In high school history class my senior year, we spent an intensive quarter learning about how the political system works. For the test at the end of it we had to compose a short essay on what steps we needed to take to win a gubernatorial race.
In hindsight, I think we were just supposed to regurgitate the process, but I wrote a short story in which I ran for governor with my best friend at the time, campaigned, did all the right things–and then with a week left in the election, my opponent accidentally made a racist remark on TV and I won by a landslide.
Last night, I learned that I probably didn’t win. But really, I’ve known that for a while now.
You don’t understand the US?
I understand it the way a teenager who leaves home returns to find she can see both sides of her siblings’ arguments. Or the way that in adulthood, it becomes apparent that to some degree emotions are a choice. I can see it the way an expat can–from the outside, through the lens of another culture.
Not saying I don’t like it or I’m not a part of it, but I can see.
This is a country that is currently floundering to define what we are. One group says one thing, another says another. The difference is a lifetime’s education and a peculiar devaluation of hard work. A loathing of cooperation. An utter, utter lack of empathy from the Haves and generational problems that are self-fulfilling with anything you can name from the Nots.
What is it to be an American? Is it a dream or a reality? Is it blue-collar work and a tractor? Is it wearing a suit when your mother wore an apron? Is it a liberty statue and a golden gate? Is it a boarder that’s only becoming heavier?
What is it to be educated? Is education what we receive, or what we do ourselves? Is it worth what we pay, in college, in K-12? Is it for everyone? Is it allowed for everyone?
Americans are hard to make generalizations about. I can’t say we’re all here because our ancestors wanted to be here–some, perhaps even most, had no choice. Slaves didn’t choose. Indentured servants had the choice of poverty and early death or giving things a go. Fleeing isn’t ever much of a choice. The people who chose were largely white and middle-class and male and protestant, or at least Christian. And don’t forget that if a husband chose, that didn’t mean his wife wanted anything to do with it, or their children. A few chose, and the rest went.
Some were already here.
Nevertheless, America was shaped by the few who chose because they were the ones with the societal requirements to wield power, and so we are a land of choosing. Americans like nothing more than to be given a choice.
Take away the choice high up, or present the same one again and again? Not acceptable. Sound familiar?
As a rhetoric, what we hear again and again is that Americans can be anything. This is again based on those few who chose to come here and did, indeed, often make great things of themselves. They owned land at a time when that was unheard of, they made life in what they considered to be a desolate wilderness.
For that same group, being anything is still a possibility. Or returning the country to a state in which that is possible is a goal. One or the other.
If you’re not in that group, it gets a little harder to embrace those same horizons. Not impossible, but there are more factors. Many more.
So we have “choice is important above all” and “we chose to be here” and “anything is possible” as our founding creeds.
Whether they are true–have ever been true–matters not. They are what this country is based on, according to, well.
According to majority of the voting population.
Add a news network that has such a tangible bias it makes everything they say suspicious because it’s them saying it. Add a civil rights movement that was enshrined but not actually embraced. Add deep nationalism that means a flag on every corner–most countries don’t do that, did you know that?–and a belief system in which we can accuse one another of being “un-American.” Not our actions, but each other. You want to know the one other system in the world that does that? Marxist states. Fascist states.
Add and mix and stir with religion and fervor and a pinch of desperation and there you have it.
It’s not that people believe Trump–it’s that they don’t believe anyone.
So why not burn it down and try.
Why not, if to that group, life is already burning. If you’re on fire, pour the unmarked canister over your head. Either way, the misery will soon be over. Try anything to save yourself or put an end to it all.
I’m not being dramatic. That is what this is. I wrote an entire series on it. What it is. When it’s good, when it’s bad, the limitations, the way it helps and hurts and how this feeling can mean survival for a time, but not forever. Never forever. And when it goes too long, oh does it hurt.
Technically my books are dystopians, but I’ve never considered them that far off the beaten track of reality.
While my books never delve into the official reasons for the Second Civil War, it’s there, just beneath the surface. All the inequalities and fury, the helplessness of choices that characters didn’t make but get blamed for anyway.
This excerpt is from chapter 7 of All Roads Lead to Hell, set thirty-forty years in the future, but I think it illustrates the current climate pretty accurately.
