The Forgotten American

If I read one more think piece about what constitutes a ‘real’ American, or what alphabetized or categorized or hypothesized list of attributes define a ‘real’ American, I’m going to scream.

If I read one more newspaper article, or book blurb, or journal piece by men and women with glasses and thoughtful looks in their bio pictures extolling the plight of the ‘forgotten’ American I am going to lose my shit.

If I have to listen to one more pundit, one more punter, one more pontificator blindly reaching into the ether to grasp the imaginary coattails or the slippery bootstraps of the “real” American I am going to go pull my hair out.

Look–I am not denying this truth: millions upon millions upon millions of Americans have been forgotten. By corporations and government, by their neighbors and communities, by Congress and politicians. What I am disputing is the mythical notion of the one-size fits all American. The hurtful and degrading insinuation that anything or anyone deviating from a caricature, a caricature which is now decked out in a red MAGA hat and living somewhere between the coasts is somehow…what? A fake American? Not real enough? Semi-real…like Veleeta?

Let’s not play dumb. When you hear or see the phrase “All-American”, there is a certain image which comes to mind. It’s the same image that populates these news articles and books and think pieces.

And it’s not the inner-city Detroit kid or the Hasid from Brooklyn or the teenage girl from Nebraska who’s transitioning to a teenage boy.

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The notion that rural, white Americans who are living in towns decimated by opioids or lost industry have any more claim to the title of ‘forgotten American’ than the inner city families decimated by the crack epidemic and rampant unemployment in the 1980s is preposterous. Yet one is now wearing the mantle of Americana while the other is held up as a giant American don’t. One is seen as a failure of the government and services, of trade agreements and globalization. The other?

The other was…and is…hyped as a failure of morality.

The rural American narrative sings a merry tune. Yet inner-city America (that’s fancy government code for black, by the way) is a cacophony. Only one is courted. Only one is being studied and endlessly scrutinized.

Only one of those is granted the title of American.

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There is no such thing as a ‘real’ American. Trying to chase down some elusive, mythical one-piece will be about as successful as chasing down a Hypogriff.

It’s a fool’s errand.

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To be sure, there are stereotypes. Hollywoodized and memorialized in books and films and television shows.

The shy cow-poke with hair the color of Iowa wheat-fields who ‘aw shucks, ma’am’s his way through life.

The inner-city single mother who’s struggling to keep her kids off the corner.

The perfect suburban family, picket fence, whitened smiles, baseball games and apple pie on a Sunday afternoon.

But what of the ones which don’t spring easily to mind?

The naturalized immigrant who works two jobs to save enough for his daughter to go to college.

The successful black doctor who lives in the suburbs and listens to Kendrick Lamar in secret so his white neighbors don’t think he’s ‘too black’.

The drug dealer’s daughter who recognizes the only reason there’s a roof over their heads and food on the table is because of her father’s illegal activity.

The reservation-dwelling kid who fights to claw his way out of the drain of poverty.

They’re all Americans. And they’ve all been left behind in one way or another. They’ve been shoved to the margins, erased.

Forgotten.

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You can’t take away someone else’s story because it doesn’t fit the neat plot structure you’ve outlined.

Those stories are just as American. If you cut them, will they not bleed red, white, and blue?

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Try to paint American and you’re not going to get a picture, but a mosaic. Like the US itself, it’s a hodgepodge. A glorious haphazard. States were tacked on willy-nilly, here and there, a geographical mish-mash of mountainous terrain and coastline and fields of wheat-filled glory in-between. Swamplands and badlands and your land and my land and all the land in between.

There is NO one America. It’s too big. It’s too diverse, in every way imaginable. Just as there is not one American.

Yes, we’re full of stereotypes, camera snapping socks and sandal shod gun-toting chino wearing chitlin eating sweet tea drinking stereotypes. They stretch 3,000 miles across and half as many again up and down. It’s a land which encompasses indigenous tribal tradition and oral spiritual from slaves just as much as it does the heartland. It embraces co-opted foods and bastardized traditions from the steady streams of immigrants which have washed upon its shores for the past two-hundred and fifty years just as much as it does 4H fairs and VFW halls.

In reality the real forgotten Americans are the ones conveniently forgotten to be included in our definition of forgotten.

The snotty East side of Manhattan trust fund baby is just as much an American as the corn-fed blue-eyed Joe from Iowa. The California Latina and the heroin addict from Ohio. The out-of work coal-miner, the upper middle class neighbor. The dish-washer. The super-market bagger. The hedge-fund manager. The activist. The millions of children living in poverty and the millions of children living in privilege. They are all Americans.

No one person or group gets to define what makes an American.

