The View from My Bubble
I’m not ready to talk about this Health Care brouhaha yet. It’s shaping up as an interesting fight, certainly, but it has me thinking about the Great Divide between the “coastal elites” and the “flyover states.” A week ago Sunday we had dinner with friends, an artist and a psychiatrist, and we talked about a variety of things (a lot of “catching up”), one of which was attending the 50th Reunion of our high school graduating class (he & I were classmates). I said I would probably not attend because: a) anyone from high school that I care to see/talk to, I am already in regular touch with, and b) from what I have seen and heard (via Facebook and other sources) too many of our classmates were Trump supporters and I really didn’t want to spend time with them. The harsh reality is that I am an “educated Eastern cultural elitist” and I can’t deny it. Despite my working class roots, my Ivy League education and my social, cultural, political orientation --- by choice --- put me in that “bubble,” where I was genuinely shocked by the results of the 2016 election. How could America choose that man? I won’t belabor the popular vote “facts to the contrary” that he did not carry a majority of the vote. He carried it where it counted in the Electoral College and that’s the fact. So, as I slowly recognize that this is a nightmare I’m not going to wake up from soon, I also realize that I have a pretty bad attitude toward large numbers of my fellow Americans. That led me back to one of my favorite books, Joe Queenan’s Red Lobster, White Trash, and The Blue Lagoon, published in 1998.
If you’re not familiar with the book, it is Queenan’s account, as an admitted member of “the elite, effete subculture” of New York (he is a writer/critic by trade) of his realization “that snobs like me were cutting ourselves off from all the fun in this society.” (p.3) As a result, he decides “I would throw off the mask of the urbane sophisticate and plunge headfirst into the culture of the masses, setting aside my haughty pretensions and drowning myself in the hurly-burly world of the hoi polloi.” (p. 3) The book is a chronicle of 18 months spent attending shows like Cats and Les Miz and Phantom, making trips to Atlantic City and Branson, Missouri, going to Kenny G. and Barry Manilow concerts, as well as seeing every bad movie released and attending Geraldo Rivera’s talk/audience participation television program (remember, it was 1996-97). He also takes his family out to dine at Red Lobster, the Olive Garden, and Sizzler. As for literature, Queenan immerses himself in Richard Patterson, Joan Collins, Nicholas Sparks, and other “bestselling” authors. All of this is recorded with flair and laugh-at-loud humor --- the man is a very good writer. But I realized, as I paged through it, the book had popped into my head for a reason and that was because it is directly relevant to the situation I find myself in.
I know it is true that not all the people who voted for Donald Trump are poorly educated or lack critical thinking skills --- but I still find it hard to believe. When I do go on Facebook and scroll through the postings I only see the impassioned Trump support coming from high school classmates and former high school students who had an aversion to reading, writing, and critically engaging in discussions about art, politics, music, etc. I know, that’s horrible and elitist for me to say that but I’m trying to work something out here. It’s hard to believe Paul Ryan is really a devout Catholic, as he claims, and that he is willing to deny basic health care services to people who truly need it, while giving money back to the wealthy. That seems more“devout Republican conservative” than a devout Catholic. As I listen to the avaricious and self-serving Tom Price claim that this is a “good bill,” my eastern elitist hackles rise. How, exactly, is this a “good bill” when it will deny 28 million people health insurance over the next decade?
Getting back to my 50th High School Reunion, and its connection to today’s politics, I can only say this: none of us is who we were from 1963-67 when we walked the hallowed halls of Bay Shore High School together --- where we were grouped and sorted into “tracks” based on someone’s idea of “intelligence.” Where the “Special Class” was housed in the basement and ate lunch at a different time of day. Where the subtle prejudice of segregated neighborhoods later grew into classmates who put Confederate flag stickers on their pick-up trucks. It was an idyllic place to grow up for white middle class kids and, if you were in the “Honors” classes, even better! But a 50th year reunion? I don’t know. Will everyone try to be “hale and well met” and avoid talking about politics, only reminiscing about those great times at BSHS? Will I really be able to talk about books with someone who’s only read all the Bill O’Reilly “Killing…” series? Or is that assumption just another indication of my elite, effete bias about “those people?”
I do know some are avid Fox News fans and see the “mainstream media” as unfair, if not totally “fake” news. High School was a great time for me --- hell, I was “Mr. Bay Shore,” captain of the basketball team, quarterback on the undefeated football team and got to go to Yale --- it doesn’t get much better than that, right? Nonetheless, those weren’t the “best years” of my life. I’m discouraged by the turn the U.S. has taken of late and, despite the popular vote totals, feel as though I espouse a minority point of view. More concerning is the inability to have a dialogue --- and I am as guilty as anyone for that. I have no patience with Trump supporters, and no desire to engage in what I believe (as I’m sure they feel with me) with someone who just “doesn’t get it.”
And that’s the sad fact for now. Will it change? Maybe. I just don’t know how. As Queenan notes at one point, “I am, and always have been, a prick.” (p. 71) Certainly since about 1970 that’s true of me. I’ve got a bad attitude. I think I’m right about 95% of the time and will try to use a bizarre ability to remember facts, names, dates, and people to prove it. I can’t anticipate having one moment thinking, “Oh, that Trump did something good,” just as I am sure there are people (many of whom are in Congress) felt that way about Obama. The divide is wide and deep. I’m not sure we can change it because of the polarized positions that are in place. As such, I just can’t imagine going to my 50th Reunion.