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  • Jan Flynn

Light in the Darkness

Could Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pull Americans together?

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

This post was born in a liquor store

Don’t jump to conclusions. For the record, it was late morning and I was as sober as a judge. We’ll come back to the incident in a bit, but for now I’ll just say that it was one of those random moments when great events in the larger world bleed through into otherwise ordinary aspects of daily life.

Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that we are living in unsafe times; history is engulfing us whether we want it to or not, and while life speeds along in its usual state of preoccupied breathlessness for most of us here in the States, the tensions from overseas have penetrated our awareness. The war in Ukraine has even displaced to some extent our angst about the climate, Covid, inflation, and the looming vitriol of the midterm elections.

Those last four issues are ones upon which Americans continue to disagree. Vehemently.

Americans have rarely been on the same page

It’s no news to anyone that the United States appears, of late, pretty thin on its “United” aspect. Without descending into the political weeds here, the perception of America as an increasingly polarized nation has grown dramatically, and dispiritingly, especially over the past five or six years.

Sometimes it really looks as though we have congealed into two distinct and separate realities, each with its own set of facts. We wonder if anything can bring us to the same table on issues like immigration, voting rights, or what kids should be learning in school — and if we do come to the table, can we even listen to each other?

But us not being on the same page has been true throughout our history. Even at our inception, when we got together to kick out the Brits, there were a sizeable number of proto-Yankees who would have preferred to stick with the crown.

Wikipedia quotes historian Robert Calhoun’s 2000 estimate that between 15% and 20% of the upstart colonists were actually loyalists who actively supported the king, as opposed to the patriots who fought for independence. A lot of other colonists felt identified with England enough to simply want to stay out of the fight. Calhoun wrote:

“The patriots received active support from perhaps 40 to 45 percent of the white populace, and at most no more than a bare majority.”

Enough of us, however, united to form a new nation

I haven’t researched this, but I’m going out on a limb here to assume that very few of us currently wish we’d ditched the Declaration of Independence and remained subjects of the British Crown.

My point is that it didn’t take all of us, back in 1776, to rally behind a notion that the authority to govern should arise from the people being governed rather than kings claiming a divine right to rule. The vast majority of us in 2022 think that was the right idea — as imperfectly, certainly, as it has played out since then.

We weren’t all on board in World War II either

The war that still occupies so much real estate in our national identity and imagination, the war that defined the Greatest Generation, the last major war, perhaps, in which there was a clear bad guy, was hardly embraced by all Americans at its outset.

A fascinating series of graphics from the United States Holocaust Museum’s website depicts Gallup polls taken between 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland and 1941 when America finally entered the war. Amazingly, even in May of 1940 after Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, the answer to the question, “Do you think the United States should declare war on Germany and send our army and navy abroad to fight?” was a resounding NO — among 93% of respondents.

Opinion shifted to a roughly 50-50 split after the military draft was initiated in September of that year, and support for getting involved ramped up fairly steadily to above 60% by late November.

Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and 91% of Americans polled were solidly in favor of declaring war on Germany and Japan.

From today’s benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when America wasn’t ready to jump to the front of the line to defend democracy against a murderous autocrat.

I’m not suggesting we should confront Russia with guns blazing. I’m merely pointing out that it can take a lot to get Americans to row in the same direction.

Maybe we’ve reached that point with Ukraine

Full confession: a month ago, I couldn’t have told you what Ukraine’s flag looks like. I might have been able to come up with the name of its leader, but I couldn’t have picked President Zelensky’s face out of a group photo that wasn’t captioned. All that has changed now, and I know I’m not alone.

Russia’s vicious, unprovoked attack on its democratic neighbor has been so rapacious, and Ukraine’s response so determined and unflinching, that America is awash with two shared feelings: disgust at Putin and admiration for the Ukrainians. Suddenly there is bipartisan support for aid to Ukraine and a call for harsher sanctions against Putin’s regime — even if it costs us more at the pump.

Is it possible that one bright bud emerging from the bloody soil in Ukraine is this: Americans remembering who we are and what we stand for?

Back to the liquor store

Here in Idaho, you can buy beer and wine in grocery stores, convenience stores, or places like Target and Walmart. But for the hard stuff, you have to go to a state-run liquor store. As a California transplant, this took some getting used to. No more picking up big bottles of spirits for a discount at Costco, for one thing, and my first forays into a state liquor store felt slightly shameful, as though I were stepping into a sketchy DMV.

My husband only imbibes infrequently, but when he does it’s strictly vodka on the rocks. While I often enjoy a glass of wine of an evening, I do love the occasional martini, made with my beloved Tanquery 10 gin. So by now, we’ve incorporated liquor store runs into our recurring errands every few weeks. The outlet we frequent is perfectly clean, friendly, and well-stocked.

Another thing we’ve long understood about Idaho, especially as compared to Northern California, is that it’s a decidedly red state. While our portion of Boise contains a blue enclave, to describe Idaho as conservative is like saying the Himalayas are kind of steep.

Since my husband and I lean to the left, we have learned to avoid any whiff of a mention of politics in our interactions with our fellow Idahoans, unless we know them well. Since very little in American life these days escapes politicization, that can take a fair degree of finesse.

But while it’s true that now and then we see bumper stickers that make our blue blood run cold, the vast majority of folks here are friendly and warm, certainly compared to urban areas in California. In our experience, Idahoans fairly radiate goodwill as long as you stay away from incendiary topics.

So on our liquor store run yesterday, my husband lamented that he’d have to avoid his favorite brand, thinking it was Russian. Not so, explained the clerk when we checked with her: that (very popular) vodka actually comes from Latvia. And the company that makes it is going to the extraordinary step of changing the product’s name to avoid such confusion.

She went on to explain that all the Russian liquor has been removed from the shelves. With lightning speed for the state of Idaho, or indeed any state, there’s an unquestioned consensus that our solidarity with the Ukrainian people means we’re ready to boycott any Russian products we can identify. Even vodka.

“That’s awesome,” we said, a warm beam of fellow feeling extending nearly visibly between us and the lady behind the Lexan window. We took our plain paper bag containing our Latvian vodka and our British gin and departed the store, feeling buoyant.

“God, it feels good to agree,” I said outside

And it really does. If a couple of liberal snowflakes can find common cause with the Idaho State Liquor Division, there may be hope for America yet.

What’s happening in Ukraine is atrocious. But if it offers us a chance to come together and authentically recall our greatness, that’s a chance we shouldn’t pass up.

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