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The United States of America


This past August and September, our family took a road trip across the United States of America, traveling to Burning Man and back. Leaving New York (never easy), we traveled through or spent time in a further twenty of the United States of America. We remembered to take pictures in fourteen of them:

It would have been pretty obvious to anyone who looked twice at us that we were a bunch of North Eastern liberals; we’d taped NY-NV on the back of our Toyota, for starters. And for those who recognized it, we had the Burning Man logo taped to our vehicle too. But although I tend to gravitate towards like minds (purposefully staying in college cities like Knoxville and Lawrence), we spent a considerable amount of our time in a culturally different America. We encountered not a single rude remark, not a single political provocation. Not a cross word was exchanged with anybody we dealt with, not even the police officer who stopped me for speeding through a small town in Nevada. Throughout our journey, we were greeted with unanimous warmth and hospitality.

So much is made of a ‘divided’ America, and the results of yesterday’s Presidential election would appear to confirm as much: a country that is even split between two political parties. But I take issue with that. Any country that has a two-party system and insists on picking a winner is bound to appear divided; it’s the nature of the ‘game’ we unwittingly play. And it is surely much better that we have a nation that splits close to equal than that we have a one-party State, wouldn’t you think?

I am in the midst of updating, one final time, my biography of R.E.M., for my money the greatest American band of the last thirty years, and certainly one of the most socially responsible major rock bands of all time. In October 2004, R.E.M. took part in a Vote for Change tour through several ‘swing States’ that sought to increase voter registration and political participation, though the unstated goal of its participants (including Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, Dave Matthews and more) was to see John Kerry elected as President over George W. Bush. Along the way, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills wrote an editorial for Florida newspaper the Orlando Sentinel, in which he stated the following:

We travel all over this country, which gives us an opportunity to speak with people from all walks of life. The press may talk a lot about a supposed great cultural and political divide in America, red states vs. blue states, right vs. left, but we see a different America. We see a nation of shared values and common purpose a desire for peace and prosperity, equality and opportunity, democracy and freedom. That’s what these elections are about: the soul of America.

Twelve years later, and his statement still holds true. I’ve lived in the United States for almost 25 years now – more than half my life – and while I do sometimes encounter attitudes that appall me (as I do in any country), I have always felt that the vast majority of Americans just want to get along. It’s the people on the fringes that make the most noise, and in claiming to represent a larger constituency than they actually do, they often threaten to drown out the rest of us.

Look, the USA, for better or worse, is essentially a centrist country, and I would hazard, from my experiences, that 80-90% of its residents are perfectly willing to work together and get along without making an ideological battle of it. Sure, we make decisions on where to live based on cultural preferences; that’s understandable. But that doesn’t mean we spend our waking hours obsessing about the cultural preferences of our neighbors, be they near or far, in the next street over or several States away. We have lives to live, and what we all ask from our Government is that it will help us to do so – as Mills wrote 12 years ago, in a culture of peace and prosperity, equality and opportunity, democracy and freedom.

 

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

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