This American Life


Lana has four kids. She works at the local elementary school in the front office, she keeps the books for the student body. She goes to church and encourages her kids to be involved in extra-curricular activities like martial arts, ballet, and art club. Lana doesn’t keep up with politics, but she votes in every election – she feels it is her duty.

Four kids is a lot to handle, they have lots of household systems in place. Lana’s husband, Jim,  used to be an officer in the military, now he is a project manager at a plant. When a household system first goes into effect – like a chore chart – her husband is pretty tough about enforcing the rules. It’s mostly for show, but he goes around with a white glove, “testing” whether or not the kids actually cleaned where they were supposed to. When the kids were younger, they would get a quick swat on the fanny if they shirked their chores, nowadays the cell phone privileges are revoked for the same offense. The kids don’t like the inspections, but they have learned that it is easier to do a thorough job of cleaning than to fight about the phone. 

The kids joke about their “drill sargeant dad”- and he can take a joke when it is not work time- but when they need support, he is approachable. The girls know that they only have to appeal to him as “daddy’s girls” and curl up on his lap to get the attention they want. The boys know that their dad loves to pass along fatherly advice and so ask him important life questions and enjoy their heart to hearts. Lana must be shown respect, lack of it is also punishable. The kids know that though dad is the enforcer, mom is the one actually managing their family. She runs everyone around, get meals together, organizes family events, and acts as a general emotional cheerleader for all.

At home this family operates on a “conservative” philosophy. Authority and Tradition rule the house. Much nurturing and love happens, but the hierarchy of power emanates from the father and how he runs the family.  The wife allows her husband to dictate rules and dish out punishments, she defers to his opinion – and certainly doesn’t question it in front of the kids. This is what conservative looks like – it is not the most severe or pure, but Authority – not gender neutral nurturance – rules the roost.

At work Jim is a mid level manager. He is a bit resentful because he feels that his age and experience makes him more qualified to make important decisions than his supervisor, but Jim needs the work. The job market is tough and he feels a lot of pressure to provide for his family. Jim does his best to dot his i’s and cross his t’s perfectly – according to his supervisor – so that perhaps he will be noticed and promoted. Jim focuses on what management asks him to do, not what he thinks would work best. At this point, he is is not being paid to think outside of his department and that kind of meddling is not appreciated at this workplace. Jim keeps his mouth shut about his own opinions unless they are directly relevant to his assigned tasks. He has seen some questionable practices elsewhere in the plant, but he cannot afford to rock the boat and jeopardize his job. At work Jim is conservative, but he has accepted and submitted to a role that is not at the top of the hierarchy. Since he still “knows his place”, he is being a good conservative and respecting authority and tradition.

Work for Lana is quite different, the ladies running the office have a surprising amount of pull at the school. There is no strong parent association nor is there a student body government. Since they all have school age kids, the ladies of the office take it upon themselves to act on behalf of the kids when a policy or program is in question. Lana is the one who noticed the same kids getting picked on every morning, she took it upon herself to make them her special helpers before school. When the mini-skirt fad brought in shockingly short hemlines, the ladies of the office had a chat and established the rule about being 2″ away from the knee. When one of the kids had their house catch fire with no insurance, she headed up the event that raised some money and donated household items to that family. She liked to think that she took care of “her kids” at school – well above and beyond what bookkeeping she did for them. It was like a family at school and she liked being a part of it. Lana sees kids that don’t seem to get the basics at home and feels sad for them (and may slip them some cookies at lunch); she also sees kids that don’t appreciate their luxurious lifestyle and wishes things were evened out. She loves it when the whole school pulls together to meet a challenge. The Principal is a good hearted man, but he is so busy with upper administration, he appreciated the way the ladies in the office made things easier for him when managing students. Lana at school, is progressive. She is empowered, she collaborates without a clear authority, she takes on a sense of responsibility around her community. She nurtures. Her bookkeeping duties are clearly defined and she is sure to get them done properly, but she thinks of her “real” job as much more than recording data in a ledger.

