if we had a lesson for others, it is the central role that a kind of friendship plays in ensuring we see each other’s better angels.

“Take heart, my friend,” I concluded. “If we’re willing to do the hard work of introspection, it’ll be clear that we are not divided.”

This story was produced by The Tyee, a We Are Not Divided collaborator

It started, like many modern relationships do, with a smile and then a swipe. 

On April 12, when Julie Arps first messaged Lynt Harris on Plenty of Fish, the world around them was growing increasingly unrecognizable. The novel coronavirus had infected just over a million people worldwide. New York’s skyrocketing death toll was front page news. The pandemic had sent the world economy into a tailspin and shut down international borders, including the one between Arps and Harris’s homes.

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Julia Arps (left) in the United States and Lynt Harris in Canada. Credit: David Tesinsky

Arps lives in Ferndale, Washington, just a 45 minute drive away from Harris’s home in Surrey, British Columbia. Before the virus came along, neither of them thought of the U.S.-Canada border as much of an obstacle. Arps says she’s a fan of Vancouver’s sushi and Stanley Park. Harris says he’s taken his family to visit Washington as many as eight times in a typical year. But 2020 refused to be typical. 

The ban on travel between Canada and the U.S. hadn’t registered when Harris was crafting his reply; instead he was worried about responding too instantly. Harris says he waited a full day before messaging Arps back, just to be safe.

But a few messages soon snowballed into long chats on WhatsApp and Zoom, often spanning late into the night. “As soon as we started the video chat I could just tell that he is special,” Arps told me over Zoom in late September. I found myself mirroring her smile as she talked about the moment she knew this wasn’t just a fleeting app-enabled flirtation. He’s a good man in a way that’s hard to explain, she said. Her beaming eyes said the rest.

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It was Julie’s son who first suggested that they take their dates to the Peace Arch park along the border. Credit: David Tesinsky

Harris found himself captivated by her calm and sense of humor in the face of so much strangeness. He gave Arps a grand tour over video chat — of his house, his job, his previous marriage, his two kids in their twenties, and everything in between. Arps has kids of a similar age and works as a teacher in Blaine, the last American stop before the duty-free parking lot. It was her son who first suggested that they take their dates to the Peace Arch park along the border, which straddles the 49th parallel and is accessible to residents of both countries. The Peace Arch park is unique — a green space in which U.S. and Canadian citizens can co-mingle, as long as they don’t cross the park’s perimeter into the other country. 

For their first in-person meeting on May 22, Arps was guided by immigration lawyer and family friend Len Saunders, best known for helping out Canadians who’ve admitted their cannabis habits to border guards.

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The Peace Arch park is unique — a green space in which both U.S. and Canadian citizens can co-mingle, as long as they don’t cross the park’s perimeter into the other country. Credit: David Tesinsky

“He’s actually a longtime friend of ours because my younger son is best friends with his son,” Arps said. “He walked me all the way through the park to meet Lynt. He told us where we could go in the park and where we were free to roam and hang out and everything.”

In those still-early days of lockdown, a reopened border didn’t seem too far away, Arps told me. They met two or three times a week in the afternoons when Harris got off work, which was a blissful diversion from all the state-ordered isolation. They held hands, ate snacks on a picnic blanket, and tossed a frisbee surrounded by other reunited couples and families. At one of their first meetings Harris gave Arps a remote to open the gate outside his building. “When she comes in, she can just kind of drive through,” he explained.

Then the goal posts moved back a month, and then another. Even though businesses were allowed to reopen and shelter-in-place orders were lifted, Canada’s ban on non-essential travel did not ease up over the summer. “It’s been extended six times now,” Arps said.

Credit: David Tesinsky

From my first look, when I saw them sitting less than a meter apart, I really felt it’s a love story.

Harris and Arps have continued to stay hopeful through rain, wildfire smoke, and even a temporary closure of the Peace Arch park. In June the park’s south entrance was barricaded over crowd concerns, so Saunders suggested a lesser-known meeting place along Zero Avenue at the international border near Abbotsford, B.C.

“It was not the safest place,” Arps said of the grassy “border ditch” where they met for just a few weeks. With tall grass and uneven ground in the middle, and a fast-moving highway on the edges, it was a short drive but a great distance from the stately “together in unity”-inscripted Peace Arch monument. 

Harris and Arps have continued to stay hopeful through rain, wildfire smoke, and even a temporary closure of the Peace Arch park. Credit: David Tesinsky

Despite the unglamorous setting, Arps and Harris smiled through unseasonably cold June weather. It was there they met Czech photographer David Tesinsky, who noticed their umbrellas and lawn chairs by the side of the road. 

“From my first look, when I saw them sitting less than a meter apart, I really felt it’s a love story,” Tesinsky told me for a story in July. Across a 50 kilometer stretch of road, Harris and Arps were one of two couples braving the elements in what looked like the middle of nowhere. 

Harris and Arps were able to return to their preferred transnational picnic spot later that month, and Tesinsky visited them there, too. As reporters like myself started to take interest in their blossoming relationship, fellow park attendees started recognizing them.

“Just the other day a young couple came up to us and asked if we were the couple in the article,” Arps said, referring to a heartfelt Maclean’s profile in September. “They had actually made this remarkable trip from Michigan and Ontario, just to meet in the park.”

Arps was amazed to hear that long-distance couples were making cross-country journeys just to share the same fresh air during a global pandemic. She’s since received social media messages from people in Oregon and Alberta asking about the park. “It’s such a special place for us,” she said.

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When the park’s south entrance was barricaded over crowd concerns, they began meeting at the international border near Abbotsford, B.C. Credit: David Tesinsky

Harris told me the attention takes him out of his comfort zone a little, but he’s glad to inspire others to connect. There’s a second wave of infections and a high-stakes American election outcome on the way, so spreading kindness and hope feels more radical than ever.

With Covid-19 cases rising, days getting shorter and rain coming down more than ever, Harris and Arps know their personal challenges aren’t going away soon. The park closes when the sun sets, which will mean less time together during the week over the winter months. “It’s just going to be kind of restricted to the weekends,” said Harris.

Both Arps and Harris say they’re still hopeful that restrictions will ease up a little, if not entirely. “We’ve got more control of things now, I think we’re safer than we were,” said Harris. “We’ve got more knowledge about how to protect ourselves.” 

Arps heard rumblings that the two countries were preparing to introduce exceptions to the travel ban in September, and sure enough, on October 2, the Canadian government announced it would allow families and couples of at least one year to apply to cross for a minimum 15-day stay. 

Credit: David Tesinsky

I’m obviously really devoted to Jules, so I keep a smile on my face. Eventually things will open up.

Harris and Arps are still a few months away from celebrating a one year anniversary, but their plans together extend a lot further into the future. “I’m obviously really devoted to Jules, so I keep a smile on my face,” Harris said. “Eventually things will open up.”

Arps knows that one day she’ll be able to use the remote Harris gave her. When that finally happens, she says she doesn’t imagine anything too fancy — just some quality time, and maybe a bike ride together.

“I try to keep it in perspective and think about the big picture,” Arps said. “In the long term, this isn’t as big a deal as it will be in the future. And we’re going to have a good story to tell.”

At 5 a.m. on August 11, 2018, city workers in yellow vests and hard hats arrived at City Hall in Victoria, British Columbia. It was a cloudy morning in the small coastal provincial capital, and even at the early hour a crowd was gathering. The workers flanked a bronze statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, which stood behind a tall metal fence. Cinching ropes around Macdonald’s neck as the sun broke through the clouds, they hoisted the figure off its base.

As the statue swung toward a waiting flatbed truck, a dozen protesters linked arms, singing the Canadian national anthem. A handful of counter activists responded with their own chant:  “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!”

At 7:30 a.m. the truck pulled away with its burden, on its way to placing the nation’s founding father in the hidden confines of a city storage facility.

Macdonald’s Victoria likeness joins a growing heap of discarded monuments to controversial figures around the world: Violent colonialists. Slave traders. Genocidal politicians. 

The John A. MacDonald statue in front of City Hall in Victoria, B.C. in August 2018, two weeks before it was taken down. Credit: Wikipedia

In 2015, after a long and emotional “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign led by Black South Africans, the University of Cape Town toppled a statue of famed imperialist Cecil Rhodes, whose policies laid the foundations for Apartheid. That same year, a movement to do away with U.S. confederate monuments gained traction. By 2018, more than 100 of them had been plucked from their former places of pride and many others faced harsh scrutiny.  

This moment peaked when the Charlottesville, Virginia city council voted in favor of removing a statue of Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee, sparking an infamous eruption in the streets between white nationalist groups and counter protesters. The feud climaxed when right-wing extremist James Fields drove his car into the crowd, hospitalizing 19 people and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a supporter of the removal. Fields pled guilty to 29 charges of hate crimes and was sentenced to life plus 419 years in prison. Charlottesville’s monument to Lee is still standing.

Since June this year, Charlottesville’s Lee statue and countless other monuments around the world have come under renewed scrutiny amid global anti-racism protests. Hundreds of statues have been removed almost overnight by city governments, or dealt with by protestors: smeared with red paint, toppled from their podiums, beheaded

Yet few of the cities where these statues have fallen have deeper plans to address the roots of these interventions, as though removing the visible symbol of racism or hatred — the monument — somehow absolves the city of the duty to deal with that problem further. For example, “Many of the cities that have made symbolic gestures in support of Black activists and communities in recent weeks have also declined to cut police budgets as drastically as activists had hoped,” the Boston Globe reported.  

More than ever, it seems, the world is desperate for a how-to guide for taking statue removal beyond the symbol, to the system. That’s what makes Victoria’s story special. 

