America Is Good

These times are trying but there is still plenty of cause for hope.

Like most American millennials, I grew up in a family that belonged nominally to one party but that could hardly be described as ideological. Politics were discussed only in broad platitudes: “we’re for the regular people,” “we’re for fairness,” “we’re for honesty.” Back then, these generic mantras could have been repeated just as easily and earnestly by any nominally Republican family as by my nominally Democrat one. It all seems impossibly quaint from our Trump-era perch, but the lines dividing one side from the other were mostly fuzzy and indefinite — directional rather than decisive. As a result, as far as most average people were concerned, political discourse was an inconsequential yawn paid attention to only in spurts when the evening news made sensational stories out of things like Giant Sucking Sounds and everyone’s favorite President-intern affair.

Then, Oklahoma City and Waco happened, the first real indicators of invisible right-wing extremism simmering at the margins. A few years later, it was Dubya’s controversial election win, followed in short order by 9/11, a burst of flag-waving patriotism and then a headlong dive into a futile war whose justification was dubious well before it began. It was against this backdrop, as a high school sophomore, that one particularly tuned-in teacher opened a Pandora’s box of cynicism in me with a gentle introduction to the likes of Chomsky, Baldwin, Naomi Klein, Amy Goodman and others. Their ideas were, in no small way, a shock to my small-town mindset and they helped me build a tentative moral framework by which to begin to make sense of the world as an adult.

I spent the last two years of high school mostly failing, strung out on espresso and hunched over stacks of art and political magazines at Borders. I sought out environmentalists and artists and organic farmers and on the way made friends with queer activists and third-wave feminists and other self-professed radicals — these were profoundly thoughtful people I had no idea existed, and who even at the early dawn of the social media age were still largely invisible to broader society. I joined a handful of modest antiwar protests in my liberal hometown, wore “🚫W” and “Fuck Halliburton” buttons everywhere and charged headfirst into political diatribes with anyone who would engage me. One time I beamed for days after a furious Dubya supporter bombarded me with a cup of hot coffee. My parents, faithful Democrats though they were, were not thrilled.

America, as far as I was concerned, was a fundamentally fucked up place, doomed to become a fully corporatist, war-mongering destroyer of the world unless enough of us stood up and screamed in opposition. It felt then like comparatively so few of us were ever in the streets, so few of us were “awake” (that prehistoric morphology of “woke” that, rather than connote extreme political correctness, indicated a sort of paternalistic, finger-wagging anger). We cheered for Michael Moore and railed against racism and Enron and Monsanto and Fox News and Walmart and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Ann Coulter and the meatpacking industry and General Motors and suburban sprawl and consumerism and the mindlessness of big media.

Some version of ‘it feels good to be on the right side of history’ was a common refrain. We placed hope in idealistic long shots like Howard Dean and then were despondent when even far more moderate ones like John Kerry lost. To be outside, screaming in at the deaf, blind masses was cathartic. It was thankless and exhausting, but it felt noble. It felt righteous.

I’ve realized only recently that it was all mostly just self-righteous.

Even the hope-filled dawn of the Obama era was easy to cast as hopeless. We were still at war in the Middle East, Walmart was hollowing out small towns everywhere and everyone was obese. This country is just a lost cause, I scoffed. So, as soon as I finished college, I packed up and moved directly to Italy for a job. Ah, to be back in Europe, that mythical continent of cultural enlightenment. Europeans get it. Europeans get me. The world is right where there are no Hummers and there is no Walmart.

Alas, grasshopper, the grass is never greener. The glories of Italian food and la dolce vita do surprisingly little to make up for the sheer inertia involved with building a life there. The country’s tax system is draconian and punitive to anyone not inclined to flagrantly skirt the rules. Sexist and racist epithets are common even in polite conversation, and the year after America re-elected Obama, some winner took it upon himself throw bananas at Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s very first black senator. It was an act that elicited far more outrage outside Italy than within.

