These American Divisions
A view of our widening divide from the middle of the country
Having been shaken to my core in the aftermath of the 2016 election and then having to acknowledge the reality of my filter bubble, my liberal snobbery, and my lefty misunderstandings, I now want to talk about the American divisions I’ve been seeing lately. Maybe I’ve always seen these divisions to one degree or another, given my small, specific place in the middle of divided America.
I was born in a small town. And I lived in a small town for 18 years. I then moved to a small city. I lived there for 10 years. And then I moved to a slightly bigger city and have lived there for almost another 10. All in the great state of Nebraska. Never moving away, for whatever reason, holding onto a certain pride and comfort I have with this place. Part of the pride and comfort was thinking we could all get along despite our differences.
I’ll never forget that night. More than a year ago, I was at an election party for a local Democrat, who won by the way. The moment the Nate Silver predictions turned to an 80 percent chance of a Trump victory, my heart hit the floor and then my head hit the wall several times in rapid succession. I felt like we (the Democrats) had it in the bag. How could America not put an extremely qualified politician into the highest political office in the land? Who, if not Hillary Clinton, would get the job if she didn’t?
Donald Trump, that’s who. Carrying with him a divisive view of the country I could not believe was real, even though it had resembled parts of my small-town upbringing. During the long, arduous campaign, I tried to ignore most of the vulgarity and absurdity on display. The racism, the sexism, the ignorance, the divisiveness. Just don’t bring it up, I figured, and it will, in time, go away. And then we’ll be able to move onto the real business at hand: healthcare, jobs, equal opportunity, etc. But it didn’t, and we haven’t. Now here we are.
“Here” happens to be a place where the central theme for American government action today is division. Which I am NOT okay with.
While I acknowledge the divisions created by the bubbles, the snobbery, and the misunderstandings of the left, I want to focus on a few things about the right, the bubbles of my small town, and the divisions currently being exploited by the man who happens to be President. A few things from my perspective, out here in the middle of America.
Perhaps I’ve internalized many points of conflict on a gut level having lived in Nebraska forever, growing up surrounded by small-town conservatism. Where the liberals are so outnumbered it can be easier to keep your head down and hold true to the unwritten rule of never bringing up politics. A rule I remember hearing a lot. Of course, it really just meant not bringing up views on politics that challenged conservatism.
So let’s bring up politics. From a perspective of a bleeding heart liberal in a Republican stronghold. One of the misfits in the land of Ted Nugent fans. Someone who doesn’t want to be divided but also feels the need to no longer ignore a view of America I see as detrimental to our progress.
The Culture War Divide Is Bringing Me Down
Oh the epic battles Americans choose to wage over our values. Sift through the litany of our culture wars and you’ll find the biggest, most important issue for one side is a waste of time for the other. The gap between the two ever widening.
You can see it in the big, overarching categories of our politics — progressive versus conservative, urban versus rural — as well as the more granular details of everyday life, where every decision is of political consequence — hip-hop versus country, local versus chain restaurant, Prius versus pickup truck, Trevor Noah versus Sean Hannity.
Daily Show Sketch Idea: Trevor Noah squares off against Sean Hannity as they race through the streets of New York. Noah with his Prius, Hannity with a giant H2. They must find a restaurant that best represents them as people. Hannity probably goes with Applebee’s. Then park, dine in, and see which one stimulates the economy more, all while listening to their chosen album of personal and/or cultural significance. Maybe Trevor could go with some Radiohead.
This is a story about the culture wars. The ones I’ve heard about in the Midwest when I leave my liberal bubble. Culture wars I would prefer to just ignore. But again, here we are and we can’t do that anymore.
Donald Trump exploits our good ole fashioned American culture wars better than anyone. That’s the only thing, THE ONLY THING, he’s good at. Off the cuff, at the drop of a hat, catch and release, in your face, take that, you silly sonofabitch, here’s a good ole fashioned slice of American culture war right in your stupid, liberal face.
According to him, transgender soldiers should no longer serve in the military. Birth control can now be denied by employers if it goes against their religious beliefs. Taking down Confederate statues put up in the 1960s to intimidate black people would destroy our heritage. We’re going to start saying “Merry Christmas” again. (Seriously, when did we ever stop?) There are some very fine white supremacists out there. And ungrateful, highly paid, scary professional athletes should be made to stand during OUR national anthem and respect OUR flag:
I have a vivid memory of the 1992 Olympic basketball dream team. Having grown up idolizing Michael Jordan, I was so happy to see all the basketball awesomeness happen on the world’s stage. They were so good! (Sorry Christian Laettner.) And after they destroyed every team they faced and won the gold, at the medal ceremony, Michael Jordan and some others came out with big American flags draped over their shoulders. So awesome, I thought. So patriotic. Not sure when exactly I found out, but the reason they did that was because they were players under Nike contract and they needed to cover up Reebok logos. Corporate branding made the flag nothing more than a prop.
