On Midwest Nice

A few years ago, over some now-forgotten holiday, a younger cousin still in college mentioned the homeless people near her apartment building in Milwaukee. “Gross,” she said. “I wish they’d go away.” After a beat or two of uncomfortable silence, my uncle shushed her: “That’s not nice; don’t say that.” He didn’t say it was wrong of her to say that, or note that the people she so clearly disregarded were suffering, too, and over a holiday, no less. No, it just wasn’t nice.

My family has never been accused of being anything but nice. Nice suburban houses. Nice kids who go to nice colleges. Nice family gatherings a few times a year. They go to nice churches on Sundays and carpool with nice neighbors to after-school sports games. They are, without a doubt, profoundly and utterly nice.

Like many Midwesterners, I was raised on nice. The idea of “Midwest Nice” still shapes the national dialogue today. It’s why reporters can’t stop traveling to Iowa to hear from nice families in Sioux City and why every major media outlet can’t stop trying to figure out how Donald Trump, the ultimate bully, won over all these nice, hot-dish-loving people.

And yes, before you ask: my very nice family did vote for that ultimate bully. Although I wasn’t there, I heard there was even a pair of Trump socks present at the nice family Christmas gathering.

Like a lot of people, that was something I found myself struggling with after the 2016 election. How could my parents, who’d raised me in such a nice household, vote for someone who built his campaign for President on racism? How could my aunts and uncles, who always gave me nice presents with thoughtful cards, vote for someone who made sexual assault a joke?

It’s been eight months since then, and I was too hurt at first to try to answer those questions. I didn’t know if I could open myself up to take a long look at the culture in which I was raised, or worse: to truly think about how those votes affected my feelings toward and relationship with my family.

After a particularly rough Monday, though, in which we learned that the secret health “care” bill being rammed through the Senate with nary a hearing will cause at least 22 million people to lose their health insurance, enough is enough.

It’s just not nice to support a giant tax cut for the wealthiest Americans at the expense of actual human lives.

The problem with the idea of nice is that it enables people – specifically white suburbanites who go to church on Sundays – to divorce themselves and their daily lives from the politics and politicians they support. Of course it isn’t nice to talk politics, so they don’t. And it is incredibly not nice of me to hold them accountable for their votes, and to what those votes say about them.

But I’ve found that’s exactly what I have to do. My family has been very nice to me over the years, but their politics and politicians are anything but. Perfume sets at Christmas are nice, but I’d prefer equal pay and free birth control from my insurer.

Somewhere along the line, being nice in the Midwest lost its kindness, its empathy, its understanding. You can leave your nice office, get in your nice car to drive to your nice home, and spend the evening watching your nice TV. You probably think that makes you nice, and there are probably a lot of other nice people like you who’d agree.

It’s time we stop thinking about nice in terms of things, start thinking about it in terms of actions, and take responsibility for those actions. Maybe then we’d find ourselves represented by elected officials who work to ensure no one has to sleep on the sidewalk outside an apartment building during the holidays – or any other time.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

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