Teams America, Part I
With discord an increasing American norm, a group of colleagues and friends - an art historian, a philosopher, and a business executive - recently engaged in conversation about beauty, truth, and goodness in the 2020s
We arrived at the need for authentic individual and communal identity founded on truth versus a brand or team allegiance founded on tribal expediency.
What follows is the three part series stemming from that conversation - a humble attempt at discourse and identity in the face of chaos, fanaticism, and potential disruption of democracy.
Part 1: Rodeo Restaurants and Fake Faculty
Matthew J. Milliner (the art historian)
In the summer of 2019 I found myself in Carthage, Missouri on historic Route 66 for a speaking event. It was a different America. No masks, no mass-dispensed hand sanitizer, free travel. I flew a commuter plane from Chicago to Joplin, a town which had been hit by an EF5 tornado that was a full mile wide, but which had recovered. The words from the Janis Ian song, so well covered by Nancy Griffith, sprang to mind.
[T]his old town was built by hand
in the dustbowl of the motherland
There must be rock beneath this sand
I'll be damned - this town still stands.
As I made my way along the Mother Road from Joplin to Carthage in my rental car, I was especially glad to not have Illinois plates. It enabled me to go somewhat incognito in an America that academics like me theorize about without often experiencing. There were gun signs everywhere. Guns to be sold, guns to be bought. GUNS GUNS GUNS. In the place where I grabbed lunch one of the signs put it this way:
Lord, let my aim be true and my hand faster than those who would seek to destroy me. Let not my last thought be “If only I had my gun.” And Lord, if today is truly the day that you call me home, let me die in a pile of empty brass.
This alone was enough for me to share with my academic friends back in Chicagoland, but I was not here to make fun of Missouri. Instead, I mustered the courage to enter a gun store and talk with a salesman. He seemed apprehensive, and I wanted to assure him with, “Hey, you’re the one with the arsenal,” but thought better of it. I asked him to help me understand gun culture, and the conversation did not go anywhere. Possibly he thought I was wearing a hidden camera controlled by Michael Moore.
But the conversation that evening made up for it. On a local’s (not Google’s) recommendation, I made my way to a rodeo restaurant. It seems that just as movie theaters (what’s left of them) have incorporated dine-in facilities to draw customers, so has the rodeo. I was disappointed to see that there was no actual rodeo that night, but I got something better. Namely, an exchange with someone that bucked me off of my preconceptions and reminded me of the thrill of real and respectful disagreement. As I said, it was another America.
The man next to me at the bar lit up a Marlboro Light, and I remarked to him, “This has to be the last place in America where you can smoke indoors.” He appreciated the observation, and we got to talking. Having come up short on my gun culture inquiries, I asked him about it, and he smiled. “Look around the restaurant,” he told me, and I dutifully obeyed. “Everyone here is packing.” I laughed and asked if that had some downsides and he smiled, “Do you think there’s ever been an incident?” He pointed to the waitresses. “These women don’t get up at 9am for a two hour yoga class. They’ve been working from sunrise on farms since they were kids.”
So our conversation began, which quickly careened Trumpward. I asked him to explain to me the current President’s appeal. “I’m eating a $30 steak and my business is booming. It wasn’t that way before.” Tension surfaced, but we discerned a shared Christian faith that immediately renewed the lease on our conversation. I pushed him on the situation at the border with detainees, and rather than addressing the matter, he neutralized it by bringing up the issue of abortion. Still, justice matters aside, this man was a pragmatist. “At the end of the day,” he told me, “people vote for the person who puts a little more money in their pocket. We voted for Trump holding our noses the first time around; the next time around we’ll do the same - but without holding our noses.”
There is little I held in common with my unexpected dinner companion, and I’m certainly glad I wasn’t wearing one of my bow ties at the time. I would have enjoyed another conversation or two, and if circumstances permitted it, I could easily see us being friends. He challenged some of my political assumptions, and I think, given the chance, I might return the favor, even if I would probably draw the line at a trip to the shooting range. Either way, I left the rodeo restaurant delighted to share a country with this man.
