Not Everybody Agrees With Everybody Else. Get Over It.

People born in America sometimes have a hard time working with people from somewhere else (IMDb still from 2019 documentary American Factory).

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man I’d always admired more for his pec routine than his political views, was on Howard Stern talking about Donald Trump. Doesn’t look like the California GOP ex-governor will vote for Donald. He wouldn’t go into too much detail but said one reason was Trump’s opposition to environmental reform.

Stern quipped that if foreign-born Arnold could run for president he could use “Make America Great Again” and make it real.

But Arnold wouldn’t use the slogan. “America is already great,” he said in that resolutely thick Austrian accent. We are the greatest country in the world, we just need to work on staying that way, he said. America even now represents the dream of liberty and self-choice to the world, he added.

Americans here already, though, have issues. I’ve noticed that these resentments have targets ranging from studious Asians snatching doctor and scientist jobs, putting us to shame for lapsed work ethic and stupidity around math and science, to Latin American agricultural and factory workers driving down labor costs.

Welcome to the melting pot. We stew in tribal resentments. The boil agitates the more violently from the influx of newcomers.

Some say Trump has created or at least riled up the rifts, that’s he’s — consciously or not — empowered white nationalists. But the problem preceded Donald Trump and his graceless assumption of the political stage.

A documentary on Netflix opened my eyes.

In American Factory, a failed GM Ohio auto plant was taken over by the Chinese. Newly incarnated as a non-union shop making auto glass, it secured the wary cooperation of hundreds of people who’d been displaced. They told themselves they were lucky to be working again, if far below the old pay scale.

There is no “editorializing” in the making, shooting, and interviewing. This is a pure documentary.

And it’s sad. Americans come across as fat and lazy, while the Chinese – many of whom resettled here in management and sub-management roles – appear as humbler, harder working, untroubled by claims of “individual” rights. The barbecue-eating, gun-shooting Ohioans seem to want to get along with the Chinese, but it’s hard not to see the Chinese as their masters.

And there’s the rub. Something about the Communist-trained fealty to the state is lost on the American laborers. A trip to China, and a jarring exposure to that mindset, and what it boils down to in the corporate setting, serves to help us further understand the Americans’ laxity. They can’t be brainwashed or coerced this way – because that’s what it feels like.

The Americans wanted a union; Sherrod Brown, in a ribbon-cutting speech that pissed off the plant’s new management team, even snuck in an acknowledgment that the workers had a right to get one. By the end we see the first union vote fail. Management propagandists do their job well.

The show thus dramatizes the struggle of the U.S. labor movement to regain a foothold in a global economy, and the uneasiness of foreign ownership in this nervous multicultural time. U.S. unions thrived post-WWII, enriched by the world’s gratitude; our steel and cars were king. American business could afford an organized labor force. Those days are gone. The fight is a new one, and the pro-union spokespersons given voice in the documentary are worthy soldiers for that fight. I’m rooting for them.

The real gem of American Factory is the addendum, a short conversation in which Michelle and Barack Obama commend the filmmakers on their unflinching objectivity and discuss issues around breaking down barriers. You can see the battle lines drawn in the film. Obama says people in this country need to get over hating one another. We must sit down and find common ground, work from there to heal wounds. Anger and hatred won’t work. We need to cross barriers, share hearts, make compromises. We need to stop playing stock characters from central casting, opposites intended to brew and nurture conflict.

I am encouraged by what I heard from Arnold Schwarzenegger, a pro-business Republican fighting to save oceans, and from Barack Obama, the community organizer cum president who warns liberals against rejecting their correspondingly adamant political opposites.

I have been guilty of precisely the kind of enlightenment-blocking resentments Obama finds counterproductive. I live in a place where, the day after little school kids were slaughtered by a madman back East, I heard folks grumbling not about the hell and horror of this gruesome turn of events but about the sonofabitch who can “just try” to take their guns. The Remington .223 deer rifle and the Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver for home protection are not the problem. The AR-15 is the problem. But there is no intelligent discussion. Battle lines are drawn, lobbyists driving the vitriol. We are deaf to nuance, far too comfortable hating our political opposites.

I fired a gun once, at a target range. I enjoyed it. I was thinking of buying one, but I’m afraid my tempestuous wife might do a Janice Soprano after I said I don’t wanna weed whack.

Though I see the need for guns, and acknowledge America’s legacy as a gun-owning nation, I have found myself despising “gun-toting Republicans” who are a main constituency in and around Prescott, Arizona. But where does this get me? By hating area gun owners I’m abasing myself.

I want a strong and healthy nation just as they do. My pocketbook issues can’t be all that different from those of the guys with Trump bumper stickers. And I know they felt as gut-punched as I did by Sandy Hook.

It’s difficult to mend fences when your heroes are other peoples’ goats. From where I sit, I see lurking another America. Sometimes it chills me. Should I unfriend people who send around Facebook pictures of Hillary Clinton on a broomstick, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s toothy smile rendered as a donkey’s bray? I just saw someone saying why was Trump on the hook when Biden was the criminal. It would be a bland understatement to say I see it another way.

