Identity & Survival

Deer season is upon us. A guy sits down at our bar and orders a Coors Light. He is all decked out in Mossy Oak Breakup. As the manufacturer says, “It’s more than a camo pattern. It’s who you are.”

So I’m expecting the usual camo package. He will hate government, unless the government gets into building walls and defining public bathroom eligibility. He will scorn female presidential candidates, science and the New York Times. He will love internal combustion, firearms, Jack Daniels and Jesus.

The conversation veers from the weird weather to climate change. Most likely this has something to do with the fact that I can’t shut up about the slow motion catastrophe that I believe I am witnessing. This gets me into trouble sometimes but I would probably be in more trouble if I lived in Houston.

“It seems simple to me,” the guy says. “Everyone knows that if you close your garage door and start up your car, you will die. But what if you have ten million cars? People don’t get it. Our planet is one big garage.”

What?

Here in the USA, we seem to have come down with a life-threatening case of multiple identities. I’m not talking about the usual identity suspects like black and brown, female or queer, the ‘interest groups’ that pundits usually blame for ‘divisiveness.’ When we talk about identity and behavior, we need to include NASCAR, country, carbon money, lunch pail and Navy Seal.

Identity seems to trump self-interest. If you live in a flyover zip code and idolize Keith Urban, most likely you will vote for a politician who will reduce your access to health care. This holds true even if you are addicted to opiates and stand to die without treatment.

Of course we are talking about culture here, and culture can be influenced by cynical misinformation. Just ask the Russians who recently weaponized fake news. But the Russians were preceded by a bunch of rich New Deal haters who spent three generations sowing distrust of “elites” and invented Rush Limbaugh. This right wing cabal was tilling the rich soil of hatred and racism left behind by our still unresolved Civil War. There is a reason why white supremacists and Breitbart News follows tend to wave Confederate battle flags.

So how do we achieve “one nation, indivisible,” now that we really need it? After all, if we don’t figure out how to turn off most of those ten billion internal combustion engines in a hurry, we will all die in this garage.

My answer is to weaponize truth and launch it with the same delivery systems that the Russians used to flip our recent presidential election: Facebook and AM radio. And we need to package truth in the patois of the audience. We tend to be tribal, and our tribes are defined by what we believe is cool. Coolness is actually the core of identity and it can be a key to cultural movement. If we could, for example, translate the notion of climate change into rap, country, pop and folk, perhaps we could all agree that cap and trade is a good idea.

Songwriters, start your engines. Someone wearing Mossy Oak may be listening.