I’m sitting in my grandmother’s living room in Branson, MO, trying to stay awake during my usual mid-afternoon nap slump. Grandma is napping in stereo; she’s directing people to do her bidding, something to do with shoes, I’m trying not to listen lest I hear something scandalous from her 85 years of memories.
I’m on the old-lady couch, she’s in the old-lady La-Z-Boy. A fan whirs in the background. Her 50-year-old clocks ticks across the room. On the enamel white TV in front of us is the Oprah show, her pre-election special. Oprah, as Oprah does, is touting the virtues and power of ordinary humans, in this case Americans; a 109-year-old black woman who turned 21 when voting rights were extended to women, but who sat on the sidelines 45 years, waiting for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 so that she could finally participate in the democratic process; an Iranian woman, a Rwandan woman, a Russian woman, and others who just became citizens and who are voting for the first time.
Typically of Oprah, it’s all very emotional, with lots of cheering and tears and theme t-shirts on which you’ll find statements like vote for change, vote for dreams, vote for peace, vote for happiness. There’s no mention of candidates, which is refreshing. No, Oprah is celebrating the power of the voter and has no patience for those who choose to ignore that critical right (“Turn off your TV right now,” she commands, “and go vote!”). I’m not sure what voting for dreams has to do with anything, but that’s just typical of the strange fantasy land into which America has slid.
Voting for dreams is one step less practical than voting for jobs. How, exactly, one votes for jobs is unknown and just as irrational as voting for dreams, but the latter at least makes us feel good about ourselves. We may not be able to grasp the labyrinthine plumbing of federal government, but boy, dreams, now that’s something everyone understands.
Earlier today, as Grandma and I were running errands, we passed numerous McCain supporters. They were typical of the kinds of small-town conservatives in their ridiculous attire: pins, flags, buttons, clown hats, and badly drawn placards such as “I am Joe the Plumber” and “God is watching, vote McCain.” They were old, these supporters, and were often stationed near churches, which in Branson outnumber gas stations, fast-food joints, and country-western palaces.
On the telly, they just ran an ad for “Hitched and Happy; relationship tools for good old boys.” It’s a marriage and relationship education site for, well, you get the picture.
Am I in hell? Not really. Although this is an epicenter for God and Guns, where the incidence of military conscription is high because economic opportunity and diversity are low, the people all smile and wave or say hello, particularly the old ones, who were raised to be courteous. It reminds me of the friendliness of New Zealanders, to give Branson credit, and reminds me once again how surly and rude San Franciscans are. Your city has a problem when it can’t even compete with a conservative Christian town of 6,000 for basic human decency.
Grandma and I have had some lively conversations about politics. She is, of course, a church-going conservative Republican who dislikes John McCain, but who voted for him because she has to (and is constitutionally incapable of voting for a liberal). She picked up the book I brought with me: What it Means to be a Libertarian, by Charles Murray. I’ve read it before, but wanted to read it again to celebrate my abandonment of the American Janus Party.
She asked me to articulate what libertarians stand for, which I happily proceeded to do. During our discussion, I began to realize how ignorant my grandmother is about issues I take for granted. She believes in the separation of church and state (to be exact, she agreed vociferously when I said it’s unconstitutional and inappropriate for religious organizations to take tax dollars to further their causes), but she had no idea that Bush used his executive-order power to establish an office of faith-based initiatives. She didn’t even know what a faith-based initiative is until I explained it to her. Neither did she know or understand that Bush violated the Constitution when he waged war against Iraq without Congressional approval.
Despite her white-trash upbringing, I don’t think there’s anything unusual about my grandmother. She’s not a recluse and she’s certainly not stupid. Incurious, yes, but far from stupid (she was the first woman in her family to read classic literature: Steinbeck and Faulkner, for instance). The gravity of egregious federal activities just don’t seem to trickle down to her through the filter of TV news, the intellectual low to which, in torpid retirement, she has sunk. She has exposure only to other people who have approximately the same level of interest in and knowledge of American government. In this, she must, I believe, be relatively typical of the non-urban, working-class individual with nominal education and a largely unreasoning impulse to participate in democracy as she understands it.
Grandma is talking in her sleep again: “I told him I thought he was an undertaker, but he said, ‘No, my mom is an undertaker.'”[interlude]
Grandma and I just got back from the house of her friend Violet. I did not want to go, but it wasn’t worth the resistance. Vi is a very nice woman, but being surrounded by her, Grandma, and Vi’s niece Betty was like smothering in old lady thighs. Talk, talk, talk, nosiness beyond belief, more details about doctors, healthcare systems, broken bones, wrinkles. My patience for politically and culturally myopic old people is nearing its end.
I kept my composure when Betty, who is from Fairbanks, AK, leaned forward in her chair during our talk of the election and, eyes narrowed while she forced a smile, crowed, “What are you, a Democrat?”
“No, I’m a Libertarian.”
“Oh, yeah, who was their candidate? Ron Barr?”
“Bob Barr is their candidate. But it doesn’t matter. I voted for Ron Paul.”
“Oh, he’s big in Texas.”
Branson. I hate this place. Despite its courteous people, I loathe everything it stands for. God delusions, small-mindedness, antique propriety, and, most loathsome, ignorance. Willful ignorance.
Grandma just turned to me and said, “Another thing we voted for [in Missouri] is language. What the language gets to be. Some people, those people, they want, um, another language, but we have an official language, or should have an official language.” Perfectly timed beat. “If we went to France, we wouldn’t get to force English on ’em.”
We? I wasn’t sure whether she meant Grandma and Andrew “we” or U.S. armed forces “we.”
10:20 PM Central Time
I’ll close this post by saying only that my grandmother is sitting beside me as John McCain concedes. She is in utter silence. It was as a foregone conclusion to her, she knew it was coming. She has nothing to say, and that makes me feel free, if only for a moment, from the intellectual and ideological assault of her dinosaur ways.
PS: In reading the above, I realize that I am hard on my grandmother. She deserves it. She’s two-faced, gossipy, judgmental, and sneaky. However, to give her her due, she is a fighter and survivor and deserves my respect for having lived through decades serving the masters of misfortune. She’s a lonely, distrustful woman and can be given slack for all the icky character traits this produces. If I can learn anything from her, it is that you stick to your guns (!) and never compromise your morals…even if they are eminently distasteful. Oh, and being incredibly cheap means that you will never run out of money.