Goddamn you, culture wars, you are bringing me down.
The War on Christmas? Whatabout the War on Drugs? The former is a fabrication, the latter has gone out of its way to brutalize black Americans across the country for decades.
The pro-life movement? Whatabout all the other aspects of American life where the “pro-lifers” have been too absent (gun control, immigration, climate change).
Conservatives are terrified they’ll have their guns taken away? Whatabout America’s truly insane amount of gun deaths?
Americans can’t just watch the game on Sundays without someone making it political? Whatabout those war plane flyovers the defense department paid millions of tax-payer dollars for to the NFL? Don’t tell me sports aren’t political.
The culture wars pop up so often these days, dividing the country at every turn. They seem particularly divisive because they’ve been building for centuries. They’ve grown up with us all along, and now they’re being unleashed.
Growing Up with Grievance
Let’s reflect for a moment on what most white kids hear growing up in the Midwest. The assumptions baked into the DNA of my small-town America were not only strange and untrue in my mind, they were commonplace.
Why would you vote for Democrats, do you hate your freedom? There’s just no place where a white man can go these days. Bill “Slick Willie” Clinton was a used-car salesman. Al Gore thinks he invented the Internet. I can’t be certain if Obama was born in this country. In this country, you either speak English or you go back to Mexico. Well you know those [insert racial slur here] are just lazy. Those environmentalists trying to tell us what to do while flying around in their private jets. People get sick more often because of all the Mexicans coming over here illegally. I like Trump because he’s not a politician like all the rest. I don’t like that Michelle Obama. Why oh why did the liberals have to bring up bathroom “rights?” The housing crisis was caused by irresponsible people buying homes they couldn’t afford. The estate tax is really a death tax. Climate change isn’t real, look at all the snow in Denver right now. If you give healthcare to everyone, lazy people will take advantage of the system. It’s “Merry Christmas.”
Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s easy to see why culture wars take hold simply because of the high frequency with which these messages get sent out. From talk radio right on through to the family gatherings. Some of these aren’t even that bad, compared to what I’ve heard a few of my friends recount from their experiences in small-town America.
Now, I went to Catholic school. This specific school, according to a former student a couple decades older than me, was known for anti-war, anti-nuclear views held by the tough-as-nails nuns. But that was years before my time. When I went through school, the only thing anyone seemed to care about was abortion, abortion, abortion.
Being able to stop this scourge was prayed about in daily mass. It was discussed in religion class alongside graphic videos depicting bloody fetuses. We even had a weird population-and-birth-rate class that took more of a “cost-accounting” view of all the white people no longer being born. We had all that, and then we had some “your dick is going to fall off if you ever have sex before marriage” health classes and all-school assemblies.
You mean to tell me that if I don’t wait until I’m married to have sex, sex being like, the only thing I think about, like, all day long, that I will most likely get all those STDs, probably at the same time, and die miserable and alone?
In terms of sheer volume of coverage, the abortion issue was the primary concern in the school for what seemed like always. It drowned out any other concerns from what I think I remember Jesus mentioning at some point: poverty, war, famine, rich men having a tough time getting into heaven, etc. The first Supreme Court decision I knew about was Roe vs. Wade due to the strategic placement of a poster near our church’s entrance. And it was the only issue ever mentioned on the tiny billboards surrounding our small town.
Aside from what I heard and saw while growing up, there was also what I felt: an unspoken “truth” that seemed to bind our small town together.
This “truth” was that, alongside the neighborly features of small-town America and the opportunity to feel safe, to learn, to have fun, and to grow up, someone, somewhere out there was trying to take all that away from us. Our way of life was under attack by savages, idiots, and criminals.
The groups hard at work in this cause were a shifting set of common actors: immigrants, politicians (Democrats), and, of course, after 9/11, terrorists. We were to be on guard against minority groups who were never satisfied and wanted to just take, take, take (apparently this segues into today’s professional athletes who kneel during the national anthem).
Some groups got more emphasis than others. For example, in our small town, there were more gay people than black people. By a high ratio. Thus, Reagan’s welfare queens are gaming the system view was way more powerful than Falwell’s gays caused 9/11 simply because the kid down the street everyone knew was gay had a good sense of humor and a fine singing voice.
This unspoken “truth” of scarcity and grievance was just as much a part of my small town as the one and only traffic light. It was our identity and defined our view of the American divide.
But if a fine singing voice could be used to dull the sharpness of the culture war, perhaps the recognition of certain privileges can, too.
