Think of America as a set of stories. Not as a set of policies. Not as a set of ideals, even. But as a set of stories we tell about ourselves and who we want to be.
This, I think, is where my fellow progressives fall down. We can argue until we are blue in the face about what the data proves, or what the facts say, and we will usually be right. But what we offer isn’t a mythology of the self. What we offer is a collection of figures meant to add up to an identity, and that never works.
The place I come from has a story of itself that is centuries old. It has a series of traditions and beliefs that barely waver. Many of those beliefs can hurt and destroy. But some of them are still beautiful ideals. My little town still comes together to bear up its own who have fallen ill, will raise funds to make sure they can be well, or at least comfortable as they wait for the inevitable.
If you say we should have a social safety net to do that, I would agree with you, but the social safety net doesn’t have a name. You didn’t graduate from high school with it. You can’t name all of its kids. We are still social animals, and kindness still goes best with smiles and casseroles, not paperwork.
I find this profoundly reductive.
We can be kind to each other individually, or in small towns, but if you do it on a large scale it becomes anonymously bureaucratic and paperworky and cold? That’s all a social safety net IS, that casserole-and-kindness impulse writ large enough to encompass everyone, instead of just the people you know at church.
Instead of talking about how liberals don’t pay enough lip service to part of America, perhaps we should say that nobody in America is paying enough attention to America at all. Because this — “My little town still comes together to bear up its own who have fallen ill, will raise funds to make sure they can be well, or at least comfortable as they wait for the inevitable.” — is America.
This is government, by any other name.
That’s it. That’s all it is. Your town comes together to bear up its own who have fallen ill. Your community has decided to take care of its own. All government says is that the circle is wider. Your “own” is everybody you see and lots of people you don’t.
Look, we all break off the world in little pieces because loving it all is so expansive that we have to call it God, and that’s not some kind of flaw. I care about my neighbors more than I do about yours. That’s a human impulse.
The entire reason we have government is contained in that impulse. If I care about my circle and you care about yours, we end up with a bunch of vicious little gated communities suspicious of one another, unable to step outside our boundaries when the times demand.
Oh boy do the times ever demand we examine our boundaries. Wars, guns, poverty even in widespread abundance, violence on the part of the state towards its citizens and no way to check it, the ability of one man with a weapon to inflict harm on dozens at peaceful protests — this is a time when we are all retreating to our circles. We are all thinking we should just take care of our own small towns.
But we don’t WANT to limit ourselves. We WANT to take casseroles to everybody. If we know about an injustice we want to correct it. Ninety percent of our anger and our frustration right now is based on thinking ourselves powerless. We hear our own cynicism — gun control will never pass, the state will never be held to account, terrorists will never stop killing — and it exhausts us even as we utter it.
Our “leaders” for the past 30 years have specialized in telling us our problems are too big to solve, and giving us wonderful excuses not to give a shit. We can’t give anyone food stamps because some asshole found a way to use them for vodka on time. We can’t build decent schools and pay teachers fairly because my cousin’s girlfriend’s uncle knew a teacher that couldn’t be fired and anyway it’s the parenting. We can’t support cures for diseases or health care for anyone because it’s all too expensive and have you seen your tax bill lately?
And we can’t care about unarmed black people being shot dead by police over loose cigarettes or jaywalking or headlights, because there are too many of them, or one of them was rude, or we don’t really know the facts, or all lives matter, or by God if we let ourselves be hurt by this we will never stop hurting so close your eyes up tight.
We stay in our houses and we stay scared and we stay alone and we tell ourselves this is how it has to be, and we talk talk talk talk talk about how divided we are. We describe the canyon that separates us and we wish there was a bridge.
It’s called government. It’s called the goddamn system we built before some of us figured “system” could be used as a pejorative, it’s called the way we come together to make decisions about all of us, city mice and country mice alike. The thing we blame for creating the divide is the only thing that we have to heal it and instead of mocking it as inferior to a church social hour maybe we start using it.
Maybe we see how many people we can take casseroles to, if we pool our money. That’s taxes.
Maybe we decide to lift up the widow and the orphan, our own, and who and how and when. That’s elections.
Maybe we build roads and run wires and send our music out into the cosmos, and maybe we pull people from the floodwaters and try to put the fires out. That’s our national budget and our national debt and I don’t just mean the financial kinds.
Maybe we reach out over and over and over, and maybe our hand gets slapped back sometimes, and maybe some people figure out that they can make money by pitting the helpers against one another, and maybe instead of letting them get away with it we tell them to fuck themselves and keep doing the work anyway.
Maybe we let ourselves get taken advantage of. Many a small town benefit has raised funds for the less than perfect. Maybe we get braver, and stop acting like we need a perfect beautiful story in order to risk loving one another. Maybe we remember this is what we’ve been all along, writ large in the New Deal and unemployment and Social Security.
My little town still comes together to bear up its own who have fallen ill, will raise funds to make sure they can be well, or at least comfortable as they wait for the inevitable.
The social safety net doesn’t have a name? You didn’t go to school with it? You don’t know its kids?
For God’s sake, that’s America. That’s its name. That’s what we’ve called it all along.