When Ronald Reagan was running for re-election in 1984, most of the people I hung out with thought he would lose. He’d railed at the deficit, but the deficit had only skyrocketed. He’d sworn to stop the Soviets, but the Soviets seemed to be gaining ground. The country had plunged into a recession and Reagan in a staggering faux pas had said to a reporter, “Should I care that some guy with a lunch bucket is standing in an unemployment line in Ohio?”
Then one night I was watching a re-run of an old Twilight Zone episode and a Reagan campaign ad came on, and at that moment, I realized he was going to win. The Twilight Zone episode was about an office worker who’s struggling to make ends meet, whose brute of a boss abuses him, whose shrew of a wife shrills at him, whose neighbors and co-workers laugh at him, whose children defy and disrespect him. One day he falls asleep on the train on his way home from work, and when he wakes up—because the train has jolted to an unplanned stop—the conductor is calling out, “Willoughby.” He peers out: a small town.
Pleasant yards with green grass and picket fences. Schools letting out. Church bells ringing in the distance. Dads in shirt sleeves mowing lawns. Dogs catching balls. Kids playing in the streets. Moms calling them home for dinner. Then the train sets off again, the man goes home to more shrilling and shouting and unpaid bills and disrespect and anxiety. The next time the train stops at Willoughby, he gets off, and is never seen again.
The commercial break was one of Ronald Reagan’s Morning-in-America ads. It offered Willoughby-like images with an avuncular voice-over saying nostalgic words. That’s when I understood. Reagan wasn’t saying, “Let me drive the bus.” He was saying, “I’m taking this bus to Willoughby.”
Never mind that a cynic like me would say, “There is no such place, you’re romanticizing a past that never existed! In your Willoughby there are no black people, no poor people, no poison-spewing factories, no cancer clusters in polluted waste dumps, no women chafing at the narrow compass of their lives or subjected to lewd gropings at menial jobs—”
Never mind all that. What mattered was this: the contest in this presidential election wasn’t between Willoughby and that other place. There was no other place. We weren’t offering one. What Democratic candidate Walter Mondale offered were programs. What we had were critiques. What we trumpeted were do’s and don’ts. We said our guy was better at driving, we could prove he had experience and know-how, with him at the controls, the bus would not crash. We didn’t say where we’d be taking that bus if we got into the driver's seat. We the Democrats—the liberals—the progressives—the call-us-whatever-term-hasn’t-been-turned-into-a-pejorative-yet—weren’t painting a lyrical, irresistible picture of the world we’d all be living in, if the world we envisioned were built. And today we’re still not doing that. Our standard is inclusion, but inclusion in what?
Years later, when George Bush took office after losing the presidential election to Gore, I sat in on quite a number of meetings at which activists on my side of the aisle discussed what was to be done. Virtually all of these conversations centered around electoral strategies that might secure this or that fractional demographic for the Democrats. It wouldn’t take much, was the argument. Even in the electoral college, Bush’s margin had been razor thin. If we could just turn a precinct here and a precinct there, we’d have 51%, they’d have 49%, and then ha ha we’d be driving the train again, and we could overturn their programs and carry out ours.
I have to say, even then I thought, “Fifty-one percent? There’s something wrong with 51 percentism. We should be talking about seventy-five percent, eighty percent, more even. We should be working to build a consensus around a vision so inspiring, so big, the overwhelming majority of Americans will be jostling to get aboard our bus because where we’re going, just about anyone would want to go.
I don’t know where that place is. I don’t claim to have crafted that vision. I’ll go a step further. No single person or group of persons can or should craft that vision. This is a vast communal project that will emerge out of the conversations of many, illuminated by the work of artists and poets, teachers and spiritual visionaries as well as political leaders. I have no idea what the substance of it could be, I only know: this is the work that must now be done. I only know—as I knew in 2001—that fifty-one percentism is the road to hell, no matter who’s got the 51%.
When Obama ran for president, I jumped aboard his train enthusiastically because to me he zeroed in the most serious problem afflicting the United States: polarization. Take it from a close student of recent Afghan history, polarization is but a prelude to fragmentation. Obama said there were no blue states, no red states, only the United States. Nice talk. And I thought the hunger for a unifying meta-narrative was so intense, Americans would rally ‘round him as starving people ‘round a banquet.
But it didn’t happen. And in retrospect, I see why. Obama’s diagnosis was exactly right, but his prescription amounted to nothing more than compromise. He’d meet the other side halfway if they’d meet him halfway. Halfway across a chasm is an abyss. Compromise works only if you’re on the same continuum and disagreeing only about where to take a stand. In our current circumstances the absence of any middle ground is the essence of the problem: what we have are two different, internally coherent narratives. You can’t simply re-brand a problem and call it the solution. In retrospect, it’s easy to see what Obama needed to do and couldn’t. He’s a good guy, a smart guy, but crafting an inspiring meta-narrative that rose above the clamor was beyond him. It’s telling that his slogan “Yes, we can!” was an incomplete sentence. Yes we can do what? When Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream,” he didn’t stop there. He went on to describe his dream.
Now we’ve got a man with a plan in the White House and he’s got the country sliding toward fascism. So once again, the question comes up: what to do?