It’s told by Mick, who is visiting one of the cities on the “winning” side of the conflict that ended seven years previous, having himself joined the other army directly out of high school as a way to leave town quickly.
My brother Anthony has somehow found out I’m in Scioto City and has invited me to Sunday lunch with his family. Lucky, lucky me. I should bring Simon, just to be a jerk. On the other hand, I could happily live all my life without telling Simon I even have a brother. Two brothers, actually, but Daniel and I don’t speak. And as for Anthony…
He and his wife live in a nice neighborhood of townhouses that face right onto the street, not too far from the hospital. I show up with a six-pack under my arm. If nothing else, at least I’ll have something to drink while I’m there.
Anthony smiles as he answers the door, and I think he actually means it. “Mike, hey. Been a while.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Cue the unenthusiastic bro handclasp.
Gwen bustles up to kiss me on the cheek. “Come in, come in, lunch is almost just ready. Girls! Come say hello to Uncle Mike!”
My nieces are four and five, and I can’t keep their names straight. They hang back from me, too shy to try for hugs, and me, I’m not the hugging type anyway.
“Anthony just did the cooking, he just does the best tacos, don’t you just, Anthony? Anyway. Oh, you brought drinks! Why don’t you just set them in the kitchen, and we’ll just…” Does Gwen always say just too much, or is that a nervous tic? I can’t say I’ve ever had much chance to find out.
Their living room is colorful and clean, dining room bright but tasteful, kitchen just messy enough to tell of a happy family. Which they are, Anthony getting a little paunchy, his wife still bottle blonde, their kids as towheaded as a magazine advertisement. For all I’ve not been to visit in a year or two, nothing’s actually changed except the height of the kids. This whole scene should look like paradise to a bachelor who lives in a rotting old house sans an indoor toilet.
Anthony follows me into the kitchen as I crack open the first beer of the day. His smile falls a fraction. “Got enough for me?”
I hand him the can and get another for myself. Try to find something to say. “So. How’d you hear I was in town?”
“I called your secretary. What’s her name. Kaylla.”
Kaylla’s my very own brute squad, not my secretary. She runs the front desk with one hand while lifting crates of ammo with the other, but there’s no use explaining that. “I see.”
“She said you were here…looking for someone?”
Oh, fuck off, Kaylla. “Yeah.”
“You find her? Him?”
“Yep.” I try to find something to add to that. Some little fact that will make me seem open and friendly but will discourage further questions. There’s nothing. “So. How’s work?”
“Good. Good enough.” He clears his throat. “Busy.”
And that’s us, Anthony and Michael, the brothers who have nothing to say, not to each other. Why the hell did they invite me over?
A dinging timer brings Gwen to save us from our misery. “Mike, why don’t you find a seat at the table? I think Millie wants you to sit next to her.”
“Sure thing.” I brush past her, survey the dining room. The girls are Millie, yeah, and…Beth? Bethy? They’re both sitting in their little wooden booster chairs, watching me. They don’t return my smile. Time for another sip.
Anthony says grace before we’re allowed to eat, and Millie and Bethy use their pleases and thank yous as Gwen spends ten minutes explaining how difficult it was to find a good preschool for the two of them. I eat, and I drink, and I wonder if she and my brother have ever had sex on this table. Or in this chair. Or on the kitchen floor. God, I’m horny right now. What’s Simon doing right this moment? Take another sip.
“…and of course we got this place just to be in the school district, but then in this year’s election they’re planning to gerrymander them all around. Can you believe it?”
Anthony nods along. “Ridiculous. Considering the taxes we pay—what’s your rate down there?”
“Federal or local?” I may as well play along.
For me? Zero. “I forget.”
“They shot the last tax inspector, and Washington’s not tried again recently.” Because I had the replacement shot, too, now that Petrowski’s not around to do it. “You know how it is.”
Gwen shoots my brother a look and clicks her tongue. “They have laws. Everywhere has laws.”
“No, Anthony’s got it right. It’s pretty well lawless back home.” Can number one: empty. “Anyone else want a drink?”
My sister-in-law forces a smile. “I’ll have one.” She’s trying to make sure I don’t finish them by myself. “Will you bring me a glass for mine?”
La-ti-da. I’ll stick with the cans. “Sure thing.”
