A Kansas child of the 1980s commits to the ideals she learned from Neil Diamond

November 26, 2020 3:41 am

Neil Diamond performs ‘America’ for his 1980 movie ‘The Jazz Singer.’ (YouTube screen capture)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Audrey Coleman is associate director and director of museum and archives at the Dole Institute of Politics.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Neil Diamond lately.

No, not the gold shimmering jumpsuits or the stirring vocal impersonations by Al Latta at Kansas City’s Cigar Box that I enjoyed with friends in the early days of the millennium.

No, I’m thinking about his 1980 hit single “America.” Pop culture hegemony being what it is, if you were a kid of the 1980s, it was everywhere and surely shaped your thinking for the length of the decade, or longer.

It’s a stirring, hopeful song, celebrating the promise of our nation, for immigrants and all, with a rousing chorus and pulsing beat. Not a whiff of cynicism. Ecstatic masses cheering in unison — they’re coming to America — TODAY! “They” becoming “us,” one America, Americans, all together, seeking the dream of a life in the greatest country on Earth.

It made an impression on me. I grew up with this same sense of pride, invincibility, rightness, exceptionalism: middle-class suburban kids like me had arrived in the world at just the right place and time, whether by pure luck or divine intervention, and the hard work was already done by those who had suffered and sacrificed before.

In our today, the blinders are off. The song was inspiration, not achievement. The dream was real, but living up to its promise was our job, not our inheritance. Too many suffer, have always suffered, inequality and systemic injustice. Too many fear for their own future, and fear America is a failure.

But if our story didn’t end with Diamond’s 1980 version, it sure as heck doesn’t have to end here and now, like this, with our ability to build a better nation — or simply address everyday problems — hobbled by our outright refusal to embrace our common identity as Americans.

Scholar of political science Stacy Ulbig recently spoke in a virtual event at the Dole Institute about political polarization in college students. Ulbig found that, even before the 2016 election cycle, partisan animosity was already well entrenched: her subjects expressed clearly that they did not want to be around people of the opposite party, much less socialize or even intermarry with them. We need not look far to find examples that tribalism of that nature leads to an unhappy end.

We’ve had really hard times as a nation before, and not so long ago. Examining constituent letters from Kansans to then-Congressman Bob Dole from the 1960s (the subject of an upcoming exhibit at the Dole Institute), we find contentions of startling familiarity: the role of the federal government, representation, civil rights, law and order, racism, fears of socialism, government overreach, violence. The rhetoric too often echoes language I see in social media.

One way to look at it is pessimistic: Have we come nowhere in 60 years? The other, more salient observation is this: In a liberal democracy these conversations will — and should — always exist. Regardless of the pace or the nature of progress, there will always be lines along which we will contend.

We can disagree. It can still be all right. But we must work, and we must compromise. Something that Congress had going for back then, and is missing now, is that the normalized behavior was compromise and mutual respect — and the understanding that these were values to be embraced, not pilloried.

Now, to our great detriment, rejecting the premise of Diamond’s message in “America” may be one of the few things people of both parties have in common: “Immigrants? Build the wall,” or “America? A disgrace. You’d choose to come here?”

The hard truth, as Ulbig and many others have pointed out, is we risk our own security if we continue to reject one another. Partisan animosity, and rhetoric that enforces it, feels threatening and sows the seeds of violence. If we are unable to stand with one another at home, we cannot withstand threats from abroad. If we cannot unite today against a non-living viral threat, can we honestly expect we’ll prevail over human ones?

So, for our own good, if not the common one, let’s reject the idea — fed from so many directions — that our partisan differences make us enemies, and demand our leaders do the same. We — Americans — will outlast our leaders. We can correct our mistakes.

Give “America” another listen after all these years, then — through your own actions —  cast your vote each and every day for an America that is a steward of all her people and rightfully the envy of the world.

Zip up your sequined jumpsuits. We’ve got work to do, together.

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Audrey Coleman
Audrey Coleman

Audrey Coleman is the director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.