By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
No one is responsible for collective crimes – Napoleon, according to Honoré de Balzac.
For all of New York City's cosmopolitanism, it's still relatively rare to have extended conversations with people from other countries who are here on vacation. It's not that they don't come here often. It's more that you don't normally cross paths with such
for more than a few seconds. They stop to ask you for directions in Midtown; to
ask you to take their picture in front of the Freedom Tower; for a
recommendation for a good restaurant, a good bar or where you got that cup of
coffee. If you happen to be out at a bar in the East Village or Williamsburg on
a Saturday night, there is a possibility that they'll want to know which, if
any, of the beers on tap are any good.
So it's weird to meet people from another part of the world who are here on vacation staying in a part of Brooklyn that has traditionally been known for its polluted canal. True, Gowanus has changed, particularly along 4th Avenue—which just a few years ago was being considered a part of the more well-known Park Slope—but it's not the type of area that sees tourists. They usually don't show up at a place like Barrel & Fare (494 4th Avenue, Gowanus). If they do, they usually aren't sitting at the bar ready for a chat during Wednesday happy hour while another four or five people casually pick at reduced-price appetizers and the bartender maunders about without a whole lot to do. It's especially weird to talk with them for two hours and to have to explain to your band that you're late to practice because you got caught up talking to a middle-aged couple from London.
We didn't discuss politics for the first fifteen minutes of our interaction. It was clear that I was trying to read how they felt about Brexit. They were trying to read my feelings on Trump. The victory of the former was a spiteful middle finger to Brussels, Berlin, Europe and the post-industrial economy; the campaign of the latter was an
equally spiteful middle finger directed as Washington, New York, the West Coast
and the new economy. The working class of the first-world has become more or
less superfluous because of globalization and technological advances in
automation. Rather than look for actual answers on how to move forward, they
have instead demanded that we take a step backwards and bought into a rhetoric
that is heavy on rage and light on substance. Consequently, Great Britain
decided to tell the continent where it receives about half of its imports and
where its sends about half of its exports that it wants less of a say in trade
agreements. America, meanwhile, elected a man who has aged about a decade in a
month because he's just now realizing how hard this job is actually going to be
and that he is woefully unqualified to do it.
|Barrel & Fare|
To say that it was enlightening speaking with the couple from London would be incorrect. It was enjoyable to be sure, and it's always nice to find people whose perspectives are not so distorted by the bubble of American culture. We agreed with each other on a variety of things, even though, as the woman so astutely said, “We share a language, not a culture.” We both understood one another because we both live within the realm of the bourgeois and oftentimes cannot see outside of it. Even though we represent different nations and recognize various national interests as the norm from our own perspectives, we understand that these are perspectives that we possess, and not insights into an objective reality.
And yet it disturbed me as I left them after those three happy hour pints. It disturbed me that I found more in common with two people from outside of my own country than with others with whom I will soon find myself when I go back to Michigan for the holidays or if I were to take a Greyhound 45 minutes outside of New York City. Our views of reality, though distinct, are more aligned than my perspective and a Trump supporter's perspective. It disturbs me that there are two Americas at this point—a Democratic one that is primarily coastal and a Republican one that is primarily interior. It's not only the fact that these two regions are slowly forming into unique cultures that are antagonistic toward each other; it's that there are beginning to be archetypal beliefs, dispositions and outlooks that the two sides are expected to have. One's political and regional identity is becoming as powerful as class, race and gender identity. This has always been the case, but there has been an exponential surge in the number of people who are adamant that they are right about everything and those with whom they disagree are fundamentally wrong about everything.
Such discourse is unproductive. To be blunt, it's stupid and dangerous. While I could lash out and point at the contradictions of Trump supporters and the violence that has been done in his name, and they could in turn lash out at me and point to the “peaceful” protesters rioting in Portland in the wake of the election, neither of these points are persuasive. I'm not going to dissuade a Trump supporter from views that I find, at best, incorrect. The Trump supporter is not going to convince me that Hillary Clinton's policies would have been less beneficial to the working class. We're at an impasse where we no longer even speak to one another, but fight straw men disguised as people and throw barbs disguised as arguments. We speak past one another, to our own choirs, and sometimes, it seems, just to hear ourselves talk. So many of us assert ourselves only to diminish others. So many of us assume that if one asserts themselves, then they must be trying to diminish us. This is not how a dialog works.
While I can't believe that I find myself saying this, but I agree with Glenn Beck (a man who may not have started the fires of animosity burning, but certainly cooked many a meal over the flames). This type of lunacy cannot continue. We need to remember how to talk to one another. We need to somehow bring back faith in the press. We need to somehow remember that not all numbers are false simply because they don't fall in line with our beliefs about how the world appears.
And while my point above is about having the grace and civility to speak with others, I will leave with one thought. I can't remember all of the reasons why I moved to New York City. However, I can certainly point to a major one because it was both one of the primary reasons why I left suburban Detroit and one of the big reasons why I continue to live here instead of anywhere else. In New York, it is normal to meet people who are not like you. That's part of the joy of this city, and that's part of the reason why people become so incensed about gentrification. Gentrification is the exportation of the suburbs to the urban areas that once held cultures that were distinct from the bourgeois norm that one finds in the suburbs and the one that has traditionally been portrayed in the media.
However, this, for once, is not just about gentrification. It's about the fact that Americans need to relearn basic civility. Americans need to take a look at New York—not in the sense of it being a diverse melting pot of cultures or a Democratic stronghold or an arts center or a finance center or a media center. Americans need to look at the fact that for all of the cacophony and craziness of New York City, people here still manage to get along and to go about their business. Those who need to be told to get the fuck out of the way are told to get the fuck out of the way, but, for the most part, we can get along without harming each other. In New York, there's a sense that we're all in this together. And that's something that we have to recognize as Americans, and something that will ultimately shape how we deal with the collective madness that was the 2016 election. The less we interact with each other, the worse these four years are going to be.
Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.