Bill Stewart is Métis, a term which refers to people of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry or, in a legal context, descendants of specific communities in Ontario and the Prairies.

Stewart had publicly advocated for the removal of Macdonald’s statue from Victoria City Hall. When he arrived at the scene shortly after it had been removed, someone showed him a picture of the statue hoisted by its neck.

“Debates over statues and monuments are often framed in terms of being about the past. I would argue they’re more about the present, and what values we want to continue forward with into the future.”

He immediately thought of the historic Métis leader Louis Riel, who was hanged for treason by Macdonald’s government in 1885 for leading an uprising to defend Métis and First Nations rights. “It was a symbolic hanging,” Stewart says of the statue. 

Stewart, who is 54, was taken from his birth mother as a newborn and adopted into a white family in Kitchener, Ontario. He only discovered he was Métis in his twenties, after years of abuse from his adoptive mother. 

“I spent the majority of my life seeing myself as a white man,” explains Stewart, but “I was raised being discriminated against for being Métis.”

Stewart wouldn’t understand the full implications of his Métis identity for another 20 years after his discovery. Upon meeting several survivors of the “Sixties Scoop” — an assimilationist child welfare practice in Canada, where at least 20,000 young First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families and adopted into other, predominantly white, households — Stewart realized he, too, had survived the Scoop.

Many of the figures whose statues have been felled in recent years represent colonial power exerted ruthlessly and violently. But Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s schoolchildren have been taught to understand, embodied a different ethos. 

In national lore, Macdonald has been portrayed as the gentle if imperfect George Washington of Canada and a deal-maker with mother England. Textbooks praise him as the person most responsible for uniting Canada under confederation in 1867 and building a transcontinental railroad when few thought it possible.


What Canadian schools have not taught until recentlya change accelerated by specific requests from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — is that confederation was achieved on the backs of Indigenous people, whose culture Macdonald worked to explicitly destroy as Canada’s longest-serving superintendent-general of Indian Affairs. He pushed forward the Indian Residential School System and the Department of Indian Affairs, the foundations of Canada’s assimilationist policies, with the explicit aim to eradicate Indigenous culture and “get rid of the Indian problem.” 

Last year the federally funded Canadian Museum of Human Rights recognized that the Indian Residential Schools system, which ran until the final school closed in Saskatchewan in 1996, was a violation of the United Nations Genocide Convention.

The Sixties Scoop (which lasted officially until the 1990s, and some argue continues unofficially to this day) was an extension of that system: In both programs, the practice was to remove Indigenous children from their homes at a young age, often without parental consent, while they could still be “civilized” and taught Western ways, as the then-Minister of Public Works Hector Langevin told the House of Commons in 1883. 

For Stewart, a monument paying homage to Macdonald is “not an academic issue. It’s something that strikes very close to home.” 

Protesters on the day of the removal included members of the white extremist group Soldiers of Odin and the hard-right BC Proud group. But many with less radical leanings also take their side. 

“When you place an individual on a pedestal in public space, it makes it very difficult to tell a complex narrative about that individual. The focus is on honoring them and glorifying their legacy.”

A national survey found that 55 percent of Canadians opposed the statue’s removal, twice as many as those who supported it. Seven in 10 Canadians believe “the name and image of John A. Macdonald should remain in public view,” the survey also found.

The heated debate sparked by the statue’s removal did not surprise Reuben Rose-Redwood, an associate professor of geography at the University of Victoria. “Statues in particular are these focal points for conflicts over culture and values,” says Rose-Redwood, who has spent the past decade publishing research about “commemorative landscapes” — physical signs and statues which memorialize, and often celebrate, certain people, events, or values. “It’s taking our values, which are this intangible thing, and materializing it in the actual landscape,” he adds. It gives us somewhere tangible to point to, or go, to fight over these values in the real world.

Rose-Redwood also argues that monuments prohibit nuance. “When you place an individual on a pedestal in public space, it makes it very difficult to tell a complex narrative about that individual. The focus is on honoring them and glorifying their legacy,” he says. Certain values that may be unjust or otherwise outdated “become part of the landscape. They become taken for granted and normalized. We’re placing our values literally in stone.”

Rose-Redwood was in attendance as Macdonald’s monument was carted away. He held a sign reading: “We aren’t erasing history, we’re making it.”

The claim that removing a statue is erasing history has become a central refrain among those who object to similar actions around the world. Scholars of memorialization are quick to counter this claim emphasizing that statues are not history in and of themselves.

“Debates over statues and monuments are often framed in terms of being about the past,” Rose-Redwood explains. “I would argue they’re more about the present, and what values we want to continue forward with into the future.”

The statue of Macdonald is a prime example of this: it was only erected 38 years ago, in 1982, in a city he had only visited once, and was unilaterally approved by a conservative mayor confident the act would win support. 

Historian and University of Manitoba professor Adele Perry wrote in an op-ed for the Winnipeg Free Press that it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that Canadians began to commemorate Macdonald as the founder of Canada. Macdonald’s face didn’t even appear on the ten dollar bill until 1971. 

Perry argues that these commemorative acts at this time in Canada’s history “mainly tell us about the aspirations and anxieties of some English-speaking Canadians” during a period “marked by Québécois nationalism, Indigenous resistance, the challenges of feminism and a Canada that was less and less white.”

Elder Mary Anne Thomas of Esquimalt Nation and Elder Elmer Seniemten George of Songhees Nation participate in the Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues, a six-part series of conversations about what reconciliation could look like on Lekwungen territory. Photo courtesy of City of Victoria

Similar belated commemoration practices forcing a certain narrative of the past during periods of unrest are common around the world. In the United States, most of the early commemorative statues erected immediately following the Civil War were general memorials to the fallen soldiers from both sides. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, however, shows most of the Confederate monuments now hotly contested weren’t installed until two key points in American history: during the Jim Crow Era in the South, and at the peak of the Civil Rights movement. The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, for example, was erected more than five decades after his death, in 1924, in the Jim Crow South. 

“I think it’s important to understand that one of the meanings of these monuments when they’re put up, is to try to settle the meaning of the war,” Jane Dailey, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, told NPR. “But also the shape of the future, by saying that elite Southern whites are in control and are going to build monuments to themselves effectively.” 

Bill Stewart’s mission to see John A. Macdonald toppled in Victoria reached a very public moment at a City Council meeting on September 21, 2017.

In his pocket was a speech he’d carefully written. “I completely scrapped it,” he says, because that same day Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau had made his points more grandly, and more forcefully, in front of the United Nations General Assembly. Instead, Stewart told Victoria’s politicians what Trudeau had told the world.

“Canada is built on the ancestral land of Indigenous Peoples,” Trudeau began, “but regrettably, it’s also a country that came into being without the meaningful participation of those who were there first… For Indigenous Peoples in Canada, the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect and abuse.”

Florence Dick of Songhees Nation. Photo courtesy of City of Victoria

“The failure of successive Canadian governments to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada is our great shame. And for many Indigenous Peoples, this lack of respect for their rights persists to this day.” Trudeau pledged that Indigenous-Canadian relations would change, promising Canada would begin to abide by the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If Trudeau’s words were to be taken seriously, Stewart told Victoria’s city councillors, they would address the Macdonald statue outside their front door. 

He wasn’t the first, or the last, to make that demand. The city had already declared 2017 the “Year of Reconciliation” with Indigenous people, including a Witness Reconciliation Program meant to facilitate dialogue between the City of Victoria and the Lekwungen People, now known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.

The initiative was spearheaded by City Councillor Marianne Alto, who first suggested a task force for reconciliation with the Lekwungen People, on whose traditional lands the city sits. 

But the Nations didn’t feel a task force was reflective of their culture. 

Through a conversation with the chiefs and councils of the two Nations, the city realized if they were going to do the work of decolonization, they needed to find a more Indigenous method for working together. On the advice of the Songhees and Esquimalt, they created a “City Family” which would operate in a relaxed, non-hierarchical way.

The City Family has met monthly in the Mayor’s office since June 2017, and is made up of Mayor Lisa Helps, a few city councillors including Alto, and members of the Songhees, Esquimalt and urban Indigenous communities — always with more Indigenous than non-Indigenous members. 

“It was a very organic and slow-moving discussion. That has been a tremendous learning experience for all of us who are not Indigenous: how unhelpful it often is to rush.”

On one evening each month, the diverse members of the City Family congregate in the more relaxed part of Mayor Helps’ office. They sit on couches and chairs in a circle as they share a meal. Conversation flows with no strict agenda, and although Mayor Helps is officially the leader of this family, “No one is higher than the other,” affirms Florence Dick, a member of Songhees Nation and of the City Family since March 2019. “We come in as equal.” 

It didn’t take long for the John A. Macdonald statue to arise in those early gatherings. Councillor Alto recalls that before members of the City Family had grown to know and trust each other, “there was this almost palpable sense of discomfort with some of the members.” It took a few months before someone finally asked what was wrong.

Initially one person bravely shared that every time they went to City Hall, walking past the statue of Macdonald made them “feel taken aback and uncomfortable,” Alto recounts. All the Indigenous members agreed. This started lengthy conversations among the City Family about how best to address the trauma of the statue, which lasted for about eight months. 

“It was a very organic and slow-moving discussion,” says Alto. “That has been a tremendous learning experience for all of us who are not Indigenous: how unhelpful it often is to rush.”

Finally, they agreed to keep the decision about removing the statue simple. They brought their idea to the local Nations’ councils for feedback and support. Everyone agreed the City of Victoria would claim responsibility for the decision to remove the statue in order to minimize the likelihood of the Indigenous people involved in the process being attacked. A plaque, co-written by the members of the City Family, would go where the statue had once stood. 

