New America Media
Editor's Note: The 2008 election provided two competing visions of America, with each side questioning the humanness of the other. NAM contributing writer Andrés Tapia is a specialist in diversity issues based in Chicago.
CHICAGO -- Underneath the 2008 presidential election’s made-for-YouTube drama of gaffes, accusations of deceit, and guilt by association –- and even deeper underneath the ideological differences on health care, taxes, and the Iraq War –- lay competing visions of what it means to be an American.
The Democratic and Republican tickets offered up very different mythologies about American identity in the face of an upside-down world. More so than with the WWII generation of John McCain and Joe Biden, this drama played out with the tail-end Boomers Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. The archetypes that faced off were the urban, multiracial, community activist with a global mindset and the rural, white, working hockey-mom with a parochial world view.
The battle lines for defining the new American identity were drawn not in the spinmeisters' and pundits’ bluster, but rather showed up in the throbbing, hopeful, and alarmist blog threads of the red media of The Drudge Report, RedState, and Fox News and the blue media of The Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and MSNBC.
As a diversity expert, in order to find a way through to inclusion I seek to understand what drives the conflicting perspectives of different sides. The cyber shouting during the election that questioned the very humanness of the Other revealed a fear that one vision of America would prevail over the other. In a New York Times poll a week before the election, three-fourths of respondents on both sides felt it was very or extremely important for their candidate to win. Partisan crowds in both camps shouted “USA! USA!” in their rallies, seeking the mantle that their way was the “real America.”
I’ve had intimate knowledge and experience with these competing visions of America. Even though I grew up in Lima, Peru, my biographical trajectories have had me crisscross the United States. My American mom gave me family roots in a tiny white rural town called Harrington, 50 miles west of Spokane in the western frontier state of Washington. My German-American wife hails from the evangelical heart of the Republic of Kansas. And I now live in multicultural, urbane Chicago.
Visiting my American grandparents Freida and Brownie Graham as a kid entailed traveling through a cultural worm hole that took me from the chaotic streets of Third World Lima to the tranquil wheat fields of Harrington. As I stepped into this Norman Rockwell America with my darker skin and the heavy accent of my youth, I experienced the America of the rugged individual, master of one’s own domain. Paradoxically, it was also a tightly-knit community of 500 that jointly experienced the yearly rituals of the town’s Turkey Gobble Pancake Breakfast, the Lilac Parade, and wheat harvest.
I marveled at 14-year-olds getting to drive trucks along massive John Deere harvesters and then careen into the town’s wheat grain exchange, with harvested grain brimming over the truck bed. Then after harvest, hanging out on hot lazy afternoons at Mini Falls chewing on tall sun-baked prairie grass.
But something terrible has happened. My nostalgic memories of Main Street in Harrington and stocking up on a week’s supply of candy at the local drugstore, grabbing spare parts for my grandpa’s weed control pick-up truck at the hardware store, and going to the Challenger Cafe with him for chili can’t be confirmed by a visit anymore. Today the drug and hardware store as well as the Challenger Cafe are gone. Agribusiness has bought out several of the family-owned farms and people have moved to the cities. Towns 30 miles away need to combine their school sports programs in order to field enough kids for a basketball squad. Even the friends I made during those childhood visits, Linda and Ron Mielke who are third-generation farmers, have a brooding sense that family farming is coming to an end and are encouraging their two college-aged daughters to seek livelihoods elsewhere.
As attractive as this lifestyle is for millions of Americans, the American mythology as represented by Palin is facing the rising waters of change that are turning land mass into islands. It is no coincidence that the Palin mythology has come forth from America’s final frontier, Alaska.
But American cities are facing their own days of reckoning. The glitz and rapid pace of New York and Los Angeles, their mythologies of America glorified by Hollywood blockbusters and embraced by “I Love New York” bumper stickers, have taken devastating blows. New York’s mystique and invulnerability took its first hit with the crumbling of the Twin Towers and suffered another crippling blow with the humiliation of Wall Street. American financial hegemony is over. In the same way that family farms ceded economic ownership to big business, economic ownership has shifted en masse to Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese hands. Hollywood is losing ground to Bollywood. Residents in New Orleans and Galveston are still picking up the pieces of their lives obliterated by storms that have names but no mercy.
Both American mythologies –- Rugged Frontier and Vibrant City -- have been tarnished. Yet this election breathed new life into both of them. The battles lines were such that one got the sense that only one could survive. In the blogosphere, “arugula-eating” and “moose-hunting” became the shorthands for mutual disdain.
So who then are the real Americans?
As I think of this nation I have crisscrossed from sea to shining sea, here’s what I believe. It’s my 92-year-old grandmother in a nursing home in Washington. It’s the Wall Street whiz kid who lost her job at Lehman. It’s the Alaska boy who loves ice fishing. It’s the hip-hop breakdancer on Chicago’s South Side. The tiara-decked girl at her quinceañera. The Torah-reciting boy at his bar mitzvah. It’s the AmeriCorps teacher in El Paso. It’s moms and dads making peanut butter sandwiches, my Peruvian high-school mate Luis who on 9/11 said, “Today I became an American.” It’s my wife Lori’s Oklahoma cattle ranching relatives who emailed us their deepest fears about the man with a Muslim name. It's me. It’s Palin and it’s Obama. And the people they represent.
What does it mean to be an American?
Essayist Richard Rodriguez has written that the idea of America is that it is a place where one can re-invent him or herself. Where our destiny is not fixed. Right now I believe the task is not an individual reinvention but a collective one. So much of the rest of the world’s anger over the last decade toward the United States has been fueled by disappointment about America losing its idealistic and democratic identity by which others have wanted to model themselves. When America does good, it gives hope to countries like the one where I grew up.
Tumultuously, adolescent America is coming into adulthood. As we often remind our 17-year-old, let’s make good choices.