I grew up in Chicagoland. That’s actually what they call it. And by it I mean the great sprawl of suburbs surrounding Chicago. It never occurred to me that “Chicagoland” might sound funny to outsiders until I moved away at 25. It sounds like an amusement park; one that features a 90’s themed Chicago Bulls laser show and Sears Tower of Terror. Anyway, my childhood was decidedly suburban. I rode bikes down idyllic, curving, tree-lined streets in middle school. There was a local pharmacy that sold bags of 25 Swedish Fish for 25 cents. There was a golf course too, where we’d stop for cheap hot dogs. And a creek with a rope swing. Even back then I had the good sense to think, “God, this makes for some precious memories.” There were also lots of strip malls, car dealerships, and as one might expect, very little diversity.
There’s a golden-hued lens from which I look back at my childhood. Not only was I fed and clothed on a consistent basis and loved unconditionally, but I had funny parents and a wealth of sweet memories. It’s something I’m thankful for every day.
I do have some resentment toward the world I grew up in, though. What kind of privileged self-respecting blogger with a useless arts degree would I be if I didn’t?
Bear with me.
With this most recent election, there has been a lot of talk about urban vs. rural bubbles, with little talk about the places in between. Places like Chicagoland. Days before the election, I finished reading J.D Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, which sheds light on the predicament of America’s white working class. It helped me to better understand their desperate plight, what with the loss of industries, the loss of jobs, and the lack of quality education. While I can be frustrated by the rural sect, I can see how a desperate allegiance to a human Cheeto could happen.
And seeing as I live within the urban bubble, I am completely biased. I think it’s great. Composting made easy? Public transit? Diversity? Sign me up, I’ll love you forever.
But suburbia, I’m lookin’ at you. And I’m mad at you, mostly for your disregard and inattention. And sure, maybe you’ve been on my nerves since high school, but I don’t think it’s unmerited. Many of (not all) suburbanites are an indifferent majority, nestled in their homes on those curvy, tree-lined streets. Specifically, my suburbia. The one whose kids came up with great educations at dynamic schools. Merit Scholars, National Honor Society, semesters in Spain, etc. They went on to good universities and got impressive degrees, just like their parents. So, obviously poor education isn’t an excuse.
Really though, there IS no excuse for the indifference, other than the fact that it’s a traditional staple in much of society, passed down for decades. (I’m aware that I’m generalizing about one sect here, by the way, but it’s my sect, so I’m allowed.) Apathy is brought about by all the comforts of home. Apathy keeps things normal. Apathy lulls us into a false sense of safety. If you don’t know about that, then you don’t care about that, and if you don’t care about that, then it’s not a problem. The Muslim ban means nothing to you because, duh, you’re not a Muslim. There’s a sale at Homegoods, though! That’s something to care about!
Two days after the election I started seeing the “Enough about politics!” posts on Facebook. I understand feeling that way after weeks on end of nothing but bad news, but good god! We’d just elected a nightmare of a person! And that’s terrifying. It was around that same time I saw someone referring to people with political opinions as “Keyboard Heroes” and “Snowflake Babies”. A person that has never expressed an opinion on social media outside of “I love puppies and the Blackhawks!”, by the way. Suddenly you have an opinion about people’s political beliefs? I overheard two women talking on the bus about award shows: “I don’t watch them anymore because they all want to say something about Trump. It’s annoying.” You know what else is annoying? Watching your country tumble toward a fiery demise.
There’s a disconnect. People don’t realize that outside of their swaddled lives, they are part of history. To them, Hitler may as well have been on another planet. Someday they will be the masses mentioned in a history book. They will be part of the crowd that looked the other way. They were “annoyed”. A child being gunned down in Syria might as well be a gnat buzzing around their head. I guess hearing people talk about Trump is more annoying than the fact that a white supremacist has the president’s ear. Go figure.
In downtown Seattle, there’s an underground tunnel for the train. There is no turnstile, like in New York or Chicago subways. You just have to wave your card in front of a free-standing kiosk. It’s an honor system. I can’t imagine how many people ride that train for free. Once in awhile, a cop comes on and checks, but that’s it. When we are apathetic, we don’t care enough to install turnstiles, or we’re naive enough to think people will pay. (Or you’re in a mid-sized city in the middle of a tech boom that can’t keep up with the growth). Anyway, you get it. That’s how people like Steve Bannon get to run our country with the help of his orange lapdog. Our apathy helped to give them a free ride. On Chicago transit, there’s a recording- “When someone rides free, everyone pays.”
I was a funny kid. I felt a lot of feelings, I was overly empathetic, and endearingly weird. Though I was embraced, as funny people often are, I always felt an undercurrent of “get in line”. And while I ultimately feel grateful that I was born into a life far easier than most, I was always irritated by the enforced neutrality and the subtle notion that weird was okay, as long as it wasn’t too weird. Girls could be funny, but not that funny. There was a limit to your opinions too. Everything was always okay! So Matt called Jessie a slut in front of everyone because she gave her boyfriend a handjob? Let’s get some Chipotle! As I got older and slowly woke up to the world beyond my cocoon, I got angrier. And although there’s an ebb and flow to it, I’ve stayed angry.
I think that’s okay.
I read an interview with a Russian journalist who said something like, “People need to care even if it doesn’t directly affect them, because if they wait til it’s at their door, it will be too late.” If you’ve been born into a life of advantage, it’s easy to be aloof amidst a societal crux. But it is foolish to assume that your exemptions from strife are guaranteed until the end of time. We need to give ourselves the permission to care, to look around, to be a part of the bigger reality.
I vacillate between realistic, grim, and hopeful outlooks. Since November, I’ve leaned toward the grim. I’m scared and I’m mad, but mostly I’m disappointed. Sometimes I’m certain that humans are bound to bring about their own end. We have trouble with long-term planning (exhibit A). As a human who has struggled with impulse control, I speak from experience. But then I read a touching story, or witness a unifying event (exhibit B) , and I think, “Maybe we can do this.”
What I’m sure of, though, is that because of the fact that I’m privileged, it’s on me. And suburbia, it’s on you too. The privilege we were born into was not earned. It was arbitrary, random. Our dumb luck is something we should be beholden to. What good is it to live a fortuitous life and not make the world better with the tools you’ve been given?
What good is it not to care?