NOTE TO READERS: We provide this complete version of the seven-part series, “Surviving American chaos” for those who prefer to read straight through.
Dear Connor: In between riding the Conch Train with you and doing laundry, I’ve been grabbing hold of belt loops. The belt loops are attached to the pants of friends and family folk tromping way too close to a despairing cliff jump.
It’s been a wicked and wonderful 48 hours, little one. American democracy is one deplorable, nasty swamp (to cherry-pick a few cliches) that somehow works stunningly well. We have, for 45 presidential election cycles, made peaceful transition of power the foundation of our republic. That fundamental premise of American governance must not get lost in the chasm that this week separates half our nation from the other.
Around 3 a.m., Wednesday, Nov. 9, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called her opponent and conceded the race to Republican candidate Donald Trump and he became the 45th president-elect of the United States.
For many, that was a stare-at-the-headlines-in-shocked-denial moment. For others, it was a moment of fist-pumping-and-equally-shocked-satisfaction. President Trump? That was not how it was supposed to be. The Trump campaign was as surprised as the Clinton campaign. That doubled-down break from what pretty much everyone thought was going to happen is going to keep all of us off-balance for months to come.
But. It did happen. Whether one is fist-pumping or vowing “not my president,” Donald Trump will be sworn into office in January 2017. He is our president. We are one nation with one president. Three-quarters of a million American soldiers died between 1861 and 1865 to ensure that.
What we the people do over the next decade, the choices we make, determines whether our Constitution thrives or we destroy ourselves from within.
By midnight Tuesday, Nov. 8, we knew Trump was winning. The four of us had spent the evening playing with you and following the election results on social media with an occasional eye to the television. We didn’t talk much as state after state turned red.
MamaDada and Ghee eventually went to bed, but, political and history junkie that your Ninny is, I wanted to hear the first words from the new president-elect. Molly the Cat came out to snuggle and we watched on until shortly before sunrise.
I’m distressed and discouraged with the chaos and dissonance in America. The possibilities are at best worrisome; at worst destructive. I have two choices: I can shut down in paralyzed fear, or I can process this mess and figure out how best to mitigate the existing damage, minimize the coming destruction and hold close those people and ideals I cherish.
I’ve been worrying all this around in my brain, which is never a good thing because I get trapped there. Best be getting it sorted and in writing so I can go back to the laundry. Let’s get to it, shall we?
I wrote this as one long post and then broke it into separate posts. Read them all at once, or pick and choose. You might want to bookmark the last post. Heck, you might want to read it first. Especially if you’re one of the folks whose belt loops I’ve been grabbing this week.
- Our place in generational history: Hang on; the mess is almost over
- When there’s coal dust on your shoes, you’re not surprised at the results
- We’re all (mostly) going to be some sort of have-nots
- In search of common ground in a potholed culture. Or, how to marginalize the haters
- A message from your MamaDada
- We will be OK. If …..
Our place in generational history: Hang on; the mess is almost over
This presidential election will, on hindsight, be recognized as the precursor to the catalyst that ignites the transformation of America from fragmented, angry and disillusioned into cohesive, collaborative and powerful. America will move away from six decades of tearing down to four decades of building up and then we’ll start the process over.
Our young country has found itself in this very space three times before in the five-10 years leading up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the War Between the States in 1861 and World War II in 1941. Every 80-85 years, we enter this final generational shift that culminates in what can only be understood as a conflagration that burns off the accumulated mess and re-positions us for growth.
Within the next decade, and I believe within the next five years, we will face that catalyst. Am I predicting another Civil War, another World War? Lord, I will always hope we can side-step history, but I accept that the catalyst must occur.
Whatever the event, it must be shatteringly catastrophic if we are to coalesce the dangerously fragmented American peoples toward a common cause and eventually create the conditions that will foster a return of our best selves.
Donald Trump did not create this. Hillary Clinton could not prevent it.
At best, Clinton would have delayed the inevitable with four or eight years of stasis and increasing anxiety. At best, Trump’s presidency speeds up the timeline, gets us there faster — and gets us to healing sooner.
Either way, by 2026 we will have completed the generational turning, the cataclysm will be behind us and Americans — all Americans — will believe we can do wonderful things.
