Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Shrinking Circle of the American Mind

Throughout the course of human history, most people come into this world, live, and die in the same 20-mile radius. In the past, you could say that was due to short life expectancy and the harshness of travel. But in the 19th and 20th century the invention of trains, cars, and planes made long-distance travel fairly easy and still the vast majority lived and died in that same 20-mile circle. In the last few decades, Americans have become less mobile, less likely to have a passport, more likely to live close to Mom, and the circle is shrinking (now at 18-mile radius for over half of Americans). There's more employment instability, fewer opportunities, less social support, so families are more likely to stay close to create their own safety net. There's also less awareness of not only other countries but even other states and communities hidden in plain sight: undocumented workers, homeless population, underclasses that are redlined, policed and zoned into invisibility. The circle appears to be shrinking, not only geographically but socially and empathetically even as we have internet access to all the information in the world. Elitism isn't seen as just about money, but about mobility. And mobility isn't just about the physical distance traveled, but about the movement into different cultures.

Remember the GOP chiding New Yorkers for their fancy subway? Most New Yorkers laughed b/c the MTA is anything but couture and elitism. Yet politicians from Albany and DC seem almost hell-bent on destroying and underfunding one of the most vital transportation systems for the American economy. If the MTA subways were to fall apart, the devastation would be felt by not only NYC but the entire country. The economic capital of America would grind to a screeching halt. The ripple effect of such a disaster would reach every corner of the country. Many Americans in and outside of the city depend on the affordable daily movement of 20+ million people in the NYC metropolitan area. Why have Republicans taken delight in trying to wreck a system so vital to the American economy?

The MTA is a smelly, harsh, overcrowded network of trains that cover 5 boroughs. But it is also a system that moves between a multitude of worlds, 24 hrs a day, 365 days a year. It does not discriminate in class or race. It has everyone on it: rich, poor, celebrities, homeless, tourists, Wall Street stock brokers, cops, students, street kids, performers, beggars, religious proselytizers. It is a multicultural, multifaceted, multiracial American cacophony. This diversity and mobility is the very definition of elitism to someone from Alabama. Culture, movement, and youthful vitality are the enemy of the alt-right. Mobility is as much 'snowflake status' of libertine elitism as going to the theatre or reading one book a year.

We are self-imprisoning. Thanks to technology and gov, the average person can shrink their bubble down to just their immediate surroundings. The less-traveled American is more likely to believe the distant world is a scary place to be guarded against at all cost. They are more likely to be isolationist, conservative, reactive, tribalistic, and easily swayed by racial/ethnic dog whistles. Travel forces us to see the similarities between the multitudes. Isolation tends to foster our unfounded nightmares and worst-case scenario beliefs in 'the other.'

 In the coming year, I hope that the circle can be expanded. Traveling mind, traveling feet.

-wandering theatrical thoughts

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