Sunday, August 27, 2006

Whiskey Bar: Goodbye Columbus

Whiskey Bar: Goodbye Columbus

I just read this. If you haven't, you are missing some great writing.

Pat Buchanan and I agree on very few things, but he wrote something many years ago that I can endorse wholeheartedly: "America was a great country before she was a rich country." In many ways a greater country, I would probably add -- not because she was poor (if you've seen real poverty, Third World poverty, you know there's nothing to admire about it) but because she stood a little less apart from the rest of humanity, and had to rely a little more heavily on the promises inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, rather than power of her aircraft carriers, to impress the world.

What I saw in Jimmy John's hot dog stand was the ghost of an America I used to know -- a land of little guys looking for a place to build something. Of strong unions and good-paying jobs that didn't require a PhD. Of black and white televisions where you could watch the cheesiest ads imaginable. Of corner drug stores and transistor radios and long evenings spent sitting on the front porch, talking to the neighbors.

This is starting to sound like a middle-aged nostalgia festival, and I guess it is, at least in part. But it's not that I've forgotten about the ugly side of Jimmy John's world -- the racism and the homophobia, the anti-communist paranoia and atomic nightmares, the nervous social conformity, suffocating gender stereotypes and boring white bread culture of pre-'60s America. There aren't any black or brown faces on the walls of Jimmy John's hot dog stand, and no trace of exposure to other cultures or lifestyles save those of small-town America. It isn't a world I would want to live in.

But the America on Jimmy John's walls, while far from perfect, at least believed in the possibility of its own improvement. It accepted -- if only out of lingering memories of the Great Depression -- the need for a certain degree of social justice. It distrusted wealth and corporate power and believed, perhaps too much, in the ability of government to help the little guy. It actually thought democracy could work.

It's hard to go beyond "ditto" with this, but I will try.

When you think about it, that hot-dog stand represents something we all miss and seek desperately; a sense of community and of belonging.

When we don't make the effort to create community, to reach out to our neighbors, to remind each other that while we may have our differences, we would nonetheless be the poorer for having no-one to argue with over a beer.

The flip-side of community is xenophobia, a concentration on and fear of difference - usually obvious and superficial differences, with the worst aspects of our own subconscious night terrors projected upon the stranger, who equals danger.

Republicans like to focus on the family as the basic unit of our nation. I don't entirely disagree, but unless that family is a working part of a relevant community, it's just a spare part looking for a place to be.

To the extent you insist on building exclusionary communities - no blacks, no gays, no poor people, no liberals, no Jews, no Muslims, no "weird people," you end up with a community that is so determinedly irrelevant to the culture as a whole that simple communication becomes impossible, because the same language carries entirely different meanings.

Positive community - based on the understanding that you invest effort in to making the community better and helping those in need when you can - avoids that problem. It diminishes the danger of difference by creating bonds. For strangers are dangerous, especially hungry strangers who are insulted by exclusion. Suddenly their xenophobia kicks in - and where YOU see danger, THEY see opportunity - and a fat white man, a well-padded wallet and a natural opportunity to express one's Inner Robin Hood.

Community forestalls that. One does not prey upon one's own.

Now, this is by no means an argument for socialism - in many ways, socialism transfers wealth without creating any more bonds of community.

Nor is this an argument for "faith based community." I'm a humanist first - and so was Jesus. "Faith Based" has become a code-phrase for who will not be helped, or in the slightly more liberal "faith based" operations, what conditions will be imposed in return for help.

Mean-spiritedness in the midst of plenty, coupled by an automatic assumption that "broke" equals "useless" is a ticket to... well, right where we are now.

MY ethos states that there is no such thing as a valueless human being. It's the duty of a community to make a place for them, so that the community benefits as a whole.

And to get back to Billmons excellent post sparked by the history of one man and his hot-dog stand, that is exactly what Jimmy-John did. He valued every employee he'd ever had, every customer, and he passed that ethos on.

I don't really care what his religion or his politics were, and it just doesn't matter, because actions and results speak far louder than words.

This is how you make a difference. Not by great plans, grand alliances and sweeping changes. The drama only happens when the ground is prepared. And sometimes all it takes to prepare that ground is a hot-dog and a smile of welcome.

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