Europe’s piecemeal immigration system is profoundly broken, and Italy’s permesso di soggiorno system is heavily biased toward those with friends in high places or, alternatively, those who invest heavily in industries like fashion and manufacturing. My boyfriend while I lived in the country was a lawyer whose father was a prominent Florence notary — essentially, the definition of friends in high places. After months of handwringing as my first visa was expiring, his family managed to wrangle a meeting for me with Tuscany’s chief questore for an impromptu immigration hearing—a privilege most definitely not accorded to average immigrants. In a formal room decorated with military regalia, he responded to my rehearsed pleas simply with, “Cazzo te ne frega del permesso? Sei americano. Conosci gente. Fai quel’cazzo che vuoi e se non ti fai fermare, nessuno ti farà mai niente.” Roughly: why the fuck do you care so much about this green card? It’s more trouble than it’s worth! You’re American! You know people! Just do whatever you want, don’t get stopped by the cops for something dumb and nobody will ever bother you.

So, I stayed another year-and-a-half, living on an expired visa in an illegal apartment “affitato in nero” in Milan, working under the table at a prestigious photography agency for for peanuts (yet still being heavily taxed). One night, migrant protesters (rightly) angry about a lack of housing and opportunity torched all the cars on my street, including ours. These people certainly had no rich connections, and by virtue of their nationalities and lack of Italian language were utterly shut out of participation in society.

Americans, meanwhile, brandish the terms racism and white privilege and discrimination as conversation-killing weapons and discuss them in terms of memes and microagressions, while willfully ignoring their far more real and tangible severity even in other developed countries. Innocent children in cages at our Mexican border certainly change this calculus today, but the sobering truth is that by and large, American inequality is nowhere near as intrinsic as it remains in most of the rest of the world. We certainly have miles to go in our own fights, but it is critical to consider the broader context.

Over the subsequent days, I could no longer deny the elliptical hypocrisy of remaining indefinitely in a country where I could work and live a relatively privileged life—even illegally—while thousands of others with a similar status were forced to eke out subhuman existences. A few weeks later, I nervously flew out of Malpensa with one suitcase containing all my worldly possessions. Not one official so much as raised an eyebrow at the egregiously expired visa in my blue passport.

Six months later, mostly as a last-ditch effort to remain in Europe (i.e. to not move home tail-between-legs), I was accepted into a graduate program at Central Saint Martins and so I took out a boatload of student loans and moved to London. That glorious old art school, with its illustrious reputation for middle-finger rebellion, felt like exactly the place to be even though in reality it is an entirely bourgeois institution. I fell in with an old familiar crowd, centered around contrarian designers, artists and an Irish metal rocker boyfriend who squatted part time, performed poetry readings in the nude and considered himself a major proponent of the Occupy movement in Britain. It was fun and liberating, but unlike all those Bush years ago, the activism felt completely put on, and at times even counterproductive.

Squatting, for starters, can in principle be a noble form of genuine protest: it is the forced imposition of one’s human presence in a physical place from which it is otherwise restricted by marketplace rules and property law. People excluded from an expensive housing economy or the labor market still deserve a roof over their heads. But many of the avowed London squatters I knew were successful working artists quite able to pay rent, and most sold work through galleries at extortionate London art market prices. And most art purchases of that sort (as well as the real estate their galleries sit on) are financed by exactly the same foreign investment responsible for gentrifying so many local housing markets in the first place.

While completing my dissertation, I worked part time at a charity that performed architectural interventions on council estates (the UK equivalent of public housing projects). Although the charity’s intentions were always earnest and well-meaning, its work always came across as somewhat condescending suggestions for self-improvement to a structurally disadvantaged audience. Here’s a brand new computer lab with a state-of-the-art 3D printer for all to use! And then, inevitably, everyone in our wide-eyed office would be crestfallen when computers were used only for web browsing or when keyboards would go missing or a screen or two would be bashed in.

