Bombarded as we are today by clinical details of the pandemic, the occasional story emerges of people doing something nice for others: making masks for neighbors, delivering food to shut-ins, or members of a church driving by the house of a young boy with a brain tumor and tooting their horns to show him love.
These stories are a wonderful break from the dark side of the pandemic – like the story, I heard the other day on our local NPR affiliate, WNYC, detailing how we are now burying the unclaimed and anonymous dead in mass graves on Hart Island in Brooklyn at a rate of five times more than usual.
The dark side of the pandemic reminds me of our larger national dark side, which is just as dangerous in its own way, and one that currently lacks a miracle vaccine – our deep political and social divide – our real distancing.
Let’s face it: If you truly know our nation’s political and social history, you recognize that we have always been divided in some significant ways. Racism, sexism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, homophobia, and pro-this / anti-that forces are nothing new; they are part of our tattered, but unique national fabric, part of our unwritten Constitution. They contribute to the enigma that is America.
As a nation, we work, but oddly.
But just as there are forces that push us apart, there are forces force that can and sometimes do begin to pull us together. To be sure, they strain against our self-imposed quarantine – the mental border walls that demarcate our differences. And at best, their ability to chip away at those walls is incremental.
But I am an optimist and a romantic, and I will take incremental.
The forces are first awareness, then knowledge, and finally understanding of each other.
On the Road
In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War – one of the more divisive periods in our history – CBS News began a series called On the Road. The program’s goal was to take us off the beaten path of America. Its host was veteran journalist Charles Kuralt, a jovial soul and just a bit portly – an image that doesn’t sit comfortably at the gleaming glass tables or on the sleek couches alongside today’s more cultivated Barbie and Ken news personalities. TV journalism, still in its infancy way back then, was covered and delivered by people who had cut their teeth covering World War II, the Korean Conflict, and, like Kuralt, the Vietnam War. But I digress.
For some twenty plus years, Kuralt and crew traveled in a motorhome across all 50 states, meeting, as he described them:
…a few people on the back roads of America. These are people you know, not from the front pages. They’ve never been on the front pages. They’re people you know from next door and down the block.
In a retrospective piece on Kuralt, journalist Scott Simon noted that
Charles Kuralt thought viewers of the CBS Evening News (and later, CBS Sunday Morning) might like to be reminded of some of what was best about America.
I was a viewer. And through Kuralt’s deep North Carolinian-textured narrative and his cameraman’s unfailing eye, I was made aware of the America I didn’t know.
There were stories of
- a Mississippi sharecropper who had nine children graduate from college.
- a sandcastle-building competition in Sarasota, Florida.
- a display of old steamboat whistles in West Virginia.
- an 83-year-old man who built birch canoes in the north woods of Minnesota.
- the first woman ever to become National Oyster Shucking Champion.
- tombstones and how they explain regional culture.
- a deli in Chicago where the owner abused and manhandled his customers in an effort to serve them all within three minutes.
- a group of retired women in Green Valley, Arizona, who practiced synchronized swimming.
You get the point.
Kuralt’s voice wasn’t like a balm, it was a balm. For a few minutes a week, it was a salve gently spread over our riots and protests, and our systemic national divisiveness.
On the Road was perhaps the original reality TV before that genre was forever debased by today’s manufactured chaos, competition, tension, abuse, extremism, romance, and gluttony. During its life, On the Road helped capture some of that matchless fabric – what America also is: hard-working, artistic, collaborative, charitable, inventive, spirited, patriotic, and whimsical.
It’s ironic how we share those characteristics as our national backbone, but somehow lack the spine to find common ground.
Ain’t That America
OK, I don’t really think that watching DVD sets of On the Road segments or reading Kuralt’s various books will actually solve our national divide. No need to send me the name of a therapist whom you know to have a solid reputation for working with delusional individuals. I’m not that optimistic or that much of a romantic.
But I do know this: Unless I understand a little bit more about the woman who sat next to me on an airplane and why she needs thirty-one guns, and unless she understands a bit more about me and why I don’t, we’re not going to get very far bridging the gap.
But hey, we’ll always have John Mellencamp’s lyrics.
Oh, but ain’t that America for you and me.
Ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby.
Ain’t that America home of the free.
Little pink houses for you and me.
If you’ve never seen Charles Kuralt, or even if you have, ride along on the motorhome for a few segments: