In his inauguration speech, the new president insisted that America is becoming a wasteland. “American carnage,” he termed it. A place where gangs run amuck and crime is rampant. Where poverty is endemic. Where children are denied a basic education. Where economic blight is displayed in abandoned factories, and hopelessness and fear rule the day in an unsafe landscape.
Well, I’ve traveled across wide swaths of America, and met a wide range of people. And what I saw does not correspond to this bleak vision.
To be certain, we have problems. Our school system needs to be fortified and its teachers need better pay, and the erosion of university standards needs to be reversed. Too many people live in a cyclical poverty that economic and social policies perpetuate. Though statistically Americans are safer now than they ever have been in our nation’s history, still crime is an issue. The economy can always be better, and the policies that drive it should work for more Americans. And this doesn’t address our problems with race, mass-shooters, terrorism, and all the other things that remain 21st Century plagues. These are serious things, and they deserve better than the tinted glasses of aggrandizement masquerading as patriotism.
But America is not a wasteland.
Indeed, I began my travels during a time that was far more trying than today. In 2010, the effects of the 2008 crash were being keenly felt in many of the places I visited. People had lost their houses. They had lost their jobs and their businesses. Their investments had been sunk. And yes, those empty factories, they dotted the landscape, symbols of an economic age whose efficacy had long-ago become impotent to offer a countermeasure to their plights.
I saw all these things, and met all these people
But more than anything, I saw resilience and strength. And with a few exceptions, I met people who respected me regardless of my political stances and whom I respected regardless of theirs. And so we talked about America as a tangible, living, whole organism. We did so in the Louisiana bayous, where oil spills and hurricanes had crippled the shrimping industry. We did so in the heartland, where farmers struggled to keep our nation’s food supply alive. We did so in Gary, Indiana, where an entire population had been forgotten. We did so in Aroostook and the Mesabi Range and the Coal Fields and the Michigan cherry orchards and all the places like these, where the people at the very foundations of our economy were– as they always have– bearing the brunt of the hardships, paying the price for those who raced across tightropes explicitly because they trusted that the golden parachutes upon their backs would open if they fell. And they almost unanimously agreed. They were Americans. They could take it. And damned if they weren’t going to fight off hardship through the strengths of the wills that defined their nation.
In retrospect, I realize that some of them were vulnerable to the radical scapegoating and pejorative anger that was just then gathering in strength and beginning to target them for conversion. And I now know that some of those steeled, defiant souls who were once fueled by a belief in the essential goodness of their nation and the people they shared it with were about to succumb to the darker corners of the American psyche. They were about to be told that America was crumbling beneath them. They were about to be convinced that their real enemies were those who took a different perspective on things, and that those people weren’t really Americans– or, at least, that they hated their country in some intrinsic way, were laughing at the hardships of those who loved their country in the right way, and were gleefully pushing their beloved land towards some kind of vaguely defined anti-American oblivion. I take my share of the blame for this. I’m a scholar of story and storytelling, and I should have seen what this new one was going to do to them.
Still, more than anything I know that the underlying strength of my countrymen is what makes America great. And though we always do so fitfully and inefficiently, it is this strength that will solve the problems the nation faces, and not the apocalyptic hysteria that sees a disintegrating land where there is wealth and purpose, sees invading hordes where there is goodness and a love of freedom, sees traitorous behavior in benevolence and self-obsessive whining in activism, and sees cultural annihilation in inclusion and tolerance.
It was already happening a half-decade ago. In my three years on the road I saw plenty of abandoned factories, yes. But I also saw new biomedical buildings, artisan workshops, and high-tech production facilities. I saw plenty of towns and cities in disrepair. But I also watched the beginning of the renaissance of my old home of Buffalo– a place I never thought would rebound. I saw stout, muscular miners struggling to maintain their ways of life. But I also saw wind farms, solar arrays, and green energy plants. And when I saw forgotten steamboat districts and towns bypassed by the railroad and abandoned railroad depots and hulking, rusting ore docks, I saw the hard, inevitable lurch of progress upon which our never-perfect Union is built, and in it the resilience of a people who may fight as they go down but inevitably rise up with a renewed and re-purposed strength. And as always I knew that all they need to do the latter was a little help in tapping the next fount of American courage and will.
American carnage? I didn’t see it then, and I don’t see it now. And frankly it’s offensive to me that someone would annotate it as such– much less claim that he’s going to be the one that cleans it all up. Because anyone who says either of these things has no idea what America is and no respect for the people who have actually forged it.
Yes, we may live in a deeply divided country, and one teetering dangerously towards ideological hatred as well as racial, sexual, and religious animus. We may live in a nation where politicians can be excoriated for simply talking to the other side and can be run out of office for proposing to deal with them, in communities where we are asked to choose between good policemen and the righteous activists as if bad cops have never killed innocent minorities and protesters have never resorted to violence and vandalism, and in a culture where protesters are met with an instinctual, power-structured enmity that rapidly devolves into grade-school name-calling rather than with the impulse to engage people of differing ideas so as to learn why they may think the way we do. And we may live in an America where everything seems so overwhelming that it appears reasonable to give in to those purporting to make sense of it all, so many congregates without the inclination or initiative to think about the validity of the sermons they are hearing.
But the best of us are fighters. And the majority of us constitute the best. And so every time I hear someone say that the country is going to hell or that we are losing our way as a people or that the nation is at the tip of an existential crisis, I remember everything I have seen and everyone I have met, and I know to have faith in the vibrancy of the American spiritual body. Because for all its faults America is strong and good and very much alive, and for all their failings Americans are as dedicated to fighting for it as they were in 1775 and 1861 and 1941. These are the people who have always done the fighting, and they’re the ones that are going to be doing it now. And though it may not happen at the pace we like, eventually the unrighteous is always left in the wake of the progress won by the struggle.