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The immigrant who gave up her homeland to take a pledge to a country which doesn’t want her is no less of an American because she wasn’t born in the heartland or on the coast. Choosing a country, giving up the soil you first walked on, is no easy feat, regardless of what’s happening on the shores you left behind. To believe enough in a new home to give up identity, culture, homeland, family, language. It’s a witch relinquishing her familiar. And yet these are the very folks who some would consider not ‘real’ Americans. They are forgotten.

Native tribes who were shoved to the corners of the country, into dust bowls and barren lands. They are forgotten.

Black Americans, dragged here in chains against their will, still rising up against a different set of chains. They are forgotten.

Yet no one is chasing down their stories in the quest to hear from the forgotten American.

There is no litmus test. There is no purity test. There is no financial means test. The family who needs help from the government is just as American as the one who funds university libraries. There is no single set of criteria one must meet.

And so you’ll forgive me if I am weary of so many Americans forgetting about so many Americans in the search to track down the forgotten American.

 

 

 

 

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America, Where Are You?

America is supposed to be better than this.

Where is the country, young, scrappy, and hungry, that stood up to a mad king and against all odds, won its independence? The country which has a statue at one of its busiest ports challenging the world to give us its tired and poor, its huddled masses yearning to be free? Where is the country of my great-grandparents, which took those immigrant lives and pushed them through a sieve of red white and blue until they bled apple pie? Where is the country which hails itself as a beacon of democracy and freedom, as bright as Liberty’s torch shining over New York harbor?

We are supposed to be better than this.

Where is the hunger to fix the problems pulling the country apart at the seams? Where is the drive to do better, to take care of our own whether they’re in Puerto Rico or Houston or Las Vegas? Or Iowa, Mississippi or Maine. Where is the innovative thinking we need to overcome problems like gun violence and systemic racism? Where is the scrappiness to face those challenges, the conviction to overcome them?

At what point will this great American experiment be deemed a failure? At what point will the absolute right of the individual citizen be responsible for the downfall of a nation?

I say this as an American who loves my country: I think we are very close to that point. I think we have championed the right of the individual over the rights of the whole for too long, and we are paying the price. Or rather the people in Las Vegas are paying the price, and the citizens of Puerto Rico, the families who bury their black sons and daughters are paying the price. Children who shoot themselves with unsecured guns, women who are killed by abusive partners, transgender citizens who are murdered by fellow citizens. People without healthcare. Citizens in the wealthiest nation in the world going hungry, going without.

We are all paying the price because we are all worse off.

Maybe some of us take nicer vacations or have more square footage. Maybe some have a nice chunk of retirement change. But this idea that our rights as individuals, to speech or guns or bigotry in the name of religious freedom comes before our unity as a whole, as a nation?

That idea is going to kill us as sure as a stake through the country’s heart.

We now accept mass shootings as a way of  life, especially those carried out by white male terrorists. We find neat little ways of compartmentalizing the actions of those men by giving them titles like ‘lone wolf’. By humanizing them in the narrative with occupations and family stories. And so it’s easier to think it’s yet again a one-off thing. There was nothing to stop it, it won’t happen again.

Until it does.

And does.

And does.

And does.

Mass shootings are now as American as baseball and McDonald’s. We expect them. We’re unsurprised by them. We pray and we send thoughts and push aside the fact that it is not going to go away right out of our minds.

Where is the problem solving? Where’s the courage to fix this? Where are the goddamn bootstraps I hear so much about? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, but give me young, scrappy and hungry too.

In the aftermath which will follow Las Vegas, the same tired, old arguments will be trotted out. But the real tragedy, beyond the lives of the fifty-eight people lost is this:

Too many Americans have become immune. Inoculated against the bloodshed. Caring too much about the imagined individual restrictions than about the life of a nation. We’ve finally managed the neat, little trick of turning so far inward that we’ve ceased to see outward.

 

We have our own mad king now, who likes gold thrones just as much as George III. But Las Vegas did not happen because of the Trump administration. NFL protests are not happening because of it. I am not laying blame for any of this at the feet of the Trump administration.

Nor do I think the administration is capable of doing a damn thing about staunching the blood either.

So we will continue our descent. Our empathy will continue to atrophy. Our belief in the individual over all else, even the life of our neighbor, our lover, our child. Until there is nothing left but an island full of individuals who come up with ever new Hunger Games style ways of killing one another because ….somehow, someone somewhere will convince those remaining Americans it’s within their rights to do so.

Or we can channel those early founding fathers and stand up.

America, don’t throw away your shot.

 

What’s the Point of Having Rights if You’re Not Going to Use Them?

“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
-Donald Trump

Last year Colin Kaepernick, an American football player, refused to stand during the American national anthem. Several other high-profile athletes such as US soccer star Megan Rapinnoe followed suit. The backlash was quick.

A year later, it hasn’t abated.

Looking past the fact that blind allegiance to a nationalistic symbol is about the most Un-American thing I can think of, that forced standing, saluting, singing, and pledging are exactly the sort of things that Americans abhor in other places, because you know…freedom….the bigger point is this:

The whole point of having certain inalienable rights as defined in the Constitution is to USE them. If we’re not going to use them, why spend so much time, energy, blood, and lives defending them?

People are getting their Kaeper-knickers in a twist about utilizing rights. Are rights merely meant to sit on a shelf somewhere, kept shiny but never used? Because if so they will atrophy. They’ll wither until they are of no use to anyone. Until they die.

Service men and women have fought and died to protect the rights Americans hold dear. Those rights are whispered into the ears of American children at night. We grow up on them. We eat them at greasy spoon diners and wash them down with Bud Light. They are our bread and butter, our meat and potatoes, and apple pie for dessert.

Rights.

Not a flag. Not an anthem. Not a pledge.

Protests, such as that of Colin Kaepernick and fellow athletes do not dishonor those sacrifices. In fact, I can’t think of anything that honors them more. Citizens using the very things so many gave their life to protect.

Rights.

It may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I guarantee that bitterness still tastes sweeter than what Kaepernick and his fellow athletes are protesting: daily witnessing the fact that your life doesn’t count for as much as it does if you’re white.

Of course this is not about utilizing rights. This is about certain groups using their rights. When tiki-torch carrying white supremacists march en masse we hotly debate ‘rights’. When toddlers are routinely shot dead by unsecured guns, we wring our hands over ‘rights’. When statues glorifying slavery-supporting generals are questioned, we hem and haw over ‘rights’.

But when black Americans protest? Suddenly it’s not about rights. It’s about dishonoring. It’s about disrespect. It’s about refusal to bend the knee (oh, the irony).

They may as well be calling black NFL players ‘boy’.

America! Land of the free and home of the brave! Yet the landscape of my country is very different depending on who you are. And who you are has a lot to do with the color of your skin, your biological sex, and who you love.

As a white educated woman, I lead a different life than a woman of color of the same educational background. My life is very different life from that of a white male, a hispanic homosexual, a transgender female, or a white woman living below the poverty line.

I know it’s hard to see that. It’s easy to assume that everyone else out there has the same experiences –not only the day-to-day ones, but the overreaching ones as well, the ones that link together to make up the concrete foundation of your experience. That we all have access to the same raw materials. That those bootstraps Americans love to fetishize are available in one size fits all.

But that is simply not true.

Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennet and other black NFL players protest because their America is not the same as mine. Megan Rapinoe knelt because her America is not the same as mine. Their opportunities are not the same. Their access, their power. Forget pulling yourselves up by the bootstraps. What happens when you’re not even given access to the materials to even fashion them?

Yet when they use non-violent means of protest to call attention to these very different experiences, they are criticized, told to be quiet, threatened, and called unpatriotic.

I ask you, what choice have we left for those whose experience of the United States is not the same as yours, or mine? What choice have we left for those who keep trying to pull up the damn bootstraps only to find the ones we gave them are shoddy, damaged, or non-existent?

What choice?

What are people supposed to do? If you find protests so unpalatable, so offensive, then what course do you recommend? Because nothing else has worked. Nothing.

Racism, sexism, homophobia–they are all documented issues. Yet we continue to shuffle them under the rug and stuff them in the closet. We deny, deny, deny. We shift the blame and blame the victim. And then–and then!–when people use their rights to call attention to these problems, we tell them to find another way to do it because it’s “offensive”.

For real?

260 years ago, the idea of taxation without representation was enough to go to war.

We celebrate that uprising each year with fireworks and backyard barbecues. We celebrate those protests, many of them violent, which led to the birth of a nation. But when a non-violent protest asks us to look at the messy afterbirth of that same nation?

We can’t handle the truth.

We hide behind a flag, an anthem, a pledge.

The United States of America is not post-racism. There is literally no legitimate recourse if you are a person of color.

You’re beat down, then told you’re not. You’re told to use the right channels, but those channels are blocked. You’re told it’s all in your head, it’s not as bad as you think, it doesn’t exist. And when you stand over the dead bodies as evidence, you’re told it must have been your own fault.

How are you supposed to affect change if there are people who won’t even admit change is necessary?

 

Somewhere out there there’s a child sitting and watching these athletes saying, ‘I’m not crazy, I’m not alone and here is someone willing to stand up for me.”

And that is how it begins. A teabag thrown into a harbor doesn’t make too much of an impact. A ship full of tea does.

