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As our country descends deeper and deeper into the almost Manichean split between the left and the right, a writer has to ask himself how his own background affects his political outlook and, inevitably, his writing. And what he should do or say about that.
A couple months ago, I stood alongside my friend Zack Rogow in the Detroit Institute of Art admiring the great 1932 Diego Rivera mural depicting the city’s enormous Ford Motor plant. Zack and I were in the motor city to see a play we’d co-written get table-read at the Jewish Ensemble Theater Festival there. (Our play, Groucho For President!, was written three years ago, and was intended to be an absurdist farce about a man with no qualifications running for President of the United States. Initially, some theater companies told us it was too far-fetched.)
Although the Detroit Industry mural is one of Rivera’s most famous, I’m not sure I even knew of its existence before this trip to that city. While we were there, I wanted to go to the Motown Museum to see the studio where “My Girl” and hundreds of other great songs were recorded. Thankfully, Zack is a lot more sophisticated, and suggested we take in the art institute too.
Gaping at the massive mural, I stared at the faces—and the hands—of the workers Rivera had painted toiling in the dangerous and dirty factory. And I was overcome by the incongruous way this gigantic vision, depicting mostly uneducated men doing filthy manual labor, was positioned as the centerpiece of a museum otherwise devoted to the finest of fine arts, from precious ancient ceramics to the most abstract (and abstruse) modern paintings. Seeing those two worlds, so different, thrust together that way reminded me that I was a guy who had gotten up most mornings for four decades and strapped on a tool belt and a hard hat and worked with my hands—sometimes in huge chemical or graphite factories a lot like the one depicted—and now I was in a strange city, there in the role of an artist myself, and that of an academic, discussing the narrative structure of this masterpiece with a museum docent and my university faculty colleague Zack. (Docent and colleague, by the way, are two words I had barely known existed for a fair number of those forty working years).
My unease was underscored, of course, by the election of last year, and the ongoing acrimony and deep distrust still reverberating through our country, pushing workers like those depicted in that mural (people like me) farther and farther apart from the artist classes and educated museum supporters who cherish that piece of art (myself included again). It’s no wonder I may seem a little unbalanced at times.
When I put on my first hard hat in 1972, the iron workers and industrial painters I climbed steel with in the factories of Western New York were still blue-collar Democrats (like my father) and mostly sons or grandsons of immigrants (like me). Twenty-two years later, when I got my MFA degree, something was changing, and not just with me. Throughout the Ford, Carter, Regan, and Bush the Elder years, and then the tumultuous Clinton era, and then the war-mongering “W” administration in the aftermath of 9/11, I listened to the carpenters, plumbers, sprinkler guys and electricians on the job shifting farther and farther to the right, and getting angrier—and, to my mind, more irrational—with each passing year. And then there were the two terms of President Obama, a liberal and a black man. I should have seen the 2016 election results coming. But I didn’t.
By the evening of the election, it had been five years since I shut down my contracting business and retired from construction work, and I’d almost forgotten what it was like to spend each day on a job site with Rush Limbaugh peddling his vituperation from one subcontractor’s radio or another. I’d almost forgotten the coffee break rants blaming liberals like me for whichever of society’s perceived ailments the various working guys considered most egregious at that moment.
It never became personal, because I never let anyone on the job know I was attending UAA at night for eight years, getting the education I should have gotten when I was young. And it also never became personal, because I never talked politics with them. As long as you keep people talking about their lives, you can keep reminding yourself that—despite their politics—they are human beings too. That’s the way I wanted to remember them: hard working guys trying to make a living.
Since retiring, I’ve pretty much lived surrounded by liberal, educated, artistic people just like me. That’s what’s called the Birds of a Feather phenomenon. So, all through the 2016 election cycle, I was comforted by the polls and NY Times opinion pieces assuring me that an offensive, semi-coherent, narcissistic demagogue with no qualifications for president whatsoever could not possibly win. Of course, I knew that those mostly white, mostly uneducated blue-collar males existed out there—I’d spent two thirds of my life working alongside them—but I’d forgotten how angry they were. I guess I didn’t really want to believe they would so overwhelmingly vote for him.
And please note: I am not talking about the racist lunatics who showed up in Charlottesville this week armed with guns and hatred. Sixty-three million people voted for the person who became president. Thank God very, very few of them are murderous white supremacists.
So, what can I, a writer who has inhabited both the working class blue-collar, and the liberal academic worlds (simultaneously, for many years), do today to help bring the two sides of our bifurcated country together again?
Well, I can tell you what I can’t do (and neither can anyone else). I can’t change the minds of the people I used to work with. That’s never going to happen. Just like everyone else, they’ve spent too many decades coming to their point of view. Get used to that. That’s why I won’t be exhorting the angry and disaffected to be more open-minded about immigrants, and suggesting they treat women better, and so forth. Only people who don’t need to hear that are going to hear that. And it’s much too late for preaching to the choir. But maybe I can help tone down the hostility between the left and right in some small way.
Maybe by writing blue-collar life as truthfully as I can, by portraying blue-collar characters as the complex human beings that they are, by offering their lives to the readers of literary fiction—who mostly come from the other side of the current divide—I may at the very least remind those readers that there are ordinary people inhabiting that world too.
Because, I have to say, one of the most disturbing outcomes of the election and subsequent political upheavals locally has been witnessing my usually thoughtful liberal, writer friends foaming at the mouth with antipathy toward anyone who did not vote the way they did. It reminds me of Nietzsche’s famous admonition: “Whoever fights monsters, should be careful that in the process he does not become a monster himself.”
What I’m saying is that if educated, intelligent people want to indulge in the cathartic pleasures of mindless anger and unmitigated contempt, I’m hoping they will reserve that for the Klan and Nazi thugs, and not direct it at anyone and everyone who voted opposite them.
So, that’s my goal as a fiction writer now: to remind my admittedly very few readers that however distasteful the politics of the people on the other side of the great divide, they are still that, people. And to hopefully help discourage people I like from becoming the very same monsters they loathe and fear. We are writers and poets. If we lose empathy, we lose everything.
Rich Chiappone is the author of three collections of short prose, most recently Liar’s Code, a collection of linked essays about growing up fishing. He teaches in the UAA low residency MFA program and lives in Homer with his wife and cats.