At a young age my parents taught me how and why to vote for Ralph Nader. I followed each of them into the voting booth and checked the box that said Green Party candidate. Then I got to seal the ballot with the big lever that also opened the curtain with a loud ka-chung! My favorite part.
Essentially they were teaching me to believe that good things can happen and the world can get along through grassroots movements and everyone doing their part. It was important for them to vote for someone who wanted to take care of us. They survived Nixon, Reagan and the first Bush so Nader was their way of retaining hope of a better tomorrow. In the 1990’s they took a leap and helped William Jefferson Clinton become elected and for eight years that better day was what we lived.
I’ll never be sure if life was actually better and the country actually in a stronger place from 1992-2000 because I was a teenager then. My dad did the best he could to impart his wisdom, but regardless of his efforts my worldview was only slightly larger in circumference than my head.
Sure there was Waco and Oklahoma City and the Gulf War, but on the whole things were so calm we were blessed with time to concentrate instead on Monica Lewinsky. The U.S. had so much money in the 90’s you could make up any job you wanted. You could be a doggie daycare fashion consultant. You could be a personal errand runner. Heck you could go to college to major in stage management and get a full time job with benefits a year later. We were in a surplus and it was clear from the way we spent money to the way our entitlement continued to grow.
Towards the end of Clinton’s presidency I was working at Boston University’s English as a second language school. I met students from every corner of the globe, many of them Arab. There were a few women, but mostly men and even a Saudi prince or two. They were generally displeased upon arrival to be greeted by me, an excitable 21 year-old girl who acted like she knew it all and considered the world her oyster. Talk about culture shock.
But I’m persistent and sickeningly friendly when I need to be. I think my straight forward nature helped as well. After the initial bumps I managed a level of civility amongst all of them and even eked out a bit of friendship with one in particular, a wealthy kid from Qatar. Together we learned that we can simultaneously disagree and get along. The only key factor is wanting to. In the microcosm that was BU’s ESL school in the summer of 1999, getting along benefited all parties, and so we did. But nothing is ever so simple on the world stage.
There are too many people on the planet for us to see everyone as an individual. It’s a necessary instinctual skill we’re using when we bundle groups of people together in stereotypes and presumptions. We put our blinders on in order to plow ahead survival-of-the-fittest style.
The day after Osama bin Laden was captured and killed by an elite Navy SEAL team I made the mistake of clicking on a link called “40 Incredibly Stupid Facebook Reactions to Osama bin Laden’s Death.” The idiocy ranged from basic stupidity and one very confused girl asking, “Am I the only person who has no clue who Osama is?”, to cruel people who were bummed out it wasn’t Barack Obama who had been killed and others who used the term “sand n–ger” to describe a people they believe deserve everything they’ve gotten.
I had never heard that before. “Sand n–ger.” My eyes stopped on the page, my mouth turned down into a frown and my insides disappeared for a second like when you’re flying on a plane and there’s turbulence.
Americans don’t want to be nice. They don’t want to be fair. Racism is lazy and laziness is easier than paying attention and admitting responsibility. It’s heartbreaking really, but I have to assume the Romans were the same way back in the day. Italy couldn’t have always been the laid back historically and visually stunning nation of passionate artists and foodies that it is today. Neither could England or Greece or Spain for that matter. The difference is those countries grew up, lost their power and were forced to move on.
America is a teenager. It’s vision and worldview are skewed and only slightly bigger than the circumference of its shores. While I don’t condone the behavior of the people cheering in the streets of Washington, D.C. this past week, I do understand that we live in a young country that is acting its age.
We’ll grow up and reach a point of maturity. We’ll get to a time and place when people don’t rejoice and claim victory when another human is killed. But I can’t imagine that happening in my lifetime.