Does the escalation from anger to madness in this country have anything to do with our physical isolation from one another over the last year?
The question came to my mind as I read a remembrance of James Harvey, a cultural historian who focused on American movies. He wrote specifically about his love for American movie theaters—”the feeling in the place” when you’re watching a movie with random other Americans, and yet you experience the story together in a shared spirit that Harvey called, “the common American knowingness.”
What is that thing? It’s not political agreement. It’s a deeper agreement than that, about basic human reality. It’s important for making relationships work. And maybe it’s essential to holding a country like ours together.
Lot of people think air-conditioning made America less familiar, bringing neighbors in from our summer porches. Arthur Miller wrote about Central Park in New York, before air-conditioning. People slept outside on fire escapes, or in Central Park, where Miller remembered tip-toeing “among the hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s. Babies cried in the darkness, men’s deep voices murmured, and a woman let out an occasional high laugh beside the lake.”
Common American knowingness, common American space.
I think that was what a pal of mine was referring to recently when he agreed we should not argue politics while we can’t see each other. He wrote: “Any intelligent debate on the subject of America in today’s light, between you and I, could only be done over a pool table and many beers :)”
Not that either of us looks forward to that session at all or that the beer will do much good. (I’m thinking of a boozy argument with another friend that was so fierce his false teeth kept falling out onto the bar.) But that the spacial proximity around the pool table will make us real to one another once again, and harder, since we still have great love in our hearts, for the other to dismiss. In a room together we will not be mere debate opponents to be scored against, but living, breathing people, accountable to parallel lifetimes of accumulated common knowingness—common American knowingness.
My high-school daughter and her classmates have long suspected that their beloved choir teacher is a Trump guy. Now, Trump people are a rare species in these parts, and as scary to Chicago kids as Sasquatch. So this notion always troubled them, but the man was so charming and funny and loving (and musical) a presence in their daily lives that it never came to a head. (I’ve seen this teacher make a joke during a choir concert; the kids laugh in harmony.) But during this year of remote learning—complete with George Floyd and the election—steam began to build, until one Zoom period last week, when a student demanded that the teacher talk about what had happened at the Capitol. He refused: “This is my class.” One or more students said something to the principal. The teacher read a statement yesterday, tearfully. “I love every one of you,” he concluded. Afterward, my daughter was in tears, too.
“I don’t know what to think,” she said. “I know, Honey,” I said.
John Kennedy said sixty years ago, “Let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
Whatever else we need to do to hold this country together—and our families and our friendships and our schools and our workplaces—we’ve got to make it safe to start sharing that air again, before it’s too late.