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Michele the Citizen

In the early 1930s my family was my world and as far as I knew everything my family believed, the whole world believed. There were no intrusive, beguiling, electronic interlopers like television and text messages worming into our home, telling me that my parents were wrong or “old fashioned” and there are better ideas out there, beyond our door. Despite the horrendous depression beating down on my parents, my four-year-old’s world was secure, and family values were clear and uncluttered.

At every election time, even these many years later, one of those values surfaces in my mind. It concerns citizenship and voting and it comes from my father. Michele was born in the 19th century as a subject in a country arguably owned by two people, the king and his wife. The Italian revolution, a hundred years after our own, had united the peninsula, but had been only partially successful in its struggle for democracy. Prior to the revolution kings were supreme; after the revolution the new king was still supreme. The long struggle had produced a constitution, some limited voting rights for some men, and a parliament with people’s representatives appointed by the king, and the king still reigned.

Michele, an immigrant, was immensely proud when he became a US citizen in 1927, and he communicated that pride to us every time he donned his best (and only) suit and walked the eight blocks to the local firehouse to cast his vote. He never missed an election. I do not recall his exact words but here, paraphrased, is his message: “I come across the ocean jammed down in steerage, and that old boat she took me from Michele the Subject to Michele the Citizen. I got something to say, and every time I go vote, this country, she gives me the right to say it!”

I cannot adequately communicate the depth of his appreciation for this country, for his new citizenship, and for the right and responsibility of citizens to vote. I suppose that some sophisticated people today, could they hear him talk about it, would roll their eyes and smirk and think him “corny” and “quaint.” But to him it was a powerfully important part of his new role in his new country. For Michele, the right to vote was the supreme protective barrier between his new democracy and his old monarchy.

What would Michele think were he here today to witness the Republicans’ massive assault across the country on this heart and soul of democracy, his cherished right to vote? In at least 16 states Republicans, acting deliberately and in concert, are maneuvering to impede or deny the right to vote for tens of thousands of citizens whom they fear will vote against them, given the chance. It seems to me there is no more sure way to jeopardize American democracy than this—strike at its heart, control and deny the vote to targeted people. Are today’s Republicans intent on taking us back, as near as they can, to a monarchy? Maybe not with a recognized office of king, but certainly Republicans prefer rule by the elite, the powerful, the moneyed minority. They are attacking the heart, the soul, the essence of democracy and I think that anyone who supports any Republican is complicit in this most dangerous attack on our democracy.

Michele understood that the right to vote is our defensive line, our barrier between democracy and monarchy and all other forms of totalitarian regimes. I know he would tell our modern Republicans, probably in more fiery language, “Stop messing with my vote!”

> Anthony M. Graziano

SUNY Professor Emeritus, Buffalo

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