“We said, we’re not going to make it happen with a lot of fanfare, we’re not going to provide an opportunity for people to become charged about this,” Councillor Alto says.

Mayor Helps is guided by the view that it’s crucial to honor the opinions of the “most deeply affected people,” in this case the local Indigenous community. Both Helps and Alto emphasize that anyone committed to tackling systemic racism or injustice or addressing a problematic monument in their community needs to think first, and constantly, about process. “You can’t just do things the way you’re used to.”

“It’s not just the act that should be reconciliatory, but also the process,” adds Helps. “The process is almost more important than the statue removal.”


This is the most pronounced difference between Victoria’s approach to toppling a contested memorial, and how it has been done elsewhere in the world. When they created the City Family, they were focused on a larger goal of reconciliation and meaningful relationship building, not the removal of Macdonald’s likeness. But when they learned they couldn’t build positive relationships as long as Macdonald loomed over their proceedings, they responded to the need voiced by every Indigenous member of their Family: that he had to go in order for the real work to begin. 

When Bill Stewart heard Macdonald was losing his place of honor in Victoria, his thought was celebratory: “Wow, this is actually happening.”

Not pleased was the statue’s sculptor, John Dann. In an opinion piece he wrote for the Globe and Mail, he argued that while he was concerned about the treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, removing his statue was the wrong way to address Macdonald’s legacy.

A reconciliation plaque now stands outside Victoria City Hall. Photo courtesy of City of Victoria

“The piece was conceived without a pedestal and it was placed in a somewhat enclosed space that facilitated an intimacy with it,” Dann wrote. “It did not aggrandize the man, but was a reflection of his humanity, on our shared humanity, with all its strengths, weaknesses, confidence and insecurities.”

For Florence Dick, the uniting of Canada into a single nation was not a noble act led by a flawed man, but a calamity of subjugation for Indigenous Peoples. Macdonald’s bronze presence at City Hall inflicted a repeated insult to her mind and soul.

“Every time we went there, it still didn’t feel comfortable. It still didn’t feel right,” she says. The statue of Macdonald, representing the colonial establishment of Canada, was experienced by Dick and her elders as a daily violent reminder of their place in the colonial system. 

When she heard the statue was gone, she immediately thought of her daughter and her three-year-old granddaughter. “I felt joy,” says Dick. “Now my grandkids, when they become leaders of our people, won’t have that over them. They can officially walk in as equal. I couldn’t do that. My parents couldn’t do that. My elders couldn’t do that.”

Dick feels hopeful about the world her granddaughter will grow up in. Not just because one statue was removed, but due to the entire process of reconciliation happening within the City of Victoria.

“I see people taking statues down all over Canada and the U.S., but not understanding our point of view,” says Dick. Victoria, in contrast, is taking measures to break down the centuries-old barriers between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the area, Dick feels. Victoria is providing reconciliation training for all city staff and has hosted a conversation series organized by the City Family to educate the public about the history of Victoria and the Lekwungen People, the principles of UNDRIP and the impacts of colonization on Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

In addition, the 2019-2022 Strategic Plan for the City of Victoria outlines 17 specific actions to be taken for “Reconciliation and Indigenous Relations.” The actions should create systemic change, says Mayor Helps, and ensure reconciliation becomes “embedded in the practice of the city” through a diverse range of measures, from increased visibility of Indigenous Peoples and cultures throughout the city to more difficult conversations about land sovereignty.

Another goal? To make the City Family a “core program” for Victoria.“No one can create a program that is untouchable, but we can make it as difficult as possible to break it down,” says Alto. “That’s the goal.”

Alto keeps alive in her memory a story told to her by an Indigenous Elder at an early meeting about how to advance reconciliation in Victoria.

“This program is like all things,” the Elder said, “a journey that starts with a canoe. And you get in a canoe and set off on the river. You know that eventually all rivers lead to the ocean, but they all take different routes.

“Once in a while you’ll get stuck in an eddy, or hit a branch, and it may seem to you that it slows or impedes your progress. But at that moment something else will happen which is important for you to see and learn.”

“Eventually, you will reach the ocean. It may take you a very long time, or a short time.” Most importantly, says Alto, “reaching the ocean is not reconciliation. Being on the river is reconciliation.”

Bill Stewart, for his part, is pleased to see a new bend in that river. “I grew up with the idea of Canada the Good, and I shared that dream,” he says. Taking satisfaction in the demise of a monument to John A. Macdonald is “not about trying to tear it down,” he says. It’s about “trying to move from the ideal of Canada the Good to the reality.”

Cole Pauls is a Tahltan comic artist, illustrator and printmaker hailing from Haines Junction (Yukon Territory) with a BFA in illustration from Emily Carr University. Residing in Vancouver, Pauls focuses on his two comic series, Pizza Punks: a self contained comic strip about punks eating pizza, and Dakwäkãda Warriors. In 2017, Pauls won Broken Pencil Magazine’s Best Comic and Best Zine of the Year Award for Dakwäkãda Warriors II. In 2020, Dakwäkãda Warriors won Best Work in an Indigenous Language from the Indigenous Voices Awards and was nominated for the Doug Wright Award categories, The Egghead & The Nipper.

Wikipedia is one of the hubs of internet knowledge. The online encyclopedia receives more than 18 billion page views every month, which means that it exerts a huge influence on the way we think about our world and how we discuss every conceivable political and social issue.

Incredibly, Wikipedia is entirely curated by a team of volunteer users who come from many different backgrounds — and, unsurprisingly, the pages have become sites of ideological warfare, with different sides trying to control the terms of debate.

Is that conflict productive? Does the input of a politically diverse group of curators and editors result in more biased information — or less? How do we know which Wikipedia articles are comprehensive and balanced and which are not?

You might expect that people who already agree with each other are able to work cohesively to create more accurate pages. But according to a new study, that’s not true. It finds that Wikipedia’s political, social issues and science pages edited by a more politically diverse segment of editors ended up being higher quality.

The example of Wikipedia suggests that intellectual diversity can help teams produce higher-quality work, thanks to the different perspectives brought to bear on shared goals. When we lack intellectual diversity, it makes it much easier for us to develop blind spots or even discriminate against colleagues with different views. There are online projects — like Wikipedia or the news site AllSides — that are trying to develop healthy practices around intellectual diversity in a society where that’s increasingly rare. These projects are becoming laboratories where scientists can test the conditions that foster exchange across political differences.

Wikipedia has internal quality metrics like comprehensiveness and readability that editors use to rate articles and allocate resources. “We kind of piggybacked on their efforts and use this tool for our purposes,” says Misha Teplitskiy, one of the researchers who performed the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard University.

After taking account of Wikipedia’s own measure of quality, Teplitskiy and his colleagues measured the ideological alignments of individual Wikipedia editors by the number of contributions they made to either conservative or liberal articles. In fact, they found that the structure of Wikipedia necessitated cross-ideological collaboration.

“If you want to edit whatever controversial topic, you really are forced to interact with whoever is already editing that topic,” says Teplitskiy. “You can’t just start your own Wikipedia page for the conservative take on climate change or something, right? There’s already a climate change page. You’re gonna have to play with the folks that are already in that sandbox. And that’s, of course, very different from Twitter, etc., where there’s no limit, there’s no forcing mechanism to get people into one room for a particular topic.”

“You can’t just start your own Wikipedia page for the conservative take on climate change. There’s already a climate change page. You’re gonna have to play with the folks that are already in that sandbox.”

But does this approach result in better pages? Yes. They found that more ideologically polarized teams of editors outperformed the homogenous ones, according to Wikipedia’s internal metrics. Their paper notes that the effect was greatest for political articles but also was seen in the other two issue areas. As polarization among editors rose, the odds of moving from lower- to higher-quality categories increased by a factor of almost 19 for political articles, and by about two for both social issues and science articles.

This isn’t the first study to find that heterogeneous groups can often come up with better solutions than homogenous groups. A recent study of professional video game teams found that the more culturally diverse groups won more prize money. Diverse crowds often out-guess individuals. In the influential 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki describes many studies and examples of groups solving problems better than individuals. For example, contestants on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? were more likely to win when they asked the audience to guess the weight of an ox, as opposed to phoning a single trusted friend.

As these thinkers argue, political and intellectual diversity can benefit a team by helping team members see flaws in their own ideas: If everybody agrees with you, it’s hard to see what you could possibly be missing. And lacking that diversity — just like lacking diversity in other dimensions — could create environments where discrimination occurs.

While Wikipedia might have embraced this kind of diversity, several studies have found that other institutions are moving in precisely the opposite direction.

In 2012, researchers studied political diversity in the field of social and personality psychology. They surveyed a broad range of social and personality psychologists on various issues to figure out where they stand politically and how they would interact with colleagues who share different politics.

They found that while respondents had varied positions on the issues, they overwhelmingly identified as left-leaning. This is important because much of our polarization is based on self-identification with labels, rather than what we actually believe.

Indeed, the researchers found that in this overwhelmingly liberal environment, there was a high willingness to discriminate against conservatives. More than one in three respondents said they would discriminate against conservatives when making hiring decisions; one in four said they would discriminate in reviewing their grant applications.

More recently, NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt has noted that the political identifications of those who work in academia have become much more one-sided than they were in the recent past. In his recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, he and co-author Greg Lukianoff argue that in the early 1990s liberal professors outnumbered conservatives two-to-one, but that this ratio has shifted closer to five-to-one in recent years, with certain departments being even more lopsided.

Perhaps as a result, the general public has come to view higher education in a more polarized way, with liberals consistently approving of these institutions more than conservatives do. This trend risks undermining those institutions, as both sides start to evaluate them by political leaning rather than merit.

