Posted by Jay Livingston
I was thinking yesterday about Sarah Palin’s famous phrase, “the real America.” I was thinking about it at the parking lot at the beach, where, as we were unloading the car, a fortyish man wished my family a “Hyeppy Fourth of July,” as he passed, then went back to speaking Russian with his group. The beach itself had a diversity that I usually take for granted, at least when I’m not thinking about “the real America.” The Dominicans and Koreans and blacks, the Indian women in their beach saris, the older guy with a gold “ ח י” dangling on his pale chest, the Chinese families – they are the America I live in, and they seemed very real. So did the traffic jam as we inched along the Cross Island Parkway on the way home, and so did the all the thousands of people standing on the West Side Highway who came out of their apartments into the heat to watch the fireworks on the Hudson.
They are all real, but they’re not Palin’s “real America” and I think I know what she means: “real” in the sense of “ideal” – not a utopian, unattainable ideal, but one that actually exists.
A history teacher in my high school asked us who we thought of as the “typical” Mt. Lebanon student. The kid who got by far the most votes was the quarterback and captain of the football team, a High Honor Roll student who went on to Yale. He was real, but he was not typical. Even in my bell-curve-ignorant adolescence I knew that much.
In my own way, I too conflate the real with the ideal, and maybe you do too. I think that if you want to see the real me as a teacher, you should have been in class that day two semesters ago, when I presented the material so compellingly, and all the students were into it, asking questions, and suddenly getting it (also laughing at my jokes and making their own). Those other hours – the ordinary ones and especially the dreary ones – they’re not the real me.
I wonder if the millions of us sitting in traffic, on our way to a job in some Dilbert cubicle, are thinking that this is not the real America and not the real me. The real America is Palin’s real America, and you can read it in the names of our cars. But somehow the real America of those Sequoias and Comanche Explorers, Tahoes, Scouts, and Trail Blazers got trapped in this traffic jam on the Parkway in the same way that a transsexual might feel trapped in a man’s body although he is “really” a woman. In grad school, I knew a guy who was certain that he was “really” an NBA power forward trapped in the body of a Jewish 5' 10" math grad student.
As Palin herself acknowledged, in her dictionary “real” meant “best.” Here’s the longer version:
The best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.
Palin’s “real America” – Norman Rockwell, but with guns and NASCAR – does exist, and for many it’s an attractive picture. The trouble lies in thinking that those other Americans are not real or, as Palin says, are not sufficiently pro-America, and therefore do not have a legitimate right to govern, a view that seems fairly common among the Tea Partiers. The other trouble comes when you try to use that vision as a basis for policy.Those Norman Rockwell pictures have nothing in them about trillions of dollars in highly leveraged CDOs or the complicated politics, ethnic and violent, in the foreign lands we invade, or any of the other problems that government – real government – has to deal with.