Meanwhile, a community liaison on one estate embezzled thousands of pounds from the charity’s common fund. She was never prosecuted nor reprimanded for fear that the close-knit Jamaican community she belonged to would stage a mutiny against the charity and cause it to lose funding. It was a dramatic expression of British politeness taken to an extreme, and one that redefined my previously one-sided notion of privilege.

Who you are makes no difference, except when it really, really does.

Of course, Britain is by no means a perfect proxy for America. Still, the two reflect one another in broad strokes: look no further than the twin populist disasters of Trump and Brexit. We are stubborn and myopically self-referential societies, both overestimating our centrality in the world and both championing economic systems that plainly run counter to our grand narrative ideals. Our shared turn toward a politics that focuses so intensely on personal narrative, grievance, and superficial identity is plainly at odds with the common purposes that can unite a vibrant, diverse democracy.

And so, by the time I left England in 2014, worthless/expensive art school MA in hand, I couldn’t help but see my own country in an entirely new light. Not only was it clear that our problems were far from unique, we had lived to see a popular black president serve two largely successful terms, and he would go down in history as one of the all-time greats despite years of obstructionist congresses. Gay marriage was legal, trans people were stepping boldly into the light, Bin Laden was toast, and the exponential growth of ubiquitous technology had brought information into darknesses everywhere. Enron was long dead and General Motors, despite a colossal bankruptcy, was churning out some of the best electric cars on the road. It was still deeply imperfect, but it was an America rife with beautiful victories we scarcely could have imagined back in those darkest of Bush years.

Even to my once bleeding activist heart, it became clear that the most sustainable social victories always came by way of increased information, visibility and understanding rather than angry, embittered protest. Take Occupy, which was a promising but ultimately brief diversion — to this day, the financial system remains as lopsided and exclusionary as ever — and then consider the unequivocal watershed improvement in gay civil rights that has come about by way of cultural change, peaceful, sustained and targeted activism, and sheer visibility.

It would be a long slog, but America might just be redeemable, after all.

Cut to this, our tumultuous Trump era. Dire predictions about our future abound and everywhere grievances are launched in all directions. Technology is seen less as an enlightening savior than a nefarious invader, and its titans have dislodged our previous corporate overlords only to take world domination to evil new heights. Fake news is the rule rather than the exception, and China and Russia loom large.

Or so the story goes.

Still, I wonder more and more lately whether everything is truly different or whether we have just too-passively accepted such a negative narrative. So much of the post-2016 rhetoric has been about our powerlessness in the face of a deliberate monster and his minions run amok from the most powerful chair in the world. It is exactly a sped-up, warped version of one Bush-era mindset we all seem to have forgotten, in which one pernicious presidency stood in for the impending collapse of America itself.

But what if we choose to view these trying few years as just a blip along the long arc of history? Trump’s win was a fluke of an election, fueled by a perennial American hunger for drama and celebrity, combined with a perfect storm of a reflexively overactive media, poorly designed social platforms, and inept intervention from a corrupt foreign government known for pouring far more resources into espionage and juvenile war games than participating in human progress or improving the lives of its citizens.

A sanitized version of the Mueller report has finally finally dropped, and seemingly every media outlet that is not Fox News is now beside itself, wondering how on earth we got here. Twitter is morose, reflective, bitter. But whatever the ultimate outcome, we must make no mistake about the specter of Trump: he is a blundering, ham-fisted tool who will not survive re-election unless Democrats seriously (seriously) alienate all middle-of-the-road voters in the run up to 2020. On second thought, maybe he’s a shoo-in for a second term…

While I certainly don’t mean to downplay the many perils and injustices and tragedies of these times we’re living in, I would nonetheless like to invite you to look around your city or town and remember what this country looked and sounded like just 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. Whether we’re neighbors in Los Angeles or you live in Birmingham or Detroit or Minneapolis, it’s more likely than not than the place you call home is more urbane, more connected and more diverse than at any point in your lifetime. If you can filter through the noise of Twitter and Facebook, our raucous public discourse is informed by a chorus of far more diverse perspectives than it was even a half-generation ago. We have just elected more women and minorities to congress than ever (with many more to come), and for every dismissive, intolerant voice screaming from behind a computer screen there are two that are warm and welcoming.

