Who are We?

Time to take the high ground

Remember in 2004 when Obama gave his red + blue = purple speech? When he talked about all the ways we Americans are more alike than we are different? I’m struggling with that notion this week. I know no one is pro-mass shootings, but I don’t understand why the 2nd Amendment is so inviolable to so many. 

And not for nothing—where’s all that pro-life ‘every life is sacred’ horseshit when people are being mowed down with AK-47s at the Walmart? God forbid someone take away your right to own a gun, but let’s limit a woman’s rights about her own body and future? Why am I asking for logical consistency? Nevermind.

Who are these men and why do they have such powerful guns? Don’t waste my time with this “Oh it’s not the guns, it’s mental illness.” Of course they’re insane. The world is full of mentally ill people, but the USA corners the market on mass shootings. What’s the difference here? Guns.

These men are mentally ill terrorists, just like the Islamic fundamentalists beheading journalists and driving trucks through Christmas markets. With his bigoted tweets and angry rallies, our president is fomenting their sense of persecution, he’s validating their darkest fears and giving license to their most nihilistic fantasies.

Politicians like to say “We are better than this” or “This is not who we are.” But I’m beginning to wonder who “we” are. Maybe lots of Americans are actually ok with this violent extremism. Maybe they figure it’s the cost of freedom, or maybe they’ve cynically decided there’s nothing we can do so why try. 

We have to hold the mirror up so we can see both sides of our American selves. Both sides. Trump and his fear-mongering demagoguery is who we are, and who we’ve been historically ever since our very beginnings. We are a great nation with enormous promise to be even better, but we are also a country made by invasion, genocide, and enslavement.

Fear of the other

I was on vacation last week in Wellfleet, a sleepy town on the outer Cape near Provincetown. A friend and I woke up early to get a permit to have a beach bonfire, and when the chatty clerk discovered we were from Maplewood, she told us she was too—a retired teacher from Columbia High School. 

“It was a sweet town, and such a great school, until ‘they’ all started coming over the border and sneaking in,” she said. For those of you not familiar, there is a persistent but goofy theory that African American families from economically depressed Irvington and Newark are sneaking their kids into CHS. That’s the “they” she’s talking about. This is the coded language of Maplewood; it’s a way to be politely racist. This “black kids are sneaking into CHS” paranoia is not uncommon in wide swaths of my town, where the stately houses look like the settings for John Hughes movies, the lawns are big and landscaped, and family vacations regularly require passports.

Even in my progressive town, with its rainbow pride crosswalk and its dopey “stigma-free zone” street signs, bigotry thrives. 

[A smart friend of mine, an educator in Newark, says and not without exasperation:  “The kids sneaking in—if there are any—they are not the problem. If some kid has moved in with his great-aunt to go to our high school because it’s better, you know what? We want that kid at CHS. That’s a kid who wants to learn and his parents are willing to break rules to get him a good education. That’s a good family.” I love how she upends and reveals their fundamental racism.]

Maplewood is unusually economically diverse for a suburb, and what these privileged people never bothered to learn is that even wider swaths of their very progressive, Instagram-worthy, “Brooklyn West” brigadoon is also home to block after block of smaller houses, less picturesque yards, chicken wire fencing instead of giant hydrangea bushes, and—gasp—African Americans. African Americans who have jobs, mortgages, advanced degrees, and children who are legitimately enrolled in our high school.

The woman in Wellfleet pissed me off in the casual way she disclosed her bigotry. “They aren’t sneaking in,” I told her, my jaw tight. “Those kids are Maplewood residents. They live in town with all of us.” My friend tried harder to win her over. I walked out. 

Take the high ground

Every relationship takes work, and in order to get along with these fearful gun-crazy bigots we have to follow Michelle Obama’s advice: When they go low, we go high. But perhaps she meant it as a battle strategy not an etiquette lesson. In war, you take the high ground to win, and I believe this is a fight we can’t afford to lose.

What if Trump wins a second term? The retired teacher in Wellfleet makes me very afraid that he can win again. She might be a Trump voter. She’s not alone: There’s the rich Republicans who have convinced themselves that lowering their taxes is how to help the country, there’s the working class Republicans who think Trump and the GOP care about their futures, and there’s the bigots who feel good about the way he’s scapegoating people of color.

Are there more of them or more of us? Will we all vote? We can only stop this insanity if we take back power. I know it’s early for the election, but I worry it’s too late for our nation. We have to engage every single possible vote against the GOP, against Trump, against the NRA. I don’t have a book to recommend this week. Instead, I suggest we all become more engaged citizens. Before Obama left office, he gave a farewell speech in Chicago. 

He told us it was on us as citizens to preserve America. “Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”

Who are we? 

The power of myth

Here’s one recommendation; a good way to snap out of the divisiveness. Joseph Campbell is routinely championed as the hero of the hero’s journey and that’s what made me listen. But the content of this goes far beyond story structure. This folksy ambling audio is such a lovely departure from the usual, and his stories of archetype myths around the world are a peaceful way to remember how silly we are when we demonize eachother. It’s not easy, but I will include myself and the way I’ve grown so angry about the GOP. 

The truth is we are all more alike than we are different. At times like this, it can be hard to remember that. Hearing how all around the world we share such similar origin stories is a nice way to remember that maybe it’s not too late for us to try to make some purple.