American Tribes, No Nuance, No Thinking

by Kevin Burton

   There’s a song I used to sing with some feeling when I was a child. The lyrics went like this:

   “We don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan, the whole state of Michigan, the whole state of Michigan. We don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan, we’re from O-hi-o!”

   Clever stuff, yes? It’s one of the sounds placed over a You Tube video of Ohio State’s last-minute 25-21 football win at Michigan in 2006.

   It still makes me smile. I’d be lying if I said it did not awaken something in me. But over the years I have peeled the song apart, questioned it.  If I haven’t abandoned it altogether, I have relegated it to its proper place.

   The song is written in that black-and-white way we see things through the prism of childhood, or feverish sports allegiance. (Those two states have more similarities than sports people like to admit.)

   It’s a feel-good song only because of where my father moved the family after we left Bermuda. If he had moved us to, let’s say Oregon, then I wouldn’t give a damn about Michigan or Ohio or possibly anything east of Wyoming. I’d probably be singing songs dissing Washington State.     

   The “whole state” part is also a problem.  Michigan is a big place.  You’re telling me Michigan, in its entirety, is something to be shunned?

   So what happens when the Cincinnati Reds stupidly fire Sparky Anderson and he ends up managing Detroit?  Now I’m supposed to turn against Sparky?  Not happening.

   The “whole state of Michigan” includes Michigan State University and several smaller schools, which never quickened my pulse one way or the other.  

   Even within the University of Michigan my disdain doesn’t carry over to other sports.  Ohio State vs Michigan in hockey or volleyball elicits no emotions stronger than say Ohio State vs Purdue. The Michigan “Fab Five” basketball team was one of my all-time favorites.

   And hey, what about Motown?!

   So the song is sort of funny within the Ohio State-Michigan football rivalry, positively brainless in any other context. You look at life a little differently after you leave childhood. At least you should.

   But that’s just the problem in today’s post-national United States. We have embraced the me-centered, tribal, short-sightedness of children. This I say with apologies to children.

    I have written about small-mindedness using a football backdrop to make a larger point about political tribes.  This “us and them” mentality has gripped the two very separate cultures.

   At the end of that Ohio State-Michigan video, the final caption is “If you don’t have goose bumps then (bleep) you.”

   Ain’t that America?  “If you don’t agree then bleep you.”

   What you have in this country is a lot of people who don’t know what they think of an idea until and unless they can see that little “R” or “D” next to the speaker’s name on a TV screen.  (I’m an independent, which I suppose makes me some sort of apparition.)

   I leave you and illustrate my point with a piece from a story written in 2018 by Laila Lalami in the New York Times Magazine.

   She writes, “Early in June, the valedictorian at Bell County High School in southeastern Kentucky delivered a graduation speech filled with inspirational quotations that, he said with a twinkle in his eye, he’d found on Google. One line, in particular, drew wild applause from the crowd in this conservative part of the country:”

    “ ‘Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.’ — Donald J. Trump.” As people cheered, though, the valedictorian issued a correction: “Just kidding, that was Barack Obama.”

   “Right away, the applause died down, and a boo could be heard,” wrote Lalami. “The identity of the messenger, it was painfully evident, mattered more than the content of the message.”

   Take a valedictorian from a blue state, use a different quote, accidentally on purpose muff, then “correct” the attribution and I am sure you would get a similar result.

   Is there a cure for this national sickness?

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