Two years ago, I walked into a café in Florence and said “Can I get an espresso?” The waitress replied, “No, no, here we say buongiorno first. We smile. And only then we order. Try it, it is nice.” That is a civil place. It was not America. America has become an uncivil place.
Almost all of us are convinced this is a broken place; the problem is we differ violently over what is broken, never mind how to fix it. A lot of us are sure our schools are broken. This is a very fundamental thing for a society, as schools teach kids how to live with each other (“values.”) Fundamental things being broken is bad.
But we can’t even come close to agreeing which books to read in English class, never mind whether the whole education system is simply an expression of systemic racism, baked into everything from whose history to tell, to the role of demanding precision in math, to which historical figure’s name is on the school building. These are very big, very fundamental unresolved societal problems. I don’t know of other countries with such problems. I don’t know of any place so unhappy with itself it resorts to intellectual incest as a palliative.
The result is schooling by ideology. The wealthy now choose among private schools tailored to their needs. Middle class families buy their homes based on the public school that comes with them. In urban areas, public education now means warehousing poor kids of color, the school more a place to pass on food and used clothes than knowledge. American children get very different content in their educations, never mind qualities of education. All very separate and very unequal, an idea once rejected by a more civil society. I really thought we had that one beat.
One thing schools used to universally try to do was teach “citizenship,” the role an individual plays in a democracy. The concept must have failed, because few of us believe our elections have much to do with democracy. Too many people have simply given up to the point where if more than half of eligible voters show up for a presidential election it is newsworthy. The election outcome is only fair when our person wins.
The system for choosing a winner has become so complex few of us fully understand it, from registering to vote to redistricting to the Electoral College. The result is a large number seeking ways to manipulate the rules (some justifying modern manipulations because of past manipulations they find unjust), and a large number giving up and voting based simply on social media propaganda. That describes a dying democratic system.
People claiming to want to fix democracy, by using direct election, packing the Supreme Court, or ending the filibuster, are simply whores in a nice dress trying to sell something as progress that will aid only their candidates. The con doesn’t matter, because we no longer expect the truth. Nobody is troubled when the president lies about how many Americans are abandoned in Afghanistan, or asks when the two weeks to flatten the curve will end, or how they can be a valued customer when a company leaves them on hold for 45 minutes.
All of this bleeds over into how we interact with each other. Never mind street fights over Black Lives Matter or scrums at school board meetings. We don’t know how to discuss things, never mind disagree, because we don’t just hate ideas, we have been taught to hate the people who hold those ideas. Commentary is just name calling and junior high-level mocking. Disagreements end with one word pronouncements—racist! fascist!—instead of better ideas put forward.
We’re alone together, loneliness our default state. We avoid physical contact or even proximity with each other, even loved ones, all made so much worse by the dystopian cures for Covid.
We don’t share things. We don’t speak to one another about small problems, we call the manager. When we run out of big issues we spelunk for microaggressions. The range of topics of conversation closes down more and more for fear of offending someone, facing a summons to human resources, or a lawsuit. We discard real world friends on “social” media over the smallest thing. The most common response to an invitation to coffee, or a job application, is ghosting.
We got rid of landlines because their primary purpose morphed into demanding we listen to ads at inconvenient times. Our cell call screening is spoofed so the phone’s primary purpose is to force us to listen to robo ads. Email is a struggle to use because much of it is forced advertising. We don’t check our voicemail because most of it is just forced advertising. We’re afraid to click on an article about insurance for fear our social media will be clogged for days with forced ads.
Our entertainment is mostly social justice memes childishly presented and force-fed to us. There is no way to opt out. We can no longer just ask to be left alone.
We work minimum wage retail jobs that require getting used to suburban women screaming at us because some item in the weekly ad wasn’t in stock. We join in classist gladiatorial sport, testing how businesses care so little about their employees they’ll fire them if one of us makes a scene.
We video everything in hopes of settling matters by embarrassing someone virally. People devote hours to digging through years of history to find something politically incorrect to destroy a life.
Complete strangers profanely yell at us because we aren’t wearing a mask, or have the wrong mask, or are wearing it improperly in their opinion. People we don’t know accuse us of wanting to kill their children with a virus we don’t have.
Others accuse us of hating them, or wanting them dead, if we make a bad word choice (even with the best of intentions, it seems purposefully hard to keep up) to describe their gender or race. Everyone not only thinks this behavior is OK, they believe it to be righteous. They assume ill intent on our side. No more of the sticks and stones rhyme, words are violence now.
Force us together and we bite. Road rage is our national sport. We refer endlessly to “communities” which are just anonymous associations of people online who claim to have been victims of something similar. Our discourse often begins with “As a…” to make clear the separateness of being one gender or another, or of having had the same disease. Our differences become the fuel of victimhood and we loathe solutions that make our victims feel less special. The most spoken sentence in America is now “You have no idea what it’s like to be me because I’m a…”
More often than not the conclusion is violence. In a typical year past, the FAA saw 150 cases of bad passenger behavior. But in 2021 so far the number has jumped to 1,300, ever more remarkable since the number of passengers remains below pre-pandemic levels. Cabin attendants have become less civil alongside their passengers. What they take in abuse they return in passive aggressiveness.
Lack of civility spills over into communal living settings, like condo associations, which come up with increasingly complex rules on how to interact with one another as a stand-in to civility. Boards, elected to handle simple community business like renewing landscape contracts, have turned into bitchy little Vaticans. They create pages of rules about masks and gym use. The answer always seems to try to quantify civility instead of asking for it. As the rules multiply, the residents divide into those with the vice principal’s voice (backed up by the condo’s jailhouse lawyers) versus those who stopped reading after page 49 and just don’t care.
I’ve always loved the line from the Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson” that asks, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” as the best example of what writers are supposed to do: show, not tell. The line summed up a feeling in America that a better time had passed. We are singing the same song today. Who wants to live like this? Judging by our actions, Americans. Ciao!
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.