Magazine | November 21, 2016, Issue

The Way Forward

(Note to editor: Since this will run so close to the election, some people might not read it until after it’s over. I wrote the most generic post-election piece of nonsense possible just to cover all the bases. And, of course, don’t forget to remove this paragraph! Thnx.)

The people have spoken, and we finally have a verdict on America’s future. But where do we go from here? Down a road marked with signs that say Warning! or signs that say New Opportunities: 3 miles? Because we haven’t seen any of the latter since the town of New Opportunities, Iowa, was removed from the map. And there, perhaps, was a lesson for us all.

The last resident of New Opportunities died in 1997; he had been the foreman of a factory that made aprons for lunch-counter waitresses. The parent company, Consolidated Apron (later ApronCo) was part of the apron-industrial complex that dominated manufacturing in the ’50s, and it decided to move the factory to Mexico. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds; half the plant fell to pieces when they were putting it on the train, and the smokestacks were chopped up when the train went into a tunnel.

But there was more to the story. As the old man explained in a New York Times article (“In the Heartland, Automation Takes Its Toll on a Bunch of People Who Did Stuff but Don’t Anymore”), the town represented the rise and fall of the American dream.

“After the war, men went right from the high-school-graduation ceremony to the hiring office at the Apron factory,” the old fellow said. “Now and then a fella would get his gown caught in the loom. Horrible mess. My best friend lost an arm that way, but they got him a job in groundskeeping, because he could hold a watering hose with what he had left. It was like that. They took care of people.

“Every year we’d have a parade for Apron Days,” he continued, “which went on for six weeks and ended in a bonfire where we’d all sing the town song, ‘We Have No Reason to Believe These Days Won’t Go On Forever, Despite Changes in the Restaurant Industry.’ I tell you, it was good to be a citizen in New Opportunities.

“As it turns out, the apron industry was due for a hard patch. Some companies replaced their cafeterias with vending machines, and, just like that, a third of the waitresses were out of work. A lot of places, they went to uniforms instead of aprons. And then the damned ’60s came along and no one wanted to wear a uniform. I had a sister who was walking through the airport in ’68 and some hippie spit on her for wearing a waitress uniform.”

In a nutshell, then, the town showed the fractures and fissures that have been splitting the nation for years and that certainly explain why our election ended up as it did. People were justly angry over the effect of things on other things, and worried that the Heartland had been damaged by an out-of-touch elite whose concerns did not seem to coincide with people who were in-touch, and had been touched, and were living in fear of being touched.

The choice, for some, was clear: Do we elect this candidate, who has said things, or the other candidate, whose record and speeches are also full of things?

In the end, though, it was clear whom the people decided to trust — warily, of course. Still, the question before us is harsh and stark: Can our new president overcome the divisions and create a sense of national unity — tying, as it were, the strings of the apron around a split-in-two body that is weary of being led by consultants and elites? Let us ask Phil Harshenstark of Elite Consultants:

“The challenge now is to find a new center. I mean that literally; someone burned down the building, Center Plaza, where we had our office; maybe putting ‘Elite Consul­tants’ in our name wasn’t such a good idea. But we learned from it. The first responders, they were tremendous. We need to do more for them. If I were the new president, I’d announce that everyone in the cabinet would be firemen. And firewomen, too. They could have one of those calendars where they’re just wearing the suits, and no tops, and they’re all sweaty — it would raise a lot of money, and it would be a sign that the new administration is serious about the debt.”

It would be a start, perhaps. But we also must confront the failure of the party that nominated the person who lost. In the end, the problem was twofold.

1. The parties did not listen to the people.

2. The parties listened to the people.

Obviously, the system is broken. How to fix it? We could take a lesson from the now-gone town of New Opportunity and come to terms with a post-apron society, where old ideas are discarded in favor of moving down the road to the place that has that pig-processing plant. Or we could realize that the past is not past, but informs a future in which every day is our present and our only hope is to work together. There may be an “I” in America, but if you rearrange the letters you can spell “I Am Care.” Say it to your neighbor. Say it to the friend who voted the other way.

Together, We Am Caring. It’s the only way forward.

Because that person we didn’t like won, and God help us all.

 – Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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