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Screen shot of Tilt West roundtable conversation prompted by Rebecca Vaughan

Divided State of America

By Jennifer Ho, in response to Tilt West’s roundtable on The Semiotics of the Stay-At-Home

We are a nation divided — this much seems clear no matter what part of the political spectrum you hail from. And it has me worried, not because I think we all need to believe the same things but because we can’t even agree on what to disagree on. Meaning: shared beliefs on what constitutes basic “facts” have become rhetorical weapons in a war of competing realities.

I suppose I saw it coming over a decade ago, when people were disputing that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, arguing that he wasn’t a US citizen and wasn’t a Christian, despite his claims (and evidence) to support what seemed irrefutable facts about his identity. I recently watched a CNN news piece in which a reporter discussed with a QANON supporter that there was no evidence to support the assertion that Hollywood elites were running an underground pedophile ring. The QANON supporter said that the lack of evidence was actually evidence of it happening.

I don’t even know how to respond to that, so let me just repeat this so you can sit with it: the lack of evidence is evidence itself.

I was interested in the T\LT WEST roundtable, “The Semiotics of the Stay-At-Home,” because I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be sheltering-in-place. I’m interested in signs and symbols related to quarantine and COVID-19, especially the politics of it all. And when I say politics, I mean both ideological and electoral — politics have been front and center of my thinking about our global pandemic given the inadequate leadership at the federal level. That artist/roundtable prompter Rebecca Vaughan would be leading us through her process of baking sourdough bread seemed like a great bonus, since I love food and am fascinated by the symbolism of foodways.

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Prompter Rebecca Vaughan’s homemade sourdough bread

This was my first T\LT WEST event, so I wasn’t sure if the demographics of those in the room, at least optically speaking, were typical or not. It seemed all of us save two people were female-identified or perhaps a more accurate way of putting this was that only two out of 18 participants used male pronouns in their Zoom name and/or when they spoke about themselves. Only four of the 18 seemed optically not to be white, though again that’s more difficult to suss out since there are white-appearing Latinx, Indigenous, and multiracial people. Certainly all of us had enough technological know-how to be on Zoom, and since these events are by invitation to those on the T\LT WEST mailing list, my best guess was that most of us had some level of college education, some knowledge of what terms like “semiotics” means, some connection to arts, literature, humanities, and/or non-profit work, and I’d have placed bets that none of us had voted for the current president in the US elections that took place the week before.

You may be wondering why I was paying attention to demographics, so now is the time for me to say: I always pay attention to demographics. I don’t know how unique I am, but I’m guessing that finding myself “the only one” in a room more often than not is one reason I am habituated to seeing who else may be “like me” in any situation I find myself in. And by “like me” I will just say that while it seems my racial difference has been one of the most obvious and salient forms of difference that finds me “the only one” most of the time, I’ve also found myself a minority in other ways: in my political views, in what I research, in my gender, and — in this Zoom room — I was probably one of the few, if only, people who doesn’t like sourdough bread, or really any fermented foods; beer, kombucha, and sauerkraut just don’t do it for me.

For roughly the first hour the conversation felt like one you’d have with the demographics of this group of people — a lot of acknowledgement of our privilege and disclosing how we were coping with COVID-19 and staying at home. Different projects — food, art, crafts — were shared, and, for the most part, things felt polite, cautious, and respectful, like what you would hear at a Quaker meeting as people made statements that weren’t necessarily in response to anyone else — more sharing than dialogue or conversation.

And then I asked the question that had been on my mind: if sourdough is the symbol of an elite liberal left, what is the equivalent for the MAGA conservative Republican?

I suppose one could and should quibble with my assertion that sourdough, bread or otherwise, is a food symbol of the elite overly-educated middle-class left-leaning liberal. And I do not have a lot of people in my social circles who identify as right-leaning MAGA-supporting conservatives, so my belief that they may not also be staying at home, tending to their sourdough starter, feeling isolated because of COVID, and talking about microbiomes on our bodies and ecosystems — may be completely off. But I have increasingly been feeling like my reality is not the same reality of many people — certainly not of the nearly 74 million people who voted for a second term of our current president. And I don’t know that I can make any sense of that.