I’m A Straight White Male and I Approve This Message
Oddly enough, despite all the scarcity I was hearing about, I didn’t have roadblocks. I had encouragement. I’m a straight white male and because of how I carried myself, how I dressed, and what I was interested in there were plenty of people as I was growing up who actively helped me. Or simply gave me the benefit of the doubt.
Such a nice boy. And a good student. He works so hard. He can be anything he wants to be. He did that one stupid thing once, but boys will be boys.
Being a straight white male in America feels awesome! Until you realize why that is. The cards are stacked in my favor. This is a very important point. Let’s break it down further.
In grade school, I was assumed to be a smart kid. In junior high, I was assumed to have my priorities in order. In high school, I was assumed to be on my way to bigger and better things. In college, I was assumed to be creative. And at my first job, it was assumed I certainly knew what I was doing.
This is not to say the truth was the exact opposite of these assumptions. I was a little smart, had a bit of drive, wanted to be on my way to bigger and better things, and then wanted to be creative. But I most certainly didn’t know what I was doing at my first job, wanted at times to ditch college and be in a punk band, would’ve preferred to just have mono and stay home sick in the basement my senior year of high school, and thought about girls way too much. And I was certainly not as smart as the girls I had crushes on.
The point is this: I fucked up. A lot. I screwed around. I didn’t take things seriously. I went to a lot of parties. I watched too much TV. I was lazy. I was a little asshole. I talked back. I was cocky. I even broke the law. And in all of that, no one ever used their position of power to push their boot of authority on my neck until I said uncle.
People who aren’t straight and white and male have to try harder than I did. That’s a fact. And if they get caught doing what I did they get written off. Or worse. They get killed. I certainly wore my fair share of hoodies growing up. I liked Skittles, too.
If America is going to continue to say everyone has equal opportunity to be anything, then we are going to have to fix this.
Sadly, in my experience, it’s very hard to talk about this with white people in small-town America who feel aggrieved. So our divide, nay, our chasm, stays put. Or worse, it widens.
Politically Correct? How About We Suck At Communicating?
The only way to narrow the chasm is to talk to each other. But even given all the tools of modern communication, Americans aren’t very good at hashing out our differences.
I do agree with Trump on this. We have a big problem with political correctness, but not in the way he means.
Small-town America by and large does not communicate well. We keep it all in, gossip, play nice to your face but talk behind your back, and, generally, are passive aggressive when confrontations present themselves. The times we have gotten into an actual argument where everything was laid out on the table didn’t go well. We got nervous, agitated, sweaty, flustered, and said dumb things. This drives us crazy deep down.
We long to be able to tell off a jerk boss, know-it-all neighbor, or some random person who seemingly wronged us at the grocery store. But we don’t think the reason we stay quiet is our bad communication skills. We think we can’t rise to the occasion and just say what’s on our mind because of political correctness.
We want to be the main character in our movie so bad (even though we hate those Hollywood elites, especially when they speak about anything not make-believe), and some stupid East Coast liberal is preventing us from doing that by limiting our choice of words.
There is another component to our communication crisis. A good number of small-town Americans are factually inept. We just don’t have a command of knowledge like we should. Facts evade us, yet we seem gleeful about it. This leads to conspiratorial thinking and soaking up right-wing blowhards. Follow that up with latching onto grievances and believing, deep down, that if we could only tell off who we wanted to tell off when we wanted to tell them off, then everything would be better.
It’s easier to blame political correctness for what you can’t say than taking ownership of what you don’t understand.
Diverse cultures need to interact in order to understand each other and move forward. Being a belligerent idiot has solved nothing in the history of the world. Criticism, pushback, and compromise are the only ways to bring opposing sides together to work alongside each other on anything.
Let’s say we outlawed anything remotely close to being “PC.” After telling off the boss, neighbor, or grocery store clerk, there is always a “now what?”
So we are allowed to say whatever completely insensitive thing we want about whatever group we think deserves it. Where does that get us? Where does that leave the American culture? I say nowhere but lost in a frigid wilderness of individual smugness without running water. Before we blame being “PC” we need to come clean on communication.
The Great Divider: Facebook
Facebook is billed as an amazing tool of modern communication. So what have I learned from Facebook? Too much. Not enough. That I prefer Instagram. (Follow me on Instagram!) What Facebook taught me on election day 2016 was that I exist in a pretty huge liberal filter bubble. And since? I’ve learned that:
- Fake News is real and it matters
- Filter bubbles are real and they matter (some more than others)
- We all need to take social media consumption classes
- Do not read the comments
- My cousins are wrong (and sometimes idiots)
- I’m currently (probably) virtue-signaling my social justice warrior-ness (I typed these words and then threw up a little)
- America is not coming together any time soon
More recently, I’ve seen a Facebook that tells me how the libtards are destroying the country, why “all lives matter,” and that politicians (Democrats) want to take away all our guns so then we the people can no longer protect ourselves from said politicians (Democrats).
