October 2016

Line in the Sand: WHEN WAS AMERICA GREAT?

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Opinion 1: Barry Kaufman
If there are four words that have come to define the boundless confidence and fiery passion of the can-do American spirit, they are, “We can deep-fry that.” But for the purposes of this column we’re going to be focusing on that other four-word aspirational phrase “Make America Great Again.”

Made famous by the baseball caps of people you want to avoid at parties all across this great nation, this clarion call has become synonymous with the Donald Trump campaign, since it combines the two hallmarks of his message: America and monosyllabic words.

And it’s a fine, sentiment, I suppose. It’s inspiring. It’s goal-oriented. It fits on a hat. But more than a few people (the types who read things other than hats, I mean) have noticed a severe problem with it: the word “again.”

If the phrase stopped at great, if there was some screw-up at the hat factory and they somehow ran out of white embroidery thread, we’d be fine. But as usual, Trump took it too far. One word, precisely.

“Make America Great” is a bold statement, and frankly a better fit for the message that Trump is trying to get across. It says that America is good, but it could be better. It implies a way forward to greatness, and a plan to get there. It fits with his unapologetically brash approach and simplistic messaging. Also, and this is important, it fits even better on a hat.

But “Make America Great Again” carries with it the not-at-all-subtle implication that America isn’t great right now. Which is insane. Has there ever been a better time to be American? I saw an ad on TV the other day for a double cheeseburger that comes with mac and cheese in between the patties.

Take that, Era of Good Feelings (1815-1825). You may have enjoyed an electorate and political body unified, following bitter divisions and the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, but could you order your food with complete other foods squished in the middle? Nope. Also, you know, smallpox was probably pretty horrible for you.

But with all that said, I still agree with the sentiment “Make America Great Again.” And I think Courtney would agree with me here. Where we disagree is when exactly it was great in the first place.

For me, I would have to say the summer of 1989. Let’s begin at the box office. On a summer day in 1989, you could wander into your local cinema and have a choice of motion picture classics: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, Dead Poets Society, Ghostbusters II, Weekend at Bernie’s, Uncle Buck, Lethal Weapon II, When Harry Met Sally…, Turner & Hooch, Parenthood, and, of course, the Weird Al opus UHF.

It was also the summer I taught my grandma to play video games. The fact that she was at all receptive to it should speak volumes about what a cool grandma I have. As should the fact that she was awesome at “Paperboy.”

The thing is, I think if you asked Trump when it was great before, he’d probably answer the same way. (Then 10 minutes later, he’d answer something completely different, but hey, that’s Donald for ya). The summer of 1989 was a pretty good time to be Donald Trump. He still had most of his original hair, people liked him because he was rich and not just because he hated the same people they did, and he’d just launched his answer to the Tour de France: The Tour de Trump (which is very real, and you should Google it right now).

There was an unrepentant swagger to the ’80s—a feeling in the air that if you just told everyone you were awesome loud enough, everyone would believe you. We celebrated the rich guys, the alpha males and the cocky jerks. Our financial overlords on Wall Street were making us all rich, and that’s all that mattered. Our cultural heroes were unstoppable tough guys like Stallone and Schwarzenegger. People watched Morton Downey, Jr. un-ironically.

Viewed through that lens, the summer of 1989 was probably the Trumpiest time of all. But even for those of us who aren’t Donald Trump, it was still a great time to be alive. Let’s be honest, I could have just said “in the summer of 1989 you could walk into a movie theater and watch UHF” and called it a column. The movie’s that good.

I pick on Trump a lot here, but the thing is, I do kind of miss that summer of 1989 spirit. And I get that he’s trying to bring some of that swagger back. But it’s 2016. It takes a little more than swagger these days. It takes macaroni and cheese. And a deep fryer.

And maybe a Blu-Ray of UHF, for old time’s sake.

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Opinion 2: Courtney Hampson

If your Internet service went down at 5:31 p.m. on September 18, it was my fault. Likewise, if the lights flickered, lightning struck, pigs flew, and your kids did the dishes—all my fault. I’m certain my search for “Donald Trump campaign” sent all of the Google algorithms into a frenzy, and a slew of “cannot compute” messages overwhelmed their servers, eventually affecting the power grid, and next thing you know the world is off its axis.

But, I had to do it. Much like Pokémon Go, I have zero interest in Donald Trump, but when Barry suggested we tiptoe around the election and explore when exactly America was last great, since the Donald insists he will make it great again, I had to do my due diligence.

I needed two frozen margaritas in my system before my fingers would even type the words “Donald Trump,” so as you can imagine, by this point, I am on my third. Here is what I have learned. Much like the Mrs., Mr. Trump stole his catch-phrase “Make America Great Again” from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. Trump says “America is back,” because well, “he is my voice.” Thanks for your generosity Mr. Trump, but I’m pretty happy with my own voice. (Margarita, please!)

So this election year aside (because wouldn’t everyone like to just push it aside and pretend it wasn’t happening?), it seems that something pretty epic happened to Barry in 1989 (apparently he is a big Batman fan, and no one has told him that Batman isn’t real yet) when he thought America was last great. It’s always a joke with him.

For me, I started to think about the things (not superheroes) that actually make life not so great. And by not so great, I mean when we stopped talking to each other. I thought back to when personal relationships required face-to-face communication and conversations ruled the day instead of tweets and texts.
I am not sure that was I wholly aware of how bad it had become until a few weeks ago when I began working with a new company on a project for my fulltime gig.

My initial inquiry was via their website, and they quickly followed up with an e-mail and a phone call. I responded via e-mail with my questions, and again I almost immediately received a phone call. At first I found this annoying, because I hate talking on the phone. But over the last few weeks, as I have had actual conversations with people (because they keep calling me!), I realize that the very technology that is supposed to make work “easier” has also slowly trained me to rely only on that communication channel. If I hadn’t taken the time to actually speak to this new person, I likely wouldn’t have learned that we grew up just a few miles from each other in New Jersey. And, we wouldn’t have made a personal connection. We would have been two e-mail addresses, behind a screen, making guesses about the other. Instead that connection became another connection, and quickly a mutually beneficial relationship was born.

While the first e-mail was sent in 1971, before I was even born, it wasn’t until my first grown-up job (circa 1996) that I used e-mail regularly. Most of the e-mails were internal, and I was definitely still required to actually call people and send faxes. By 1997, I was managing events for a non-profit organization, and e-mail quickly became how I would communicate en masse with my volunteers. It was also when I got my own personal e-mail a.k.a. irishtwin@aol.com. (What a nerd.)

So, I guess it was 1997 when America really started going downhill for me. Seven years later, Facebook was born, and America really went to pot. As a side note, I do consider myself fortunate that Google came about after I graduated college, forcing me to actually go to the library and write my own papers—a fact that shocks my USCB students every semester. Google is, however, a college instructor’s dream, as it makes identifying plagiarizers quite easy.

I don’t want to pretend that the world isn’t a scary place or that our leaders don’t have their work cut out for them. But I do think that the world is about people. And, there are really good people in this country. If our presidential candidates want to connect with their audiences, telling us our country—our home—sucks isn’t the way. America already is great, because people make it great.

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