Look, furthermore, at the state of most other countries in the world, even the nominally exemplary ones. Consider not only the colossal, zero-sum oppression and environmental disaster of China and the New Soviet approach to human-rights of Russia, but the unvarnished racism of countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia, the retrograde politics of Turkey, Brazil and Poland, the crushing inequality of India and every single state in Africa, the closed homogeneity of Scandinavia, Korea and Italy, the violence of Central America, and the total ineptitude of Brexit-era Britain. Viewed in this light, America seems far less like a fully corporatist, war-mongering destroyer of the world than a complex land of patchwork compromises, which in aggregate still give the largest number of of people the relatively best lives.

America is not just redeemable—it is a fundamentally good country that we must not lose hope in. Together, we can tackle safer gun laws, find a path toward more responsible stewardship of the environment and climate, reform the banking system, continue to address structural and cultural issues of inequality, adopt more human immigration laws and find new ways of staying competitive within the world economy. These challenges are not insurmountable because, dispite what you may hear every day, we’re starting from a pretty good place.

Just last year, my current (and with any luck, last) boyfriend and I drove our ’79 Buick from Brooklyn to L.A.. From Amish country to the deepest South and then to the far edge of the west, we were treated kindly everywhere we stopped. People gawked at our plush, chromed out car rather than at us. And even when we were stuck in a West Virginia motel room next to a rowdy group of hunters who rolled up in a truck festooned with Trump stickers, they merely waved friendly hellos to the two dudes who were obviously a couple eating pizza and drinking champagne on a countryside porch. Sometimes it just takes a little drive to understand that, despite the ambient gloom and doom, America is mostly a country full of generally good people just trying to get through one day at a time.

Later that summer, I was commissioned by and Google to cover a story they called “Small Town, Big Pride.” I traveled to three towns in the middle of bright red states freshly won by Trump—one in Indiana, one in Idaho, one in Pennsylvania—that all hold inordinately large yearly Pride festivals. The celebration in the rural town of Spencer, Indiana effectively doubles its population for one day every June, while the capitol building in the crimson red state of Idaho is now annually illuminated in rainbow. In all these towns, I saw tractors and Confederate flags, 2nd Amendment stickers and “Jesus Saves” signs, but even in these super conservative strongholds there was no threat of violence, no name calling, no shortage of cross-cultural, cross-generational connection, and no shame in reveling outside in the sun. We’ve come a long, long way.

Which brings me back to the beginning: I built my angry young life around the idea that my country was bad and that the majority of people in it were either ignorant, malicious or just plain wrong. It has taken all my adult years so far to come to terms with a truth that is both more complex and more hopeful than that. My absolute conviction of rightness was fundamentally wrong, and I’m still ashamed at the smug hubris it must’ve taken to once gloat about egging someone I disagreed with on until they threw hot coffee at me. My beliefs are broadly still the same as they were at 17, but I’ve come to realize that rather than striving to be on any “right side” of history, we must size up and surf its unique waves with as much skill, resolve and perspective as possible.

I fear and regret the similarly smug arrogance that has pervaded the way we talk about nearly everything since 2016. We stake out our territory and identify our tribes and then hunker down for dear life, launching salvos into the ether from behind computer screens with absolute conviction, never bothering to consider any number of reasons we might not be totally right. Even in strict matters of principle, there is almost always more to the story than we make room for in our black and white, good and bad, left and right American fairy tales.

I don’t know whether the anger, fear and derision so pervasive in America right now is justified or not. That’s for you to decide. Still, my feeling is that if we only focused less on simplistic clickbait narratives and more on both the good we have and the potential we have for good, there might just be more cause for hope than desperation.

Even now.

Photographer. I spend my days on the road thinking about design, architecture, culture, America and the dark side of innovation.

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