By the way, the cataclysm doesn’t have to be a war. It can be something staggering, shockingly, cataclysmicly good. It’s just that 600 years of western history has always turned on a bloody mess. Sigh.
You know that cliche, “darkest before the dawn”? Yeah, like that.
I was hoping Clinton could pull out a squeaker. I like her; always have. But, I’m not hurling myself off that cliff of despair either.
When there’s coal dust on your shoes, you’re not surprised at the results
I wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the presidential election. Left-leaning, liberal Presbyterian, white, nasty city-girl journalist that I am, I also come with sawmills, tobacco fields, boiled peanuts, coal mines and hollers in my bones.
I was born in Mingo County, West Virginia, and no one shakes the coal dust off completely. Like so many of West Virginia’s long-gone children, I believe Mountaineers are always free.
There are, in some branches of my family tree and certainly in my extended friends circles, a bunch of what Clinton called the deplorables and even more at whom my hard-left elitist friends would sniff down their noses. Without doing an official show of hands, I’m betting that my family’s presidential voting mirrored the national numbers.
They are not Kluxers, bigots, misogynists, poor-white-uneducated-trash. They don’t come to the dog whistles. Not any more than I am a godless, un-churched socialist with no morals, no values and an abiding belief that the government ought to be a nanny state.
But, there’s a catch here. Your great-grandpa used to warn us kids that “if you swim in blue water, you’ll get blue.” When we choose to support with our votes people who don’t believe in or model the values important to us, we can’t escape being tainted by them. Stuck your foot in blue water? Then, be darned sure you’re speaking out against the bad stuff.
We use those sweeping, over-arching descriptions as shorthand to get our points across. That’s OK, and that shorthand comes in handy, but we’ve got to be a whole lot less careless in how we apply them.
Our penchant for marginalizing people with a couple of loaded code words scares me — though I fall in that trap, too. Like the folks who once they learn I spent 40 years as a journalist lump me into the “liberal media” bucket, which they never say without what I hear as a sneer. They hear me do an elitist sniff, I suspect, when I call them out for living in their protected white privilege bubbles.
See what I mean by loaded code words? Just seeing them in writing sparks a visceral, defensive push back. How much more so when we hurl them at each other.
Right before the election, i spent 10 days with your great-grandmother in the Shenandoah Valley. We talked a lot of politics (and a lot of recipes and family legends). And, I spent lovely long hours with three brothers and two of their spouses.
My brothers and I don’t talk a lot of politics because, well, we know better.
No point in creating a scene. Mostly we disagree around the edges. We disagree on some big things a little. And we disagree on a few big things a lot.
We also recognize that ignoring our differences is as dangerous as bringing them out and waving them around all the time. We know that carrying grudges and broad-brushing conclusions are surefire family-dinner trouble.
An aside: When your Great-aunt Beth’s around, she and I go outside to talk liberal politics. She and I are at loggerheads about lots of things, but politics isn’t one of them.
These are my folks. I know them. I love them always. I like them most of time and I think the feeling is mutual. We learned a long time ago that our strength as a family was in seeking and supporting our shared values and the faith that powers our beliefs in doing the right things.
I know this for absolute sure: If one of us gets on a high horse and gallops out of the group, some one of us is going to gallop after and carry ’em back kicking and screaming. It ain’t pretty, but we don’t let family wander away.
Americans ought start thinking that way, too, before half this country dismisses the other half as not worthy of breaking bread with. We’ll fast-step into a Civil War if we don’t.
Stop with the positioning that claims Trump voters are called with a dog-whistle, uneducated, sheet-wearing white trash and that Clinton voters are soft-in-the-head, wine-sipping, Birkenstock-wearing elitists — or welfare cheats, undocumented immigrants and terrorists.
We persist at our peril in pigeonholing the “other side” as personifications of evil.
Put another leaf in the table and make it big enough for everyone to pull up. Even Crazy Aunt Tilly who IS called with a dog whistle and Nuts Uncle Pete who is so leftist that he won’t wear Birkenstocks because they’re made of leather.