Maybe I’m a one issue voter (that issue being human rights), but I can’t make sense of voting for someone who incarcerated children at the US southern border, effectually kidnapping them and causing 545 of them to be orphaned. I can’t make sense of someone who won’t disavow white supremacists, and who claimed there were fine people “on both sides” at the Charlottesville pro-white supremacy demonstration. And I can’t make sense of voting for someone who has politicized mask wearing and doesn’t support basic public health, medical, and science recommendations for how to conduct yourself during a global pandemic.

So I wanted to know what everyone else thought about the semiotics of sourdough as symbolic of a type of person, one that seemed to be like the people in the roundtable’s Zoom room and not like the people I see on TV that were protesting election results in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. If sourdough is the emblem of the stay-at-home left-leaning liberal, what do we think the MAGA conservative is making during their COVID-19 stay-at-home time? What followed was a lively and not altogether harmonious discussion about those of us on the left, those on the right, evangelical Christians who make kombucha, Amish who practice artisanal crafts, people on the right from more working-class and working-poor backgrounds who bake bread out of necessity rather than craft, and a gentle admonishment from another woman of color in the room about “othering” Republicans, combined with her belief that we are all more alike than unalike, no matter our political differences.

I’m genuinely not so sure about the last point. I’ll take being admonished for my othering of MAGA supporters. I am othering them. I don’t wish to demonize anyone, truly. It’s just this: I know I am not considered a fully enfranchised human being deserving of the same rights and respect as a white American man by a fair sector of US society and a fair number of people who wear red “Make America Great Again” hats. The exponential rise of anti-Asian violence and harassment in the wake of COVID-19 reinforces my forever foreign status. The fact that I am a hyphenated Chinese-American and not someone who is identified solely and simply as “American” is proof of this.

So, too, is the fact that women continue to be treated as second-class citizens. One recent example can be seen in the announcement that President-elect Biden has selected an all-female communication team. Don’t get me wrong — I’m very happy that the seven members of the senior communication team for Biden and Harris will be all women, with half optically appearing as non-white women. But this shouldn’t be news in the second decade of the 21st century. It shouldn’t have taken this long to elect the first woman Vice President, to have women play such prominent roles in politics, and for people of color to be recognized for what they are: fully enfranchised humans who should not have to fear that being pulled over by a police officer may result in their death, or that their desire to come to the US will be met with hostility and the false conviction that they are coming here to steal from US citizens, or that, if their religious beliefs differ from the Judeo-Christian system, those beliefs will be used as a reason to question their patriotism or citizenship status.

The semiotics of staying at home are probably not the same for me, the PhD ethnic studies professor who is in an inter-racial marriage and who owns a home in Boulder County, as they are for a white, Christian, evangelical high school graduate who works a retail shift at Target in Montrose County. But honestly, I have no idea. And that’s part of the problem. There is so much division in the US — so much strife, mistrust, so many bad feelings, and a conviction that anyone who voted for the person you believe would ruin the country must not share your values, culture, and foodstuffs.

I’m open to sharing space with someone whose political views don’t match mine — but we’d have to establish some common ground first. For one thing, I’d have to know that they view me as a fully enfranchised human being, and it would go a long way to know that they don’t think COVID-19 is a hoax and that they believe in wearing a mask. I’m not sure how to overcome the divided state of America that we find ourselves in, but I hope we can find common ground and facts we can agree on, even if where we land is disagreement. After years of disinformation campaigns, agreeing to disagree may just be the only state we can imagine, even if the glass-half-full part of me would like to imagine a united state of being.

The daughter of a refugee father from China and an immigrant mother from Jamaica, Jennifer Ho is the director of the Center for Humanities & the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also holds an appointment as Professor of Ethnic Studies. She is the president of the Association for Asian American Studies and the author of three scholarly monographs. In addition to her academic work, Ho is active in community engagement around issues of race and intersectionality, leading workshops on anti-racism and how to talk about race in our current political climate. You can follow her on Twitter @drjenho.

Tilt West is a nonprofit org based in Denver. Our mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture for our region and beyond.

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