Thursday, August 1, 2019

Reflections on Summer Travels Around America

I have been on the road a lot in the past month and a half. Back in June I took a group of students on a trip through the South, visiting several historical sites, most of them connected to civil rights and African American history. A couple of weeks later I flew out to Amarillo, Texas, to visit a friend, then we drove up to Colorado for a grad school reunion. Today I have just returned from a trip with my family (including my parents) to Boston and Maine. I've been all around the lower 48, except for the West Coast and Midwest, which I visited last summer.

My travels have taken me to very "blue" places like Boston and "red" places like the Texas Panhandle. What struck me most consistently was a country seemingly oblivious to crisis. When I was with my friends and family I was less connected with TV and internet news sources than I usually am, and without them it seemed as if everything was just humming along. From Alabama to New Hampshire, ferment was not in the air. Even among my grad school friends, who are very politically committed, we seemed to talk less about politics this year than when we last met two years ago.

I sense an increasing air of fatalism. Those who oppose the president seem defeated. They fought hard to turn the House to the Democrats, and what has it accomplished? Even after Robert Mueller essentially said in front of Congress that the president had obstructed justice, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have refused to make significant moves on impeachment. The president's recent bigoted outbursts are not just random ravings, but they are actually calculated to win the votes of racist white people. We all know that he is a racist who is breaking the law, and that nothing will be done about it.

There's a fatalism on the other side as well, especially among the Republicans who were never hardcore Trump supporters. Like Thomas Jefferson and slavery, they know deep down in their heart of hearts that they support something evil, but have found every rationalization possible to justify their complicity. They put their consciences in the hands of the devil, willing to let their souls be stolen for lower taxes and watching the people they don't like suffer more than they will.

While the country seems united in fatalism, the divisions were easy to see out of the car window. In the "red" areas I visited I saw lots of giant crosses and giant Confederate flags on the roadside, along with the random anti-abortion billboard. In "blue" America I saw countless pride flags and Black Lives Matter signs, stickers, and graffiti. This to me highlighted the ultimate stupidity of the media's "both sides" narrative. One side uses symbolism to assert its superiority and dominance over other people. The other side uses symbols intended to support marginalized people and fight for their equality. In this fight there can be no equivocation.

But despite this firm division of values, there seemed to be little action. Contrast this with Puerto Rico, where protestors drove a bad leader out of office. Mainlanders ought to learn a lesson, but they are too paralyzed by their own fatalism to see it. We have sadly treated the current crisis like something to be watched on television and to be affected by, rather than a play where we all take part. That attitude has had and will continue to have disastrous consequences. As for me, I have resolved to lean my shoulder harder on the wheel, and I hope you join me.

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