It seems that everyone has a hot take on what’s wrong with our society these days. While notions about group dynamics – the white working class, Hispanics, African-Americans or urban elites – matter, they don’t really help illuminate anything of a path forward.
Our issues are rooted in American and global history as well as the deterioration of communal life and civics. Therefore, they can be addressed only by looking at how Americans everywhere feel they are being robbed of their identities. To understand what it means to feel like you are being robbed of your identity, I often go back to my childhood, growing up in rural Georgia.
As a child, I relied on the World Book Encyclopedia to learn everything there was to know. In its voluminous tomes I went to Paris, studied Edison’s inventions and learned of the vast globe beyond the mile-square border of Bellville, Georgia, population 123. Within its pages, time ended in 1982, unknowing of AIDS or Ronald Reagan’s re-election. Knowledge expired, perpetually demanding reprints and updates.
That all changed when dial-up internet came to Evans County.
But as the internet connected us to a vast outside world, it also took away our local identity. When the century-old Boney’s Drugstore shuttered for a chain pharmacy, it was reflective of a pattern occurring across the country. As the rest of the world became more connected, rural America was relegated to out-of-date encyclopedias and a fading local identity.
The internet made clear that prosperity and opportunity still haven’t reached rural America. Nearly one-third of Evans County’s population lives under the poverty line. Unemployment remains consistent there while it drops across the country. These rural communities remain frustrated, frozen in place and time.
I now live in Los Angeles, where my colleagues never saw what it was like to live in a single-parent household, to be eligible for free lunch, to live in a trailer park. I’m also one of the few to leave Bellville and exceed my economic and professional expectations. The internet has provided my childhood friends a window into that, too. One recently congratulated me on Instagram for “having a great life” despite having no idea what my actual standard of living is. And while I’m proud that I’ve been able to achieve my level of economic and professional success, I am disturbed at the lack of opportunity for friends back at home.
The American dream is simply out of reach for most.
These are the roots of “Make America Great Again,” a time and place where rural America could be gainfully employed, buy a house or relocate for a better job. But in the 21st century, mobility is increasingly rare. A 2014 study conducted at Harvard and Berkeley found that fewer than 10 percent of people in the bottom fifth of wealth distribution will make it into the top fifth. As this gap widens, we continue cloistering ourselves off into the towns and cities we were born into.
Is there any surprise we have different definitions of facts?
Without a broader understanding of the direction the world is moving, how can we expect to understand our American neighbor? It is far too easy to simply write off these feelings as being fueled by racism or sexism, though they are both real issues. And so I felt it was my duty to expose the more raw America. You cannot propose solutions without publicly identifying the deeper problem, and the deeper problem existed long before this presidential election.
Informed by our nation’s founding documents, I set out with social/political scientist Guy Seemann to explore whether American superpower status can survive when individuals redefine values in their own image rather than joining in a shared national ethos. We discovered that Americans no longer share a value system that defines what it means to be American. We are all interpreting it for ourselves, reflecting upon the perceptions in our communities, surrounded by people who think the same way and share our experiences.
When we don’t share the same facts and instead create our own set of truths, we devolve into tribalism, eviscerating culture to regionalism from nationalism and demolishing the value system that has sustained our nation since the American Revolution.
I think of the child growing up now in Evans County, with access to a vast world beyond what I only dreamed about in books. How will he or she feel when they come to the realization that they may not be able to attain the American dream? Can that be fixed? Without a shared set of values to reflect upon, we cannot begin to address the growing disparities happening in our own backyard. Eventually, as our national cohesiveness fades, so does our global reach.
And that would be a tragedy with implications well beyond Evans County.
James Kicklighter is an award-winning filmmaker and the director of the upcoming film, The American Question.