And then there’s Twitter. Did you know my Congressman blocked me? From his official Twitter account. This one right here. Just because I sent him an angry Tweet about his vote to take health care away from millions of people. What a touchy “millennial.”
These amazing tools of modern communication bring billions of people together. So why are we so divided when we use them?
I love being able to find and learn from like-minded people but that’s not enough. I’ve tried branching out and reading more conservative articles and what not. That’s okay. It’s the interactions with the conservatives in my real life that are going nowhere. And Facebook, the great divider, isn’t helping.
Will America Come Together Any Time Soon, and If Not, Does It Even Matter?
Can the divide be bridged? Can we be friends with the “other side?” Can we communicate in constructive ways? Can we talk about politics without losing our shit or leaving the room? Can we agree on ways to shrink the chasm?
I’m not sure. And for me, a lot of that has to do with this fact:
There is nothing the modern Republican party is selling that I’m even remotely interested in.
Everything they are pushing seems backwards and wrong. They want to take health care away from millions of people. They don’t want everyone to be able to vote. They want to shield drivers who kill protesters with their cars from criminal and civil liability. They want to remove science from our public discourse. They want to give tax cuts to only the very wealthy. And they refuse to do anything that Democrats have done or want to do.
And every single day, the President of the United States of America seems to take pleasure in dividing us further. It’s remarkable. The leader of the free world exploits our differences again and again and again.
In no way do I feel like my hopes for the country have been considered in any part of the crony capitalist government he has propped up.
On the flip side, it probably goes like this:
There is nothing the modern Democratic party is selling that I’m even remotely interested in. I mean, damn it all to hell with this universal health care, free college, financial regulation, and environmental protections. Keep out the immigrants, the refugees, and all the spicy food. Get rid of the illegals, the gays, and the political correctness. Both sides are to blame anyway. And then shut the fuck up snowflake!
I know, this doesn’t seem fair, but really, what does the Republican party want other than tax cuts for rich people? I’m asking the moderates here as I don’t give two shits about the white nationalist wing of the party. And I’m asking the majority of baby boomers out there who continue to vote in a way that’s really messing with my future’s chance at being more equitable and sustainable.
No, nothing is resolved. The chasm not changed. For America, in this moment, maybe what it all means is that in the near future California secedes right after Texas does. Then we all start going our separate ways.
And whatabout punk rock? (Seemingly out of left field, but hang on.) It’s hard to measure the impact punk rock had on this white, sheltered, small town, American boy. It had songs of unity, friendship, and working together for the good of the cause. Songs about the importance of people. A tad simplistic maybe, but it helped lead to a worldview that isn’t cool with building up our walls and turning away other human beings who are trying to escape war, poverty, and famine.
Somewhere south of respect tonight
This tension’s wrapped up nice and tight
The static’s felt but never makes a sound
A man finds nothing left to eat
Another sells his body for a place to sleep
As Klansmen flood a conference hall downtown
This TV has the answers, let fashion have your eyes
This job is your achievement, this Bible your pride
Can dignity see fit to try and fix what it knows fear can’t hide
“The Great American Going Out of Business Sale”
Dillinger Four, 1998
The gritty image above is a scan of the back of an album, Midwestern Songs of The Americas, by a Minneapolis punk band, which I purchased the year I graduated from high school. A time when our divisions seemed more manageable. A time when respect despite tension seemed possible. A time when America had its challenges but certainly wasn’t going out of business.
Today, almost 20 years later, in the land of divided America, the bubbles battle it out in a cage match with anger and hostility. And I’d say any kumbaya moment of all coming together isn’t happening as long as we fail at honest introspection.
To have a chance at collectively uniting out of respect (if we still want to) those of us from small-town America must first acknowledge our complicity in creating the chasm. We have to come clean on our culture war mindset and call bullshit on what is, in fact, bullshit.
Yes, there’s a liberal media bubble that leads to the left reaffirming already held beliefs. But the conservative media bubble, which helped create the small-town conservatism I grew up with, is such a powerful force of division. Saying “both sides do it” does a disservice to the distortion of reality skillfully executed over decades by master manipulators of grievance who use every opportunity to pit white conservatives against savages, idiots, criminals, and liberals. The bubbles are not the same.
So can we let go of the culture war? Can we give up on grievance? I’m asking both conservatives in small towns and liberals in big cities. Think we can come to the table ready to communicate, with a basic knowledge of facts, willing to compromise, and able to push forward together?
If we aren’t, I guess we’ll just keep shouting at each other from the other side of a screen.