As the study of social psychology suggests, this can increase the risk of acts of discrimination against conservatives on campus, but also against institutions that conservatives may implicitly perceive as liberal.

In addition, we know that calamities have occurred when teams excluded or marginalized dissenting voices who could have pointed out the errors of their processes and conclusions. Examples range from Commodity Futures Trading Commission chair Brooksley Born trying to warn regulators about looming financial risk prior to the Great Recession to the intellectual consensus around the Iraq war, which was formed by a news media that mostly excluded anti-war voices.

“Filter bubbles in the mainstream media are one of the most dangerous aspects of the modern age because they reinforce the least risky positions.”

In 2017, Germany’s Goethe Institute commissioned the Jerusalem-based journalist Antony Loewenstein to discuss the problem of ideological silos. “Filter bubbles in the mainstream media are one of the most dangerous aspects of the modern age because they reinforce the least risky positions,” he says.

Promoting a healthier and competitive media is one way to promote intellectual diversity, but we also need to be mindful about doing so in our everyday lives, in our choice of media. Today, the website AllSides works to help people broaden their minds and consider the news and politics from points of view other than their own. Its founder, John Gable, was a long-time Republican Party staffer who later went to work on the internet browser Netscape.

“We all had this great thought that the internet would help us connect with each other,” he says of his Netscape days. But he was worried that the internet would also “train us to discriminate against each other in new ways.” In retrospect, his concern was justified: Two decades later, we can see that filter bubbles and tribal clustering are a real problem in online spaces.

“It trains us to think in categories,” says Gable. “If you and I disagree on the environment, let’s say, it’s not just that you are wrong, but you must be evil because you’re one of them.”

In response, Gable worked with Joan Blades, a co-founder of the liberal organization, to start AllSides seven years ago.

AllSides offers its readers a menu of news items alongside coverage from the left, right and center. If, for instance, readers see a story about a congressional testimony, the website allows them to see the same event written up from multiple points of view.

It also features what’s called a “Red Blue dictionary,” where a reader can click on a topic to see different views on the same terminology. For instance, the page on abortion explains how pro-choice Americans view abortion as a common medical procedure, while pro-life Americans view it as taking a human life. The pages often include discussion questions to facilitate nuanced political thinking about the topic.

“The internet right now . . . tends to only have us see people who are just like us, and it always tends to show us information that we already agree with. When we always see people just like us, and when we always hear opinions we agree with, two things happen to any of us. First, we become much much more extreme in our points of view. And, secondly, we become much less tolerant of any person or idea that’s different than us. And that’s ripping up the fabric of our society.”

Fortunately, projects like Wikipedia and AllSides suggest an alternative. At Wikipedia, opponents can come together in a structured way to accomplish a shared goal: accurate, readable pages, evaluated according to agreed-upon criteria. For its part, AllSides primes readers to see the value of many points of view. Of course, we tend to find it more soothing when everyone agrees with us. The path these projects lay out is the more troubling, stressful one. Is it worth it? This research to date suggests that the answer is yes.

A version of this story originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine published by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

If anyone can convince you that patient dialogue and common ground are more than just buzzwords, it’s Nice Nailantei Leng’ete. As a teenager, Leng’ete succeeded in the seemingly impossible: convincing her Kenyan Maasai community to abandon its ritual of female genital mutilation in favor of new, alternative rites of passage. Since then, she has gone on to help hundreds of Maasai villages do the same, saving an estimated 17,000 girls (so far) from what’s known as “the cut” — turning what started as a forbidden dialogue with the patriarchal elders of her community into a full-blown cultural revolution. 

I am an editor here at Reasons to be Cheerful, and when we originally conceived the We Are Not Divided project almost a year ago, Leng’ete’s story was one of the original inspirations. Named by TIME as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, I’d heard her story many times — typically with a focus on her unbelievable quantifiable achievements. But the stories had always left me wondering: how did she do it? How does anyone do something like that? In a time where most of us can’t even talk to our neighbors, let alone our ideological opposites, how can someone who cares about human rights work so closely with people that have upheld centuries of violence, and genuinely find enough common ground to build a path forward? 

Nice Nailantei Leng’ete talks with girls in Kenya before an Alternative Rites of Passage ceremony in August 2019. Credit: Steve Kagia for Amref Health Africa.

So I did what journalists do: I called her, and I asked. And she gave me three answers: Have patience. Talk less. And above all, treat them with love.

Leng’ete was eight years old when she escaped the cut for the first time. From a young age, she’d known the horrors, waking often at 4 a.m. with her mother and sister to watch other girls’ circumcisions take place. She’d seen the girls married off shortly after the ceremony, forced to have children while they were still children themselves and — Leng’ete’s own personal nightmare — forced to leave school. Knowing the same fate awaited her, Leng’ete ran away from home until her grandfather conceded that she could return and finish her education, making her the first girl in her village to ever attend high school and remain uncircumcised. 

“It was not easy: I was seen as a bad example — that girl who had not agreed to undergo the cut. They give you bad names. They call you all kinds of things, treat you as an outcast and all that,” the now 29-year-old tells me, sitting on a bed in her wood-clad home in Kenya smiling through my Zoom window. 

Credit: Joost Bastmeijer for Amref Health Africa

Elderly people, remember, they understand the culture more. And what they were simply saying was that in the Masaai culture, there is so much that is good in our culture that we need to embrace.

Leng’ete started talking to the girls in her community about high school and what else their futures could hold if they, too, refused female genital mutilation (FGM). She started helping other girls run away like she had, bringing them to her home, and to her school and teachers for shelter.  

“I realized, that is not a sustainable solution. So as I talk to girls, how can I talk to their parents? And that’s how I started dialogue in my village.” 

She started talking to mothers, teachers, elders and the women who traditionally lead the cutting ceremony, known as cutters. Slowly, she even started talking to men. One by one, she found allies in younger men who eventually arranged for the unthinkable: a meeting with the council of elders — a mini parliament of men that women were forbidden to address. When the first meeting came, every man walked out of the room. But Leng’ete kept coming and, slowly, the men started staying. They started first talking about other issues in the community: community development, HIV, education. Eventually, the subject turned to the cut. And when it did, something magical happened. 

Young men in Tanzania, would traditionally marry girls after they undergo FGM, take part in an Alternative Rites of Passage ceremony in October 2020. Credit: Adrian Mgaya for Amref Health Africa

“I remember getting to respect them, but also to understand their perspective more. Elderly people, remember, they understand the culture more. And what they [were] simply saying was that in the Masaai culture, there is so much that is good in our culture that we need to embrace. By sitting to them is how I got to know how beautiful our culture is. Because remember, FGM is one thing, child marriage is another and teenage pregnancy, but [they said], ‘Have you ever thought about how we dress, how beautiful our necklaces are, how beautiful our Masaai traditional clothes, the way our warriors jump high, the way we sing together, the way we share the little we have? The way we have so much generosity in that culture and love, and that’s why we never fight over anything. Sharing is our world: whatever small you have, you have to share, your neighbor cannot be hungry. That is our culture that is teaching us,’” they told her. 

Girls take part in an Alternative Rites of Passage ceremony in 2018. Credit: Joost Bastmeijer for Amref Health Africa

Suddenly, Leng’ete saw her Maasai life through a whole new lens. She found new beauty in ritual, and discovered what truly drives her community. “Unity: you can never find that in any part of this world. It’s only in my culture. So that’s something that is really good that we need to embrace and we should even teach the other world,” she says. She asked the elders: “How can we use that and take it back to our daughters; take it back to our women? Share the same love. Take care of them? Protect them from all of these harmful traditional practices? In the whole process of the female genital mutilation ceremony, what is wrong is the cut.”


Typically when this story gets told, the fast-forward button gets hit here. In a film, we’d cut from this moment of collective understanding to the revolutionary new rite of passage ceremonies that happen today. Cultural elders who once blessed FGM ceremonies now bless girls with books and school supplies. The girls dance, and take part in pageants that showcase their education and public speaking abilities — their voices — and improve their confidence. The former cutters guide the girls, and care for them through the ceremonies, giving them not just a new role, but an income replacement. Parents take part in mother-daughter and father-son dialogues about reproductive rights in the leadup to the ceremony, and give speeches encouraging the girls in their education. Men proclaim their support for marrying uncut women once they are ready, on their own terms, and political leaders publically denounce FGM. 

In reality, it took much longer to get there. Years of painstaking dialogue and, as Leng’ete puts it, “listening, listening, listening.” 

“Sometimes we blame people, but remember, we blame them because we don’t talk to them,” she says. “You cannot just say ‘no’ — you also have to listen to them, and once they are done you can bring out your views. You listen to them first, that is when they will give you an ear.”

Nice Nailantei Leng’ete Credit: Steve Kagia for Amref Health Africa

“You see, I truly understand that it’s a violation of human rights. It’s torture. It’s not something that should be happening to any of our girls. But… you cannot use force to fight attitude. You cannot use force to change mindset. You can only do that by showing people a lot of love. Even if you know very well it’s something that is not good, it’s something that should not be happening… if you don’t treat them with love, they will not even come to your meeting. They will say ‘you are judging us.’ By giving them love and not judging them, that is when they will also sit down and listen to you. If I keep blaming them they will not change.” 

The same goes for the creation of alternative rites of passage in the other communities Leng’ete helps. “For an alternative rites of passage to happen, it’s a collective effort. Everyone has to be there. Men and women, girls and boys, political leaders, administrative leaders, government representatives — you cannot have an alternative rites of passage if it’s only the women who have changed, or the men. It has to be all of them… It’s a process that takes years.” 