We will draw the line at the hard-core wingnuts at the fringes. I’m not inviting haters to my table. They’re not welcome. Period. We need to do whatever we have to to keep the haters corralled. I will continue to fight for civil rights and social justice. There must be no sliding back. And, we must recognize that some of the things we call hate are born of not knowing.
But, Connor, there are no where near as many willful haters as the headlines and Facebook posts would have you believe. For sure, it’s not half and half.
We’re all (mostly) going to be some sort of have-nots
I started saving for retirement back in 1982 when it occurred to me that (1) the newspapers I worked for didn’t have pensions; and (2) there were so many kids born in 1950 that there would not be enough Social Security money when they turned 65.
That created a bunch of family squabbles. Ask your Dada sometime about all the times I told him and Ghee “nope, we can’t buy that because we’re saving for retirement.”
But even with the savings, if it weren’t for Social Security and Medicare, it would be slim pickings right now. We’re the lucky ones. We’re still working professionally. We saved. Most Americans didn’t, haven’t, couldn’t and aren’t. They’ve chosen to spend it now and worry later.
As many more are living hand-to-mouth and couldn’t save even if they wanted to. For them, it’s a choice between going hungry and filling a prescription.
No matter the whys and wherefores, we are right where I figured in 1982 we’d be around the time I retired. There’s not enough money to go around, to fulfill the promises made by Social Security, Medicare and state and federal pension systems.
We can blow glitter and rainbows all over those facts, but it won’t change them.
So, yeah, those people who voted for Trump because they were angry at how they’ve lost the American Dream are just about to be joined by Clinton supporters who are realizing pretty quick that cuts in Medicare and Social Security benefits (not to mention private, state and federal pension plans) are just around the corner.
Except for those mega-rich one-percenters for whom I have not the slightest affinity, the rest of us are going to be taking those cuts on the chin and in the pocketbook — despite political promises to the contrary.
Our numbers are not sustainable. There are too many expecting promises to be fulfilled and not enough paying into the system via taxes of all stripes.
If we go ahead with tax cuts, we’re going to have to cut services. Heck, even if we raise taxes, we can’t make up the difference. We won’t see enough new, high-paying jobs to ensure a net increase in government revenue to pay out those promised benefits.
I did a two-decade stint as a corporate spreadsheet editor. I spent more time with spreadsheets than with journalism. I learned one thing: If you don’t increase income a lot, you have to cut expenses a lot.
It’s almost too late to weave a personal safety net for the coming financial winter, though we should do the best we can. Put aside every nickel you can. Eat at home. Make your own coffee. Use the library instead of Amazon. Keep the car two years longer. Make do with the stuff you already have. Save and keep the savings invested conservatively.
Just as we do in Key West when a hurricane is headed our way, keep some cash handy in case everything goes plumb crazy. Know what you’ll do in an emergency.
And, don’t obsess. We cannot stop the coming transition. We can prepare — physically, mentally and emotionally as we get on with the business of living each day to its fullest.
There’s going to be lots of drama over the next five to 10 years about how to manage revenue and expenses. Count on that. But, it will all come down to this before we make our way through the final generational turning: We don’t have enough money and cuts will be made.
How we make them determines whether we are good people or people with holes in our souls.
If we are good people, we will first take care of those who cannot care well for themselves. Children, elderly, those with disabilities, those who need a helping hand on their ways to helping themselves.
If we are good people and we do not have enough to go around in the fullest measures, we will ration our gifts so that all get a measure that will sustain and nurture even if not enough to go hog wild and pig crazy as your great-grandfather used to say.
If we are good people, we will gracefully accept that from those to whom much has been given — and who have earned much — much will be expected. So, yep, the more one has, the more one will share.
If we are good people, we will give and share without checking credentials, without standing on Old Testament sanctimony. A person in need is a person in need.
If we are good people, we will give without requiring thanks. We will share without asking for applause. We will do the right things because they are the right things to do, because we feel guilty, because mother or the boss told us to, or because it’s good for business — but we will do the right things.
If we are people with holes in our souls, well, we will go to hell and take this country with us.
Common ground in a potholed culture. Or, how to marginalize the haters
These cliches exist for a reason. They’re true.
