The airplane is packed shoulder to shoulder. In my row, sat a young couple from Texas. She is wearing a red “Make America Great Again” tee-shirt. My laptop bears a bumper sticker for my novel, The Dandelion Insurrection, about a nonviolent movement is a (slightly) fictional United States. Her boyfriend – who has the build of a football player – is reading a romance novel with his ball cap pulled low over his brow.
Out of mischief and curiosity, I asked her, “So what makes America great?”
Flustered, she deferred to her boyfriend. I inwardly rolled my eyes at a woman who would defer to a man to articulate an answer about the slogan she was wearing.
“Well,” he answered, “I think everyone should support the President no matter what.”
A dozen counter-remarks popped into my head about the dangers of blind devotion, totalitarianism, dictators, and how dissent is essential for democracy, but before I can sort out how to begin, he continued.
“And, I think the ability to work one’s ass off and get ahead in the world – you know, like rags-to-riches. That makes America great. A lot of countries don’t have that.”
Before I can tell him that India has a higher upward mobility than the United States, he clams up, reopening his book and clearly closing the conversation. Does he realize that the rags-to-riches story of Horatio Alger was fiction? The notion was always more mythological than metaphorical, hinging on our ideals rather than our reality. Even in the best of times, the journey from rags to riches was not an equal opportunity employer due to sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination that stacked decks of fortune in favor of some more than others.
A real-life Horatio Alger story might involve some hard work, but they often rely on access to capital, networks of social and business connections, illegal maneuvers (such as Bill Gates stealing time on government computers to build his first software program), the helping hand of government programs like the GI Bill, or the homeowner lending programs that excluded Hispanics and African Americans. I wonder if the young man realizes that Trump built his fortune with millions of dollars inherited from his father. If we all received millions to fund our businesses and projects, I have little doubt that most of us would rapidly advance up the social and economic ladders of our world.
On the other hand, there’s an honest grievance to the young man’s comment, one with which I can largely agree. The notion that we should be rewarded for hard work is an honorable concept, one that emerged out of centuries of class injustice wherein serfs, peons, slaves, indentured servants, and forced or conscripted laborers were denied advancement both socially and economically. To be born poor was to live poor, work hard, and die poor, often buried in a pauper’s grave. The idea that hard work could improve one’s lot in life is a form of resistance to such widespread class injustice. Had he not stuck his head back in his book (ironically, a romance novel about impossible love between a nobleman and a peasant woman), I might have taken the opportunity to agree with his view that we should be able to work hard and get ahead . . . with a few qualifications.
First, we shouldn’t have to “work our asses off.” A sustainable, eight-hour workday ought to provide a living wage, including our current social necessities such as cellphones and Internet access, transportation, healthcare, and higher education. This requires that the standard wage for the 40-hour workweek be significantly higher than our current low and minimum wage jobs provide.
Second, the ability to work should not be a requirement for survival. A society should be able to provide and care for those who cannot work – such as children, elders, the infirm, injured, disabled, or ill. A social safety net should be set in place to ensure basic needs for everyone in our society.
Third, the inequities and injustices that plague our nation must be addressed. It does not “make America great” to allow advancement for some people, but not others, based on distinctions of race, gender, sexuality, political views, or age. Equality and justice for all has been a long-held, much cherished, and largely unrealized American deal for a long time . . . which brings me to my last point.
What “makes America great” needs to be a longer list than merely working hard and making money. It needs to contain an analysis of what doesn’t make America great, where we need to be critical and sharply observant of our behaviors, policies, and beliefs. It needs to include stark understandings of the Grand Canyon wide gap between our slogans and our realities. Trump’s slogan on the tee-shirt demands long, hard conversations, not blind loyalty and unquestioned patriotism. Our discussion about what makes America great (or doesn’t make it great) could have lasted the entire three-hour flight.
But it didn’t.
He closed the conversation. She squirmed uncomfortably. I eyed her for a moment then decided to try asking for her opinion again. Turning to the blonde-haired, blue-jeaned 20-something year old, I asked,
“Do you have any thoughts to add? You’re wearing the tee-shirt after all.”
She waved her hand in denial of the question.
“Oh, I’m not political,” she said.
Yes, you are, my silent thoughts answered in a steely tone. We all are. Our tee-shirts, words, silence, assumptions, myths, lies, inaccuracies, fears, policies – all of it is political.
She avoided the look in my eyes and studied her phone. He read his romance novel. I gritted my teeth. We flew in silence across the vast distance of our nation.