My beers are totally out of place in their refrigerator full of vegetables and fruits. God, those two are such yuppies, or dinks, or whatever the stupid acronym is for people like them who shop in a “socially conscious way.” I shop socially consciously. I know who will use the profits to buy drugs or send their kids to school or shoot more tax inspectors, but that’s not what people like them care about. They throw around words like sustainable growth like they matter outside safe city centers where people can pretend wars happen to other countries.
I rest my head against the counter for a moment, let the coolness seep through me. If I close my eyes, I can just picture the way my parents’ house looked when we were kids. Before I left for war and my parents evacuated and the place sat empty for four years. Before I came back to find half the cabinet doors hanging off their hinges, the range stolen for scrap, and the drywall ripped out so someone could take the copper pipes.
Not that it matters whether I have pipes at all, because the municipal water supply is gone so that even seven years on I’m still relying on a pump and an outdoor toilet.
And the feds want me to pay taxes to pave the sidewalks in Scioto. Are you joking?
Come on, Mick, pull it together. Don’t make a scene. Not in Anthony’s cookie-cutter little house where the taps still work.
Gwen points to my empty plate. “Another taco?”
“So, Anthony said you were searching for someone in Scioto City. A business contact, or someone a little friendlier?”
She means well. Take a sip and relax. “Friendlier, I guess. His name’s Simon. He was my student for a while. I trained him up.”
Gwen opens her mouth and shuts it. Anthony doesn’t even ask. But a whispery voice next to my elbow does. “Are you a teacher?”
My brother catches my eye and shakes his head slightly. Jesus, Anthony, what kind of person do you think I am?
Or do you think you know the answer to that perfectly well?
My niece is still waiting. “Um, no, not a teacher. Not really. I’m a coach sometimes.”
“What’s a coach?”
“I teach sports. Like football. Or wrestling.” Or knife fighting.
Anthony’s done with crossing his fingers and hoping. “My team’s got a game on today. Want to watch? I know you don’t have TV down there.”
You’d know, it was your boys who cut the power lines and plunged us into darkness for ten goddamn years because putting land mines in the hills wasn’t fucking bad enough…
Everyone’s staring at me. Beer is running over my hand. I’m crushing my can.
“I need to go now.” The can falls over when I let go of it, spilling beer all over the tablecloth. I’ve blown it. Again. Anthony’s face is going red.
Gwen walks me to the door. I can’t even look at her. It’s always the same, always the damn same. “I know it’s not easy,” is all she says as I start down the steps.
“Of course it’s not easy.” I grind my teeth. But I don’t glare at her, and I don’t say “fuck you.”
She’s watching me with sad eyes, clutching her elbows like she’s cold. “Better than last time, at least.”
“We all have to put it behind us.”
“Really?” My fists clench, because there’s only so much of her sympathy I can take before it sticks in my throat. “Well, that’s a little easier for some of us than it is for others, now isn’t it?”
She doesn’t take the bait. “Thanks for trying again, anyway.”
That makes me feel like shit, because I tried, but not enough. Still lost my temper at him. Every damn time, and it’s been six years and you’d think it’d get better with time, but it never, ever has.
“Next time, Mike. You’ll see.”
Next time, yeah. Next time, it’ll all be okay. Next time we’ll be pals, just good old buddies, brothers until the end. Because next time, maybe history will have changed, and Anthony will have joined the same side I did.
Some things aren’t fixed by time.
We never see ourselves as monsters. We might make bad choices, sure, or choices that hurt others, but we had to do them, see? It’s for something better. Every choice requires a sacrifice, and if you don’t like it, you can leave. You can make your own choices.
…Or so the American rhetoric goes.
This is not a new America. This is the same country it was yesterday, with the same people, and the same horrors and fears and anger and resentment.
I didn’t set out to write a prophesy, just what I saw around me. But I suppose in some ways that’s one and the same.
I’m S. Hunter Nisbet, writer of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels of the dark and gritty type. I write about white generationally-poor Appalachians dealing with the sort of everyday monsters our society is so good at producing. And apparently I’m good at it.
Slightly worrying sometimes, that.
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One thought on “So you don’t understand the US now? Well, I do.”
I was thinking that this morning–who are we now? Ugh, my anxiety’s coming back.