finan column

School board member Vickie Reed talks with state Rep. Greg Heartsill after a recent forum at Knoxville High School.

“Tovarich” is Russian for friend.

I learned this by watching Hogan’s Heroes reruns.

If you’re too young to know, Hogan’s Heroes was a sitcom about a World War II prisoner of war camp in Germany. It debuted in 1965, just two decades after the war ended. As younger folks might say about such humor, it was probably “too soon.”

But the jokes were pertinent back when Hogan’s Heroes was a hot show. They still are today.

In the late 1960s, the United States was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. In one Hogan’s Heroes episode, the prisoners tried to convince their German guard that the Russians soon would liberate the camp. It might be handy to know “tovarich.”

The Cold War was still hot when I started high school. I could have expanded my Russian vocabulary but instead took four years of Chinese. Adults back then suggested that, given the global situation, it might be helpful to know a little Chinese. Just in case.

I haven’t used my Chinese that much. But I do recall “pengyou,” Chinese for friend.

My pengyou Gena Schneider was in town recently, and we caught up some on New Year’s Eve morning. She’s been in China for six years and has a practical grasp of its culture and politics.

Terry Branstad may grab the headlines over there, but Gena plays an important role as an unofficial ambassador. She has a quick smile and an open mind, important for any diplomat. Gena teaches Chinese people to speak English. She also teaches them what America is all about, just by being herself.

They have a lot of questions, and you can’t blame them. We’re a questionable bunch, we Americans. We are red and blue, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw said that “The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” I’ve spent plenty of time in Washington, D.C., and Des Moines, and there are times that the powers that be seem to be speaking a foreign language.

It’s too easy to dehumanize the people who try to lead us. They’re people like us — teachers and farmers and contractors. They have self interests and they listen to special interests. Are we so different than the folks who represent us?

We are if we don’t use the gift of language to communicate — to be heard and to hear.

In a representative democracy, we communicate with our leaders in two key ways. The more obvious is voting. But just as important is the opportunity we have between elections, when we can write, call or e-mail our state and federal leaders. We can challenge or affirm their positions and votes. We can even encourage them to play nicely with others, before they draw us all into a war of words or worse.

We live in an all-too-polarized nation and world, often forgetting that words can draw us closer. We don’t need to agree with everyone but we need to bridge the gaps. Consider being a pen pal this year with the people elected to lead you.

Who knows? Though you might agree to disagree, you could even become friends.

Pat Finan is the managing editor of the Journal-Express. He can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155 or via email at

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