(I had been planning a version of this essay to run on July 4, but couldn't find time to write it. It's become accidentally timely, so I'm going to write it now instead. We'll return to our regularly scheduled programming shortly.)
I went to South Dakota over the holiday, that great blank canvas of a state.
At the prompting of my sister, her, my father, my brother-in-law, and I went trap shooting. I was hesitant, not because I didn't want to fire a gun (as I think they suspected) but because I am terrible when it comes to aiming at things, and I absolutely hate doing things I'm bad at. But I went, to be with them, mostly, and to see if I had gotten any better at shooting. (I had not. The clay pigeons thanked me for their survival.)
Standing there, under a sky filling with cotton swab clouds, holding the gun I had received as a gift as a teenager and left in my childhood home, I felt at once more like myself and less like myself. All there was was the simple repetition of the action, saying, "Pull!" so my sister would fling another orange disc into the sky, taking aim, pulling the trigger, missing. Pop out the spent shell. Load a new one. Flip off the safety. Again.
It was easy to lose the endless debate over guns we're having in this country, because in that moment, the gun was just another tool in my hands, as surely as if I were using a shovel to dig a hole. It was an extension of myself, yet also separate from myself, and its weight felt good in my hands. Its pop and recoil felt predictable, like a math problem I could feel solving itself in my head.
After a few rounds, I was done. If I shoot a gun again, it won't be until I go back.
There's a term people of racial minorities use in the United States called "code-switching." The basic idea is that when you are among white society, you adopt a different set of social codes and mores than you do if you are among others of the same race as you. This is an idea we all intuitively understand, I think, if not as deeply as those who are not white do, because we all wear different faces for different groups of people.
I would not appropriate this term, code-switching, to describe how I feel when I switch between my California and my South Dakota selves, but it's the closest I've come to understanding how I can flip, easily, between what feel like two selves.
A friend sent me a video a few months ago of Taylor Swift attending a friend's wedding, and what was amazing to me was how easily she seemed to slip into a more relaxed, more middle-American vibe. She was still recognizably her, but she was also acting like a different version of herself. I felt the same way when, around Easter, Chris Pratt posted a photo to Instagram of himself erecting a cross to commemorate the occasion. These are deeply embedded cultural signifiers for me, pieces of a former self that still resonates, even as I've moved into a new skin.
I don't think it's a coincidence, either, that Swift and Pratt are two of the biggest white celebrities under the age of 40. (The third, Jennifer Lawrence, has a similar quality of moving between white America's bifurcated self, and if you wanted to expand our list to include Katy Perry, well, she grew up heavily Christian and occasionally says something that plays like an evangelical dog whistle to me.) Swift, Pratt, and Lawrence, too, all grew up in the middle of the country, in places that don't end up in TV shows or movies, that don't usually end up having pop songs written about them. Places where it's easy to feel ignored.
I say this not to suggest that these feelings are wholly justifiable, or even to attempt to explain stardom in this day and age (though I think white stars probably have to have some element of being able to hop between what I guess I'll call "rural" and "urban" white culture). I say it to suggest that there really are these two predominantly white Americas, and with every year, we seem to get a little bit worse at talking to and understanding each other.
I have chosen to live in Los Angeles, among the bougiest, hipsterest, goofiest, most privileged white people imaginable, and too often, when I tell people where I'm from, they look at me like I've escaped from a prison. What was it like there? they ask, or they write long articles about how the whole place is full of dumbass hicks.
And I get it. The place I came from sometimes seems to espouse the very opposite of my values, and it actively works to deteriorate things I care about from time to time. It hurts my heart to see my state, say, pass a trans bathroom law, or to see friends from back home ask why it's not "All Lives Matter."
But this does not change that they are still people, still fumbling, stumbling, hoping for something better people, and that when we write them off as curiosities, or as vestigial organs of an America we'd rather forget, we devalue their humanity. And ours.
Think of America as a set of stories. Not as a set of policies. Not as a set of ideals, even. But as a set of stories we tell about ourselves and who we want to be.
