By Joni Halperin
You are America’s portrait artist. As our bellwether election state, your results on Tuesday will be like a fine, sharp pencil, sketching the outlines of a new America, struggling to get the shading just right, the lines clear, the white space well-defined. Your results will begin to tell us once again who we are. Or what we have become.
In your last big portrait of America in 2016, our image was one of anger, creased with lines of cynicism, parched of human kindness, cloaked in a shredded garment of self-righteousness.
I can’t say I blame you for letting your pencil run away with your resentment. You are just as American as we are here in California and the other 48 states. All of us were reared on a diet of civic values that sang the praises of the people as the true governors of our democracy. But over the last few decades, largely because we were not paying attention, we discerned a new reality – one in which we had absolutely no importance to the people who hold the reins of our country.
But nothing good has ever been built of anger, resentment, hatred and cynicism. Walls have been built, but they divide us. Wars have been fought, but they destroy us. And truthfully, walls, wars and every other product of our worst feelings have robbed us of our public treasure. It’s not welfare that’s killing our budget, Dear Ohio. It’s not old people’s Social Security. It’s not food stamps. It’s not what we pay government workers. It’s the fact that, here and in the world at large, we have chosen not to invest in our best selves.
You were absolutely correct in choosing our current president, Dear Ohio. At the time he was elected, he was the spitting image of an American persona, though not our whole personality. He was like old photographic negatives, the ones in which the light spaces were shown in shadow. Through this man, we could see ourselves as a reverse image of an earlier America – not the optimistic, roll-up-your-sleeves, make-any-sacrifice, climb-every-mountain America that built railroads, businesses, public school systems, state colleges, universities, roads, bridges, a postal delivery system, and thousands of communities. Not the America that managed to undertake the Industrial Revolution, the massive transformation of plains and deserts to farmland, the reunification of the United States after a terrible civil war, the establishment of a military by draft and volunteerism that poured its lifeblood into helping its allies win two world wars, the effort to heal the wounds of slavery. Not that America.
Not the America that fed Europe after World War II, nor the one that funded in large part the compassionate response to worldwide hunger, poverty and disease. Not the America that allowed entry to asylees and refugees fleeing distress and war, including wars that we started. Not that America.
No, Dear Ohio, you told us who we really were in 2016. We were people running from responsibilities, running from our past, running from ourselves. We wanted to be told by a leader that we were right to be cynical about everything. Every politician is a thief. Every corporation is a robber. Every immigrant is a terrorist or a rapist. Every poor person is a con artist. Every government worker is a lazy sloth waiting out his or her pension. Every human being who departs in behavior or belief from our own personal values is someone to be feared, silenced or punished.
You had us pegged, Dear Ohio. In 2016, you confirmed that we Americans have turned our mighty image of rugged individualism into a perverse form of selfishness. We are now in the process of stepping off the world stage of global responsibilities. Let the world turn without us. Let the air and the water be fouled here and abroad. Let us plunder the last remaining tracts of wilderness, the last remaining coral reefs, the last species of fish and mammals and other living creatures. Who cares? Those of us who have the things we like will focus on hanging onto them for dear life. And those of us who don’t have the things we need will just have to work harder and stop waiting for a handout.
You are our portrait artist, Dear Ohio. The last time you painted us Americans, we were an aging, squinty-eyed, shriveled visage angry enough to pay for war, but lacking even a modicum of faith in our personal responsibility to invest ourselves in the well-being of our communities, our states, our nation, or the world itself.
Tuesday,May 8, is our next portrait appointment, Dear Ohio. What will you paint this time?