Sometimes, when I look around at this country, it seems like we’ve come so far only to find ourselves in the same spot. It’s like the movie Groundhog’s Day, where Bill Murray keeps living the same day over and over again, wondering what he is supposed to do to break out of that loop. I wonder if we are really all that removed from the turbulent times of the 1950’s and 60’s, when the Civil Rights movement, war, and the cultural revolution looked to be tearing this nation apart at the seams. Has it really changed a half-century later?
Let’s see. We’re still at war. American combat deaths are nowhere near as frequent due to the fact that technology has allowed us to kill more people without putting as many of our soldiers in harm’s way, but we’ve been at war almost constantly since Vietnam ended. The fight for civil rights hasn’t gone away. Even today many of the remnants of Jim Crow rear their ugly heads and remind us that we’re not out of the woods yet. Voter suppression laws wrapped up as fraud prevention, police profiling and brutality, stop and frisk, and the gnashing, apoplectic rage of the far right who still can’t believe that Barack Obama was elected twice, among other things, reveals the sad truth that racism has not gone away, it was just swept under the rug the whole time. Culturally we are still as divided as ever along the lines of religious and socio-economic issues, immigration and language, pop culture, and of course, sexuality.
I was not yet born the first time around, but I heard stories, I’ve read books, hell, I even watched the History Channel before it became about an ambiguously gay couple digging through someone’s junk pile, scripted jaunts through Vegas pawn shops, or Giorgio Tsoukalos’ ever-evolving hair. I can see the similarities between then and now and while I would like to think we’ve come far since then, I don’t know if we really have.
My landlord is one of the kindest, most giving people I’ve ever met. He is a Vietnam vet in his mid-60’s who manages about 20 properties owned by his family, along with his younger brother who is in his late 50’s. They know I am gay, they know the man who lives with me is my husband. When we had our wedding party at our house, they helped us get the yard ready, cleaned up the property, trimmed the weeds around the house, and helped us get rid of an annoying wasp problem so our guests didn’t get stung. They even gave us a grill. When we’ve been through tight months they have given us leeway on rent, and last year when we were almost out of heating oil they spotted us money to get some until we could pay them back. When you think “salt of the earth”, these are the kind of people who come to mind.
Unless someone mentions Obama.
Then, the white sheets and burning crosses come out. I have such a hard time dealing with it. The guy is my landlord, and he doesn’t have any issue with me or my husband or even “the gay” in general, but black people? He’s got a few issues.
Then there’s this Coca-Cola commercial that aired during the Super Bowl… maybe you’ve heard about the controversy? It features people singing America the Beautiful in several different languages. Most people thought it was a touching tribute designed to unite many different people around the American institution that is Coca-Cola, and how sweet it is that the love of a soft drink can transcend the lines of nationality, language, and culture. I’d like to teach the world to sing… and so they did. But a fair number of people were furious. They were so mad that many of them forgot that America the Beautiful was not, in fact, our National Anthem. They were beyond irate that an advertisement would take a patriotic song and sing it in a language other than English.
How dare they.
Point lost, I guess. Some people will find any reason to be angry.
The divisions that fracture the people of this country run very deep, and they run along many frontiers. I wish I could fall back on some of my older talking points and say that it’s just the corporations, MAAAAAAAAN, they’re keeping us divided so they make money MAAAAAAAN… And I don’t know, I am sure they benefit from the fear and anxiety such divisions cause but I don’t think they need to manufacture it. We’re all too willing as a society to go there completely unaided. These divisions are real and there are more people burning bridges than building them.
Simply feeling compassion or empathy for others is becoming more rare. When the news of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death hit the news feeds, I was stunned at how many people turned into complete self-righteous assholes, denouncing him as an actor and as a human being because he was a heroin addict. A dear friend of mine who is himself a recovering addict had to sit at work and listen as his co-workers shat all over Hoffman and anyone else who had addictions or who succumbed to them. All I could do on social media was make a couple of points and remove myself from the circus, because no matter what I said, the sanctimony was never-ending. How Hoffman died defines his entire life, fuck what he actually accomplished. I can’t even wrap my mind around that.
The prevailing sentiment throughout this callous and unforgiving land is that if you’re having a hard time, it’s your fault. As of now, the federal government has yet to pass an extension of unemployment benefits, leaving millions of people looking for work stranded and wondering how they are going to make ends meet. My husband is one of them, laid off since June and right now, scrambling to find something, anything to help pay the bills. The whole time he was on unemployment, he was looking as well, submitting hundreds of applications and resumes and making calls, but only a handful of interviews, including one that he would have had to have signed a statement agreeing to conform to the principles of Scientology if hired. Another job that he seemed a perfect fit for promised him a yes or no answer before the holidays, and nothing. Three weeks later the job was re-listed before he even heard back. And so the circle jerk continues. My husband is a dedicated, hard-working man who cannot find a job, a man with a college degree and years of experience in his field who is willing to work, but apparently it’s his fault he can’t find work, so fuck him, and fuck me by extension.
So here we are, a society that is increasingly devoid of compassion, where it’s not only easier to kick people in the face when they are down or struggling to climb out of a hole, it’s enjoyable and it’s cheered on. Don’t we love to talk about how much we dislike bullying, or how much we aren’t racist, then we call Richard Sherman a ‘thug’ because, well, he looks like one, because it can’t be his achievements on the football field or his academic performance that makes him one. No, he is a black man with dreads who expressed emotion after beating an arch-rival in a game so he’s a thug. And make sure you sing in English. This’murica.
I didn’t have a direction when I started this and I don’t have one now that I am wrapping up. What I do know, though, is that while many of these schisms seem trite or manufactured, they’re not. We’ve painted over the cracks for the last 50 years but no matter how we hide it, they keep resurfacing, a haunting reminder of the fact that many of us really just don’t like one another. It’s been bothering me for a long time, and I finally figured out what it was. I believed the bullshit that we are somehow better today than we were in times past. The truth is, we just keep finding new ways to pretend we are, because doing what it would take to honestly heal these wounds is either unknown or inconceivable to most folks. I wish I had the answer.
Just, fucking try to be nice to each other. Is that too hard?