The American Dream of belonging

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Last week, I received an email from a friend from high school. Ours is a long friendship, tested occasionally by the fact that we vigorously disagree on matters political. I send him my column each week which sometimes causes grinding of teeth. But we respect each other's sincerity, which is essential. Dave, who grew up and lives in Chicago but has some connections here, generously consented to let me share his email in the interest of promoting dialogue. My response follows.


I was waiting for my wife who is seeing a doctor at Rush Oak Park Hospital today (can't be with her because of COVID concerns). While killing time I took a little walk down Wisconsin and Wenonah and all the other little side streets in the neighborhood. I thought of you and how you too like to walk through the streets of your home town. That's why I am writing this email — to tell you what I saw.

I wanted to experience that small-town America feel that Oak Park creates and about which you sometimes write — that 'village feel' for which the community is known: the porches dotted with wicker chairs, the wide lawns, kids playing, and cicadas screeching their late summer song.

I saw something different though. Yes, there were wide yards and some kids playing. But there was also a plethora of lecturing message signs with what has come to represent the standard progressive warnings: 'Black Lives Matter'; 'Hate Has No Home Here'; 'We believe in ...' 

The number of signs was actually very impressive — sure enough, Oak Park is now a certified progressive village if one judges this notion by the placards Oak Parkers plant next to their traditional four squares and bungalows. I even saw many rainbow flags — fitted into old stanchions on their porch pillars — telling everyone the folks inside are gay or at least devoted in one way or another to LGBTQ rights.

Ironically, these are the same flag holders which an earlier generation of Oak Parkers employed to express a different message — love of country, pride in the nation, respect, perhaps even a sense of belonging and togetherness as Americans. Displaying the Stars and Stripes was to marvel at the audacious dream America could be for every citizen.

Now, amid the hectoring signs of special interest, preaching an ironic gospel of exclusion pretending to be inclusion, there were no American flags in any yard I saw. Not one. So perhaps the dream of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, has died, leaving in its place a desolate, cranky and bickering collection of deaf people interested in nothing other than their 'just' cause of the moment.

I turned back to the hospital. The cicadas stopped for a moment. The sunny day began to set, sending those slanted August afternoon rays bouncing off the yard signs. I mused over just how much 'progress' Oak Park has really made, and wondered how it 'all got this crazy,' to borrow the Eagle's line.


Thanks, Dave, for your challenge. No truly progressive community should ever feel their progress has been "enough," whether it's Black Lives Matter or Conservative Opinions Matter.

So we'll start there. Your opinion matters. But I will note that if you walked all the streets of Oak Park, you would find plenty of American flags flying proudly from their porch stanchions. I counted five in a row on one block recently, and it's not even July. 

You stated well what the flag represents: love of country, pride in nation, respect, a sense of belonging and togetherness as Americans, marveling at the audacious dream America could be for every citizen. I would add "liberty, justice and equality for all" to that list. 

But America has not yet achieved that audacious dream, and progressives will not rest until we do. That's the progress we hunger for. And we become downright "cranky" as you put it, when we find ourselves moving in the opposite direction. 

One of the ways we channel our dissatisfaction is putting up lawn signs proclaiming "Here we believe. …" It's a start. We believe Black Lives Matter, No Human is Illegal, Love is Love, Women's Rights are Human Rights, Science is Real, Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere, and Kindness is Everything, as one sign I recently saw proclaimed. 

You describe these signs as "lecturing" and "hectoring" and "standard progressive warnings." I don't see "Black Lives Matter" as a warning. I see it as an overdue statement of solidarity with African Americans who have suffered from inequality for too long.

These signs are expressions of our patriotism, which can be distilled to five words: "Everyone is welcome. Everyone belongs." 

Conservatives tell me that when they see "Hate Has No Home Here," they feel unwelcome, even accused. Mostly, that message is directed at this president and his White Nationalist supporters, but it's important for progressives to hear your concern about the broadness of our brush. 

Are Oak Park's lawn signs "preaching an ironic gospel of exclusion pretending to be inclusion"? It's a question worth asking. Stating what you believe is important, but meaningless unless you live it. There has always been too great a gap in this country between aspiration and action. The truest patriots, like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis call on us to live up to our creed. The greatest patriots are also prophets.

The only thing in your email I truly take issue with is the notion that the "dream of America" might be dying. The dream doesn't die. It beckons us ever onward to be better citizens and to create a better country.

How did it all get this crazy? I think conservatives need to ask how they have contributed to the current craziness. And progressives need to do the same. That's the first step toward genuine dialogue.

We have a road map. Abraham Lincoln identified True North for us: "With malice toward none, with charity for all …" We must learn to speak from the better angels of our nature to the better angels of the other's nature. That's the only way to create Dr. King's "beloved community," where everybody belongs.

Which, let's face it, is the real American Dream.

Thanks, Dave, for taking a step in that direction.

And if the cicadas ever shut up, maybe we'll be able to hear one another at last. 


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