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Many years ago, we took our kids to Washington DC. From youngest to oldest, there’s a six-year spread, and to hit the window for a trip like that with all three is a challenge. When they’re too old, they don’t want to travel with you. Too young, and the trip doesn’t mean anything. That’s not such a big deal for Disneyland, but it is a pretty big deal when you’re looking at the Declaration of Independence and you need to explain why there’s a tear trickling down your cheek.

Two of my clearest memories of the trip happened when we were standing in line to go up the elevator in the Washington Monument. The first was looking at the US Forest Service guy whose job was counting 32 people at a time into the elevator. He was in full regalia, and I seem to remember him sitting in a lawn chair looking vaguely disgusted. It made me laugh, a little, thinking about him as a young man dreaming of a career as a Forest Ranger, only to end up in sitting in a dark room surrounded by sweaty tourists, counting to 32 eight hours a day.

The second memorable moment was after we got down from our trip to the top. As we discussed plans for the rest of our day, I was eavesdropping on a family near us who were doing the same. I heard the dad say, “We can skip the Lincoln Memorial. It’s just him sitting there.”

My first thought was, “I hope that guy isn’t a voter.”

I’ve been thinking about voting and citizenship.

I think we should make voting harder.

Not access to voting, mind you. Anything that’s done to keep citizens from the voting booth is a travesty. Let people vote by mail, provide everyone with a photo ID if that’s going to a requirement, make election day a holiday, and ensure no one waits in line to vote for longer than 15 minutes.

But if the country is going to take voting seriously, then the voters need to take it seriously, too.

I used to think that coffeeshops were the epicenter of outlandish discussions, but I must admit, the internet has left them far in the dust.

Here’s the thing. I don’t care if you’re conservative, liberal, or anything else. I think the only thing that should really matter is if you’re an American. I don’t care if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or were here 10,000 years before that, or whether you earned your citizenship in the Marine Corps and still barely speak English. None of that matters.

What matters is what America really is - or could be. Read Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, Malcom X and Alexander Hamilton. Spend some time in big cities and small towns, at least once in your life drive coast to coast just to understand the wonders of this place. You don’t have to join the military, but we should all do something to pay our dues, some act of service to deserve the rights that others have died to preserve for us. We hear a lot of talk about rights, but not nearly enough about responsibilities.

That's why I think everyone should take a hard look at the Lincoln Memorial. That is the face of responsibility.

I’m not a huge fan of creating statues of people, because almost any great person has feet of clay. Another big problem is that we often lack context of the times in which they lived. For instance, did you know that over 500 people were executed for desertion during the Civil War, and Lincoln had to sign off on all of those? It was a different time. Before drivers’ licenses and Social Security cards, if you moved twenty miles from where you were born and changed your name from Robert to Bobbie, you could get away with almost anything. Generals thought the only way to keep discipline was to kill soldiers who didn’t toe the line. Look at that face and tell me he didn’t feel the weight of those deaths and the hundreds of thousands of others that happened on his watch. It’s the face of Moses, knowing he isn’t going to make it to the Promised Land, and, more importantly, feeling like perhaps he doesn’t deserve to get there.

We should all vote. And we should all take it seriously.

Copyright Brent Olson 2021

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