We live in a don’t ask, don’t tell world. Mostly we go along to get along. You do your thing; I’ll do mine; let’s just don’t do them together. We don’t stand in the school yard with a gun and bar a kid from going to class. We don’t care if Uncle Pete marries Uncle Charlie; we’ll even go to the wedding and bring a gift; just don’t make a big deal of it and don’t make me agree to wear a rainbow.
We give the homeless dude the shirt off our back and take care of his kids, then turn right around and swear at the organizations trying to set up a soup kitchen. We go to church, synagogue and temple and then routinely steal paperclips and pens from the office, cheat on our taxes and let children starve.
We call “others” welfare cheats, then encourage our unemployed friends and children to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. We demand a 10 Commandments stone be in the town square and then call for the death penalty and cheat on our spouses. We fight for the unborn and leave them desperate when they’re born.
We fight the Affordable Care Act, food stamps and government-subsidized housing with Puritanical vigor and apply for Medicare and Social Security as soon as we have 65 candles on the cake. And, don’t be all defensive saying that you earned it. You’re going to get at least $244,000 more in payout than you paid in. Americans all suck on the government welfare tit once they turn 65.
We lay claim to our First Amendment rights of free speech, press, religion, assembly and petition of grievances — and promptly tell those who are different they don’t get to do the same. We call our message truth; we call your message propaganda.
Humans are like that. We’re loving and hateful; smart, wise and willfully stupid; we’re generous to a fault and determinedly selfish; complex, complicated, inexplicable and contradictory.
And then there are the haters.
I draw a pretty clear line between fear of the unknown and willful haters. I believe most of us, if we’re honest, know the difference between the two.
I grew up in the Appalachian-Southern culture of the 1950s and ’60s and 70s. I knew colored drinking fountains and whites-only doors. I knew colored people sat in the back seat of my mother’s car because if they didn’t, they could get killed. I’m told I cried as a toddler the first time I saw a person of color.
I was just about the only kid in class with dark hair because my classmates were all descendants of the Scots-Irish and English. There weren’t any black kids in my schools; just the townies and the poor farm kids. When I went to college in the mountains of West Virginia, my speech professor told me I sounded like a redneck hillbilly — and she ground that nasal, mush-mouth accent right out of me.
When my Southern siblings and I visited grandparents each summer in Pennsylvania, the Yankee cousins made fun of us. And, the California/Alaskan cousins? They were pretty much from another planet.
When I went to work in the early 1970s I was usually the only woman in the room. I hated being the only, the first. It’s lonely at best; soul-destroying at worst. I was always looking over my shoulder and fending off men who thought it was OK to, well, do things.
There’s more. Read the history books. But, here’s my point. There’s a lot of casual intolerance and discrimination in the world, born mostly from ignorance and lack of opportunity to be in the same rooms.
Townies hate the farm kids and vice versa. Rich and poor don’t sit at the same tables. Skin color defines one’s place in the world, and generally the lighter, brighter and more blue-eyed one is, the easier it is to get along.
Discrimination, bigotry, racism, sexism and all the other hot-button -isms are the decaying fruit of ignorance and a fear of the unknown. We’re all guilty of that ignorance and fear. All of us.
Not all the -ists and -isms are haters. Not all the tacky and tasteless are haters. Most are just unwitting products of ignorance. We’re teachable. If we work at overcoming our ignorance, if we work on expanding our understanding, we don’t do as many bad things to each other. We get a whole lot closer to living by the Golden Rule.
But. And this is one big but. The willfully ignorant are haters.
We cannot tolerate haters. We cannot encourage the voices and actions of haters, especially not with our silence. We must shove them back into the bottle from which this presidential campaign released them and then we must guard the bottle unceasingly. We must use our laws to keep them marginalized.
America has pushed past a lot of fear and ignorance in the past century since we were last at this historical turning. We created at each painful, often death-filled juncture a more tolerant, inclusive, compassionate culture. I’ve lived through three-fifths of that; I know and feel the difference, fragile though it is.
There are haters who believe this election and “their” candidate have given them the green light to spill their malignant, destructive slime across this country. They are small in numbers and at the fringes of all political and independent parties, but they are growing more powerful every day.
People of good will cannot allow that to happen.