In 2011, twelve years after Leng’ete escaped the cut, the government of Kenya outlawed FGM — a move Leng’ete saw as an important milestone. She says, she has no problem using that law, but that even she sees it as Plan B: “Where you break the law, we use it. But before that, we say ‘talk — before the law gets you.’” 

“You know, we have problems. It’s not just in Kenya or in Africa — the whole world, we all have problems. It’s just that they’re unique in different ways… But I think one thing I know really works is dialogue. I feel like every issue, people need to talk. Dialogue is a solution to so many things. As much as people never want to go that way, it is a solution for so, so, so, so many things,” she says. “The differences will always be there. We just need to be a world that cares for one another, and a world where people are free to talk to one another.”

During the pandemic I have gone on some fairly long bike rides with band members and friends, exploring parts of our city that some of us are somewhat unfamiliar with. Most of us New Yorkers have been trapped in our apartments, so getting out has been, for me at least, both enlightening and a life saver. 

I organized some rides to Staten Island recently, the island borough just south of Manhattan, promising my fellow riders “a visit to the land of Trump and Wu-Tang.” That pitch is exaggerated, but not entirely untrue — Staten Island has earned its conservative reputation — but of course, it’s more complicated than that. There is a whole artistic mural culture on Staten Island, and the stories on this island suggest that divides here are being bridged, and that its politics are more nuanced than they first appear.

After taking the (free!) ferry from Manhattan we stopped for lunch at a Sri Lankan restaurant called Lakruwana, which has an amazing bas relief mural facing Bay Street. 

Lakruwana Restaurant
Credit: Mario Burger

The food was good, and the rest room had plaques all over with messages on them. 

Staten Island
Karma is a bitch, eh? Credit: David Byrne

At least 5,000 Sri Lankans live in the northeast part of Staten Island. How’s that working out? It depends on how you look at it. Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war only ended in 2009. In that conflict the minority Tamils fought against the Sinhalese-dominated government after being stripped of citizenship, though they had been living there for hundreds of years. The “Tamil Tigers” were guilty of frequent bombings, and the Sinhalese government was likewise accused of committing many human rights abuses including bombing civilian targets. It was nasty all around.

Sometimes when folks immigrate from a conflict area, they bring their old rivalries with them, and end up living cheek by jowl with their former enemies in their new adopted home. This can mean these two sides don’t communicate much. There’s an uncomfortable silence. But food can be a bridge. Customers at the restaurants here come from both sides of the Sri Lankan conflict. They put aside their differences to come together for the food they miss. Julia Wijesinghe, the daughter of the owners of Lakruwana, decided to go a step further. She opened a museum of Sri Lankan culture in the basement of the restaurant in 2017 — a celebration of the culture that is shared by folks on both sides of the conflict.

There are signs that the divides in the community are healing. In 2019, following a rash of horrific bombings in Sri Lanka, the Staten Island immigrants united to hold candlelight vigils to honor the dead in their homeland. 

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

As we enjoyed our lunch we looked across the street at a building covered by a massive mural and wondered who was Charlie B, what is NYC Arts Cypher, and what is this place? Of course, there’s a story here. 

The late Charlie Balducci (he passed in July) was an early reality TV star — a young artist who landed a “part” on an episode of the MTV show True Life. Stressed out over all the filming, at one point he ripped into a limo driver who was an hour late picking him up for his wedding: “[I’ll] hunt you down like fucking cattle and I’ll gut you!” Charlie later said that’s how any Staten Islander would have reacted. 

But there’s another side to Charlie. He used his cash and his notoriety to start NYC Arts Cypher, the non-profit in this building, where he and others mentored young artists. The organization confronts social issues like bullying and drug use, and trains the kids in branding, design and how to make a living doing legal street art. Those murals we saw everywhere. One way they raise funds is through an annual Halloween haunted house in the building. One of the folks sitting outside in the picture above told me that the haunted house is still on this year, and that there would be “stuff jumpin’ out at ya.”

So Charlie is maybe not the cliched reality star some of us might at first assume. This guy really did something incredible with a lot of heart, and it’s still going.

Credit: David Byrne

We moved on until we hit the boardwalk that lines the Atlantic beaches. It goes for miles and it’s gorgeous.

Then we headed back inland, passing by a lot of wild turkeys. WTF! Apparently there are over 250 of them on the island. At first we thought: a nice Thanksgiving dinner maybe?  But I wouldn’t mess with them  — they’re big, and like true Staten Islanders, they didn’t seem afraid of us at all.

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne
Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

Nice lucky segue here from turkeys to flags — there are a LOT of flag murals on Staten Island. Some of us saw them as dog whistles for Trump supporters. While sticking up a Trump sign in NYC might get you some looks, who could argue with the flag?

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

It turns out there’s a story here too. As reported in The New Yorker, many of these flag murals were painted by a local artist, Scott LoBaido, and yes, he’s a Trump supporter. But once again, it’s a little more nuanced than that. 

He says that he has painted at least three flag murals in every one of the fifty states. The acquaintance asked whether he paints Confederate flags. “No,” LoBaido answered immediately. He raised his Martini glass to salute a driver who was saluting him with a Dunkin’ Donuts cup through the open window of a pickup truck. “I can’t say I would never paint any particular thing,” he went on. “But a Confederate flag? No. I know some people say it’s not racist, it’s about Southern heritage. But I’ve never painted a Confederate flag. It’s nothing like the American flag. The American flag is the greatest work in the history of art, because it’s about everybody—Blacks, whites, every immigrant, every person who dreams about this country. It’s about me, it’s about you even though I know you don’t agree with me politically”

This gives me hope, hearing a Trump supporter say that the flag represents a country that is open to people of every race and background. It just goes to show that things are sometimes a little more complex than I might at first assume. 

Staten Island
There are other kinds of murals on Staten Island, too. Here’s one at a school playground that celebrates what LoBaido is talking about. Credit: David Byrne

We took Old Town Road (!) on into the neighborhood of Richmond until we came upon a mural proclaiming the area to be the Wu-Tang District. Yup, last year the borough made it official. At the event inaugurating the new district, Ghostface Killah said, “I never saw this day coming. I knew we were some ill MCs, but I didn’t know that it’d take it this far.”

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

The projects depicted on the mural are just off to the right. The right side of the mural now incorporates a memorial made of painted cinder blocks.

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

So, Staten Island seems to be, in some ways, a lot more nuanced than my snobby Manhattan biases might have led me to believe. Check your attitude, David! It’s a work in progress for sure — how these communities can get along. But even in these brief trips I learned that things aren’t as black and white as I first assumed. These trips we take aren’t just good exercise and a way of getting out of the house, they change the way I see things. 

In March 2004, the headmaster of the school where Carol Ramolotsana worked called her into his office and handed the young religion teacher an envelope. It carried the stamp of the Ministry of Education, which could mean only one thing: a transfer. Carol opened the envelope and read the name of her destination: Lentsweletau. “Lion Hill.” She began to cry. 

At home, she looked up Botswana in an atlas, her finger searching the map until it settled on a small point on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Lion Hill, population 4,000, was home to the Bakwena tribe, who worship crocodiles.

Carol, a sophisticated city girl, had known this day would come. After all, this was Botswana, where teachers, doctors, nurses, administrators and other civil servants are shipped off against their will to remote regions of the country, expected to sacrifice their own freedoms for the collective good. It’s an extreme model of governance. It also works extraordinarily well. 

In the 1960s, as dozens of countries in Africa began to decolonize, their leaders promised prosperity and development. Instead, oftentimes, violence broke out, economies withered and infrastructure crumbled. But one country kept its promise: Botswana. In the three decades after independence in 1966, Botswana had one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It went from having 12 kilometers of paved roads to over 18,000. In 1966, it had 22 college graduates — now, it boasts a highly educated populace, many of whom studied in South Africa, the U.S., Great Britain or Sweden. After a few years, these graduates returned and built ministries and hospitals, universities and airports. They ran power lines and water pipes through the savannah.

Today, education in Botswana is largely free, from kindergarten to university, and Botswans pay nothing for visits to the doctor, and just as little for seeds, fertilizers and harvest workers. According to Transparency International, Botswana is the least corrupt country in Africa, and less corrupt than many European countries, too, including Italy, Spain and Malta. 

When Botswana’s colonizers drew its new borders, they tore apart tribes who wanted to be together and locked together others who didn’t. This sort of reckless divvying up had led to chaos in countries like Nigeria, the Congo, Mali and Rwanda. But in Botswana, that didn’t happen. Instead, Botswana’s tribes drew closer as one nation. 

When I traveled through the country in 2018 and spoke to dozens of Botswans about their identity, not a single one mentioned their tribe. They said first and foremost: “I am a Botswanan.” This loss of tribal identity runs counter to what many other societies now recognize as an important element of diversity: namely, people’s right to hang on to who they are, even as they come together as a unified group. 

In this way, Botswanans have made a monumental sacrifice for the tranquility of their nation — they have deprioritized their deeply held tribal identities for the sake of societal stability, and in the process, formed a unified state out of a multiethnic, multilingual, partially hostile tribal society. This sacrifice can’t be discounted, and yet it has worked. Today, thanks to these sacrifices, Botswana is perhaps the most successful example of nation-building in history.

The reason this happened is the same reason that Carol Ramolotsana, a happy 29-year-old who loved going to the movies, grabbing Chinese food with friends and frequenting O’Hagans Pub, found herself, a few days after receiving the notice from the headmaster, watching as her couch, her refrigerator, her bed, her whole life, disappeared in a moving truck that then rumbled off towards the Kalahari.

A few days later, Carol was following the same route in her Honda Civic. Soon, the glittering towers of Gaborone disappeared in the rearview mirror. The road narrowed, the landscape widened. When she arrived in Lentsweletau, the first thing she saw was a crumbling building and a half-finished gas station. No cinema. No pub. No Chinese restaurant. The school consisted of a few dozen shacks scattered across the red earth.

In her small brick house, Carol sat on her bed and cried. It was days before she stepped into her high heels, hung a purse in the crook of her arm and went to class. Her new colleagues laughed at her outfit.

Carol Ramolotsana
Carol Ramolotsana

“The fine lady,” said one.

“You won’t wear the shoes for long,” said another.

Carol spent the lunch breaks alone in her house. At night, she drove to the village bar, ignoring the looks. She ordered beer at the counter and drank it outside, alone in her car. Five, sometimes six cans in the evening. Then she drove home and slept.

When Carol was transferred to Lentsweletau, she was consumed with resentment. Why does the government have to bring teachers from the city to the country? Why can’t everyone work where they come from?

I put these questions to Simon Coles, deputy minister at the Botswana Ministry of Education. He sat behind a wooden desk piled with letters, printed emails and transcripts of phone calls eight inches high. 

“All complaints from dissatisfied teachers,” said Coles, gesturing at the piles. “Most of them are thrown out.”

Botswana’s civil servants — 120,000 people, around ten percent of the working population — often complain about the fact that they could be transferred to another part of the country at any time. If a rural clinic needs a new nurse, if a distant district office requires a driver, if a far-flung town hall needs a secretary, the government ships someone out. Many try to get out of it. Few are successful.

“We owe our national unity to the transfers of officials,” says Ponatshego Kedikilwe, Botswana’s former vice president. He explains that Seretse Khama, the first president of the independent Botswana, observed how tribalism was tearing apart one African society after another. Botswana had tribes too, each with its own territory and chief, and usually represented by an animal. There were the Kalanga in the north, the good-natured elephants. There were the Batswena, the crocodiles, a warrior people. And there was Khama’s own tribe, the Bangwato, the antelopes, which, even then, were seen as the elites.

A statue of Seretse Khama, first president of independent Botswana, stands outside the National Archives of Botswana. Credit: Wikimedia

Khama knew that these tribal identities would have to give way to a national, shared identity — a painful sacrifice to ask one’s people to make, but one that the government felt was the only way to avoid the fates of other African countries that had struggled to unify following independence. At the same time, the government had to ensure that rural people could go to school or see a doctor. So it began shipping out its civil servants, who often belonged to a different tribe than the place they were sent. It quickly became clear that these transfers were having an interesting side effect.

The officials made friends with the people whom they were sent to serve. Some fell in love, got married and had children — children with parents who belonged to different tribes and sometimes even spoke different languages.

All over the country, in thousands of one-to-one contacts, prejudices fell and new bonds were formed. Exposure, says Kedikilwe — that was the key. Every citizen must be exposed to his fellow citizens, regardless of tribe. 

After arriving at Lentsweletau, Carol Ramolotsana only left her home to teach and drink. She resisted exposure. Until one Saturday in the spring, five months after she had arrived.

That morning she had driven an hour southwest of Lentsweletau for a change of scenery. She sat on a plastic chair in front of the “Big 6 Bar” and drank a beer. When it was almost empty, a man got up and got her a new one. He was tall and handsome, with strong shoulders and a broad smile. He was a soldier, he said. His name was Thabo.

“Where are you from?” he asked. Lentsweletau, Carol said. 

“Really?” he replied. “That’s my home village.”

He visited her a week later. Another time, he brought friends and took her to a wedding party. He had bought her three skirts, and she felt like her old self, when she would dress up and hit the town in Gaborone. 

Ponatshego Kedikilwe

Thanks to Thabo, Carol soon felt more at home on Lentsweletau. She attended the festival of the village choir, where goats were slaughtered. She became a juror in the local beauty pageant. She danced at weddings and cried at funerals. “At first I was so angry with my employer that I transferred this anger, this hatred, to everything that was near me, including the village and the people,” she says. “Thabo took my hatred away and suddenly everything appeared in a different light.” 

It takes surprisingly little contact to break down even the most persistent divisions. In one of the last great battles of World War II, the German and American armies battled for a bridgehead. It was defended by the American Company K, among others. Many of Company K’s soldiers had already been killed, and others were injured. If reinforcements didn’t come soon, the Germans would overrun them. 

Then, on the afternoon of March 13, 1945, they heard gunfire from the forest below their position. “The men feared the worst,” writes American author David Colley in his account of the scene. “Then they saw a jagged line of soldiers emerge from the forest. They were relieved to see that the men were wearing olive uniforms and the pot-shaped helmets of the U.S. Army. But as they got closer, the GIs of K Company saw that the faces of these men were brown… Their relief turned into shock. It was Black Americans who came to their aid.”

Like all of American society back then, the army was segregated by race. But in the closing stages of World War II, for the first time since its formation, the U.S. Army broke its doctrine of segregation. One of these Black soldiers, J. Cameron Wade, later said: “We ate together, slept together, fought together. There were no incidents, the army couldn’t believe it.” They held the bank. Then they marched further east, towards victory.

Afterward, to find out how this inadvertent social experiment had affected those involved, the Army sent researchers to question the soldiers. 77 percent of whites who fought with Blacks said they liked and respected Blacks better now. When asked how the Black soldiers fought, 84 percent of the whites questioned answered “very good,” and the remaining 16 percent with “good.” A Nevada company commander said, “You’d think it couldn’t work. But it did.” A sergeant from South Carolina: “When I saw them fighting, I changed my mind.” A platoon leader from Texas: “We all expected difficulties — there weren’t any.”

After the war, Gordon Allport, one of the most brilliant social psychologists of the 20th century, found himself poring over the Army’s research in his office at Harvard University. As it turned out, in the last months of the war, the researchers had questioned not only those soldiers who had fought with Black comrades, but 1,700 U.S. soldiers, asking them all the same question: How would you feel if your unit included Black platoons?

Because the army, with its divisions, regiments, companies and platoons, is so confusing, a somewhat simpler comparison might help: Let us imagine four groups of white soldiers. Group one consists of the men who fought alongside their Black comrades at the front lines. Group two consists of soldiers across the river who watched the fight through binoculars. Group three is made up of soldiers who only heard the battle through their radios. And group four consists of soldiers who weren’t anywhere near the fight — they were back in the U.S. 

Now, imagine that all four of these groups were asked the same question: ” How would you feel about serving in a unit with Black soldiers?”

Of the soldiers in the fourth group, who were back in the U.S. thousands of miles away, 62 percent said they strongly disliked this idea. 

Contact theory posits that contact between enemies reduces prejudices and leads to more peaceful coexistence.

Soldiers who heard the battle through their radios, however, had a different reaction: only 24 percent of them disliked the idea of fighting alongside Black soldiers. 

Of the soldiers in group two, who watched the battle from the other side of the river, only 20 percent disliked the idea. 

And as for group one? The soldiers who had actually been there in the trenches, fighting alongside Black Americans, had almost no problem with it anymore — only seven percent of them didn’t want to serve alongside Black soldiers. 

The more contact, the less prejudice. And then Allport found something even more fascinating: a second row of data in the same document.

The researchers had also asked the soldiers about another group of people: the Germans. Of the American soldiers in group four — the ones who have never been to Germany — 74 percent had a negative view of Germans.

Of the soldiers who were in Germany but had no contact with the civilian population, only 51 percent had a negative view. Of those who had had brief contact with German civilians, only 43 percent felt negatively about them. Among soldiers who had had closer contact, that number fell further, to 24 percent.

In other words, the soldiers who were physically closest to the population of the country they were fighting had the most positive attitude toward that very population. 

Based on this and other research he conducted, Allport formulated the now well-known “contact theory,” which posits that contact between enemies reduces prejudices and leads to more peaceful coexistence. However, warns Allport, there is a type of contact for which this does not reduce prejudices, but actually reinforces them. Namely, when the contact is so superficial that it arouses a prejudice but cannot attack it. 

We can see where a lack of contact can lead. As a reporter, I’ve visited McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania. It has a thousand residents, two traffic lights, 11 churches and a well-frequented gun shop. Eighty-four percent of its residents voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. 

Carol Ramolotsana’s house in Lentsweletau. Photo courtesy Bastian Berbner

The people of McConnellsburg told me about the threats to America as they see them: illegal immigrants, liberal city dwellers, Blacks. Yet 97 percent of McConnellsburg’s population is white. City dwellers rarely go there. And there are hardly any illegal immigrants. The residents are afraid of people they don’t know. They’ve created monsters in their heads.

I’ve also met people in New York who refer to Trump supporters as fascists, racists or Nazis. When I ask how many Trump voters they know personally, many tell me they’ve never met one. 

Carol once saw the people of Lion’s Hill as similarly separate from her. Now, she feels so connected to them that she would like to remain there forever. On the edge of the village is a large field where an old woman grew watermelons. Carol, who loves watermelons, would visit this field so often that the woman began calling her “my daughter,” a title in Setswana, Botswana’s national language. One day the woman asked if Carol liked a piece of the land. Carol said yes, and the woman gave it to her. Carol started building a house on it. It wasn’t even finished when a letter arrived from the Ministry. Carol was to be transferred again. Her next station would be 200 kilometers north. She could move into the house here later, she told the old woman — at the latest, when she retires. As it turned out, Carol had decided she would like to spend her golden years in Lion’s Hill, and be buried there, too.

In his book Sapiens, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari tells the story of a group of Homo Sapiens who journeyed from their African homeland towards the Middle East 100,000 years ago. There, they met another species, the Neanderthals. A battle ensued and the Sapiens were crushed. But 30,000 years later, the Homo Sapiens returned a second time. This time they won, and went on to conquer the rest of the world.