Carthage’s Civil War Museum, however, caused my illusions of harmony to dissipate as quickly as the smoke from a mealtime Marlboro Light. Entering this storefront museum on the same trip, I got a taste of the America that was to come. I walked in just after some German Route 66 tourists and had the museum all to myself. The single caretaker, a middle-aged white man like myself, showed me both of his hats: one blue and one gray, switched out depending on the visitor, because (he said with a smile), “This job doesn’t pay enough to get me killed.” After touring the museum, I realized that Carthage, Missouri hosted one of the opening conflicts in the Civil War. It rattled me to think back to an America in open warfare, and as I left, I suggested that at least our country is not as divided as it was in the mid-1860s. The docent paused for thought, and replied: “I think it’s about as bad.” I dismissed the remark as an overstatement, but a year later, with what looks frequently like open warfare in the streets, I’m beginning to see the wisdom of the docent.
As if to prove the point, this summer, instead of the trip to Carthage (COVID cancelled my return), I found myself talking to a detective in my hometown of Wheaton, Illinois instead. I walked into my office to find it filled with messages from the police and city hall. The messages did not reveal the reason for the call, so I spent the next hour attempting to get a hold of the authorities. “No one has been hurt or killed,” the detective’s voicemail had assured me, but I knew little more than that, and my mind raced for an explanation. Finally I got through, and was told that the crime being reported was a mild case of identity theft.
A week before I had been interviewed on a podcast discussing the tearing down of statues. Seeing even Ulysses S. Grant was biting the dust, I thought I might offer some historical perspective. I gave examples of statues that should be torn down (defunct statues of Lenin and Stalin, for example, fill “Stalinworld” in Lithuania). Some Confederate monuments, I argued, fall into that category as well. But I also pushed for more creative solutions, using the arguments of the freed slave Frederick Douglass. “There is room in Lincoln Park for another monument,” he wrote in response to those who wished to tear down a statue of Abraham Lincoln looming over bound slaves in Washington, D.C.. And if Douglass could make that case over a century ago, then maybe creative adaptation, not just destruction, could be considered today as well. Lest I be misunderstood, I even made an alliterative chart for the occasion.
But for someone who listened to the podcast, my perspective and contribution to this contemporary ‘conversation’ were too much. A listener made a fake email account in my name and emailed the city hall of Wheaton where I live and teach. In this email, “I” demanded that the “white suprematist” Dough-boy World War I memorial statue be brought down because it “represents an aggressive and violent white male patriarchy.” If this demand was not promptly met, “I” and my angry students would take to removing it ourselves. The letter, which was quite funny at points, fulminated at length. Hence the concerned call from the detective. Fortunately for me my impersonator had spelled my name wrong.
Of course, the crime of impersonating an art historian does not rank high among the catastrophes of the summer of 2020, but it does indicate that nuance in public discourse had been left somewhere back in the previous decade (where it never had a very solid footing anyway). For an increasingly vocal portion of the population, there can be no navigable course between the Scylla of iconoclasm and the Charybdis of statue worship, or between the respective poles of other contentious issues either. Or in other words, no more rodeo dinners.
My listener only had two possible teams in mind. He or she did a quick scan for the colors on my jersey, and the second a flash of any disagreeable insignia was recognized, I was promptly reimagined with sledgehammer in hand. A fallacious idea of my ‘identity’ was tethered to an incorrectly perceived ‘allegiance.’ Of course, he or she probably realized that someone who studies art for a living probably wasn’t actually a statue-smasher, and so a considerable effort was expended to suit me up for team Antifa anyway. This caricature was then formalized with a fake email account, nuance was nullified, the world was bifurcated again, and the offended podcast listener could settle back into the only America he or she, and so many of us, can bear to live in anymore. Namely, an America where your enemies are always idiots.
“Ban idiots, not guns,” read one of the signs I saw in Carthage, Missouri. Meanwhile, the other American team seems to believe what the Roman senator Cato the Censor famously said on the eve of the Third Punic War: Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed).