Our American Monster

So much of this year has felt like the thing from the grave. Just a rotting monster pulling itself out of the crypt, skin falling off in grotesque, fleshy loops.

You feel that? Maybe you don’t, but I think you do. Wherever you fall politically, this election cycle was rough. Gutting. I think the take away from 2016 is that we’re actually more divided than even the most cynical of us realized.

We like to think that old American wounds have turned into scars. That history is like keloid, but it isn’t. It still bleeds, all the time, all over us.

I worked on a movie shoot in 2011 where I was cast as a Confederate Soldier in the Civil War. I grew up in Northern Virginia, so I’m thoroughly a Yankee. This part, you must understand, where I thrashed around in the mud and the rain and fought the Union (and died subsequently from a bayonet wound), was Real Acting. I kid, but it kind of was.

You see, there’s this moment, before the director yells “Action!”, and before the steel hoses above you start spitting out fake rain, when everyone is quiet and gazing into their opponents’ eyes, and trying to access the hatred in your guts you’re going to need to start clobbering the guy across from you when the action starts. This guy who is otherwise your friend. And you’re wearing what they wore, so that’s cardboard shoes now full of mud and water, and threadbare clothes that stick to you like thin skin, and this water is freezing. When the scenes are done, guys run up to the hot coffee tent to grab a steaming cup of black coffee and pour it all over their freezing hands.

Whatever is ailing you, whatever is keeping you way down in the gutter, whatever is stepping on your head, well it’s the thing this American experiment was designed to repel.

And this is a Big Movie, so we’re all having fun, but then you tap into it: the fact that this was real, for someone, not really all that long ago. It is somber. It is terrible.

Director yells, “Action!” and a cry goes up: all of us, jammed into this horrible swamp, screaming. Running at each other, hitting our rifles together, slipping in the mud, going down, swallowing it, knees crushing into your ribs, your head all full up with white nose and an infinitesimal understanding that this is truly terrifying. That if this went on for long enough, that if there was no director, that if the blade on the end of your gun was steel and not rubber…

But then he yells “Cut!”. Your Union buddy pulls you up. You hug each other, check each other, say, “Are you okay?” Get some of that coffee together, chuckle and shrug and remember that you’re going to be in a movie. That everything is alright.

Some of these guys are from southern Virginia. White guys talking in quiet huddles about how their great grandparents used to be big plantation owners. Real rich, respected big wigs in their communities. That if it hadn’t been for the war, they would have inherited some of that wealth, you know? At least a little bit of it, by God. They could be going somewhere, instead of nowhere. They’d be big players today, instead of who they are. The Union came. Burned it all to the ground.

Talk to some of the black guys, and what they’re saying is this: their great grandparents were slaves. Had literally nothing. If it hadn’t been for the War, their families would have had nothing for even longer. Whatever they’ve got now, they owe it to this. If the war had been earlier, would they have more? If it had been later…but how much later? Why should they have even had to wait in the first place?

And it’s a movie. It’s nothing. But maybe what we’re doing with it is trying to hurry up the healing process. Turn this damn thing into a scar, already. Our acting is butterfly stitches on a gash that was deeper and more horrible than we realized. It doesn’t need butterfly stitches. It needs time, all the time in the world.

It doesn’t have it.

Civil Rights protesters got their heads kicked in in the sixties fighting for a future. For that dream, that all people are created equal. People are still getting their heads kicked in today.

Feminists fighting for a future where they’re equal. That moment hasn’t arrived. You can ignore it if you want. If it doesn’t effect you.

Gay men and lesbians being told marriage means they’ve achieved an equality that they haven’t. Transgender people who can’t even use the bathroom.

But we are all created equal, right? Inalienable rights, God given. Why does it all need so much time? Who are we asking permission from?

And if you live in a place that hasn’t had work in forever, if you’re puttering around in circles you can’t escape from, if you were born with nothing and have a whole lot of nothing waiting for you when you die, then you’ve got a monster chasing you as well. I guess the rest of it can sound like a lot of complaining. That maybe the complainers are the reason we can’t have nice things.

They aren’t. That’s Jonestown Kool Aid and it could kill us all.

The guys who’ve syphoned off all the money for themselves are maybe the reason we can’t have nice things. See, they like to keep us at each others’ throats. They don’t really believe in equality anyway, because otherwise they wouldn’t be so high up. We probably all look like ants from that vantage anyway.

And it isn’t complaining, I promise you. This American dream is all of ours. Equality doesn’t play favorites.

We all own a little bit of that American misery, too. It’s like money, it isn’t evenly distributed, but someone else’s misery doesn’t invalidate yours. Why, imagine what we could be if we put our misery together. United against that monster, all on the same team. Put enough ants together and they can become pretty big.

Whatever is ailing you, whatever is keeping you way down in the gutter, whatever is stepping on your head, well it’s the thing this American experiment was designed to repel. That’s institutional racism, that’s homophobia, that’s sexism, that’s bigotry, that’s classicism, that’s ableism, that’s Islamaphobia, that’s anti-Semitism, that’s being denied access to education, to health, to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It all needs time, but it’s going to take an exceptional amount of it if we can’t put it all in a basket and stand against it together. It, the thing from the grave, the stinking phantom that rose to the surface in 2016. It can’t just be your monster. It’s our monster.

It’s all our American monster.

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