It’s called a moment of clarity, that moment when someone says something that seems so crystal clear and painfully obvious that you wonder why you hadn’t been able to annunciate it yourself. Sometimes it is a concept or idea that hadn’t occurred to you at all. Other times an idea is familiar and yet doesn’t seem to be generally understood until someone boils it down with utter simplicity.
I experienced just such a moment of clarity recently when I sat down with H.E. Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda. We spoke of Uganda’s natural beauty, its economic growth and a variety of other topics. It was Mr. Museveni’s comments on nation-building and unity, however, that really struck home.
Uganda has experienced amazing economic growth over the last 20 years. In the last five years alone, it has grown between 6 and 7% on an annual basis. Many African nations have great potential but lack stability and security. I asked Mr. Museveni what role stability has played in Uganda’s unique success story.
The president started by saying stability in the world, and specifically in Africa, depends on philosophy, ideology and strategy. He said if you don’t get those three correct, you will end up failing. Mr. Museveni said stability and success “Begin with the understanding of man. What makes man work? What do you need to do in order to succeed? You need a strategy to solve problems.”
It was what he said next, though, that every American should take to heart. In fact, it is a blueprint for all of mankind.
Mr. Museveni offered the following. “The biggest problem in the world, even in Uganda in some states, is the problem of the politics of identity. I am this tribe or I am that tribe. I am this race or that race. I am this religion or that religion.” His point was clear. These slivers of identity can serve to divide people.
His Excellency had a concept, brilliant in its simplicity, of uniting people instead. “All these different people have similar needs. They all need food. They all need clothing. They all need shelter, so their basic needs are the same.” By recognizing the similar wants and needs of people and strategizing how to achieve those needs, a government can unite its people.
Mr. Museveni waxed nostalgic about putting his concepts into practice. “In the 1960s, we started a student movement that rejected the politics of identity and instead emphasized the interests and needs of all.
Thoughts flooded my head as he shared this simple yet historically successful approach to unity. In the United States, we have a diversity unlike any other nation on earth. Few citizens come from a single genetic lineage. America is a nation of mutts. We have white, Black, Latino, Asian, Native American and a never-ending mix of others. Do we harness that diversity, or do we use it to divide ourselves and our nation?
Simple government practices like the U.S. Census encourage division. One prominent census question is, “What race are you?” Why does this even matter? If we truly want to be united, if we truly want to be color blind, what if we simply classify everyone as an American citizen or guest? The census is only the beginning.
In the last decade, Americans have organized by gender, race, religion and by sexuality, often at the exclusion of, or worse yet, sometimes with derision toward others. This divides us. Uganda’s president’s concept is so simple. What do we have in common? We all need food, clothing and shelter. We all want the best for our children.
The constant insistence in America that we recognize what is different, often at the expense of understanding what we have in common, is taking its toll. We are a nation divided. Division leads to anger and distrust, which in turn are destructive.
Politicians understand this at some level. Former president George W. Bush promised to be an uniter, not a divider. President Barack Obama spoke of hope and change as a candidate, yet sewed the seeds of racial division and pitted rich against poor as president. President Donald Trump loved to evoke patriotic themes yet constantly found some group to squabble with and accuse of being anti-American. Joe Biden promised to be a president for all, yet has openly vilified anyone who happens to be registered, Republican.
Why does the United States struggle with being united? The coach of the U.S. Men’s soccer team wore a t-shirt in the opening round of The World Cup in Doha, Qatar, that said “States,” implying that we are no longer united. Stanford University is suggesting the term “American” is offensive because, in their opinion, it somehow ignores all the other citizens of North, Central and South America. It does not, of course. Canadians call themselves Canadians. Brazilians call themselves Brazilians. People from the United States of America invoke their nation’s name as well and call themselves Americans. There is nothing arrogant or offensive about any of that.
Elections are an area one would assume we could all arrive at some common interest. We all want every vote to count. We want everyone who is legally eligible to vote to have the freedom to do so. No rational person wants people to be able to vote more than once or to vote if they aren’t legally able to do so. Yet despite those seemingly obvious similarities, Americans have fought over access to the ballot box. Some see requiring proper identification as a burden. How on earth have we gotten to a place where the United States is wrestling with what is fair?
Again, let’s turn to Uganda. Over the past several years, Uganda has been using a Biometric Voter Verification System (BVVS) to ensure that no one voted more than once. If they can do that in East Africa, why not throughout the United States?
Mr. Museveni outlined for me the building blocks Uganda used to dampen identity politics and build national pride over the years. They disbanded the small tribal militias and instead grew a national Army. They developed civil service, providing an opportunity for citizens to work with pride for their country and fellow citizens. Uganda encouraged development in the private sector. The net result was that rather than divisive individual issues, everyone was working for the same team. A great sense of national pride developed.
The moment of clarity during my time with the Uganda delegation was enlightening. The Christmas season is often one where westerners think about others and offer assistance to those in need. New Year is the time when people reset the stops and set new goals. Perhaps this holiday season, America can do both taking into account the sage advice of Mr. Museveni. Think of what we all have in common and build upon it rather than dividing our nation into ever-shrinking slivers of dissatisfaction and anger.
• Tim Constantine is a columnist with The Washington Times.
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