The first voices must be those of Donald Trump and his most visible supporters for it was their rhetoric, however blandly couched, that opened the jar. The second voices must be those of Hillary Clinton and her supporters whose sanctimonious use of “deplorables” served only to toss fuel on an already ugly fire.
And the loudest voices must be yours and mine. Regular people trying their best to make their ways in the world. It matters not a whit whether we voted for Trump, for Hillary, or, heck, not at all.
It matters only that we stop the haters. Now. They cannot be allowed to destroy this country.
What we do can be as simple as asking a friend for patience: “You know, we disagreed on the election. I need some time to grieve (or celebrate). Can you give me that time? I want us to talk about how we can work together, but I need some time to process.”
Or turn this too often discriminatory cliche into a powerful tool for doing the right thing: See something; say something.
Stop the bully. Push back with the social media poster. Never chuckle at violence or smile when someone falls. Support the agencies, organizations and individuals who are making the world a better place, one small thing at a time.
And, to my boomer cohort: Resist the siren call of what is our worst generational marker, that we are rigid, righteous and reactionary. Because if we don’t, we’re going to lead our children and grandchildren right into a conflagration from which their may be no recovery.
Because then, we will have become the haters.
A message from your MamaDada
I’m taking a quick side trip with this post. It’s more personal than the others because sometimes we don’t understand the big picture if we don’t pay attention to the personal one.
You know you make your MamaDada nuts, right, Connor? Well, actually, at almost-four you probably don’t, but you do. You make them nuts because you are an extroverted, quick-to-decide, dreaming pragmatist.
Combine all that with a toddler’s ceaseless energy and, well, you just wear us out. But, even when we’re dead beat on our feet, nothing tops one of your sparkle-eyed grins.
And it’s to protect that grin that the rest of us will do whatever it takes.
Your great-grandpa, Dick Grist, loved watching his grandsons rear their children. He applauded the ways in which both mothers and fathers were so completely engaged with their kids. It was something his generation of fathers didn’t do. I’m pretty sure he always wished it might have been otherwise.
I love watching you create a family with your MamaDada. We make the two of them one word because that’s how in sync they are with you. Pretty sweet.
Your Dada was born at the beginning of the digital revolution. He remains a geeky early-adopter who’d rather solve a programming problem than shoot hoops. He and I can happily Facetime at 2 o’clock in the morning, working through some website challenge, while the rest of you are sleeping tight.
That makes me happy. I love that the interwebby world of possibilities keeps your Dada and me connected.
So I share here a post your Dada sent to me. It captures the dissonance and disillusion of today’s unraveling.
But it also captures the hope your Dada’s Millennial generation brings to this turning point in American history. And that’s what makes me say we are going to be OK.
Nov. 2, 11:25 a.m.: I strongly believe that we live in a time where extreme partisanship – along the lines of our allegiance to sports-ball teams – is both accepted and embraced.
Add to that, our growing ease and comfort with posting, ‘sharing,’ having a voice online (regardless of the legitimacy or truthfulness of that voice) and the troubling acceptance of substantiated non-traditional news sources that promote the comfortable echo chamber many people want to live in.
We now have a massive forum for misinformation, propaganda and a continuing push to remain ignorant and unable to have purposeful conversations as a community.
We are shifting from a society that works together to achieve, to one of divided in-group success at the detriment of the out-group.
It makes me sad to see people I like behave in this way. It troubles me deeply as I realize that it will probably take something catastrophic to bring us back together in a place of common goals and passion.
Maybe, hopefully I (and others) will be wrong about an impending precipice. But, I can’t sit back and willfully ignore that we are on a destructive path.
While I can’t fix or change it as an individual, I can write about it, I can teach my son and give him the tools to deal with the mess he, and his generation are going to inherit in 20 years. And I can pray (not that I am particularly religious) that there will be others that do the same.
We will be OK. If ………
My Facebook news feed Tuesday night and into the following morning was a microcosm of the voting population. The stunned grief of Hillary supporters. The shocked celebration of Trump supporters.
The happy folks didn’t much bother me. After all, it’s always been the victors right to do some happy dancing when their candidate — or their team — wins. Heck, imagine how awful Cleveland baseball fans felt when pretty much the whole country was rubbing Cubs blue in their faces.
