Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Real America

View from my hotel room
Cleveland is a nice city.  I wish I had the opportunity while I'm here to get out and see more of it during this convention, but for the most part I'm in a hotel near the lakefront.  It took me a day and one overpriced bowl of oatmeal in the hotel restaurant to realize the hotel is attached to a mall (and casino, and transit hub).  That's where I've been going for lunch by myself.

My fellow violin makers are very nice, but I'm having a hard time connecting with people on this trip.  There is a lot to absorb, I'm uneasy spending so much money at once (but the opportunity to select nice wood and supplies for the store is rare so it's a justifiable expense), and of course I miss my family.  I don't mind being alone, but I find here that I'm lonely.  I miss the dog being ecstatic to see me.  I miss hugs of all heights.  I guess I like alone time better on different terms.

But the interesting part about going out in public alone is getting a chance to quietly look around.  My mind processes things differently when I'm not engaged in conversation.  Without a specific person or people to focus on I can take in much more.  And I've been seeing things through a post-election lens, and this is what I see:

I see a wide variety of people.

Certainly that is the most boring statement ever, but it seems to be a surprise to pundits in the right wing media lately.  I have been appalled to listen to one conservative after another talk about the diversity that exists in our country as if it is an unfortunate flaw to bemoan and try to overcome.  Some republicans keep talking about minority turnout at the polls as if that were a bad thing.  Yes, it turned out to be a bad thing for them, but it is not a bad thing for democracy.  To frame people as if they are a burden or a threat and then be shocked when they don't vote for your side is ludicrous. 

I keep seeing people present this picture of the real America as white, Christian, working families.  Yes, that is one picture of America.  But it has never been the only one.  It may have been the only one with a voice for most of our country's history, and the only one presented in the media for a long time, but it has never been the whole story.  To pretend otherwise is a fantasy, and a nauseatingly dull one at that.

There is a sense of safety in conformity.  When others around us are reflections of ourselves we feel validated.  That's understandable.  It takes courage to believe in your own choices when you are not in the majority.  I understand the knee jerk reaction of fear when white people look around and don't see themselves reflected as prominently in the general population anymore.  But that reflection was never accurate.  That is not all America was or is.

America is the African-American teenagers I saw laughing together in the food court.  It's the woman at the next table talking to her co-worker in Spanish and showing him pictures of her kids on her phone.  It's the violin convention people at one end of the hotel improvising fiddle music, and the violin convention people at the other end playing carefully composed consort music.  It is the hard working staff here of many ethnic backgrounds who keep this hotel running well.  It's the Salvation Army bell ringers in the public square outside my window.  It's the Muslim woman who smiled at me on the street today.  It's the people waiting in the cold for the bus, and the doorman out front, and the grizzled old guy who called me sweetheart when I bought a cinnamon roll from him in the deli on the corner.  It's a busy city of people all around me, free to make their own choices and shape their own lives in a way that's different from mine and that's fine.  It's better than fine.  It's what America is about.

When we talk about the nightmarish life under communist regimes such as in the former Eastern Europe, it was all about forcing people to conform.  They tried to make everyone think the same way, behave the same way, be the same way.  Diversity is a mark of freedom, not a symptom of its demise.  When I look around at all the different people going about their lives here in this city, I don't see moochers and takers.  I see Americans doing the best they can, and most of them doing it with a quiet grace.

I also see people struggling.  I bought a homeless man a cheeseburger today.  His name was Rick.  I suppose you could label him a taker, but I was certainly a willing giver, and he seemed like someone our system has let fall through the cracks and not a drain on our resources.  I for one have no problem with my taxes going toward programs to help people like Rick.  (And anyone who has a problem with that needs to remember that a cruel twist of fate may be all that stands between you, me, or people we love ending up in the same situation.)

I think white, Christian, working families who are afraid of feeling in the minority one day need to remember that other people being different isn't actually infringing on their right to live they way they want to.  But it is unamerican for someone else to dictate what my family should be.  My family does not have to look like the families around us for me to feel comfortable with our choices.  If a gay couple choosing to marry is a threat to your marriage, that tells me more about the possible fragility of your marriage than it does about gay couples.  I have no interest in drinking alcohol (hell, I don't even drink coffee) but I'm not going to tell someone else not to as long as it doesn't interfere with what I want to do, and I feel the same way about the recent legalization of marijuana in a couple of states.  I think Catholic institutions that want to deny their employees health coverage rather than offer contraception as part of that coverage must think their position as incredibly weak indeed.  Just because it's offered doesn't mean people will use it, unless you know you are so unpersuasive that only by denying people the ability to exercise their free will on the matter can you keep them from making a choice you don't like.  Making more choices available does not take other choices away.  It gives more of us the chance to be who we really are.

I am glad Obama won.  I resent the suggestion that that makes me an uninformed lazy moocher.  I don't like being told I am not a real American.

But I am not without sympathy for people who voted the other way.  I remember the crushing feeling of despair I felt when George Bush was reelected.  It made me feel I was surrounded by a population I didn't understand but was supposed to feel a part of.  That sense of worry that comes with being on the losing side of a big election?  It's fear.  Fear can make us ugly.  I get that.  You try to learn helpful lessons from it and rise above.

So I'm hoping the anger I hear subsides and is replaced by something less fearful and more reflective soon.  That people stop using words like 'urban' and 'diversity' as code for racist attitudes and accept that America is composed of a wide variety of people.  Because those gays and blacks and Hispanics and people on food stamps and small business owners and single mothers doing the best they can are the real America.  I also lay claim to being the real America.

As does my sister-in-law from India who recently became a citizen and got to vote in her first American election.  On her citizenship exam was the question, "Who can vote?" and the answer was, "Citizens can vote."  Yes they can.  And they did.  And they do not deserve to be demonized, insulted, vilified, and otherwise made to feel that they are wrong because their hopes for our country include finding ways to provide health care for all, or giving women say over their own bodies, or wanting gays to have equal rights, or because they feel we have a responsibility to one another and not just to a select few.

The real America is not the simple picture some want it to be.  It is a wide variety of people which is so much better.


  1. Oh this was beautiful, Korinthia. Thank you for writing my thoughts and feelings more eloquently than I ever could.

  2. This is straight from your heart and you echo what is in mine. Your thoughts and words are powerfully presented, and I am a better person for having visited your blog. Bless you.

  3. Couldn't have said it better myself.