It’s a story that’s been told and told again in our family. I think we tell it because it so accurately reflects who we are as a people in a way that trying to describe our little clan could never do. It’s a symbol of our love, arrogance, ego and empathy, all rolled into one.
My Aunt Opal was at the Department store with her daughter. There were in the shoe department, buying new shoes, which is always a big occasion, but which I imagine was an even bigger deal back then. This would have been before I was born, so ages ago. My cousin was trying on a pair of shoes and after observing her a moment, my Aunt asked the clerk to bring out a larger size, which he did. This was back in the days when a shoes salesman was almost always a man, even in the women’s department. The clerk brought the new, larger size out, removed one from the box, and placed it on my cousin’s foot. My aunt responded immediately and with feeling, “Ahhhh. That’s better.”
With those three simple words, Opal explained the key to understanding my family, which to put it another way can stated that we know what’s best for you, despite what you may think. It’s become a shorthand for knowing you better than you know yourself.
My people are from Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. Pioneer people, immigrants from Ireland and England, scratching out a hardscrabble existence in search of a better life in the New World. By the time I came around, having left the Great Depression and the Big War behind, my people had become relatively comfortable and solidly middle class, and being midwestern, had also become downright conservative. We had worked hard for what we had, and we wanted to keep what we’d rightfully stolen.
I always found it odd that my family produced such a renegade liberal as myself, being as conservative as we were, but as they say, these things can skip a generation or two. Plus, I had to rebel somehow. What better way to reject a history of white supremacy and racism and conservative status quo, than by embracing a socialist, pluralistic worldview and moving to New Jersey, of all the godforsaken places in the world. This poor Okie is far from home.
But you can only escape your own destiny but so much. My dogmatism runs differently, but just as strongly as I too believe I know what’s best for you, even if that’s the ability to do whatever you want, with tolerance for all, and the true cowboy aesthetic of independence, honor, trustworthiness and courage. How conservatives took this ideal and twisted it into do unto others before they do unto you, is beyond my mental calculations.
There is no small amount of paternalistic arrogance wrapped up in the notion that you know what’s best for someone. Like the benevolent king of old, we who know better rule with an open hand, not a closed fist. Doesn’t mean we are above slapping you upside the head, just that we mean it with love.
The irony of course is that everyone thinks they know what’s best for everyone. Everyone has a better plan, serves the one true God, better understands the future or just plain feels it more than you do.
So just go with it, you’ll feel better once you do. Trust me.