Everybody’s smoking pot in the sidewalk
My friend in Georgia can’t wait to get the hell out of there. Most of his colleagues are racists, and he’s getting tired of dealing with them. He’s a doctor, white and politically moderate. His colleagues are also white doctors, and they sit around saying racist shit all day. And sometimes they do racist shit: One time they read the name on a job application and immediately threw it in the trash. The name was Mohammad.
That’s one America. It’s not the only America. After spending 22 days traveling the U.S., from Miami to New York City, I’ve seen my country in many hues. We’d had this trip planned for a while, a chance to see friends after more than three years abroad. The last time we’d spent a significant amount of time in the United States was when we went to Miami to have Vivian, who’s now 1-and-a-half.
This month, my wife and I rented a car, and the three of us drove up the coast, making stops in St. Augustine, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; Charlotte; Washington, D.C.; and Ocean City, New Jersey. We ended up jammed into my sister’s East Village apartment, which has one bedroom, a den and a kitchen/hallway between them. (We tested; it sleeps six.) We returned home to Amman, Jordan, last night.
So much has changed since we left the U.S. in 2014. America is tribal now. It always has been, obviously, but everybody I talked to this month says it’s much worse. It’s affecting the way we behave publicly. When we’re with our tribal members, we’re open and free. We speak our mind and share our frustrations and hopes. When we’re on the outside, we’re circumspect and suspicious. One friend told me he didn’t used to mind discussing politics with strangers. Now he never does. Anything could happen, including violence. It’s not worth it. In the Deep South, my wife and I found ourselves behaving both extra polite and deliberately unconventional, for instance, by speaking loudly in Spanish with our daughter.
We’ve lived in Jordan since April. When we first got there, we had to rent a car for a couple of months from a local company called Masafat. They gave us a free hat with their logo embroidered in English and Arabic. It’s a fine looking hat. I wore it in the South because I have to protect my bald spot from the sun and also because I wanted to see if anybody would remark on it. Nobody said anything, but I noticed out of the corner of my eye that cashiers would look at it while I signed receipts. A friend in Charlotte joked that I was scaring the locals with my “car bomb company” merchandise.
Some things back home are the same. Interstate 95 in Florida still runs a gauntlet of pro-life billboards. (“We love you mom… Please let us live!”) Hipsters are still taking over historically black city neighborhoods block by block. Small New York apartments sell for $1.395 million, while the MTA oxidizes. My parents are still the only Democratic voters in Randolph, Ohio.
But the air is different, ionized. The Bush years brought ferment, but the Trump years are a plague of darkness. I have a friend who works for the federal government and sometimes visits the EPA building. It used to be an open, vibrant workplace, he said, where people darted in and out of offices with purpose. Today the EPA is a tomb. The doors are closed. No one talks loudly. Political appointees don’t even look staffers in the eye.
The EPA building is not a microcosm of daily life in America, of course, though it is for the few hundred people who work there. And if polarization is a national epidemic, then government employees are patient zero. Three years ago, when we moved away from the United States, hardly anyone understood the pressure cooker we were baking in. We knew a racist element wanted to erase the black president from national memory, but we did not know that element was so powerful and influential. In a lightning coup, it seized the principal media (Facebook), decapitated a major political party, stormed the executive branch and installed an ally in the judiciary. I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about the nativist hatred that lives in millions of American hearts, including many of my friends and family. The only times I’ve ever heard the N-word spoken with casual sincerity were with people from my hometown.
Middle America is a cauldron of fascist ideology with near-impermeable geographical boundaries. I do not detect its toxins in New York. I didn’t see its overt effects in Washington or even in Charlotte. What I saw there were middle class professionals of all backgrounds enjoying late-summer cold brew lattes, drinking after-work organic beers and walking their dogs to the farmers market. In the streets of Manhattan, I’ve seen at least a dozen people smoking marijuana on the sidewalk. “Take this,” one said jokingly, passing a roach to a friend, “before I start to look like a delinquent.” Arrests for pot have fallen as the New York City police commissioner announced he would no longer detain people for possessing less than 25 grams. My guess (I’m really going out on a limb here) is that blacks are disproportionately targeted for marijuana enforcement, but I saw whites, blacks and Asians smoking with equal abandon.
But “polarization” isn’t the whole story. If the post-Charlottesville controversy over fascists and anti-fascists has taught us anything, it’s that somehow there is more diversity of American opinion that just those two camps. Even within Antifa there is a spectrum of attitudes, ranging from anarchist provocateurs to simple patriots.
