My Dad is a passionate Democrat who always refers me to A People’s History of the United States when he doubts my political awareness. It’s in his nature to get defensive at the very thought of someone challenging his political opinions as the college-degreeless, self-made reformist Jewish man from a poor Holocaust refugee family that he is. During lunch- and dinnertime conversations, tension rises whenever I try to explain to him some of my political opinions that to him sound like backwards intellectual fads among millennials, such as that I cannot support Israel despite its war crimes and that doing so does not contradict my pride in being Jewish. A 16-year old like me should probably soon start to expect these mishaps to escalate into almost getting kicked out of his home, like this normally results in. But knowing our willingness to talk out our disagreements, we always keep in mind that this tough love is a part of our involvement in the American political process.
This is to say, I am American at heart, as I have to be in my Dad’s eyes. Except in practice, there’s not much community or belonging in being patriotic.
When you recognize it is ingrained in your national identity to think of your country as a corner-stone of democracy meant to lead the free world, there are one of two ways to process this thought. The first is to recognize that the country is behind the modern world in countless ways. The second is to breath in, feeling that air of nihilism that dawns when recognizing the rising income inequality, crumbling infrastructure and accentuated cultural prejudice that dominate this country. And knowing that middle ground between consciousness and resentment, I naturally have to devise hope that things will get better and if I continue to live here I will inevitably make my mark despite the setbacks I will endure, White privilege notwithstanding.
In a hypothetical event: across the dinner table, my Dad yells at me once again as we race on about racial tension in the country. As he explains to me he is not “privileged,” I try to clarify by saying White privilege is about being under a system that historically benefits you on account of race, rather than just being rich silver spoon-fed White guy. To him, he finds it offensive to question his social status when I have yet to prove I am worthy of his full respect. Yet in the end, I am still fed from the spoon he paid for. And within two years, my food will be from plastic forks from Baja Fresh compensating for an unpaid internship that gives me credit instead of money for the living expenses my college education will create. Despite making it through my life this far, having achieved so many successes while fighting off challenges such as mental illness, I still have much to prove to him.
He tells me that’s exactly what he’s trying to explain to me. I tell him that caring to demand the change I want to see here, making heavy mention of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests by Native Americans, manifold police killings of unarmed Black people, and the 12,000 civilian-massacring U.S. drone strikes in Syria from October 2014 to May 2016. It’s in my nature to care and to grieve, since some of my best friends happen to be minorities who are directly affected by these policies. Gritting his teeth while sinking his rant back into his throat, my Dad pauses. He forces himself to recognize his own rage when he himself would go out into the streets as a teenager listening to the Moody Blues and putting up signs for presidential candidate George McGovern. And at that time, that rebellion helped him discover his political beliefs when being lost in the ignorance of the older generations was not an option. But then the country fell victim to corrupt multinational corporate-funded politicians. With faint tears like carbon monoxide in his eyes, he soberly tells me to stop co-opting the struggles of other people.
It’s less painful to appreciate what you have now.
In America, I have learned so far, whether through persevering through school or arguments, is that it is not only that our country expects us to prove our worth. Due to its roots in unbridled meritocracy, it also forces us as a culture to hold onto our accomplishments and never give into those who question our privilege. It’s a necessity in a country where wealth grows but jobs decrease, making working endlessly hard an unnegotiable necessity regardless of color, gender, or creed. When patriotic straight White men, for instance, are forced into that thought process, it sets them up for conflict when activists come their way and proclaim, “Your support of our government is support of racism.” Then suddenly chaos ensues like the racially-motivated riots in Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing. I am sure progressives are universally tired of White people proclaiming: “How can I be racist? I know what it’s like to be oppressed! My grandparents were poor immigrants from Dublin during Irish-American segregation, and I worked throughout my life without a penny to my name! Get real!”
By this logic, I can snap back at my Dad and say, “How can I not be real with you? I’m part of the hardest-working generation in the past two centuries! Get real!”
The complexity of my relationship with America lies in this conflict of feelings. I should be grateful for what past generations of American “revolutionaries” have fought for me to have. Yet I lament to the point of crushing my own sense of belonging here when, say, the police killings continue, and Colin Kaepernick opts out of the Pledge of Allegiance to point out what America still doesn’t know.
And despite my Dad’s empathy toward those who are suffering here, he doesn’t respond well when I say I’d stop doing the Pledge of Allegiance too. My angry rhetoric, he says, makes me sound radical.
Millennials around the country are trapped in this political vacuum. Because of the continued schism between liberals and conservatives, young liberals vs. LBJ to Reagan-era neoliberals, we are forced into the exhausting process of unteaching our parents what they teach us about the world. This happens during the rise of every new generation, but because the stakes are higher than ever regarding national stability, it is impossible to issue a compromise on the issues affecting us now because Americans are more conscious of government corruption than ever before. And yet we’re already collectively exhausted. I’m surprised we’re not starting a mass migration movement to Europe out of protest.
In the meantime, I only have my parents’ guidance and my father is still trying to wrap his head around these ideas.
I love America like I love my father. But because this is more a problem of our love existing despite our national cultures clashing, of love in the time of cholera, we are disconnected by more than just what we disagree on. After raising me into a life he would have envied having, it feels now like my father is watching his son drift away from him. But maybe, just maybe, I should be enjoying the disconnect we are experiencing. It’s allowing me to distance myself from his sensibilities to help me think for myself about how I will carry out the rest of my life. Soon our love for each other will be tested when I will be looking up my Stockholm University schedule on the flight to Sweden, listening to “Tuesday Afternoon,” chasing the clouds away.