Miller: The Awkward Citizen
We’ve been making up stories lately, my son and I, and when recently he uttered the above phrase in connection with something else, I told him, “Hey, that’d make an excellent title for a story tonight.” Later that evening, “The Awkward Citizen” was born – a tale of a young boy whose clumsiness tends to result in good fortune (he bumps into someone, who falls down and finds a 20-dollar bill; he spills water and when his mom cleans it up, she finds her lost car keys – that sort of thing).
I believe this story line will have many installments in the coming weeks, but I also couldn’t help being struck by how accurately that title describes so many of us today in the U.S. How can we help but be awkward around one another when we seem to agree on so little? Or that our means of disagreeing is often so ugly and strident; unyielding and narrow-minded?
It used to be that people of different political opinion could coexist quite nicely. There was a certain etiquette surrounding how to agree to disagree. Clashes happened, of course, and political polarization and partisanship is as old as the republic. What’s happened in recent years (helped in good part by the Internet and cable TV) is that we tend to frequent only the opinion outlets where we feel most comfortable, thus creating silos of thought that serve as echo chambers for opinion. We’ve created an opinion-hardening machine within our media, even as the opportunity to seek and consume different opinions has expanded exponentially.
But politics is just the tip of the iceberg. I feel dumbfounded just walking around the supermarket these days. The cereal aisle alone can inspire deep anxiety as I read between the hyped lines on the front of the box with the arm-length ingredients list on the side. What is all this stuff, and who would think to put it in a Cheerio – and to what purpose? Why so much sugar, salt and corn in everything? Even the “low sodium” stuff has more salt in it than a bag of pretzels. Along with concerns about what the potential health effects of all this might be, purchasing decisions are freighted with concerns about the industrial processes that brought a particular product to shelf: labor, environment, the business practices and political expressions of the company that made it, etc. It’s easier to turn a blind eye, but there’s a price to pay there as well. Awkward.
I haven’t traveled abroad in over a decade, but I’ve heard from many others that, at least until recently, being an American overseas was an awkward thing in some places. But one need not leave our shores to feel uncertain about so many things. Once steeped in sky’s-the-limit mentality for all Americans, we feel beaten, duped and hobbled by forces in Washington and Wall Street, busy these many years lining their own nests while much of the rest of the country and its citizens were left to slide. The optimist in me tries to declare that this is a temporary thing, a hiccup in our country’s strength that surely will be taken care of once all the cards are on the table and we see what a silly, rigged game we were playing (or, should I say, that we were watching being played – and then behind a scrim).
But is it really that bad? Consider this paragraph by Elizabeth Warren, chair of the congressional panel to oversee the bailouts (and, I would argue, a hero to the middle class, whose victimization she explains and exposes):
“Today, one in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can’t make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans is on food stamps. More than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month. The economic crisis has wiped more than $5 trillion from pensions and savings, has left family balance sheets upside down, and threatens to put ten million homeowners out on the street.”
The older generations look at today’s working families and cluck their tongues, thinking how much better they handled things and decrying any hand-up (like making health insurance more accessible to all). But as Warren writes, times were tough even before the recession:
“By the early 2000s, families were spending twice as much (adjusted for inflation) on mortgages than they did a generation ago – for a house that was, on average, only 10 percent bigger and 25 years older. They also had to pay twice as much to hang on to their health insurance.”
Numbers like that turn awkward into despondent – or, at the very least, nostalgic for a time when the simple act of living a middle-class life wasn’t ruinously expensive.
Since it doesn’t appear the president, Congress or the lords of Wall Street are going to provide a happy ending anytime soon, we do what we can. In the story I told to my son, the Awkward Citizen stumbles upon a wealthy publisher, who likes his comic-book stories so much that she pays him a huge advance and allows him and his family to come live on her yacht.
Hey, we can still dream. At least they haven’t doubled in price.
Summit Daily editor Alex Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 668-4618.
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