But it all has to start somewhere.

What’s the point of having rights if we’re not going to use them?

What kind of message does it send when we value a symbol over a life?

And what does it say when we have a leader who refers to someone using their inalienable right as a son-of-a-bitch?

 

 

 

A Word to Progressives

There’s a story I’ve been telling recently I think bears repeating.

A year or two before my son started school, there was a buzz. Word on the playground was that a momentum was building. A group of neighborhood parents, priced out of NYC private schools and frustrated at the lackluster performance of the local public schools, were starting to mobilize. Fantastic, right? These parents started getting involved, going to town halls and attending district and zone meetings. They organized and advocated. They had binders full great ideas that would benefit not only their own kids, but everyone’s kids. Win/win.

In their passion to improve what was already there they neglected one important thing: the people who already called that school home. And those folks were understandably wary and resentful of a group of newcomers rushing in demanding change while liberally pointing out fault and failure.

I’m watching the same thing happen now with the progressive movement in the US. A fired-up grass-roots movement which wants to overhaul the Democratic Party for the betterment of all. Fantastic, right? But as I’m watching, I’m shaking my head. Because many are making the same mistake those neighborhood parents made: they’re not taking into account the people who actually make up the Democratic party.

The Democrats lost the last election. Bigly. They’ve lost countless seats and governorships in the last few election years. We can autopsy the whys until we’re covered in the gore of yesterday. We can place blame from here until Tuesday. None of that changes the fact that when you march into someone else’s school–or house, or political party–expecting to radically change the structure, you must take into account the needs, wants, and desires of the people who actually live there. Or, as the case may be, vote there.

Even if your ideas are great. Even if your ideas will help the people already there.

No one likes to be told they’re doing things wrong. No one likes to be told if only. Never mind if you’re right or not. Everyone’s well-versed in hindsight and its eagle-eyed vision. Would you march into someone else’s house and start shouting “You chose the wrong carpet! Your decor sucks! What were you thinking? Oh by the way, can I come stay with you for a while until I get my own place?”

If you expect them to say “Well sure, here are the keys!”, I want some of what you’re smoking.

What are they likely to do? The same thing any human being does when told they’re wrong, or stupid, or not good enough. They bristle. They resent the hell out of you. And they probably try to block every single attempt to change because hey, maybe the school/house/party is failing, but damn if it’s not our school and who are you to tell us how to do things? 

It makes my heart swell to see millions striving to make the world a more equitable place. But….you need to remember that there are millions of Democrats who’ve been living in their blue house for decades. Maybe it is falling down around them (and that point is arguable in and of itself). But remember, even if it is, it’s their damn house and they’ve been paying the mortgage on it for years. And despite what you may think, they’ve had a lot of good times in that house. There are some good memories there. They’re not going to let someone they don’t know come in and start tearing up the linoleum to see if there’s hardwood underneath, all the while berating them for every decorating choice they’ve made since 1960.

Most people don’t like change. It’s uncomfortable. Even when that change is going to benefit them. The reasons why so many old school Democrats are committed now to a resistance movement is that the change is threatening to go too far in one direction. But remember, for millions of Democrats–the people who have been living in that house, the ones who have been showing up and voting–change too far in the other direction is just as frightening. And they’ll fight it just as much.

Right now, Progressives need to rent some room in the Democrat’s house. Sure, you could declare it condemned. You could burn it and build something new. You could find another house on another street. But that all takes time, and by the time all is said and done, it could be too late.

Or…you could work with the people already living there. And, chances are, when you start looking around, you’re going to find a pretty decent bone structure to work with. In fact, the place may not be in as much disarray as you thought it was when you dragged your sleeping bag in looking for a place to squat.

Smart Progressives will approach coalition building with courtesy, caution, and yes, compromise. Maybe you reach an agreement to live together until your own house is ready. Great! After all, help with the bills is always welcomed. Until it’s ready it would be wise to remember that if you need a place to stay, it’s probably not the smartest move to go around  knocking holes in the walls and incessantly bringing up that time in 1992 when they let the pipes freeze. Or else you may just find your ass on the street. Noble intentions, passion, and good ideas go a long way, but when there’s a hurricane bearing down upon you, and there’s a big old blue house on the corner inviting you in, it would be dumb not to take shelter. Even if the roof is leaky and it stinks like mothballs. 

Eventually the new parents in my Brooklyn hood worked with the long-time neighborhood residents, wisely realizing that even if the school wasn’t winning any awards, it wasn’t really their school to criticize. The need for underlying change and improvement hadn’t gone away, but any forward motion had to take the old into account as well as the new.

Resistance is necessary. But the last thing a resistance movement needs is resistance within itself.