[This lightly-edited, older rumination seems one of the few I could put up directly after (or in the midst of) this hideous election that wouldn’t be filled with mindless anger and disgust. There’s hope – slim, but it’s there.]
Something struck me while my granddaughter Abi, a vegetarian, was visiting and I had to figure out how Linda, and I, raging carnivores, could get a decent meatless meal together – and what it means to be diet-conscious.
Growing up, I ate what I was served (hated much of it); as an ex-collegiate in the ’60s, most of my generation didn’t care what the hell we ate. Yet I see Abi’s younger generation (I won’t use any over-arching term, because every “generation” name I’ve heard demeans those it stigmatizes) being as socially agitated, as loosely leftist, as angry at our national stultification as we were in the ’60s.
So how are these two ranks of young folks, separated by 50 years, alike at heart (as I see them)? The focus may be different, but the ultimate goals feel the same.
One of the bedrocks of traditional Americanism is the stress on personal independence, untrammeled by coercion from any direction. We are each an individual entity, free to take our own course, plan our own future, with as little external interference as possible.
To those on the right, those on the left are often seen as captives, even proponents, of oppressive government that exists to manipulate and constrain our lives. In this view, conservatives are independent selves addicted to freedom; liberals are hive entities addicted to control.
But here’s what came to me while eating Abi’s excellently conceived and prepared vegetarian dinner: at the same time that these young liberals are choosing radically different diets, a good majority of their independent, free-thinking opposites are chowing down on the basically identical limited fare that their families have eaten for generations (ask Kansan Linda about this).
And thinking back, when loosey-goosey leftist males like me in the ’60s started sporting beards and ponytails – yes, I wore a ponytail and, gasp!, wooden beads – we were sneered at by the neatly trimmed who despised us for looking different from what their parents had passed along as the norm. (When I was doing freelance carpentry, I was threatened with an ax both for my “hippie” look and because I was doing work for a gay couple.)
When I brought this up at dinner, both Abi and Linda said that, like me, they had never looked that way at the right-left divide before. Somebody’s undoubtedly latched onto this comparison already, but if Linda hadn’t thought of it, that means at least 99% of the country has missed it all together.
So, here we have proponents of individual freedom rejecting those who don’t look and think like them, while the proponents of equal treatment of all (as extolled in both the Declaration and the Constitution) let us each walk the street unmolested by invective. Yup, that’s way too simplistic a picture, but I think it reflects a convoluted aspect of our social divide that we don’t usually look at, whether coming from the left or the right.
A lot of it goes back to the duality of the country’s (white) founding:
On one side, indentured servants and convicts – by both their nature and situation acting as individuals – once set free, spilling out into the Mid- and Wild West, setting up as isolated farmers and the lawless gunslingers of Dodge City.
On the other side, victims of religious persecution emigrated en masse to form the tight, like-minded, often intolerant colonies of New England, only later trekking to the less wild West as Methodists and Mormons.
As a country, as a society, we’re not homogeneous and never have been. The antagonism between the nominally “individual” and the nominally “social” has been acerbated by social media, which allow us to see each other in threatening bulk, making every opposition look larger and more significant than it is.
Maybe, over time, we’ll come to see how alike our differences are, and how silly it is to see those differences as life-defining.