In 2014, when my father-in-law paid for a 2016 Christmas cruise for the whole family, none of us knew how bizarrely different the world would be by the time we stepped on the boat. (See: Trump)
Two overlapping statistics piqued my interest more than any endless buffet: 93 percent of cruise vacationers are White, and their average age is around 46, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Taking into account how, according to the Pew Research Center, Hillary Clinton lost the White vote by more than 20 percentage points, I hoped the 2,500-passenger Celebrity Summit would be an opportunity to understand what “Make America Great Again” really means.
Before flying cross-country on Christmas Eve and embarking from zika-ravaged and bankruptcy-poisoned San Juan, Puerto Rico, I packed flipflops, swimming trunks, and my Bay Area bubble. The inspiration for my reporting came from UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.
In Strangers in Their Own Land, her 2016 National Book Award-nominated book, Hochschild spent five years in Louisiana to study the “Red State Paradox,” defined by head-scratchers such as how Louisianians can hate the Environmental Protection Agency while breathing some of the worst-quality air in the country. Her mostly White, crumbling middle-class subjects were certain that Big Government kept allowing others to “cut in line” in front of them, that they were being cheated by lazy welfare moms or illegal immigrants. (She also discovered that having a biracial son of a single mother in charge of Big Government does not exactly inspire trust in that particular population.)
What Hochschild does best, though, is listen, a necessary but rare act that transforms a political talk into a political discussion. So, for seven days at sea, I listened for my chance. From San Juan to Barbados and back, on a sea
so sky-blue it shamed the sky above, I wandered the 12 decks of the Celebrity Summit. From the 24/7 cafe with more food than most small countries to the bingo games to the crammed elevators to the neglected staircases, what I had assumed would be a horizontal Trump Tower victory float proved to be anything but.
Not a peep about politics — even at the bar — where I was sure loose lips would sink my liberal ship. I listened for the “T” word and kept an eye out for any signs — hats, T-shirts, orange hair-comb-over homages — that might reveal a supporter. (There were plenty of lines, but no one seemed too upset by them.)
What became obvious was that everyone was zealously eager to steer clear of discussions — not just about politics, but any serious discussions at all. We had all slipped into the “infancy” that David Foster Wallace warned about in “Shipping Out,” the classic cruise feature he wrote for Harper’s 20 years ago after his own Celebrity Caribbean cruise.
“I want to believe that maybe this ultimate fantasy vacation will be enough pampering,” Wallace wrote, “that this time the luxury and pleasure will be so completely and faultlessly administered that my infantile part will be sated at last. But the infantile part of me is, by its very nature and essence, insatiable. In fact, its whole raison consists of its insatiability.”
One conversational topic, however, dominated the ship: on-shore excursions, ranging from rainforest zip-lines to bumpy banana boat tows to rum-punch, Catamaran-and-snorkel packages.
So I went ashore. And the National Museum of St. Kitt’s, a homey museum on the second floor of a clapboard house, knocked me out of my infancy and back into the horrible historical reality of making ourselves “great” at the expense of entire cultures.
The museum highlighted the 300year history of Caribbean sugar plantations, which brought enormous profits to Europe on the backs of slaves. After considering the somber pictures of slave labor in the museum, I read a summary by Kevin A. Yelvington in his December 2016 article “Caribbean Crucible: History, Culture, and Globalization” for the local weekly, Cultural Xpression.
“Columbus brought the first sugar cane to the Caribbean on his second voyage in 1493. It is likely that enslaved Africans from Spain also accompanied him on that voyage, foreshadowing the African-slave-sugar-commodity connection. With the rapid destruction of the native populations, enslaved African laborers were imported shortly after the first canes were planted, thus paving the way for the proliferation of the widespread and centuries-enduring plantation complex.”
The United States had, of course, committed its own “original sin” of slavery and built its empire on the backs of slaves, too. But we don’t have to go back that far to start worrying about where and when the slogan great again is intent on bringing us.
In a November Fresh Air interview, writer Zadie Smith responded to a national survey that reported that seven out of 10 Trump supporters believed life in the 1950s in the United States was much better.
“This is a very interesting point for me,” Smith said, “because that kind of historical nostalgia is only available to a certain kind of person. … I can’t go back to the ’50s, because life in the ’50s for me is not pretty, nor is it pretty in 1320 or 1460 or 1580 or 1820 or even 1960 in this country, very frankly. So that’s what interests me — the historical nostalgia that is available or not available to others.”
Back on board, another grim possibility of the future was being squirted into my hands before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Because of complaints of gastrointestinal illness from the passengers of the previous cruise, staff armed with jugs of Purell hand sanitizer blocked entrances to every café and restaurant on board.
Unfortunately, the global zeal to destroy every kind of germ has created antibiotic-resistant bacteria in every corner of the world, according to a 2014 World Health Organization Report. As I rubbed the ample Purell into my palms, I feared that avoiding the impending environmental catastrophes — of our own creation — would be as likely as falling off a cruise ship and missing the water. And our infantile and insatiable appetite for consumption of the planet’s finite resources is not limited to cruise ships.
The last morning of the cruise, as we headed home, I looked over the bow and finally found some hope. Flying fish darted across the sea like skipped stones. Always in flux, from sea to air to sea again, they had evolved over millions of years to leap from the jaws of predators. This desperate willingness to rise and meet any challenge, to do whatever-whenever-however-wherever anything was needed, was the best advice that big white boat offered.
For the next four years, we’ll need that kind of relentless determination to avoid toxic nostalgia, or to keep from being lulled into an infantile belief that we’re being taken care of when we’re simply being had. We’ll need to fight every measure or law or tweet that attempts to make our country “great” at the expense of others. Because if a country becomes great by dehumanizing, marginalizing and victimizing others, how great is that, really?