Political encounters in present-day America.
I recently went on a ten-day trip to New York to visit some friends of mine from grad school. Somehow, a disproportionate number of them settled in the free-spirited Big Apple after we finished our studies in London and their visas expired. Blame the liberal upper-middle-class exceptionalism that led us to all study abroad in the first place.
Admittedly, given all the Trump goings-on since I was last in the U.S., in April 2016, I was a tad excited to play the Devil’s advocate (subtly, in my mind) in some mild political sparring.
My first opportunity to do so arose during a day-trip to Fire Island. Known for its boats, barbecues and booze, Fire Island is not exactly the prime location for a democratic tête-à-tête. But somehow, in the midst of our third or fourth Dos Equis, the subject of Trump arose. Now, bear in mind that we were discussing the subject amongst three white women (no need to repeat every nasty thing Trump has ever said about women, white or otherwise). My first question (to the friend of a friend) was: so what do you think about all this Trump stuff? Starting them off gently, you know.
“I don’t really pay attention to politics.”
WHAT?! My neurons were firing rapidly in all directions, trying to make sense of this bafflingly casual admission.
“You know, I don’t really have that much to gain from it.”
WHAT WHAT WHAT?! She continued to describe that, in essence, her life was fine — so why should she bother?
Shocking as this revelation was, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. The last time I’d heard something along these lines, a colleague of mine in London (who is American) brought his sister who was visiting from Boston to a softball team drinks night. She had more or less made the exact same statement, along with a nervous giggle and toss of the hair. Her flamboyant ticks had led me to assume that she was perhaps just ‘one of those girls’ — not the sharpest tool in the shed. Presumably, I had been wrong.
And I didn’t have to wait long for my next aneurism. About an hour later, a few more friends joined us at the beach, ready to light up the barbecues and watch the sunset.
“Pascale, this is Rachel†,” my friend introduced us, “she works in ecology here on the island.”
BINGO! I had hit the proverbial political jackpot. An ecologist! A scientist! Someone who worked for the government, but could stand apart and apply critical thinking to public policy! Also, de facto, a hero of my heart as a member of the National Park Service (sworn foes of Trump).
But I was to be sorely let down. Rachel’s narrative much echoed the response of Friend of Friend No. 1, with the addition that actually, government policy in regards to regional and national parks ‘wasn’t that bad.’
A pattern was clearly emerging: white, upper-middle-class, educated, young people not giving a sh*t about politics.
After a few blissful days on Long Island, basking in the sun and drowning my constitutional woes in cheap beer, I was excited to head to the City — bastion of intellectual and political forward-thinking! Mecca of the arts and cultured interpretation!
It wasn’t long until I got down into the governmental nitty-gritty with a very dear friend of mine while we toured (more like sat and ate cookies at) the Met’s Cloisters in Tryon Park, Washington Heights. This particular friend of mine, Anna†, works at the 9/11 museum in downtown Manhattan. She is from a liberal, Washington D.C. family. I knew she would be a goldmine, so I taped our conversation.
And I wasn’t wrong. Anna added another, crucial, dimension to my research on the on-the-ground political climate in the good ol’ US of A: the dimension of race. She recounted in great detail a verbal altercation she had had with a couple during a tour she was giving at the museum.
I’ve been on one of her tours and they’re great. Sensitive, detailed, hard to stomach actually, if you were indeed around when 9/11 happened. I also appreciate that at the end of the tour, guides take a moment to review the concept of jihad, its origins and concepts, and acknowledge that there is a wider system at play — something which the U.S.’s foreign policy has most definitely had an impact on. Ah, educated New York at its finest.
However, this has not been Anna’s experience of delivering the tour. She told me that of the 15 or so tours she gives per week, perhaps two or three of them (that’s about 20 percent) include vocal nay-sayers, who get demonstrably riled by the conclusion of the tour.
She told me about a man from Long Island and his wife who were on a recent tour of hers and started by quietly chanting ‘you’re wrong, you’re wong,’ while she was speaking, and proceeded to full-on shouting: “YOU’RE WRONG, THAT’S BULLSHIT! THEY’RE THE ENEMY!”
Anna, true to her nature, calmly responded (in a way, she tells me, the museum administration probably wouldn’t have liked): “I’m sorry you feel that way, but it’s actually hatred like yours that causes this problem of extremism to happen.”
