I’ve been to four Rose Bowls and not one Rose Bowl parade. I’ve raised two children to adulthood, yet never took them to a parade either. Honestly, prior to last weekend, I don’t remember the last time I’ve ever attended one of those events, or even watched one on TV --unless you count the final scene in Animal House, which I’ve surely seen several times. But exactly one week ago, I stood on Main Street in Zionsville, Indiana, and watched the floats go by.
There was the Corvette Club float, and then, minutes later, a competing Corvette Club float. There was the Boone County Republican float, and then, seconds later, two donkeys went by, which at the time I thought represented the only Democrats in Boone County. I saw the Girl Scout float – I even had kin in that one – the Lion’s Club float, plenty of pirate floats (it was a pirate-themed parade), the Miss Boone County float, a float for the Eagles of Zionsville High and another one for the middle schoolers who will soon be Eagles. I saw thousands of people lining Main Street – both in the road and next to it. All seemed incredibly happy. In fact, even though I couldn’t help but note that only three people I spotted in or around the parade were black and only two were Asian, that didn’t stop me from having a wonderful time.
I was witnessing a Boone County whiteout to be sure, but these people weren’t carrying tiki torches or spewing venom. They were smiling, laughing, waving, and handing out candy. They were eating guilt-free sausages and ice cream, riding in guilt-free gas-guzzling cars, and surely looking forward to guilt-free Pop Warner football games later in the afternoon. In fact, after I left the parade, I immediately went to a field in another part of Zionsville to watch my great-nephew play tackle football and register a sack. Where I live, we have grumps who’d use the term “child abuse” when describing parents who let their nine-year-olds play football. I suspect they don’t have many people like that in Zionsville. They just have Colts fans.
Standing beside Main Street, watching Americana go by, I was reminded of various countries across the pond. In England, you get ethnic English culture, in France, French culture, in Germany, German culture, and so on. Crossing the pond is like going to dog shows – there, you see bichons, beagles, and dalmatians. Purebreds, never mutts. There’s a certain authenticity in a show full of pedigreed dogs, or a Boone County parade. Simple, uncomplicated, traditional, joyous. What’s not to embrace?
Then I let my mind wander. I thought about another nation across the pond – Israel. And how when I’m there, especially in Jerusalem, I frequently see groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews, all in black, often with those thick furry Shtreimels covering their heads (as if they’re living in a polar climate, rather than a temperate one). I ask myself, “Are these men MORE Jewish than the rest of us? It sure seems to be a larger part of their self-identity, and it totally dominates how everyone else looks at them. But are they really more Jewish?” I asked similar questions in Zionsville. Are the people at this parade more American than the rest of us? Are they really?
Occasionally, politicians force us all to ask those questions. Think back to the awful campaign run by Sarah Palin in 2008, when speaking in rural North Carolina, she spoke about “the real America” and “the pro-America areas of this great nation.” Those were truly offensive comments – tantamount to saying that every Jew who doesn’t wear a Shtreimel in the middle of the summer isn’t a “real” Jew. The beauty of America in particular is supposed to be its diversity, its fostering of freedom to be whatever and whoever we wish to be. Surely, this nation belongs as much to mutts as to purebreds. We don’t associate it with one ethnic group, religion, race, or political ideology. That is our greatest strength.
And yet. And yet.
I couldn’t help but take in the beauty of that ethnic ritual known as the small Midwestern town parade last Saturday. I couldn’t help but recognize how the people there felt at home with traditional Americana, and how traditional Americana does tend to be associated more with certain ethnic groups and cultures than others. This scene made me question my own childhood prejudices -- the ones that flow from growing up as part of an ethnic minority. I spent my childhood years grumbling about why Jews like me always had to have Christmas shoved down our throats by these damned Christians who thought that their religion was the friggen be-all-and-end-all of religions. But in fact, come December, the good people of Zionsville aren’t trying to shove anything down anyone’s throats. They are just trying to enjoy a beautiful story, listen to a beautiful carol, and express a beautiful sentiment like “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
The Zionsville scene was the antithesis of Charlottesville. It was about white people loving, not white people hating. And yet it allowed me to appreciate a bit why so many white Christian Americans in the south and elsewhere are experiencing the loss of something near and dear to them – Americana as they know it. Among our youngest cohorts, white Christians are no longer the majority in this country. Christmas no longer dominates the airwaves when we approach winter. The fastest growing religious world view is “none of the above.” And, in many liberal media outlets, Americans are increasingly divided into the category of “people of color” and “people of privilege.” I’ll let you guess which term is a compliment.
Then there’s the pièce de résistance: adults in small town America, no less than urban America, are dealing with how it feels to live in a generation that figures to be more affluent than our own children. That is a bitter pill for any decent person to swallow.
Reflecting on Zionsville, I saw a town that day enjoy the present by celebrating the past. But what I want to know is, how do they see the future? Can they envision a different future that is more culturally diverse, and yet authentic, respectful of the past, and worthy of celebration? That is a question for Boone County, Beverly Hills, Baltimore and all other parts of America.