Resist? Sure. Resistance comes first. Don’t let president # 45 replace the secret service with Blackwater thugs. Don’t let him hand the National Security Council over to avowed white nationalist Steve Bannon. Don’t let his cabal use the powers of government to slap felony charges on reporters covering demonstrations. Don’t let him replace the rule of law with religious litmus tests. Stand up for unabridged, universal voting rights, for habeas corpus, for a free press, for authentic freedom of religion including the freedom to have no religion. I applaud the brave people dedicating their time and energy to building this resistance.
But what else? “No you can’t!” to everything # 45 proposes, sure. But “yes” to what? It’s not enough to float airy abstractions linked to litanies of do’s and don’ts. Launching a visionary journey requires a concrete destination. One thing we need, I say, is a physical project to put on the table, a challenge to the nation: something monumentally ambitious and transformative, something with the power of metaphor.
Late nineteenth-century America undertook to build a railroad across the continent. Yes, getting it done spawned a lot of cruelty and corruption, but we’ve forgotten the flip side of such critiques: what an epic enterprise it must have seemed: millions of tons of steel transported to landscapes without roads, over mountains and across deserts, in boiling heat and freezing temperatures....Impossible? So what? The very grandeur of the proposition stoked a sense of purpose. The Civil War had just ripped the country in half, and here was a project to connect the Atlantic coast to the Pacific with a physical belt of timber and steel. Talk about a metaphor.
In 1962, John F. Kennedy laid down a challenge: “Let’s put a man on the moon.” What in God’s name was he thinking? The moon? For thousands of years, humanity’s highest hope had merely been to fly. Now we were going to the moon? A cynic might have said, what’s so great about the moon? I’ll confess I was one such cynic, but I was wrong. The unthinkable ambition of that challenge was a metaphor for something already stirring in the nation. Only a people who dared to dream big would roll up their sleeves and attempt a feat like that. Less than one year later, Martin Luther King said “I have a dream...” and suddenly tens of millions of people could see the promised land he was talking about, a land of liberty and justice and inclusion for all. By the time the Apollo mission landed, dreaming big was second nature to this country.
Trump has put just such a project on the table: he wants to build A Wall. I can’t abide that project, but let’s concede: it’s physical, it’s ambitious, and it is a powerfully functional metaphor for an idea. The wall says: You’re right to be afraid, they’re coming to get us, we’d better hole up and hide. That’s not how Trump would put it, but that’s the sentiment he sees out there, that’s the emotion he evokes, and that therefore is the attitude he stokes.
As with “Willoughby”, it’s not the Wall versus the other project. There is no other project. We have not put one on the table—but we could. I’m sure a thousand good ideas could come pouring out. Drop by drop a river makes, the saying goes, so here’s my drop. How about offering, as an alternative to the Wall—the Grid. Let’s propose to build within ten years a power grid across the country that entirely replaces fossil fuel with energy from the sun, the wind, our rivers and waterfalls, the waves of the ocean. Are you going to say, “Well, ten years, that might be a little unrealistic, we could start by, you know, allocating two million here and four million there and supporting a little effort in Arizona that looks promising, and if that goes well we could—”
No. Stop that! Ten years tops and we’re off oil for good—and yet flourishing as never before. Can’t be done? Sure it can. If the will is there, the remaining problems are just technical. Technical is something we Americans can do. We need a unifying vision though. We could be inventing cars that run on sunlight, but instead we’re squandering our technical prowess inventing cars that don’t need drivers.
Let’s take the Green Grid out of the argument about climate change. The environmental discussions can and must go on, but in other forums. The Green Grid is above all a jobs program. In this world of ours, with the digital revolution bidding to give us every convenience in exchange for taking away most of our work, ten of millions of people are looking at a future in which their skills will count for nothing.
But the Grid! That’s a project that will require, along with scientists, engineers, software wizards, and the like, carpenters, plumbers, pipe fitters, drivers, machine operators, electricians, clerks, laborers—the list goes on and on.
And where will these jobs be? Everywhere that power is needed, which is everywhere. Everywhere the sun falls and the wind blows, which is all over the country. Jobs generated by the grid project will be dispersed across the land and isn’t that exactly what we need and want?
And not just jobs, for what we want are not just jobs. We want work. Jobs give you money; work gives you dignity. A job is what you do to get a paycheck; work is what you do because your skills are needed, your efforts matter, and you matter. The difference between the two does not lie in what you’re doing. There’s nothing more exalted about writing a sonnet than taping sheet-rock. I’ve done both, and believe me, I got more satisfaction out of taping sheet-rock, because when I was doing that work, I was fixing my own house with the help of friends.
The Grid is a metaphor. Do we want to be frightened creatures huddling behind a wall clawing at each other? Or do we want to be part of a network of invisible energy blanketing our country, connecting cities and small towns, farmlands and wilderness, mountains and prairies, everyone and everyone? When you’re part of a grid like that, you’re not only free to be what you want: you’re adding value to the whole just by being yourself. That’s the kind of country I wish I were living in. That’s my idea. What’s yours? Let’s hear it.
Tamim Ansary © 2017
Another version of this story appeared in the Huffington Post.
Tamim Ansary wrote West of Kabul, East of New York, San Francisco’s “One City One Book” selection for 2008, a memoir of a bi-cultural life straddling Afghanistan and America. His bestselling Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, has been translated into 10 languages. His memoir, Road Trips: Becoming an American in the Vapor Trail of The Sixties, is about dropping out of a society he wasn’t a part of. Ansary lives in San Francisco.