Cigarettes, Saints and a Bernie Sanders T-Shirt

When I met Dan Campbell- an incredible songwriter and one of my personal heroes- it was at the Vans Warped Tour in 2015 underneath the tarp of the Acoustic Basement tent. He was wearing a Bernie Sanders t-shirt and played an acoustic set under the name Aaron West, which is a pseudonym he assumes when he performs songs from his character study Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties. That day, I was fortunate enough to catch both that set and his band The Wonder Years play only a few hours later. While his music holds a very special place inside of me, it was a song that wasn’t played that day that I have been reflecting on the last few days.

The Wonder Years have a song called ‘Stained Glass Ceilings’, which describes the anger and frustration that accompnaies the struggles of growing up poor in the United States. It goes on to talk about gun violence and racial discrimination- essentially, the most visceral problems that exist in the United States. The song exists as a larger collective of songs on ‘No Closer to Heaven’, a concept album that explores the shortcomings of religion when it comes to death. One word to describe the theme of the album would be ‘unattainable’: that both heaven and the American Dream have become intertwined and are largely out of reach for an overwhelming percentage of the American people.

Now that the dust has somewhat settled after the American election, I have been thinking about that Bernie t-shirt that Dan wore that day, and about that song and about what all of this means for so many Americans. I write this as an outside observer; born and raised in Canada, I am not directly affected by Trump’s nomination in almost any capacity. However, I can’t help but feel connected to the issue because of how much those songs resonate with me. While I am a proud naturalist and atheist, I spent a good portion of my adolescence in a church basement being told that I needed to be saved. Every Friday night- and even some Sunday mornings, when my guilt was stronger than my desire to stay in bed- I was told that I needed to invite the Lord into my heart so that I could be saved, but I couldn’t help but wonder: what am I being saved from?

While I wouldn’t consider my family to be exceedingly wealthy, we were never decidedly poor either. I never went hungry, I was constantly bored (a status which almost exclusively applies to children with a wide variety of things to do) and I grew up in a happy, loving home. I consider myself extremely lucky, but I know that many people do not have the luxuries that I did growing up. I could understand why some people might feel like they need saving, but I always felt like life was pretty good to me.

I’m not writing this to gloat, to say that I have it so good that I don’t need religion to comfort me. In fact, I’m here to discuss the problem with relying on religion too much because I think that many Americans are finally starting to recognize the flaws in touting the Bible and the American Dream when it comes to defending the rights and privileges of the American people.

The main problem being that both were once a one-size-fits-all blanket that could keep people warm at night, the promise of something incredible if you just made the effort to reach for it. The ideas of prosperity and eternal life were carrots dangling in front of anyone willing to bow their heads and trudge towards them with their eyes closed, unwavering even with the stick resting on the backs of their heads. The mantras were one and the same- work hard, follow the rules and you will be rewarded.

What I feel compelled to ask is the following: which part of that is true anymore? In a society where Biblical law condemns one in every four Americans and a university degree can’t guarantee you anything better than an entry level job at best, where is the motivation to work towards those unattainable dreams? Why would people continue to reach when the destination is nowhere to be seen anymore?

I would assert that both heaven and the American Dream never truly existed in the capacity that they were advertised, but now roughly half the population of the United States is starting to come to the same conclusion. The Bible doesn’t speak for them anymore, the American Dream doesn’t seem real to them anymore and they have every right to believe it. The problem is that the other half of the country still stands on a soapbox and reminisces about the glory days where they could still wrap their fingers around the things they were promised.

John Wayne with a God complex
Tells me to buy a gun like shooting a teenage kid
Is gonna solve any problems,
Like it’s an arms race,
Like death don’t mean nothing.
To know the heavy price of living poor
Walled in by red lines
Backed into a corner.
Not knowing, growing up,
What it’s like to belong here
In America. – from ‘Stained Glass Ceilings’

Fast forward to early November, when the words ‘president-elect Donald Trump’ became more than the punch line of a nervous joke between democrats who were too busy to vote on election day (or on any of the early voting days). That is now the reality that Americans have to live with: the democracy that their government has force-fed to countless nations across the globe has failed them so completely that a blatantly misogynist, racist demagogue can get elected on a platform of what could easily be misconstrued as neo-Fascism.

I’ve been watching this whole thing unfold from my front row seat on the Canadian border, constantly reminding myself that all is right in the world and that he couldn’t possibly get elected. Yet here were are, devastated at the outcome and voicing our outrage through the political forums of Facebook and Twitter as if it will make any of this go away. What we forget is that half of the country voted for him, supporting/in spite of his abhorrent platform. The part of all this that scares me beyond all measure is that a country could be so viscerally divided and not fall apart altogether.

The truth is not hard to find: the American Dream is dead and God is buried right next to it. The problem in America is that a large portion of the country is leaning even more heavily on both of those notions now that they are seen to be in jeopardy, under siege by the “supreme evil” of liberalism. They reject science and proper intellectual debate in favour of ignorance and hatespeech, encouraged by their now-President who has done nothing but follow through on his promise to “make America great again”. The problem is that the greatness he refers to harkons back to the days where society was still racially segregated and women were still kept out of the workplace.

It took me a long time to write this essay; I started it shortly after the election results were decided and am only now finishing it, roughly a week into Trump’s presidency. I’m still not quite sure what my message was and I don’t know that I had a specific point to prove. I’ve expressed my concerns and my frustrations, but I suppose my true message is that America seems to be stuck in limbo between their traditions and their aspirations. They are torn between the supposed golden age in the first half of the 20th century and the bright future they hope to have as they make progress, as they keep stride with the rest of the world. Yet, here they have elected a man who threatens to tarnish and destroy both of those.

What I am working towards is the idea that America is now misrepresented: not only by its government, but by its own people. It is a country struggling with split personality disorder, with one side trying to move forward from the racism and misogyny and violence and the other side reveling in it. If it were possible to do so without inciting another civil war, it would almost certainly be better for everyone if the States were allowed to disband and not feel forced to decide between one of two polar opposites. You can almost see their borders fraying like an old rope, pulled to its breaking point.

I think back to that Bernie Sanders t-shirt, to a time when there was hope for millions of people who were unable to afford education and healthcare and felt like there was a glass ceiling on the dream they were supposed to be living in their country. There was hope that their problems could be fixed, that their country could make progress again. Now we’re living in a completely new reality, where their hope for progress has transformed into a fear of oppression, where women and immigrants are terrified that their lives and their futures have been forever diminished and cast aside.

Just yesterday, there was a mass homicide enacted by a French Canadian at a mosque in Quebec City that killed six innocent Muslims in their house of worship. It was on my side of the border this time, not far from my own home, and it made me realize that we are not impervious to the infectious hatred, racism and xenophobia that Donald Trump has been spewing into the air. It disgusted me that someone from my country could do such a thing, and then I realized that I can now empathize with the American population.

For we are not the racists, just like Muslims are not the terrorists. I am not the person who kills innocent people based on their religion, just like nearly all Muslims living in America are not the ones who were involved in 9/11. We cannot let religion command us and divide us anymore and we certainly cannot use it as a justification for violence and discrimination against innocent people.

I can feel the pain of the American people, the shame and the anger towards their fellow citizens and the fear that comes with all of their uncertainty. I empathize with the people who wish they could end the violence and the hatred, who wanted education for their children rather than oppression for the people who moved to their country under the delusion of living the American Dream. The American Dream was hope for a better life; it was freedom, it was progress, it was a heaven on Earth that would reward the diligent and the innocent.

The American Dream was a Bernie Sanders t-shirt… and now it is nothing at all.

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