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Americans of all sorts get along better than sour clichés have it

Everyday encounters in the United States tend to be decent and cordial by paradoxical virtue of interpersonal distance. 

I rise in praise of superficial relationships among America’s 320 million or so men, women, and younger people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social class, or television viewing habits.

Mitch Pearlstein
Center of the American ExperimentMitch Pearlstein

We are in the midst once again of especially pained laments about how the United States is divided every which way, but particularly racially. We’re certainly not nearly as indivisible as the pledge most of us stand up for says we are. But I would argue we do better when it comes to working together and getting along than we routinely give ourselves credit for. 

The paradoxical virtue of interpersonal distance

To those who counter that I write from the perspective of an older white man who has it relatively good, and that millions of members of other demographics see things significantly differently, all I can say is needless to say. But I stand by the assertion, as national goblets and glasses are much more frequently half full (at least half full) than half empty. And that this is the benign case because everyday encounters in the United States tend to be decent and cordial by paradoxical virtue of interpersonal distance. Yet distance or no distance, friendships and other close ties – increasingly including marital ones – also are everyday events among all manner of people. 

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Question: Would these degrees of comity be possible if we routinely excavated and shared large chunks of what we respectively feel deep down? “No” is the answer, as articulating what’s in one’s depths is usually intended for people who already know and like each other, not newly met strangers at P.C.-contorted community meetings, especially emergency ones regarding race.

I’ve been making points like these, much more serious than glib, for decades. Included is a column I wrote 20 years ago about how interactions between different varieties of people – white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, tattooed and not tattooed – are often more pleasant at intrinsically hospitable places like the now-deceased Old Country Buffet in Richfield than in the dining halls of determinably progressive colleges and universities across the country.  

Or calling on words of faith, children of God who fill American restaurant seats generally get closer to 57 varieties than those occupying abutting pews.

Wolves, Lynx and the State Fair

What might one make of the frequent superiority of buffets when it comes to getting along? One answer is that more people have more opportunities to interact civilly in commercial settings (broadly defined) than perhaps in any other realm. In our own community, Timberwolves and Lynx games come first to mind, as well as other sporting events (as long as rude inebriates are excluded), and the State Fair, of course.

The next time you’re at MOA, park yourself on a bench for 15 or 20 minutes and watch the racial and other permutations of friends and families walking by, usually in good moods. 

But are such excursions “meaningful?”  Do they lend themselves to “valuing” other cultures, as we are perpetually urged to do?  Of course not, but so what? Even so, close relations and empathetic understandings take root every fleeting moment. Here, there, and everywhere.   

Or take television viewing habits as another example of where we appear divided and often really are.  A study two decades ago found that, “Of the 20 most popular shows among black viewers, only two – ABC’s ‘Monday Night Football’ and NBC’s ‘ER’ – [were] also among the Top 20 with white viewers.”  I’m guessing (or at least hoping) that such disparities are not as great now as they used to be, as more shows seem to have cross-over appeal. But I’m also guessing that, in the main, people of color are not as fond of “The Big-Bang Theory” as whites are. Yet at the end of the day once more, so what?   

Gliding and sliding

Without in any way discounting the still constraining tentacles of the ugliest portions of our racial history, Americans of all sorts get along better than sour clichés have it. Complementing the practice are the exquisite ways we get along religiously, never mind how live and let live wouldn’t be the spirit if we more than superficially pondered what others believe to be most true and sacred.

What if non-Christians, for instance, were to dwell on how Christians believe that “no one comes to the Father” except through Jesus? Or if non-Jews dwelled on Jewish convictions of being “Chosen”? Ecumenically pretty it wouldn’t be. In matters like these, the commonwealth is better served when we glide and slide over such claims and beliefs, no matter how deeply riveted they may be in hearts and souls.  

Or closer to the mark, gliding and sliding is wisest precisely because such beliefs are heart and soul deep in our fellow Americans.

Mitch Pearlstein is the founder of Center of the American Experiment. His most recent publication isSpecifically, What Must We Do to Repair Our Culture of Massive Family Fragmentation?”


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