What happened between those first and second encounters? According to Harari’s thesis, during that time, Homo Sapiens acquired a skill that no other species had mastered — namely, the ability to speak about things that could not be seen, touched, or smelled. Many species can express basic thoughts: Be careful! A lion! But Homo Sapiens learned to verbalize concepts like: The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.

In other words, they invented fiction, which Harari believes is the most important innovation in the history of our species. Because once the Homo Sapiens began to tell stories, they were able to form societies. Myths and legends were spun. God was created. Suddenly people no longer had to know each other personally to stick together. They felt they belonged to one another because they believed in the same stories. “You cannot convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him that, after he dies, in monkey heaven he will get an infinite number of bananas,” writes Harari. “Fiction has not only enabled us to imagine things. It enabled us to do that together.”

Today, human life is dominated by groups that are held together by fictions. Hundreds of millions of people believe in the story of Jesus — they live on different continents, yet form a community. A piece of paper, printed with the right ink and symbols, becomes a thing of great value — about seven billion people believe this story today. And then there are the stories of nations. What is Germany? What is France? What is the United States? Nations are no different from God, money and the law: they exist only in our collective imagination.

But after World War II, globalization began to shoot people around the globe en masse, physically in planes and high-speed trains, virtually through television and the Internet. Suddenly, millions looked beyond their national stories and began to feel less connected to them.

This has caused something of a crisis. Too many people’s group identities have outgrown the national framework, yet we continue to make politics within it. Some Western societies are starting to resemble African states in the 1960s: warring tribes locked in with one another, confined by borders but not beliefs.

Botswana shows us a way forward. The government formed a nation out of a tribal society by weakening the old group identities through thousands of one-on-one encounters. It built a new, national group identity by telling its citizens a new story — a fiction so convincing that many began to believe it. 

Contact was their most important tool.

A version of story originally appeared in the book “180 Grad: Geschichten gegen den Hass” (180 Degrees: Stories Against Hate) by Bastian Berbner. Berbner is the host of the podcast 180 Grad: Geschichten gegen den Hass. Both feature stories of overcoming hate and division.

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Zachary Tang, a 27-year-old filmmaker, lives in the Bedok section of Singapore, in a building constructed decades ago, before the city became a wealthy financial hub. Back then, rickshaws rattled down streets lined with hawkers, laundry drip-dried on balconies and chaotic canopies of electrical lines clung to the sides of buildings. During this era, to save money, many apartment complexes were built in such a way that their elevators didn’t stop at every floor. Tang’s building was one of them.

“You had to go to the 6th and 11th floor,” Tang says of the apartment complex where he still lives today. “Then you would walk down the common corridor and take the stairs down to your floor.”

The apartment where Zachary Tang has lived his whole life. Photo courtesy Zachary Tang

This roundabout way of reaching one’s unit led tenants through winding breezeways and stairwells, past open apartment windows and, often, right into direct contact with their neighbors.  These chance encounters capitalized on a unique feature of Singaporean housing: its remarkable racial diversity, which is orchestrated by the government as part of Singapore’s Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP). 

The EIP was introduced in 1989 to counter the emergence of ethnic enclaves. It does this by placing quotas on how many residents of one racial group can live in a building. The EIP recognizes four categories of racial groups: Chinese, Malay and Indian — the three biggest groups by population — as well as ‘other,’ a catch-all for everyone else. 

The quotas apply to every public residential building, and correspond to national proportions so that each apartment complex reflects Singapore’s true ethnic makeup. This degree of micromanagement is only possible due to the fact that four out of five Singaporeans live in Housing Development Board (HDB) flats — public housing built and operated by the central government. Having most citizens in public housing allows the government to exercise a large degree of control over their social dynamics. The EIP is perhaps the most visible sign of this control.

Credit: alantankenghoe / Flickr

The EIP ensured that Tang’s building was home to a representative cross-section of ethnic groups. Combined with the quirky elevator situation, this meant that Tang interacted frequently with neighbors whose backgrounds were different from his own. Today, the elevators in Tang’s building have been upgraded — now they stop on every floor, reducing the amount of time he spends traversing shared hallways and stairwells.

The EIP is the reason Singapore’s buildings and neighborhoods are integrated in a way that Western cities could hardly imagine. Building by building, block by block, a truly representative mix of ethnicities live side by side. But the EIP sometimes leads to odd outcomes and unintended consequences, byproducts of a highly control-oriented approach to ethnic diversity.

A multi-racial, multi-religious city-state, Singapore has one of the most diverse populations in Asia and is the third most densely populated country in the world. Nearly six million people are packed onto an island just four times the size of Washington, D.C. Yet, it is also renowned for its apparently seamless functionality — social trust is high, corruption is low, and crime and violence are rare. This tranquil, multicultural environment didn’t come about by accident. It is, in part, the product of a strong central government that dictates certain aspects of everyday life — and sees racial harmony between its people as too important to be left to chance.

Racial dynamics have strongly influenced Singapore’s history. Faction between races engendered the country’s independence when it separated from predominantly Muslim Malaysia in 1965. In Singapore’s founding years, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew pulled the nascent city through the tumult of ethnic riots. Lee saw the riots as products of the city’s segregation, and in turn, racial and religious integration as key to Singapore’s peace, prosperity and progress. This ideology was embedded into the nation’s Pledge and written into the Constitution.

As such, institutional measures now regulate ethnic mixing across all aspects of life in Singapore—in residential districts, schools, National Service and electoral constituencies. The EIP is the most all-encompassing of these mandates. Even in the HDB flat that I used to live in, where the elevator stopped at every floor, getting to my unit meant passing six other units with windows that looked out onto the corridor. Through one window I might see a family having dinner. Through another I would spot a young man at his desk synchronizing music. Somedays a neighbor, a middle-aged woman, would be in the common corridor watering her plants. We’d greet each other, wave or quip about how my walking down the corridor was the reason for their dog yelping frantically.

Photo courtesy Zachary Tang

Their kids go to the same kindergarten, they go to the same primary school… Where you live matters tremendously in the daily influences that shape your life.

Ng Qin Wei, a 24-year-old dental assistant who lives in the neighborhood of Tai Chee, told me of her neighbors, “We greet each other in the lift and when we pass by. They’ll ask about our work or studies… Most of our neighbors are aunties, uncles, so they’ll talk about their grandchildren. Sometimes they’ll come over and play so we will hang out.” 

“We don’t just live with them,” adds Ng. “We study with them — every class has its own quota of ethnic groups as well. We grow up with each other, we think we are just equal.”

Common spaces in the HDB blocks offer additional areas for chance interaction. The most ubiquitous of these is the void deck, the first floor of almost every public housing block, which is a shared space for everyone who lives there. With public benches, tables, small shops, vending machines and even kindergartens and elder care centers, the void deck is a concrete government intervention to foster social interaction.

Mohd Ilyas Amir in his apartment.

Mohd Ilyas Amir, a Javanese Singaporean who lives in the Central area of Bukit Merah, has lived in the same block his whole life. “I used to play in the void deck with my Chinese friends, Malay friends, Indian friends,” he told me. Now 22, he still spends plenty of time at the void deck, “for the breeze and to feel the air.” The void deck is also the de-facto space for social events, like Malay weddings and Chinese funerals, which sometimes take place side by side. 

But the EIP’s biggest impact might be that by integrating neighborhoods, it also integrates schools. “Once people live together, they’re not just walking the corridors every day,” said Singapore’s Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in 2015. “Their kids go to the same kindergarten, they go to the same primary school … and they grow up together … Where you live matters… It matters tremendously in the daily influences that shape your life”

According to Leong Chan-Hoong, policy researcher and professor at the National University of Singapore, the EIP has been very successful at integrating the city. One in every three HDB blocks has achieved a balance between Chinese, Malay, Indian and ‘other’ residents, reflecting Singapore’s population. This is an increase from one in every four blocks in 1989, despite more housing blocks being constructed over the years.

According to Leong, this mixing is crucial to maintaining Singapore’s stability. “When you unwelcome people of a different background,” he believes, you end up with social and economic problems. For instance, a neighborhood’s ethnic makeup influences housing prices. In Woodlands, where there is a high proportion of Malay Muslim households, Leong observed housing prices tend to be much lower. “That means you will not have the same capital appreciation in the next 20 years or so, so you wouldn’t want to live there,” he says. 

“Without the policy,” says Leong, “it is very likely you will have a sharp differentiation of neighborhoods, and that will not go well with the idea of a harmonious coexistence between people of different backgrounds.”

Institutional measures now regulate ethnic mixing across all aspects of life in Singapore—in residential districts, schools, National Service and electoral constituencies.

Harmonious coexistence as engineered by the state has consequences, however. For one, by effectively banning ethnic communities, the EIP makes it pretty much impossible for any minority ethnic group to flex its political muscle. “As a result of the quotas, ethnic minorities are spatially dispersed,” according to a paper presented at the Constitutional Design and Ethnic Conflict Conference at New York University in 2012, which means they are “relegated a minority status in each district and face difficulties raising support for issues particular to their community or ethnicity.” 

The EIP also leads to inefficiencies in the island’s scarce housing. A 2017 study by the Association of Muslim Professionals found that apartments reserved for Chinese residents in cheaper estates sat vacant, presumably because wealthier Chinese didn’t want to live there. Likewise, apartments for Muslims in higher-priced areas like Bedok were difficult to fill. 

Other logistical snafus arise when mixed-race Singaporeans try to rent or buy an apartment. Does a Chinese-Malay resident count as Chinese or Malay in regards to the quota? Most of the time, whichever part of their hyphenated identity comes first — as it was recorded at birth in the hospital — is their official ethnicity in the eyes of the HDB.