This, I think, is where my fellow progressives fall down. We can argue until we are blue in the face about what the data proves, or what the facts say, and we will usually be right. But what we offer isn't a mythology of the self. What we offer is a collection of figures meant to add up to an identity, and that never works.
The place I come from has a story of itself that is centuries old. It has a series of traditions and beliefs that barely waver. Many of those beliefs can hurt and destroy. But some of them are still beautiful ideals. My little town still comes together to bear up its own who have fallen ill, will raise funds to make sure they can be well, or at least comfortable as they wait for the inevitable.
If you say we should have a social safety net to do that, I would agree with you, but the social safety net doesn't have a name. You didn't graduate from high school with it. You can't name all of its kids. We are still social animals, and kindness still goes best with smiles and casseroles, not paperwork.
This story is strong. It is robust. It is deeply, deeply flawed and ultimately hollow. It has too little room for anyone who isn't a white, straight, Christian male (though it's slowly making more room for women). But it is a real thing, and if progressives want to push past it, they're going to have to tell a better one.
Because let's face it, it's not hard to look around us and think the world is falling apart. Police violence has become a depressing constant, mass shootings even more so. A major party's presidential candidate won his nomination almost entirely from exploiting racial anxieties and playing to people's worst impulses. And look around the world to see many, many other countries looking toward a more diverse future and freaking the fuck out.
You can twist all of the above just a little bit and say that everything that is happening is the result of long-existent racial animosities erupting in real time, as our country becomes less and less white. You would, I think, probably be right.
But because of how our country is set up, we're all still stuck in the same boat. So if you want to, say, enact small gun control reforms, you have to stop insisting guns are terrifying weapons of death (even though from one point-of-view they are!) when you have this whole other country that sees them as essential expressions of freedom and the self.
Or, put another way, I don't need a gun to feel complete, but I sure have fun shooting one.
I describe America, increasingly, as a failure of imagination, writ large. We are all living in separate, self-selected spheres of homogenized thought, closing ourselves off from others, via geography and social media and even the television channels we choose to watch. We do not have a common language. We have a long system of code-switching that increasingly is breaking down, as we splinter into fiefdoms.
Let's tell a new story, then.
I believe in American exceptionalism, but not as most would define it. America is not exceptional because of who it has been, but because of who it is always striving to become. It is a nation that struggles forward, even when it's on the verge of falling apart, because it knows the more perfect union might be just over the next hill.
It is an eternal first draft.
This is a land built not atop unceasing tradition, but atop impossibility. It is a land built atop the idea that we can eschew kings. It's a land that has, many times, rejected base inequality, sometimes with blood, and sometimes with sweat, and sometimes with persuasion, but it can usually be convinced of the error of its ways if enough of its citizens point out the error loudly and forcefully enough. It can help stamp out fascism. It can land a man on another body out in space. It can see those who protest the police and those very same police attempt to protect each other when shots ring out.
It can be great. It is not always. It is sometimes tyrannical. We all know this.
We now face the idea that this country of impossibilities has, for its entire history, been built atop systems of oppression, has funneled money and power from the many into the hands of the few. And the task of breaking down those systems and putting new ones in their place can seem too vast, too, well, impossible. But that's what we're here for, right? To take the impossible and weave it into the tapestry of what we understand we can do. We've done it before. We'll do it again. We're doing it right now.
Deep down, we still want to talk it out. Deep down, we still bleed for those in pain, and rejoice for those who have had great happiness. Deep down, we have so much hate, but also so much compassion. I can never truly understand what it is to live without all of my privileges. Maybe that makes me too optimistic (probably!). But I can try to imagine, at least, what it is to live in those lives. All of America's best qualities are buoyed by a kind of radical empathy. I'd like to think we can still practice it.
We are, all of us, writing this story together, and even if we say we want to go back to earlier in the story and just hang out there for a while, I hope we know deep down we don't mean it. That's not what this experiment is about, has ever been about. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" isn't a box checked off a list; it's a goal off on the horizon, one we strive to reach every day. If it sounds impossible, well...
Raw and bloody and welcoming to all and striving to be virtuous, even (perhaps especially) when it's fucking everything up -- I want my country back.
Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.