Via Malcontenti: America From Afar


Here in Bologna there is a wine bar located on Via Malcontenti. I don’t know if that’s where Italy’s armchair radicals buy their wine, but I doubt it. My guess is they are buying jugs of the cheap stuff and adding high proof liquor just like our homegrown radicals do. Although, in the back of their cupboards they all hide a bottle of the good stuff. Even malcontents succumb to romance. The cheap stuff doesn’t always fit the occasion.

I only bring this up because here in Italy the noise of the U.S. Presidential election can be heard. At home it’s been drowning out everything else for awhile. Does anyone in the states know who Matteo Renzi is? In Italy there is a major vote coming up on December 4th. Who knew? What about Italy’s immigration issues? How is Italy’s economy doing? How does it impact our own?

In a global economy knowledge and connection are essential, but we can hardly manage these at home. The disconnects and divisions are so great we don’t fully know our own countrymen. If I travel 45 minutes outside of Seattle I am in a world I don’t truly understand. I can find the same jugs of cheap wine and fast food outlets, but we might as well be talking different languages.


There are a lot of mechanisms at work. To delve into them all would require writing a textbook full of charts, graphs, and references. The books have already been written, but they are seldom read…and even less often agreed upon.

Agreement is overrated. It insulates us within our own bubbles of vacuum packed information. I can easily shut out anything that intrudes upon my preconceived notions. My version of the truth can be preserved intact.

From a distance I have come to think that there are two collective notions that work against Americans. One notion we embrace, and the other we fight against, or deflect. The first notion is that we live in the greatest nation in the world. The second is that we aren’t good enough.

The United States healthcare system is currently ranked 37th in the world. That we lack paid maternity leave, debt free higher education, GMO free foods, solar initiatives, etc. is not indicative of a team that’s going to the playoffs. So, let me quickly ask, “How did a Championship Team fall into 37th place?”


This is where we start to splutter. This is where the disagreements begin. This is where blame gets cast. This is where the second notion comes into play. It’s where “We are the greatest!”  knocks into “We aren’t good enough.” The results are at once chaotic and predictable.

“We are the greatest!” is meant to be inclusive. “We aren’t good enough.” isn’t. The message that gets sent is, “You aren’t good enough!” or, “We aren’t good enough, and it’s your fault!” The second notion seeks to exclude. It is pervasive.

We apply it to the fans of sports teams we don’t root for. It is applied to the way white people dance. It is applied to members of “the other” political party, bald people, and to the overweight. It is applied to women’s pay. It is applied to communities of color where the message gets amplified by test scores, dropout, unemployment, and incarceration rates. Add to that getting followed while shopping, harassment stops, and getting shot by cops. The message isn’t designed to be aspirational.

“We aren’t good enough.” gets internalized when you are one of the excluded. This is America though and we’ve also internalized the notion that we are the greatest. As a result we have come to a dangerous conclusion. We believe this is as good as it gets, and we/they don’t deserve any better.

This is of course how a Championship Team falls into 37th place. It’s why we underfund our schools, burden our college graduates with crippling debt, don’t provide paid leave so parents can nurture their infants, poison our food and water supplies, fill our prisons with people of color, and fight amongst ourselves.

Unity and connection are the only things that lead to greatness. We can’t be great as long as we are willing to exclude others from that promise. Inclusion may be a romantic notion. Certainly it is not a notion that calls for the cheap stuff. Greatness never comes cheaply. The good stuff has been hidden in the back of the cupboard long enough. A dream that isn’t shared can’t become a reality!


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