KEARNEY, Neb. — They ripped notebook paper for ballots and voted from their classroom chairs.
They could vote yes, to undo a law requiring landlords to rent only to legal residents or U.S. citizens. Or no, to leave the law intact.
A day after Fremont, Neb., residents voted to keep their controversial housing law, college students more than 150 miles away at the University of Nebraska at Kearney took their own straw poll.
The issue was a perfect one for their undergraduate course called The Politics of Love.
Don't let the name fool you. This is no squishy, cushy course on romance — though UNK was a bit skeptical when Peter Longo, a political science professor, first pitched the class last year. A university committee asked Longo how the word “love” applied.
“The concept of love,” Longo wrote to the committee, “includes love of country, love of humanity, love of God — and the social and moral obligations that might be derived from religion.”
Longo went on to say that those facets of love are “deeply involved in the political questions.”
And the biggest, most important political questions, Longo said, were these: How do people come together to address their collective problems? And how do they resolve their differences peacefully?
So Politics of Love students read Aristotle and analyze places like Northern Ireland, where underlying national and religious tensions exploded into violence for decades. But a power-sharing peace agreement in 1998 and subsequent compromises have meant less conflict.
This week, the class also talked about what happened in Fremont.
You may recall that the 26,000-person town northwest of Omaha, with two meatpacking plants nearby and a growing Latino population, has been debating immigration for the past six years. Fremont voters this week overwhelmingly decided to keep in place a controversial ordinance that, among other things, requires renters to register with the Police Department, which would then run an immigration check.
Under the ordinance, landlords who rent to illegal immigrants can face $100 fines. It was the second time Fremont residents voted on the issue. Six out of 10 voters decided to keep the law.
In their class, the Politics of Love students were given copies of a World-Herald news story about Fremont and dozens of online comments, many of them vitriolic.
Before the students dug into the issue, Longo asked for a vote. Of the 24 students in the room, two abstained and the rest split 14-8 in favor of dumping the ordinance.
“It shows we don't all agree,” Longo said when the results were posted on a chalkboard. He then opened the floor for discussion, encouraging students to consider others' views and cautioning them to be patient.
“How do you get to the point where you have resolution that reduces the level of conflict?” Longo asked. “Imagine for a moment that you are in Fremont.”
They imagined it. And the room, at first, was silent.
Then one student offered this solution.
“Maybe we could just not talk about it,” he said. “And we'd get along.”
Longo said he wasn't going for a vow of silence. Soon other students braved the topic.
They asked questions. They proposed theories. They dug into the weeds of Nebraska politics, Fremont itself and immigration, with one student noting that it takes years to become a U.S. citizen.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
For most of them, immigration was a theoretical idea, one that didn't have direct bearing on their lives. But for two, it was personal.
Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old math major, has grown up with a Canadian mother who has to jump through lots of hoops to keep her green card. She described a nightmare of an immigration bureaucracy and said her American-born father had to sign papers promising his wife wouldn't be a burden to the United States should something happen to him.
Stephanie voted to support the Fremont ordinance. Rules are rules.
But Juanita Alonso, a 21-year-old studying Spanish interpretation, was born in Mexico, came to the United States with her folks at age 9 and graduated from Diller-Odell (Neb.) High School. She speaks English with no trace of an accent.
Juanita currently has a work visa that allows her to go school and have a job. But she can't drive under Nebraska law. Nebraska is one of two states that bar children who came here illegally from getting driver's licenses, even if they now have federal protection to remain here.
“I guess I don't understand,” Juanita said about Fremont. “Are they hating on the race? Or on the status?”
Students treaded lightly. One asked, how could it not be race? Another said it wasn't race but rule of law. Most steered clear.
Abby Larson, from Tilden, Neb., said people should get to know each other better. Matthew Powell, from Mitchell, Neb., suggested that people look for things they share in common.
“We might not speak the same language,” he said, “but we also live in the same geographic location.”
The discussion was short. It was respectful.
But for the most part, the Politics of Love students talked past one another.
None changed positions. Nor did they offer pat answers or quick solutions. They grappled with the challenge of an issue like this just as we all probably do. Then they left the classroom with the same tension that was apparent after their own split vote.
That was OK, Longo said later. Northern Ireland didn't forge its Good Friday peace accord overnight. If the students had been able to settle their differences in a single hour, you probably could nominate them for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Resolution takes time, Longo said. It takes discussion, understanding and reaching across lines. Even then, he said, people still kill each other. So it's not perfect.
Longo said it's vital these college students see a way beyond war and hyper-partisanship. He hopes his Politics of Love class taps their creativity and idealism.
“It's not like we're inventing anything new,” he said. “We go all the way back to Aristotle. There's evidence that when you cooperate and seek the higher ground, a greater public good results. I want them to be the agents of positive change — not the old guys like me who people get tired of listening to.”
But even the old guys say valuable things. Longo quoted one as students walked out of his classroom.
“As Neil Young would say,” he said, “wage peace.”