There are not two Americas; there are millions. We are not polarized; we are diffused and grasping. Some Republicans still yearn for a return to abstinence, monogamy, temperance and thrift. Some just want guns on demand and don’t care which Protestants they have to vote with to get them. Elsewhere, in the liberal enclaves, life is luxuriant, cramped, concernful and debauched. The other night in the East Village, a couple copulated passionately with the lights on near an unshaded window as a crowd of people in the opposite building cheered them, jeered them and took pictures.
When I told a New Yorker friend about it later, he just chuckled and said, “This fucking city.”
I’m back in Amman now. There was a mix-up moving bags from our Alitalia plane to Royal Jordanian, and Vivian’s car seat stayed in Rome. In the taxi from the airport, my seatbelt was broken, so Christie had to clutch the baby for 45 minutes as the driver rapidly threaded traffic. The closer we got to our apartment, the more often he coughed. You could hear the tar gurgling up with each one. I had to give him a half-dozen hand signals to navigate us home, and he was getting nicotine anxious. But, sweet man, he didn’t want to smoke with us in the car.
We’ve been living away from the U.S. for so long that I sometimes forget how different things are in other places. When you travel often, the wonder doesn’t go away but the shock does. For this reason, coming back to the U.S. did not shock me, but it did fill me with foreign wonder.
For instance, the people who wear outlandish clothing in public. In the United States, you can be an old lady who wears revealing overalls without a shirt or a bra, or a guy clothed primarily by wide, swishing pom-poms made of colorful plastic bags. Less edgy were the multitudes of young women (I mostly saw women) with neon-colored hair and black-leather uniforms of complicated buckles and straps. I could hardly imagine Jordanians—or, indeed, the people of many European countries—tolerating them, but Americans hardly give them a second glance. Of course, non-conformity is a city value, whereas the people I saw in suburban Charlotte, Savannah and, to some extent, Washington and Ocean City, were largely a homogenous pack of conventionality, myself included. The one exception was a group of teenagers in a downtown Savannah park, pale-faced and dressed in shades of black. Vivian, wandering toddler, approached them playfully, and I said, “Looks like my daughter wants to join you guys.” One of them replied, “She’s more than welcome.”
There is a way back to civility. I know this even though I’m not sure what it is. I discussed this with a friend at Blind Tiger in Greenwich Village last weekend. We both have Trumpist friends and family. He argued that the best course is to persuade them by Socratic means: Ask them questions about their beliefs, and, specifically, lead them to identify the inconsistencies in those beliefs. By being inquisitive, rather than accusatory, people are more likely to see you, and the “side” you represent, as reasonable. And they may even start to think about why they believe what they do.
I disagreed, arguing that reason will have no effect on a person whose values are rooted in emotions and tradition. Social progress in America has never (or rarely?) been the result of persuasion. Justice arrives through power (political or financial), happenstance (when a situation requires action) and the literal dying away of outmoded thinking (racist grandpa kicks it). My friend’s Socratic method is commendable because it requires a strenuous, though futile, effort, and no doubt it’s helped reduce conflict at the dinner table. But beyond preserving personal relations, it has little broader societal use.
In practical terms, my approach means I either confront Trumpists head-on or ignore them entirely. And, yes, I understand this means the many Americas will recede ever deeper into themselves, rendering the United States little more than a corporate receptacle for tribal entities with an army. But this would not be unprecedented or necessarily unstable. And besides, Americans are bound by something more uniting than God or nation: commerce. Our aspirations and debts incentivize cooperation. What gender-neutral New York pot-smoker and Busch-drinking Savannah MAGA guy have in common is that the paper in their wallet is legal tender in America.
When Vivian grows up, her earliest memories may well be the way her room feels at dusk: dry, warm and golden in the sunlight, full of toys from faraway places, accumulating an invisible film of Arabian dust. She may remember the calls to prayer, with which she likes to sing along as though they were a regular outdoor concert. She may even remember a bit of Arabic, like a mental trail, blazed but overgrown, waiting to be cleared and put to use.
For me, my earliest memories are American. It was there that I learned to think, speak, love and behave; its cultural features were the scaffolding of my development. For many, that scaffolding becomes a permanent fixture, like the orange barrels on Ohio’s highways. Americans tend to love America because they are American; it is their past and present, and they don’t see another option. I don’t live there, and as soon as my Italian citizenship paperwork goes through I won’t need it. I choose to love America for the same reasons I choose to love myself: because I can see its good heart, despite its failures.
When I teach America to my daughter, it will be unsparing. Not the gospel of America that was taught to me. The scaffolding of her development will be of universal origin, such that (and this is a low bar, but unattained by millions) she would never throw someone’s ambition in the trash because their first name is Mohammad. But I wonder how many children will receive this education. This seems like a strange and abrupt place to end this essay, but if you think about it, it’s everything: Conservatives have more babies than liberals. Driving through the Deep South, we saw kids everywhere. In Manhattan, we were often the only ones with a baby.