I‘ve always been a stickler for the truth.
As a kid, I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus, but I do remember becoming exasperated with my sister and older cousins one Christmas Eve for clinging to their insanity in the face of such unmistakable, ever-mounting evidence. “Look at the name tags on the presents tomorrow morning!” I yelled as they arranged the milk and cookies that I knew Uncle Dick would inhale as soon as we went to bed. “It’s amazing that Santa has the exact same handwriting as mom, isn’t it?”
I knew the Tooth Fairy was my mother. I thought kids who believed in the Easter Bunny should be institutionalized. I got spanked by our babysitter for telling Missy Miller where babies come from. A stork? Are you out of your fucking mind? Let me clear a few things up for you, Missy …
By middle school, I’d stopped sweating the obvious myths and started noticing subtler ones. I was vexed by word packages that my culture delivered to me with the authority and gravitas of a monk citing Leviticus. They came from everywhere, these catchphrases that burrowed their way into my brain and itched there like okra splinters. I heard them from teachers, well-meaning aunts, televisions, the pulpit of my tiny church: Fought for our freedom. Died for our sins. Southern hospitality. Greatest country in the world.
On the way home from church, I’d grill my parents from the back seat about the equations from the sermon that didn’t add up by any logical accounting. I’d ask my dad and every teacher who’d indulge me about wars, who started what, what reasons they had, who really won. I’d discuss Southern hospitality with the parents of my black buddies. And the more I learned, the clearer it became that this country loved to say things that just weren’t true.
It still does.
Every April 19, as Oklahomans pause long enough to tweet about the 168 people who were killed in the Murrah Building bombing, we can’t help sliding our own catchphrase into the moment of silence: the Oklahoma Standard. It’s just a brag, pure and simple, a hashtag that tells the world that when you need us in your time of tribulation, be it bomb or be it tornado, Okies will be there. And by God, we’ll bring our own chainsaw.
It’s a pat on the back for our compassion, an “attaboy” for being such good neighbors. And it’s horseshit.
For starters, bragging about helping out in the aftermath of an atrocity is the worst kind of smugness. It’s like bragging about how much you love your kids. You know who else bands together and performs mass acts of kindness and selflessness in the wake of disasters? Everyone, everywhere.
No matter how badly you want it to be, it is not an Okie trait to pitch in to rebuild a destroyed piece of a community — it’s a human one. Read the stories that start to run a week after any terrorist attack, from 9/11 to Brussels to Boston. They’re about acts of heroism, tales of compassion. Firemen running up burning staircases. Strangers piling up entire mountain ranges of shovels and jugs of water and rubber boots until the authorities have to set up volunteer coordination centers. We have more blood than we can use, some spokesman will inevitably say.
Natural disasters are no different. Just one month after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the world had already given almost $2 billion dollars for relief efforts. One year later, New Orleans natives drowned in Katrina’s floodwaters because they wouldn’t leave their neighbors. We’re not special because the Oklahoma Red Cross will never have to buy Solo cups again.
If there is anything special about Okies, it’s our consistent ability to elect the meanest people God ever made to public office. Unless you’re a born-again, heterosexual fetus (or unless a tornado hits your house), the Algonquin Round Table at 23rd and Lincoln couldn’t give the proverbial rat’s hind parts about you or your problems, and they’re proud of it. They campaign on it. After all, what else does “smaller government” mean, at least when it’s wafting out of Sen. Jim Inhofe or Sen. James Lankford’s mouth? Pregnant? Not our problem. Poor? Not our problem. You’re a 10-year-old El Salvadorian refugee seeking food and shelter at Ft. Sill? Not. Our. Fucking. Problem.
We slash Medicaid for the poor and elderly, consistently alienate gay citizens, and slap the schools around like Ike Turner. While screaming about constant persecution in Jesus’ name by the liberal hordes, we waive taxes for gilded kingdoms and ban beggars from the streets. Okies show up in droves after a tornado erases a town, but that doesn’t excuse the callous, year-round negligence we show not only our fellow citizens but the principles of which we all claim to be so proud. Imagine having a neighbor who lets his Rottweiler shit on your lawn for years, then brags because he gives you a trash bag full of old T-shirts after your house burns down. If there is an Oklahoma Standard, that’s it.
The powers that be have turned the catchphrase into a full-on marketing campaign now, where you can commit online to an act of “service, honor, or kindness.” You can buy an Oklahoma Standard button at the bombing museum (spend $50 or more and get a free tote! Come see Tim McVeigh’s car!) You can go to Oklahoma Standard night at a Thunder game, put on the same free T-shirt as everybody else, and feel the warm, comfortable glow of self-satisfaction settle into your belly like bourbon.
Well, I ain’t wearing the T-shirt. I don’t want that to be my standard.
I want to live in a place where we choke at the stench of bullshit, where we actually do draw from the reserves of strength and savvy and shrewdness our pioneer forebearers gifted us, where we descend like locusts on any corruption of common sense. A place where we don’t turn lies into slogans, where the truth isn’t shouted down as pessimism. A place where the grownups don’t believe in Santa Claus.
If it’s true that human beings can’t recognize a thing until we properly name it, then let’s call the Oklahoma Standard what it is: a myth. And if we are going to honor the memory of those lost in the bombing, or if we really are going to band together to achieve something bigger and better and bolder than ourselves, let’s stop waiting for calamity. Let’s band together for the truth and start working forward from there, every day. Let that become our new standard.
I’ll bring a chainsaw.