America: Now What?

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Seattle – I’m writing this on election day 2014. My initial idea was to write and post something the day after the election, but the things that most fundamentally ail America transcend any routine scheduled political event, so I might as well address those regardless of the election results.

Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyNot that election results don’t matter; they do. But still. Just after the presidential elections two years ago I was in New Orleans, where I asked Alden McDonald, CEO of Liberty Bank and Trust, the third-largest African American-owned bank in the country, whether the Republicans would be chastened by President Obama’s rather decisive re-election. “That’s a good question,” he replied.

I have not seen anything that will cause them to change. I think some leadership is going to have to rise on that side to get people to begin looking at what’s best for the country, as opposed to what’s best for the party. Everyone has to realize that we have to get the budget in line, no two ways about it, but we have to do it together. The bipartisan committee came up with some recommendations that the Obama administration put together, and the Republican Party rejected. Now, Alan Simpson, who was not only a well-known but a well-respected Republican, was co-chair of it, and I knew Alan from some past relationships, and we’ve talked about his work privately. He’s terribly upset for his party, terribly upset. Well respected, staunch Republican, and he could not believe the pushback he got from his party. So we have a lot of things to worry about, we have a lot of things we have to fix, and at what point does the leadership of this country come to the forefront and say enough is enough?

I quote Mr. McDonald in my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, published a year ago. I’m currently making corrections and minor revisions to Home Free, preparatory to ordering a new printing. My premise in traveling during the 2012 election season was that the historical moment would prove telling, and that as the American national story continued to unfold, the personalities and stories in my book would remain revealing and edifying.

So at least I hoped and hope. To invoke one of the hoariest of journalistic cliches, time will tell. But one of the strongest impressions my 18,000-mile, 3 1/2-month road trip left me with was that not only are we Americans not all on the same page (to put it mildly), and not only do we not even want to be on the same page, but we live in different worlds.  And really, how could it be otherwise in a country the size of a continent? Near the end of the book I wrote:

One of the motivating premises of my project had been that America was not separate or different from the rest of the world. I had proven that, at least to my own satisfaction. And I had seen for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.

This October, invited to give the keynote speech at an annual “conflict resolution” conference in Colorado Springs, I opted to narrate a version of my Home Free slide show. I said jokingly at the beginning that America itself is one big conflict-resolution scenario, but no one laughed. I had misjudged my audience. Colorado Springs (my parents live there, and I devote a chapter to it in Home Free) is less monolithically dominated by right-wing Bible thumpers than many outsiders believe, but it’s true that that faction is both prominent and assertive locally. They also come across as oddly resentful – as if the rest of us were bullying them, rather than vice versa.

Admittedly I could have executed my talk better than I did, but I also violated a peculiar kind of politesse that afflicts Colorado Springs in particular and, I think, America in general: a tacit presumption that we mustn’t talk about precisely the things that we really should be talking about. As my high school friend Jill Radi put it to me in Wisconsin earlier in my trip, “You just don’t enter into the conversation, because it’s just so painful. The emotion’s so high because you can’t even listen.”

What’s funny is that, in my Colorado Springs slide show, I quoted Jill and praised her thoughtfulness and insight, at the same time identifying her as someone who holds conservative views. I did the same with several other right-of-center Americans I had met along the road. Then, after my speech, a man approached me and asked: “Did you interview any left-wing extremists?”

Nonplussed, I cast my mind over my trip and answered honestly, “Um … I don’t think anyone I interviewed was an extremist of any kind. Why do you ask?”

“I think you’re extremely biased in favor of liberals,” he said, and walked away.

Welcome to Colorado Springs, and welcome to America. But I’m an American, dammit, and I don’t want to live in the America that that guy wants to live in. He reminded me of Earl, a reviewer on Goodreads who griped that most of the people I met in Home Free were “either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” Not so, but even if it were, if the white Middle America that I come from doesn’t start getting used to, maybe even appreciating, the real extent and nature of this country’s diversity, we’re all in for ugly times ahead. In Miami, over lunch the day after election day 2012,  I asked the novelist Edwidge Danticat what it means to her to be an American. “I feel like I don’t know Middle America that well,” she replied.

But what it means to me to be an American has always been hyphenated and diverse, because I’ve always lived in these melting-pot cities. When I first came to New York [from Haiti at age 12], I went to Brooklyn and so, to me, that was America: people speaking Spanish, people speaking Russian, Korean. You have your Haitian groceries at the Korean store. So that, to me, was America: this place where all different kinds of people meet, and sometimes people who are enemies elsewhere can be friends there. Like Haitians and Dominicans might not get along on the island, but in America, in Brooklyn, they’re neighbors.

And, no, I’m not saying that all of America should be like New York City.  I don’t live in New York myself, and I’m glad I don’t. But I am saying that we’re all neighbors. If, by the time you read this, the Republicans have increased their dominance of the House of Representatives and maybe even retaken the Senate, we’ll all be feeling the aftershocks, as the Obama White House drifts rudderless for another two long years and the right wing scents blood in the water. But we’ll all still be neighbors, and we’d better at least try to make the best of it.

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