Jim and Lana were raised in different spiritual traditions, so Lana and the kids have gone to the Unitarian church. There is an acceptance and exposure to many different religions, Lana thought it was good to let the children experience as much as possible so that they may make their own spiritual determinations. The Unitarian philosophy is based in progressive values – there are lots of community service projects happening, respect for diversity is the rule, and matters of spirit are left up to the individual. Jim isn’t comfortable with the philosophy, but he also had some struggles with his “home church” and wanted to respect the idea that the kids could decide for themselves. Because of his internal conflict and Lana’s personal spiritual clarity, he lets Lana be the spiritual lead for their home. It is a conservative concept that a powerful man must first hand over power in order for it to be valid, but the effect on this family is a pretty progressive spiritual base; the family is progressive at church.

The extra-curricular activities range from freestyle expressions in art to highly disciplined martial arts training. In some instances there is hardly any authority figure, in others, the authority is undisputed and unquestioned. The family’s free time is a mix of progressive and conservative social situations.

Why are we learning about this family? I want to demonstrate how we are rarely purely ideological. Very few of us are so committed to a one track mind of values that we never diverge. For one thing, we hardly know how to handle power unless there is an ultimate authority figure – Americans are not very practiced at consensus building – another thing is that people in positions of power often rely on nurturant support systems. Empathy is the driving progressive value, Authority and Tradition are the driving conservative values, but in most of our lives, they work together like a mess of spaghetti. Our mood can dramatically influence how progressive or conservative we behave. We can have a commitment to only nurture our children, but when we are at the end of our rope, exhausted and frustrated, we find ourselves yelling threats or spanking. It happens to us all.

We are not always comfortable with labels. Perhaps you identify as a liberal – it feels insulting to hear that you behave conservatively around some areas of life. Maybe you work in a progressive place, but come home and demand to be the ultimate authority at home. Perhaps you say you love working with community, but the reality on the ground is that you think you are the only one who knows how to get things done right (and feel comfortable bossing others around).

So when I talk about “conservatives” or “progressives”, I am talking about those people pushing a pure ideological drive in the general discourse. They  are out there, many of them are paid to stay consistently on message. For the rest of us, it is interesting to note where we have conservative or progressive tendencies. The easy way to tell is to ask yourself in any situation, where does the authority lie? If it lies in one (usually male) authority – the situation is conservative. If everyone has a say and is sharing power – the situation is progressive.

Pure ideologues are out there and they are pushing – it is a fact. One of the drives of this blog is to point these pushes out and bring awareness around them, air them out, show them the light of day. Ignoring the two “camps” means letting whoever is the most powerful at the time “win” the conflict of the day. I feel it is necessary and good to discuss these issues, especially when they trigger emotions, because we are bad at it. In America, the “American” way is to automatically know what is patriotic, repeat that meme and vilify those that oppose it. “Support Our Troops”, “Buy American”, “One Nation Under God”, “Liberty and Justice for All”, are just a few slogans that are practically sacreligious to question. This in itself is unAmerican. Labels fall short of describing what actually goes on in the broader American psyche, but we must be aware who is shaping our discourse, our politics, and our world.

That is why I speak in labels and labels are useful. Labels fit less on people, more on ideas – but if a person is held up as a shining personification of an idea, they are going to be imperfect. If we truly don’t want to be labeled, we need to get more comfortable moving in and around conservative and progressive ideas without demonizing them. We must reject these ideas of purity and reason things out in a reality based world where moral judgements are not tossed around casually, disregarding the emotional and societal carnage left behind.

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2 thoughts on “This American Life

  1. Willa Addison says:

    You mean no one is perfect?

    • Amy Meier says:

      “Perfect” is a contested concept – that is, no one agrees on what it means exactly.

      I’m not sure what you mean exactly.

      No one can live a pure ideology and still live in society IMO.

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