Ah hell. I’ve decided not to spank down the reject-chute any Facebook friends I disagree with. I need all the friends I can get. Anyway, one of them was a very nice girlfriend to me once upon a time, and, for all the occasionally jarring Facebook provocation, I still get a big kick out of her.

I’m trying to build a better America. Nobody said it was gonna be easy.

Worse Ways to Go

Morning after the epiphany. Unlike my acid trips, the lesson stays with me.

 

I was wracked by guilt. I’d woke up on Yom Kippur and eaten. And it wasn’t just that I’d eaten, and didn’t fast, but what I ate. Bacon and waffles.

My wife said I should go to late afternoon and evening services culminating the Day of Atonement. I’d been the night before to Kol Nidre, the opening service. I took her advice.

The venue this year was a Methodist church. I guess the Adult Center kicked us out. The temple itself hasn’t got the space to accommodate all the mostly unaffiliated, nonpracticing Jews who during High Holy Days crawl out of the assimilationist woodwork to get right with God. I dusted off the Johnston & Murphy shoes, put on black Dockers and a dress shirt I hadn’t worn since my teaching days, and drove to the church.

There, I found myself deep in a sublime meditation. After worrying that the service would be boring, that I’d gut it out en route to a hard-bitten self cleansing, I became filled with the feeling that I was fortunate, lucky, privileged beyond all accounting to be here. Sitting with my prayer book or standing to sing a prayer, I was in this zone, a place of gratitude, humility, and infinite patience.

It went on for two and a half hours. Yes, toward the end I was weary, but fulfilled, at least within the confines of what is, unavoidably, a rather gloomy, reflective day. I remembered being equally full of stamina during my time as a member of the choir, when I had, so to speak, something to do.

The prayer book was not the old siddur we used at B’rith Shalom. That had something to do with it. I don’t remember if it was during the memorial service, Yiskor, or the concluding service, Neilah, but a passage, in English, addressed the fleeting moment we have on earth, how so many of our fondest, most fervent hopes are buried with us. It reminded me of Shakespeare, of Macbeth’s despairing speech, in its transcendence and profundity.

I used to think I was nervous. Maybe once I was. I am not now.

But others around me are. I get it a lot at AA meetings, punks just trying to stay out of jail, rich kids from Long Island, texting on their laps and waiting for it to be over, jittery feet, can’t sit still.

This afternoon I took a seat along a side section slanted in toward the makeshift bimah. Quietly on my own (my wife’s not Jewish), I wanted to be out of the way. I was on the aisle, the end nearer the risen stage on which rabbi, excellent singing soloist, and pianist were stationed.

After a while a man and a woman, and other people, took seats to my left. In time an usher came by to make us close ranks, eliminating empty seats to make two-seat openings for pairs. As people moved down, I found myself standing next to some guy I didn’t know.

He hoarsely whispered, “Great. Closer together so when the nazis show up we’ll be easier to kill.”

I tried to abbreviate the sotto voce. Yes, I’d read about the attempted murder at a German synagogue. “Good thing cops stopped it before it could happen,” I hissed, to end the thing.

He had a prayer shawl in an embroidered sack but never took it out. He emanated unhappiness. Though not a huge man, he positioned his legs in a way that seemed to be trying to move me out into the aisle, as if he needed extra space to breathe, the room lacking air for him.

I moved over, trying to concentrate on the agenda and marshal a singing voice compromised by years of Marlboro Reds and lingering asthma. Back to my praying and reading and singing and sitting and standing, I realized the man pressing to my left was not participating. I wondered if he was scared, categorically opposed to Jews congregating to make themselves easy targets, though at every one of the temple’s services there is an armed police officer. I could feel him twitching and gasping for air. And I realized he was standing not directly in front of his chair, facing forward, like every other congregant, but toward me! Why was this man staring at my ear? Then I realized he was facing the door, the back of the room, the place of entry — and escape from the torture chamber of being here.

I inched further to the right. Soon I found myself out in the aisle.

Toward the end of the marathon service – for it is long, no question – I forgot about being nice and did what I’d been trying to avoid doing. I stepped clear across the aisle to get away from this annoying and intrusive presence. I took my place in front of one of the chairs placed around tables where congregants would break the fast.

I glanced across the aisle back to where I’d been. The big baby wasn’t there; he’d moved out to mill around for a spell. I had a clear shot at the woman I took to be his wife. She glanced at me, a look of shame and sympathy. She was a lot tougher than he was. Clutching her book, on her feet facing the music, she was a zealot. I smiled back.

Yom Kippur is about begging God to forgive you for your shortcomings. I took my medicine.

When the service ended, I made for the door. It didn’t seem right to “break the fast” with everybody. I hadn’t fasted.

I thanked the cop at the entryway for being here and hit the door, swiped off my head the black, nondescript yarmulke I’d got at Berkowitz Kumin funeral home in Cleveland, and headed to my car and drove home. I left off Outlaw Country or Underground Garage or Howard Stern. I wanted to relish the moment I’d been in.

Watching the new season of Peaky Blinders as I devoured a sandwich and a Klondike bar, I considered what it takes to make a man of integrity, a mensch. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I haven’t done as badly as I’d thought.