But, I was worried — and still am — about the palpably painful grief and anger among Clinton supporters. It will take them a long time, maybe forever, to process that grief. They cannot and should not be rushed. I know these people and I am confident that most, if not all, will eventually turn right-side up.
I’m worried about the unleashing of vitriol among the Trump supporters. I’m not so naive that I thought our culture had moved past all the -isms. Lands, we’d just gotten to the point that we didn’t say those things in public. Didn’t mean we weren’t thinking them. But I still am sickened by the Trump supporters who’ve decided spewing their hatred is now OK.
During a slow point in Friday’s Key West Veterans Day parade, an Alabama-born friend recounted this: “First time something like this happened to me here in Key West,” he said. “Biking down Duval yesterday when this bunch of 60-ish guys, big, ol’ fat, good ol’ boys, tourists, started hollering ‘well, finally we can start to get rid of all these faggots like that guy.”
My friend kept on pedaling, refraining — this time, he said — from his customary retort: “Yeah, well, it’s an armed faggot.”
“Hell,” he said. “It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve heard that shit. And, that ‘armed faggot’ thing usually settles ’em down. But, this isn’t good.”
There are countless other examples; feel free to Google.
In the meantime, I’m grabbing hold of belt loops. I posted these just hours before Trump’s acceptance speech and repeat them here because I do, sincerely, believe we will be OK. But, it’s going to get worse before it gets better:
10:45 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 8: The anger, the dissonance, has been building since the mid-1990s. It’s not a surprise if one has paid attention to more than just one’s like minds. We have to weather the anger and the fallout from it for another five-10 years. It won’t be easy. It likely could be cataclysmic. But once done, our country will heal. And that’s going to happen regardless of who wins tonight. Keep the faith. Do the right things. We’ll be OK.
12:59 a.m., Wednesday, Nov. 9: I’m posting this before we know the outcome. I post it knowing I have friends and family who are horrified and those who are celebrating. I post it now because I am praying we will do everything within our power to avoid shredding our country. We did that once in 1860. It killed almost a million of us. I am an American who believes this country can rise to its best and resist the siren lure to sink to its worst instincts. To do that, the next president must pledge — and then act — to be the president of all Americans. And that means a full-throated pledge to pull back from the rhetoric that fuels the politics of dissonance. Remember. Half of us, give or take a few, are not celebrating this morning. We are devastated and most assuredly afraid. Godspeed, my friends.
Being OK doesn’t mean the next several years will be moonbeams and unicorns. The next decade will be harsh, unsteady, inexplicable and frightening. We will, as a country, walk with that awesome shadow of the valley of death. History tells us that we must face our worst selves before we can create our best.
History says it will take 10 years to fully resolve the fragmentation that has become our lives. I think it will come faster than that because our 24-7-365 social media culture makes for fast-moving events and shortened cycles.
We will be OK. If…..
- If we do good by those who need us
- If we share our gifts according to the gifts we have received. The more you get, the more you give
- If we refuse to stand silently when injustice rears its head next to us
- If we refuse to look away when another is hurting
- If we pick up the trash instead of walking past it
- If we offer a smile rather than a frown.
- If we do the little things that matter and eventually pile up into a remarkable force for good
- If we stand steadfast against the haters — and learn the difference between a willful hater and an ignorant one. Most of us a teachable, my friends.
- If we hope for the best, protect ourselves and others from the worst, and work for the good of all. Back in cliched corporate days, the boss used to make us say “opportunity” instead of “problem.” It was dumb. It worked.
My faithful optimism is neither willfully ignorant of the challenges ahead, nor is it rainbows and unicorn thinking. Instead it is nurtured in decades of faith and decades of learning.
The 5.375 words I’ve written come down to this prayer:
Show me my path. Teach me along the way. Grant me peace. Sustain my hope. Let me laugh.
“Dear Connor” is a collection of essays written for Connor Cunningham by his grandmother, Linda Grist Cunningham. I began writing these as my construct for making sense of the unraveling American community. Connor may never read them, nor might others; but they’ll help me distill solutions from the cacophony that passes for discourse in final crisis generational turning of America.