Why the Artist Needs To See Beyond Politics: Lessons Learned from a Visit to Cracker Barrel

If you’ve ever gone on a road trip through the US of A (“the land of the best and the worst” according to Leonard Cohen), you may have noticed these cathedrals of excessive calories and poor culinary taste in nearly every State. Their orange signs point skyward above the roadside trees as you speed along the interstate. I am talking about the chain of restaurants called Cracker Barrel. These establishments exude an atmosphere of old America. As you approach the door along a covered porch, you pass rocking chairs that gently sway in the breeze, as if inhabited by the souls of an America that time forgot. Chess and Checker boards are set between them, inviting you to “sit a spelland take a load off”. 

If you are an urban sophisticate, you will be bombarded by kitschy items for sale: country and western CDs, DVDs of popular shows from the 1950s and 60’s. A country store with wooden shelves filled with merchandise like decorative items(seasonal), candies, and classic games. The first few episodes of the Twilight Zone and Warner Bros cartoons wink at me, as if to say, “Welcome back, kid.” Chocolate treats I thought had been discontinued and old Pez dispensers remind me that I am a child of the 50s. This is a place full of people the Democrats left behind.

As a waitress arrives and hands us oversized menus (that will match the oversized portions we will receive), fragments of Bruce Springsteen tunes and scenes from diner movies try to organize themselves into some semblance of coherence in my brain to compensate for my overwhelmed senses. When I look into the waitress’s eyes I see a deep tiredness, but also a steely resilience that I deeply respect. There was nothing whiney about this woman. I pictured her as a single mom doin’ the best she could. I saw waitresses of all ages, young ones and old ones, still carrying a glimmer of hope in their steps. Many of them working hard to maintain warm smiles, despite their aching feet. I truly felt for them. These people wouldn’t call themselves “storytellers”, but each had a story worth telling.  

Suddenly, my urban judgment snaps back to attention. I surveyed the room and looked at all the guests. I’m not sure if I said this out loud to my companions or if it was just a voice in my head, but I thought, “I bet 80 to 90% of these people were Republican and voted for Trump.” A feeling of uneasiness washes over me. Suddenly they seem uneducated, and their collective IQ dropped rapidly before my eyes. They became all that was wrong in America.

I breathed these thoughts away and allowed myself to see them without judgement and open to empathy (the life blood of the artist). I now saw families, loving grandmothers, mothers and fathers, and doting grandfathers. I saw happy and excited children. I saw the pride in the children and the love of family. There was nothing isolating about that experience.

As I looked further around the restaurant at the families dining, I couldn’t help but notice that it was a hive of multiracial, multigenerational, and working-class people. They were celebrating birthdays, promotions, victories, and so on. They were just decent people trying to make their way in the world.

As artists, it’s important not to devalue any human being through the lens and filters of our own socio-political beliefs. We unwittingly let our social media Masters groom us to think about narrower and narrower parts of the human experience. AI algorithms persistently shape our thinking, limiting our understanding of the vast spectrum of human experiences. It is not in our interests as humans but essential to their bottom line. We are letting it happen! It’s essential to explore different perspectives without judgment and to find the humanity in every situation and character we meet or are called upon to play. Our role as artists should go beyond mere entertainment. We have the ability to provoke thought, and inspire change, but to do so effectively, we must first shed our own biases, and preconceptions about others. At the very least make a genuine attempt at understanding.

If we can’t do this, we can’t in good conscience call ourselves artists!

Going to Cracker Barrel alerted me of the importance of remaining diligent at recognizing the humanity in everyone. It’s a reminder that as artists, we must strive to be judgment-free and open-minded, always seeking to understand and empathize with those around us. 

Next week, I will follow this up with some tools to assist in paradigm shifting, aimed at expanding the range and depth naturally within us. This will allow us to bring deeper understanding and more depth to the characters we play.