A few years ago, there was a popular podcast called S-Town. This was shortly after the success of Serial, which broke the mold for similarly formatted true-crime docuseries like Dirty John, Dr. Death, and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. S-Town was about a couple things, really. First, the protagonist: a colorful, idiosyncratic horologist named John B. McLemore. It was also a snapshot of Woodstock, Alabama, or as John B. McLemore liked to call it, “Shit Town.”
I dedicated an Instagram post to how much I enjoyed this series and one of my followers, “Ryan,” DM’d me. “Hey Bobby, glad you liked the show. You should come visit sometime. We have a really cool music scene down here, it’s not what you think!”
Turns out Ryan was not only a lifelong resident of S-Town, he was the sole neighbor who had access to the late John B. McLemore’s mysterious maze garden. As it goes in the story, before he died, our hero landscaped a hedge maze with 64 solutions. The current inhabitants of the McLemore estate were friendly with Ryan and allowed him to visit whenever he wished. I couldn’t believe it. Ryan laughed. About a half-hour later, he sent me a selfie of himself in the middle of the maze. “Told you!”
Speaking of the new homeowners, they were the Burt family, who – if you listened to the podcast – were also central figures to the storyline. For one, John B. McLemore suspected the son Kabram Burt of getting away with a murder (Ryan was friends with Kabram and even took his sister to prom). Secondly, Kabram’s father Kendall owned a lumber company called K3.
“Is it true?,” I asked Ryan, “K3 doesn’t stand for their family initials?”
With anyone else, I would’ve treaded lightly. Ryan and I had established a friendy banter, but I was perhaps too cavalier with how I dumped the next query on the table. “It’s KKK, right? Are they Klan?”
Ryan took a beat, then responded. “Look man, Los Angeles is a far cry from Woodstock, Alabama.” Even over text, I could feel the weight of that reply. The conversation was already getting long, so we traded a few more hopes for me to visit his town one day (I sincerely still plan on it). After that, I spoke with Ryan a couple more times before our exchange went where all tenuous online connections go. Frozen in time, somewhere deep in the inbox, to be excavated when life finds convenient and necessary.
The year was 2017 and Donald J. Trump had been in office for approximately a year at that point. Those first few months were as equally frightening as they were frustrating, and Americans were raw and exposed to a sensitive political climate. What I most remember was how exhausted I was. I wouldn’t say I’m a longtime activist, but I’d been engaged in left-leaning political causes since I could attend punk shows as a teenager. The brand I co-founded, The Hundreds, was a forum to express and fight for a lot of these opinions. We even co-produced a social justice festival around that time to raise awareness for issues we considered most dire and at risk. As the shock of Trump’s election transitioned to reluctant acceptance, I desperately sought solutions to heal a divided nation. My ego has always told me that there is a fix for every crisis, that justice prevails, to attack the problem from a different angle. Yet, no matter how I turned it, I couldn’t find a way out of this worsening nightmare.
Outside of marching in protests, donating to causes, and staying informed of daily disasters, we didn’t know much else we could do short of running for office. Many of us retreated to Twitter to establish solidarity, disseminate our truths, and change others’ minds. Much of that, however, came down to circulating Trump quotes and deriding the White House press secretary or unleashing our vitriol on the Covington boys. I did my best to stay away from Facebook, but once in a while, I’d find myself ensnared in a fight with some asshole I hadn’t seen since the third grade. In the first stage of Trump Era grief, I loathed and cried and complained. Then, I tried to understand the opposing view not just as a valiant gesture to reach across the aisle, but to make sense of this bizarre simulation we call Life. After a year of this, I was ashamed to admit that I had made no progress at all. I was no closer to empathizing with a devout Trump supporter as I was in getting them to exercise gender neutral pronouns. Debating politics with strangers on the Internet in non-sequitir paragraphs was inefficient, if not endless. Even if I did win an argument or humiliated someone online for their moronic beliefs, I rarely felt better. In fact, I felt much worse, not just about them and the state of the world, but about myself and the time wasted. And then there was the residual anger that lingered and polluted interactions with my loved ones for a time afterwards.