Lee Kuan Yew brushed aside such complications. He argued that, despite small flaws in the EIP, the societal tranquility it gifted Singapore with trumped other concerns. “We had to mix them up,” he is quoted as saying of the city-state’s ethnic groups. “Those who say we should cancel these restrictions… just don’t understand what our fault lines are and what the consequences can be.”

Whether this enforced ethnic mixing — and the general absence of strife — represents true racial harmony, on the other hand, is another question. Dr. Liu Thai Ker, considered the master planner of modern Singapore, has been quoted as saying, “I have built you the kampong. Now show me the kampong spirit.” In Singapore, kampong is the word for a small, local village, the kind that once could be found all over the island. What Dr. Liu meant was, as a bureaucratic tool, the Ethnic Integration Policy can provide the mechanics of racial harmony. Kindling the corresponding mindset, however, is something Singaporeans must do themselves.

This story was produced by CBC q, a We Are Not Divided collaborator

When Rafael Lozano-Hemmer was growing up in Mexico City, he didn’t exactly have a typical childhood.

A self-professed “unsupervised nerdy child,” he read and re-read Guillaume Apollinaire’s transgressive erotic novel Les Onze Mille Verges that his uncle Federico had left behind.

He had a coin collection that he would organize according to metal alloy, date, country, emblem and mint. He played American football — “badly” — for a team called Patriotas del Parque Unido.

He performed in commercials for bread, chocolate and shoes, and synthesized bakelite with his grandfather, an amateur chemist. (The grandfather thought it would bring fame and fortune, only to discover it had been invented six decades earlier.)

But the Mexican-Canadian artist also did something that few kids can claim: his parents owned a string of disco nightclubs, salsa clubs and drag bars, and the young Lozano-Hemmer regularly hung out at those hotspots.

“I grew up among strobe lights and color-changing lights. And I think it informs part of my practice. I really like to throw a good party.” Photo courtesy Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

“I used to be super proud of this because I spent so much time in these clubs. I was seven years old and spending time with Rudy Calzado and Celia Cruz and all the salsa stars. Now I go to psychotherapy because it’s not okay to send your kids to nightclubs and discotheques,” said Lozano-Hemmer with a laugh, speaking with CBC Radio’s q host Tom Power.

“But I grew up among strobe lights and color-changing lights. And I think it informs part of my practice. I really like to throw a good party.”

Known for his stunning, large-scale installations involving light, the artist later relocated to Montreal, where he earned a degree in physical chemistry from Concordia University. But it’s the human chemistry he conjures through his work that has won accolades around the globe, as well as a fiercely faithful following.

Credit: Monica Lozano

How do we make an artwork that completely forgets about this division and creates a way to connect people from both sides?

Last year, Lozano-Hemmer’s piece Border Tuner made headlines as it invited people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to move massive searchlights until two beams joined. When one person’s light met another’s, they could speak with the person on the opposite side.

In Pulse Tank, which has been exhibited in cities from Washington D.C. to Geneva to Istanbul, participants’ heartbeats are transformed into waves of water that trigger a light display.

In Voice Tunnel, visitors to New York’s Park Avenue Tunnel could speak into an intercom that recorded and looped their voices; the sound was then piped through 150 speakers and matched with Morse code-like flashes of light.

Many artists work with light as a medium, says Lozano-Hemmer, but they often use it to represent enlightenment or spirituality. Growing up amid swirling disco lights — and in environments where people could step out of the everyday and be whoever they wanted — gave Lozano-Hemmer’s work a different spin.

Atmosphonia by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at the 2019 Manchester International Festival. Credit: Mariana Yañez

Like a great nightclub, he argues, art provides a kind of interruption to normal life, and a platform for people to relate to each other in different ways.

“Most of my work is interactive. Participation is not only invited, but fundamental to the existence of the artwork,” says Lozano-Hemmer, who has created commissioned works for the European Union’s expansion in Dublin, the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and the opening of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, to name a few.

“A lot of my works are activated by cameras or by sensors, or by microphones that pick up the activity of the public, and then that becomes the artwork itself. So if you have no public, there’s nothing to show.”

Lozano-Hemmer’s works always have a public. But what happens when a global pandemic strikes? The answer can be found in Cercanía, a creative residency and exhibition at Arsenal Contemporary Art Montreal that is exploring themes of proximity and shared experience — without putting people at risk.

“While most of the pieces are immersive and interactive, there are no buttons, no levers, no surfaces to touch,” he says, adding the name is a Spanish word that means proximity, but also implies intimacy and complicity.

“The Mexican activists used to say, ‘We’re not asking you guys to dream. We’re asking you to wake up.’ And I think that art is a little bit like that.”

Set in the 18,000 square-foot space — the artist calls it “gargantuan and beautiful” — the ever-shifting show features 12 pieces, among them a 2,300-channel sound sculpture, a computerized shadow play and a 30-meter-long interactive projection room.

In Sustained Coincidence, people’s shadows are tracked and overlapped, so they can create a blended portrait while keeping a safe distance. Another piece, OnPulse, extracts people’s heartbeats with a camera using a process called plethysmography, then sends them a three-dimensional artwork online and allows them to connect with other “hearts.” (People can also participate remotely at

In Pareidolium, visitors walk up to a reflecting pool, and a small camera uses face detection to capture their image, then activates hundreds of ultrasonic atomizers that convert the cold water into plumes of vapor. So for a fleeting moment, they see their own face in the mist before it vanishes.

“A lot of my work lately is about how we relate to our atmosphere, which is our biosphere,” says Lozano-Hemmer, pointing to the fact that humans are facing massive challenges including Covid-19 and climate change.

“So there’s the idea that the atmosphere is beautiful,” he says. “But it also has all of these issues we need to be aware of. So for me to work with vapor, to work with the atmosphere, is a way to make tangible the medium through which we live.”

Inspired by everything from carnival to animatronics to phantasmagoria — a centuries-old type of horror theater involving spooky projections — Lozano-Hemmer has worked with robotic lights, computerized surveillance, media walls and telematic networks. To him, technology isn’t a tool; it has become so enmeshed with our everyday lives that it has become a second skin. “I call it normal,” he says. “I call it natural.”

Pareidolium by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at Seoul’s Amorepacific Museum of Art in 2018. Credit: Miguel Legault

But while the artist’s works are visually dazzling, the cutting-edge tech also entices participants into something far more intimate and personal — and at times unabashedly political, making visceral the injustices that countless people face.

His 2015 work Level of Confidence uses facial recognition technology to examine the viewer’s face, then applies biometric surveillance algorithms to determine how closely they match the faces of 43 students who were kidnapped from a school in Iguala, Mexico.

Lozano-Hemmer presented Border Tuner along the line between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez Chihuahua in Mexico — sister cities that have operated in tandem for centuries, and where some politicians are trying to construct divides.

“You have people who have coexisted for a long time, who have family on both sides. And now you get a very adversarial nationalist narrative of building borders and walls and Mexicans are rapists and they’re dogs and they should be shot in the legs. I’m just quoting the president of the United States,” says Lozano-Hemmer.

“So how do we make an artwork that completely forgets about this division and creates a way to connect people from both sides? The idea was to not so much create bridges between the two cities, but just to highlight that those bridges exist.”

You Are Here: Light, Color, And Sound Experiences by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2018.Credit: Karen Malinofski

Among the hundreds of participants who maneuvred spotlights to communicate with people on the other side were children, poets, historians, a U.S. Vietnam vet who had been deported to Mexico and a drag queen wrestler named Cassandro el Exotico.

“You’d have families who were being reunited through the piece, so it was super emotional. Other times you’d have people flirting with each other or serenading each other,” says Lozano-Hemmer. “It was incredible.”

But even though Lozano-Hemmer’s works bring people together, they can also be deeply uncomfortable. His pre-Covid piece Asphyxiation Chamber offered people the opportunity to walk into a sealed room filled with nothing but other people’s exhalations — despite glaring warnings of potential asphyxiation, oxygen deprivation, panic and contagion.

When he created the work, which he intended as a comment on how participation isn’t inherently positive, Lozano-Hemmer assumed nobody would try it. “We’ve shown it in five different countries. There’s a lineup and everybody wants to go in, to feel what it is to breathe this recycled toxic air,” says Lozano-Hemmer.

“In this piece, if you participate too much, you die,” he said. “And crucially, if you’re in that work, you make it more toxic for future participants.”

One of the works in Cercanía is an upside-down noose that works as a metronome, and swings every 10 seconds to mark every time someone in North America gets shot by a gun.

“By bringing these kinds of thematics that may be social or philosophical or historical or political, you make the works current. It forces you to think about data. It forces you to think about the idea that this is not all neutral and beautiful, but there are also some serious concerns,” says Lozano-Hemmer, pointing to surveillance, the erosion of democracy and racism.

Lozano-Hemmer’s disco upbringing made him want to draw people together, but also for them to reflect on how ephemeral it all is.

“There’s a Zapatista slogan. The Mexican activists used to say, ‘We’re not asking you guys to dream. We’re asking you to wake up.’ And I think that art is a little bit like that,” says Lozano-Hemmer, whose unforgettable works are in the collections of many top museums, among them New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim, London’s Tate Modern and Montreal’s Musée d’art Contemporain.

There is a place for art to be dreamy and beautiful, and to distract people from their concerns, he said, pointing to Matisse, who believed that art should be like a good armchair in which to rest. But there’s also a role for art to be activist, and to ask critical questions about the moment in which we live.

“Brian Eno used to say that in a perfume you always have to have a pungent smell because that’s the one that captures your attention. If it’s all sweet and fruity, it’s not going to be a good perfume,” he said.

“A good perfume has to have a little bit of a punch.”

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