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A Yankee Notebook

July 18, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – It’s an interesting anomaly of public opinion that, while a majority of Americans think Congress worthy of or even beneath contempt, they admire and respect their own congressman. If that seems illogical, it’s because it is. We seem to have more difficulty attributing honorable motives to people we don’t know than to those we do. Distrust of government is innate, especially when it does things we don’t approve of or agree with. Henry David Thoreau attempts, in Civil Disobedience, to raise it to a philosophy. To many in America today it’s a religion.

I don’t follow political blogs – they give off too much heat and not enough light, as a rule – but now and then a “Friend” on Facebook will suggest an article in Huffington Post, the New York Times, or the Daily Beast. Thus it was, today, that I was led to a piece in the St. Petersburg Times describing a conflict involving the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (read “Feds!”), a population of manatees (Trichecus manatus) and the Florida Tea Party. In it, columnist Sue Carlton comments on a vigorous protest being mounted by Sunshine State Tea-Partiers against a plan to create a permanent refuge in Kings Bay for the gentle sea cows. In that 550-acre refuge, boat speeds would be restricted year-round.

These slow-moving aquatic mammals frequently suffer serious damage from spinning boat propellors; you can see their scars as they swim past. It would seem humane and sensible to set aside a small portion of our vast tropical swamps where they might be safe from such injuries. Except for one thing: The Government is proposing it, and thus threatening yet another infringement on the right of the citizenry to go where they please as fast as they please.

“We cannot elevate Nature above people!” claims Edna Mattos, a leader of the Citrus County Patriots, who clearly possesses gifts for aphorism, Constitutional guarantees, and Biblical interpretation. “That’s against the Bible and human rights.” She has blast-mailed Tea Partiers all across Florida, urging them to protest to Congress about this planned intrusion on citizens’ God-given right to drive boats as fast as they like wherever and whenever they feel like it.

Mattos’ beef, and that of her cohorts, is not really with conservation efforts, or even, most likely, with boat owners’ rights. It’s with the federal government. Like a disagreeable roommate who never can do anything not disagreeable, the Feds can do nothing right in Tea Partiers’ eyes – though I haven’t heard much grousing about highway maintenance, terrorist suppression, natural disaster assistance, Social Security, or the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. The appeals in their arguments to authority – the Bible and the Constitution – should tip us off. Those two authorities have been among the most cherry-picked literature in history. We should add them to Samuel Johnson’s famous aphorism about the last refuge of a scoundrel.

One of the most catastrophic events in recent history (using “catastrophe” in its classical Greek sense, as an irreversible down-turning), was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though inevitable – the shelf life of a Communist regime is, I’ve reckoned, roughly between 60 and 80 years – it nevertheless loosed upon the world all the troublesome contents of Pandora’s famous chest. While there existed two military “superpowers,” United States citizens could focus their anxieties and hatred upon the godless totalitarian regimes of the East; Senator McCarthy’s rants and investigations were but our own opinions on steroids. In addition, the ethnic hatreds of the world were held in check by their mighty patrons. After the Gorbachev-Reagan détente, the former mortal enemies began to make nice (albeit guardedly), and their minions were free to pursue their own agendas, which have turned out to be fiercely nationalistic, and in many cases even genocidal.

All of us human beings seem to need someone or something else to (pick your level) hate, despise, or feel superior to. Remember the “Merry Minuet,” sung by the Kingston Trio about half a century ago? – “The whole world is festering with unhappy souls; the French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles; Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch; and I don’t like anybody very much.” You’ve got to wonder if this prehistoric tribal hard-wiring will ever be eliminated from our natures. Looking at the news, you’ve got to doubt it. As commentator Niall Ferguson says in an essay in the July 18 Newsweek (the one with Sarah Palin on the cover). “This is the age of indignation.”

Evangelical Christians are often held together by the promise of the Day of the Lord, when the righteous will be swept into Paradise (significantly, leaving behind the rest of humanity); Red Sox Nation relies on the Yankees to keep the faithful fired up; and the Tea Partiers rely upon their mutual hatred of federal government, which they have personified as (to use the words of one Facebooker just this morning) “hopelessly corrupt” and needing euthanasia in favor of states’ rights and responsibilities. Didn’t we fight that war about 150 years ago? Throwing the baby out with the bath water may be briefly satisfying, but it’s essentially the act of simpletons overwhelmed by the complexity of problems presented by stressed systems, both natural and political.

Our imaginations are failing us. More of us need to visit Gettysburg and imagine the passions that led to that grisly climax. We need to imagine how childish our divisions would seem if we were threatened by an alien power, terrestrial or otherwise. We need to imagine that people who dislike us may have a point. We need to remember what we do to people – like, for example, Christ or John Lennon – who challenge our sacred biases and dare us to imagine something infinitely better. As most of us have been told at some time or another, we need to grow up.

Photo by Willem Lange