It’s been said that you should never talk politics at the bar, but it happens. And when it does, the words that fall out of mouths can challenge friendships, patience and perspectives. In my little town, with it’s individualist spitfire personalities, the politics can get heated pretty quickly. Small towns are funny, you become a community, regardless of that fact that you may never actually be friends. Your world becomes full of friendly acquaintances, and at times a surprising tolerance for disagreement. This town runs the gamut of social and political ideologies, so conversations can become interesting, especially at the bar.
As I occasionally do, I stopped to have a beer with a friend after work. He was already there, chatting with a mutual acquaintance. An acquaintance I’ve had issues with before, particularly over racism. I don’t even remember if they were talking politics when I walked in, or if something else brought it up later, but there we were, talking politics at the bar.
Somewhere in the midst of that conversation, laced as it was, with the double standards and contradictions that tend to make up so much of people’s political discussions, I heard, “…well, that’s just not American.”
My brain stopped.
It’s not as though I’ve never heard the sentiment before, but this time I was struck by the absurdity of the idea of a singular American identity, or the idea that a national persona can’t evolve.
While I made the wise decision to keep my mouth shut, and just listen, the notion stuck with me. To this day, when I hear people say, ‘that’s just not American’, I wonder, what the fuck does that even mean?
Do conservatives, with their rebel flags and their ‘don’t tread on me’ tattoos, with their clinging to the legends of the past, hold a monopoly on ‘Americanism’? Gads, I hope not.
America, in it’s short history has changed and evolved so much. We won our independence. We conquered the wilds of the west. We laid the foundation for a new form of governance, tho many were excluded. We fought a civil war, cementing power with the bureaucrats and industry leaders of the north. We struggled, are still struggling to raise ourselves above the specter of racism. We fought for suffrage, but on some fronts still fight for equality. We survived a great depression, and emerged with regulations in place to prevent another such catastrophe, and a New Deal to help with the rebuilding. We took on the bosses and lawyers and challenged our treatment as throw-away workers. We discovered LSD and rock and roll. We fought in Europe, we fought in ’Nam, we fought in Korea, and still we fight in the middle east under the guise of freedom and sovereignty, while each side here at home tries to control the other. We’ve worked in cooperation with other nations of the world in our effort to create better global realities. We’ve worked so hard to cultivate compassion and acceptance of one another’s otherness, be it religious, ethnic or sexual.
It feels like we’re falling backwards. That golden age of the ’50’s that conservatives seem to constantly harken back to is a mirage, and efforts at revival are a farce. We don’t get the jobs, the prosperity and the pride back. We don’t all get a 2 car garage and cottage on the lake. We don’t get American made products. We don’t get poodle skirts or Elvis. What we do get is this rising nationalist movement with it’s racism, misogyny and religious zeal. What we do get is an elite class who shape the laws to favor themselves. What we do get is us playing into the hands of our rulers, battling one another, while they walk away with all of the prizes.
So, what the hell does it mean to be an American in this diverse, topsy-turvy America of today?