Anna dressed him down a bit more for interrupting everyone else’s tour, and then went back to delivering the rest of her speech after which the couple came up to her and said:
“You’re a great guide, but you’re wrong about the Muslims. 20 percent of Muslims wants Sharia law in this country.”
(The irony was not lost on Anna that Sharia law is basically biblical law, which is in part what the U.S. is founded on, you know — “In God We Trust.”)
The man continued: “They want to infiltrate our systems and they want this to be an Islamic republic. And you’re lucky that there are people who are willing to fight for this nation because if Sharia law was in this country you wouldn’t have this job and you wouldn’t have the ability to talk in public.”
(Anna realized further the subtle irony that, at this point, she couldn’t fit a word in edgewise.)
The confrontation ended with the man walking away, shouting over his shoulder that she was wrong, and that ‘they’ were the enemy.
And this isn’t the only experience of racist commentary that Anna has dealt with at work. In fact, from her stories, it sounds like the norm. When I toured in April 2016, I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of the patrons were white. Maybe that’s where the narrative is going awry.
Anna and I threshed this out a little more while sipping our watery coffees. We asked ourselves — where does this us-and-them mentality come from? America is meant to be the bastion of the free world (or at least that’s what we were both taught growing up). Anna even reminded me that on the statue of liberty is The New Colossus, a poem by Emma Lazarus (often quoted by liberals in the age of Trump), which says:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!””
Mother of Exiles. The homeless. The huddled masses yearning to be free. Nowhere does it speak of white, or Judeo-Christian or one versus another.
Anna, historian that she is, reminded me that it also wasn’t so very long ago that the U.S. was rife with discrimination against various ‘sub-groups’ of whites as well — Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants, for example. So how, just a few generations on, have these ‘all-Americans’ deemed it fit to discriminate against others?
Anna ties it to laziness. In her mind, the majority haven’t put in the hard work, the exploration or the innovation, of previous generations. They haven’t personally attained the ethos of what it is ‘to be American’, yet they deploy the language of America in service of their warped ideals. Being born in the U.S., they feel that they don’t need to do anything — it’s been done for them. In her words: “I’m comfortable where I am right now, and I don’t want to rock the boat.” She calls it a massive sense of entitlement.
I next spoke with my best friend, Cara†, who lives in Brooklyn. She puts young American political apathy down to exhaustion. Namely, exhaustion from personal experience and digital fatigue, causing an overwhelming desire to just ‘shut it all off.’
Cara detailed her roommate’s journey to obtain a Green Card and (eventually) citizenship. Korean by birth, her roommate had lived nearly her entire life in the U.S. yet was struggling to obtain official documentation to allow her to remain and work indefinitely. Add to that a Turkish boyfriend, and the going wasn’t so smooth. Cara said that they never talk about politics in the apartment, mostly because of her roomie’s exhaustion with the subject. In Cara’s words:
“They don’t need the news update because they’re personally suffering. They’re going through the identity-forming of living here.”
Cara added that media content, especially digital content, has become overwhelming. She feels that we’re bombarded daily with stories of nuclear tests, exit-campaigns, racist dialogues, even riots (Charlottesville was just kicking off when we had this conversation). So, Cara said, she just picks 1–2 topics to follow closely and the rest she lets go. Right now it’s refugees. Tomorrow, who knows.
But ultimately, I thought to myself, doesn’t this form of selective engagement itself point to some sort of apathy?
Certainly, I understand the overwhelming amount of content available. Working in a public-policy-related job, I keep up daily with national news about U.K. housing policy and reforms — and just that one topic can exhaust me between all the green, white and who-knows-what-other-colour government papers being published, what feels like on the hour. But still, narrowing one’s focus so tightly can’t be beneficial for our understanding of and engagement with the wider interconnected political, social, and economic forces that govern our daily lives.
So is media and/or digital exhaustion being curated on purpose? I can’t help but notice that de-sensitisation and overstimulation would appear to work in the establishment’s favour, à la Brave New World.
I did some digging and it seems that only about 50 percent of eligible youth (18–29 year-olds) in America voted in the Trump-Clinton election, though over 85 percent of Millenials in America (roughly the same age group) “say that keeping up with the news is at least somewhat important to them.”
