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What binds us as Americans?

Earlier this summer, I published a commentary in one of this area’s other papers about the idea of at least two divided nations seeking to elect one president.

Mary Stanik

The article was widely read. Many told me that I described a very sad state of affairs about a land that has been coveted and admired by so many for so long. But a number of people said things just cannot be that bad. That we cannot be even more divided than we were in 1968, the fractious year often compared to 2016. That there must be a way to heal the splinters short of slicing the country or adding tranquilizers to municipal water supplies.

This made me think about what one immensely ordinary American could do to help bind the splinters. I discounted running for Congress, mostly because I like to accomplish things. Then I realized I could write something. Something that might not make everyone love Clinton, Trump or even the people across the street. But something that might qualify for lighting one’s corner of the world with a cigarette lighter (though without any “Kumbaya.” Please.).

I thought I’d tap into my medium-sized Facebook network, my larger Linked-In group and my fairly significant Twitter following to unscientifically ask friends and followers to name one thing or one idea that binds us as Americans. Something we all hold dear or in fear, no matter where our political preferences lie or speak the truth.

Some had trouble thinking of something

As one can imagine, I received interesting answers. More than a few people told me they had trouble thinking of something. Some skirted the question and raised issues that divide us.

The responses that answered my query came from people well known and not, of different ages, education and income levels, and ethnicities.

Some of the responses were gently amusing. An internationally renowned bioethicist (and former Minnesota resident) said we all love grilled cheese. An East Coast Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist said “cheese, furry animals and cartoons.”

Many of the answers fell into categories I hoped and expected would surface. A New Mexico retiree said rock and roll, though a number of others cited music in general. Thanksgiving was the choice of a Minneapolis writer. A Marquette University classmate who is now a Jesuit priest in Missouri mentioned religious freedom. Many more than a few people talked about animals. A Virginia teacher said sports are loved by all who stand in line on Super Bowl morning to buy chips.

A belief in democracy

Other answers were more serious. An attorney in upstate New York said we all believe we live in a democracy, though our definitions of democracy differ. A West Coast graduate student said we value the opportunity for upward mobility. “Grit” was a Minnesota talk-show host’s submission. The Constitution was the choice of my accountant, who came here from Iran. A high school classmate in Wisconsin who spent his career in law enforcement talked about how most of us want to see “a strong middle class, though it gets sticky as to how we all want to get there.” Another high school classmate, now a banker possessing many political views that reside on the other side of the universe from mine, said “freedom and self-worth.” An Oregon photographer, the son of Chinese immigrants, said “creativity created though diversity.” A Buffalo, N.Y., artist said “love of family and volunteering.” My novel’s editor, now an Oregon mental health therapist, said “we all want our children to have it better than we did.” A prominent Los Angeles writer simply wrote “we’re all human beings, more alike than not.” And a national journalist talked about how he was excoriated at a Louisiana event for being part of the liberal media, only to have those same people help him when he became swollen after a bee sting.

As I read the submissions, I realized that the bits and pieces of unity some say we possess if we only choose to look for them might just exist. Even though none of these bits and pieces alone or mixed can mend all of the nation’s splinters.

Still, imagine what might happen if we could arrange a coast-to-coast buffet featuring grilled cheese and Thanksgiving-quality turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, accompanied by lots of live music. Furry pets and kids could be served at tables screening cartoons. We could distribute (this is my idea) some well-mixed American spirit cocktails.

A dose of realism

Of course, though I seek unity, I am realistic. What might happen at this Red, Blue and Purple feast is that some of us will drink too many spirits and argue about many facets of the Constitution while throwing turkey drumsticks or worse. Some will say we should have said grace or that we should not have said grace.

But I wonder what those of us not arguing or complaining might do. I’d like to think that some of us would talk about the fabulous food and didn’t the kids have fun. I’d hope that those of us without alcohol problems might order another round of drinks. I’d like to think we could see our fellow Americans as fellow Americans and not as marauders who do not belong in “our” country. Maybe we’d even see some as friends.

And so, this is the light I am casting across our divided nations from my very small cigarette lighter.

How might you light the land with yours?

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lived in St. Paul until her recent move to ArizonaShe is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.” 

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/16/2016 - 09:06 pm.

    Materialism

    Sadly, I think I’d have to say the one thing that binds us basically as Americans is materialism. Materialism being the belief that all that matters is what you own or possess in terms of material things. Exemplified in the crass bumper sticker aphorism “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”

  2. Submitted by John Hasselberg on 09/17/2016 - 09:53 am.

    What binds us together rips us apart

    Mary–

    You raise some insightful points and produce both interesting and amusing examples. However it’s not in ephemeral artifacts wherein one finds real commonality, but in what one assumes about how life works. It’s in the deep culture that bonds exist and, unfortunately, what are those deep bonds in US culture is not all that pretty.

    A friend who was visiting me when I was in Sweden for a few months in 2004, when asked by a couple of Swedes why there was so much chaos in the US said: “You must understand that every American, or their forebear, was either chased away or dragged away, or they ran away, from somewhere else.” What that means is that what actually binds us the most is an underlying anomie, a fear of being ostracized, a fear of separation–while already feeling separated. It’s become an exaggeration of the British “island mentality” as embedded in the English language, i.e., can you imagine a more alienating language to speak than the only one on earth that universally capitalizes the first person reflexive pronoun–which is itself only one, isolated letter, “I”?

    Therefore the oft-noted superficial friendliness of Americans, the appeal of self-justification through controlling and subjugating others, the need for a savior to rescue one, the attraction of endless consumption to feed an emotional and spiritual void. the inductive generalizing from the self to the other about what is right and wrong, all are very prevalent and unusually powerful in the US. The current political campaign is but the more recent and one of the most starkly obvious example of this.

    For a recently published and quite useful historical and theoretical grounding in how these phenomena have played out, I recommend reading “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America”, by Nancy Isenberg.

    Thanks~

    John Hasselberg

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 09/18/2016 - 09:19 am.

    Accepting folks from different backgrounds

    and being a country where there is equal opportunity for success (not guaranteed outcomes for all) is an American trait. My Grandparents came from Yugoslavia and lived in a small community filled with Serbs and Croatians, I didn’t realize there were huge problems between the 2 groups because they were too busy acclimating to the USA, to fight each other. Many of the grandchildren from that small community became Doctors, lawyers, teachers, business folks from grandparents that english was a 2nd language (not very good english in many cases). I don’t have to read a book on the history of class in America, I lived it along with my brothers and sisters. Not every person made it from that community (a few of my childhood friends are in prison) but we all had an equal shot at it.

    This new narrative that America owes you something is silly. It is your life, take responsibility for it by not blaming others and keep pushing through all the road blocks life throws at you. My Grandparents were in the lower class, my parents lower middle class (my Dad was a miner) and me and my siblings are upper middle class. That happened in 3 generations.

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