Los Angeles is a far cry from Woodstock, Alabama. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ryan’s statement. Yes, our neighborhoods are almost 2,000 miles apart. But, in some aspects, they might as well be 2,000 light years apart. Ryan’s reality is fixed in an entirely disparate set of cultural practices, social norms, and generational customs. How, over the course of an Instagram direct message, could I convince him to see things from my perspective? I’m a second-generation Korean-American, son of immigrants. I’m almost twice his age, have lived in Southern California my entire life, and get squeamish anytime I’m in a room with any racial majority. Of course, I still believe I am in the right to judge and abhor prejudice and hatred. But, was I really going to convince Ryan (someone whom I’ve never met or established a personal relationship with) to abandon his reality over a blind SMS thread? Of course not. That’d be like convincing a stranger to marry me by folding a marriage proposal in a bottle and hucking it into the ocean. If anything, our cursory exchange would cement him further to his beliefs.
I have a book club called Death Sentences and this month’s selection is “Why We’re Polarized” by Vox’s Ezra Klein. In it, Klein addresses why our differences are more pronounced and capitalized than ever: the changing demographics of the country, the social algorithms, the media business, partisandship over party, and politics as sport. One of the notes he finishes on is a suggestion, that if we are to concern ourselves with any sort of politics, it should be at the local level. There is very little we can change at the national level, with even less of a chance of accessing leadership. Meanwhile, our daily lives are most influenced by what happens in our city, county, and state. These are our people, our families, and homes. And that made me think about Woodstock, Alabama.
Our politics are very much dictated by geography. When it comes to worldview and philosophy, we are reflective – and a product – of our immediate communities and neighborhoods. I drove down to Huntington Beach this weekend to visit my parents. I drove through downtown HB, passed open restaurants and crowded beaches. It was a rarity to see a COVID mask on bros in American flag boardshorts and women guzzling hurricanes. As we exited the freeway back home in LA, joggers and bicyclists were covered and faceless. Just a mere forty minutes up the coast, and I entered a different reality with an entirely opposite set of rules and ethics. 2,000 miles away, Ryan was probably adhering to his own sense of right and wrong in the midst of a global pandemic. I doubt that I could go onto his profile and shame him into adopting my understanding of social distancing protocol, based on the news I’ve digested, the conversations I’ve shared, the education I’ve attained, in one of the largest cities in the world. And maybe I wasn’t meant to. The Internet, for all its awesomeness and effectiveness, is a hopeless place for meaningful discourse. They used to say to avoid politics and religion at the dinner table, and that’s in the confines of a warm home over a lovingly prepared meal, with people you’ve known and loved your entire life who share your experiences and culture. Now reduce that complex dialogue to comment slaps with strangers who live on the other side of the world. People whom you’ve never seen and never will, and all you’ll ever appreciate of their entirety as a human being is a square avatar.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t debate with people about politics. How are we to make progress if we don’t challenge people on their wrongs and convince them otherwise? But, we should be smart as to the proper venue to engage others (probably not social media), and realistic about end goals (it’s okay if we haven’t converted them, it should not deter our spirit). Which, is why my politics have taken a different trajectory over the last year – on a course that’s strategically personal, intimate, and offline. This isn’t far removed from how I invite people to discuss faith and religion as well as my life’s work. My business approach has always been to meet and make customers one at a time. I know how shallow and short-lived it can be to market to the masses. I’d rather plant the seeds deep with a patron, affording the time to listen and learn, even if it takes years. Having my mind changed before changing theirs. After 17 years, this is why we have such a thick and loyal base. It’s not that they agree with everything that we make and stand for. But, we share a respect and fellowship that’s come from accepting the other.
We are all such intrinsically different people with deeply entrenched belief systems. In fact, in most ways, this diversity is what makes our country so innovative and interesting and powerful. Of course, there are the uglier nuances that divide us on life and death matters. And yes, we now clutch these points as underpinnings of our core identity. But, it serves us to also brandish other facets of our identity that we share and love together – as workers, as students, as family people. As members of our community. As local citizens of our towns. Perhaps if we begin there, we’ll have better visibility on our collective standing as Americans.