What gives? Clearly, digital engagement (the primary form of receiving news for millennials) doesn’t translate to political action. Is this because of the entitlement that Anna was referring to? Or the data exhaustion from Cara’s anecdote? Either way, it’s troubling.
I returned home to the U.K., determined to write an article about this disengagement phenomenon, and was struck by a third possibility. This was thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s first-ever episode of ‘Revisionist History’, a weekly podcast that (as the title aptly indicates) reviews overlooked moments of historical importance.
In his inaugural episode, Gladwell details the story of Elisabeth Thompson, a British female painter of the Victorian period. For a brief moment, Thompson achieved great fame for her work (which was even bought by Queen Victoria), only to almost disappear entirely from the historical narrative after she failed to gain entrance to the all-male Royal Academy of Arts.
Gladwell puts this up to the theory of moral licensing. Coined by Daniel Effron, this is a psycho-social theory that claims that when people do something good, it gives them the (false) moral premise to then do something bad. So in the case of Elisabeth Thompson, or say, Julia Gillard (whom Gladwell also uses to prop up his case), people are quick to ‘let one person in, only to then shut the door for others.’
I can’t help but wonder if the U.S. is experiencing a national epidemic of moral licensing.
I connected the dots when, a few days later, my aunt in Montreal WhatsApp’d me this picture from an exhibit she went to see at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art:
She captioned her message:
“Went to the Museum of Fine Arts, there is an exposition called Revolution about the sixties. Really good. Found this poster from the black panther. Amazing it was 50 years ago and not much has changed.”
Not much indeed.
Consider the election of Barack Obama in 2008 — the first black president. Voter turnout, especially for youth, rose to a high in 2008, sitting at a cool 52 percent for 18–29 year-olds. This then dropped for Obama’s reelection in 2012, to 49 percent (Ibid.). Finally, the turnout nudged back up to 50 percent for the Trump-Clinton election.
It’s worth noting that the year of Obama’s first election had the highest youth turnout since at least the mid-1980’s, if not in the History of U.S. presidential elections. It’s also worth noting that one large difference between 2008 and 2012, particularly for the youth demographic, was the drop in voter turnout for whites, Asian-Americans and latinos, though the black youth vote remained high. If that isn’t a statistical rendition of moral licensing, I don’t know what is.
So, OK, my quick browse of the internet probably hasn’t delivered every stat known to man about American electoral history, and I might just be some wobegone foreign pundit that doesn’t know anything about American politics. Or not.
Maybe I’m onto something here; maybe there is something at play between political apathy, a profound sense of entitlement, digital media exhaustion, race and moral licensing.
And maybe, it’s time for the Millenials in America (particularly the white, educated, upper-middle-class ones) to wake up from their politically apathetic napping and digitally-induced media comas, to drag themselves out of their morally-licensed Obama-era hangovers, and to actually give a sh*t about what’s going on out there.
Of course, that’s not to demean or lessen the contribution of millions of Americans, young and old(er) who do give a sh*t, and who demonstrated vociferously in the aftermath of the Trump election and inauguration. But where are these guys now? And where were they when I was in New York — ‘bastion of intellectual and political forward-thinking’?
Aside from a sign in a restaurant window, I didn’t see them.🔷
- (†) Indicates that names have been changed. Everyone I interviewed asked to remain anonymous (just saying).
- More great stats on the Trump-Clinton election are available here, and here, in fab articles by the Washington-based think tank, Brookings.
- Despite the title of the article, I should point out that by no means do I wish to pander to the Millenial stereotype of ‘delicate unicorns, obsessed with digital content, and so entitled we can’t hold down jobs’. I am a Millenial. I hold down a full-time job (and have done since leaving grad school). And I am certainly not obsessed with digital. I don’t think the stereotype is completely unfounded, but I do feel that it’s extremely reductionist to paint an entire generation with that brush. In this article, I was merely trying to create some sort of coherent narrative around and explanation for why people, mostly but not exclusively ‘youth’ in America (especially white, educated ones, whom I primarily encountered on my travels), don’t seem to be giving a sh*t about very real political goings-on that will affect them and their compatriots, now and well into the future.
(Cover: Photograph by Pascale Schittecatte - Sign in a restaurant window, Brooklyn, NY, August 2017.)