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A Yankee Notebook

May 14, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I don’t get it, and I don’t suppose I ever will. I know that Americans have always been wild hares when it comes to politics (religion, too; check out the Second Great Awakening). But during national election campaigns, we descend happily into mud-wrestling excess. You’d think we’d’ve learned better by now. You’d be wrong.

Remember the story of the scientist who locked a chimpanzee in a room with only a small table and a hanging bunch of bananas? When he peered through the keyhole of the door to see what the chimpanzee was doing, he saw a big brown eye looking back at him.

I thought of that story when, during the 2003 run-up to the United States invasion of Iraq, the French wisely and correctly declined to join the effort. In a spasm of what we’ve come to call patriotism, our House of Representatives threw a hissy fit. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the Committee on House Administration, changed the name of the French fries and French toast served in the House restaurant to Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast. France came in for more than its usual share of Yankee scorn – though Tina Fey, in a Saturday Night Live response, mentioned that the French had changed the name of American cheese to fromage idiot.

By chance, Mother and I happened to be in France during both the Clinton impeachment hearings and the French fry flap, and were treated to delightfully ironic Gallic smiles and remarks on both subjects. The chimpanzee was looking bemusedly back through the keyhole.

We’re a curious nation: a volatile mix of immigrants who came here to escape oppression or to take advantage of greater opportunity. We're impatient, contentious, and certain of our opinions. We’re guided – or claim to be – by a constitution that, like the Bible, is open to almost as many interpretations are there are interpreters. In reality, we’re more obviously guided by our identification with various religions, prejudices, and milieus; the variety of opinions regarding the intent of the Second Amendment is a perfect example. And we often hide our true motives behind highfalutin’ rhetoric. The absolute refusal of many citizens to admit that anything positive has happened during the current Administration illustrates that. I may recoil from the hateful prejudice that created it, but I have to admit the honesty of those who display the bumper stickers or T-shirts reading, “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012.” Race hatred is still alive and well in the home of the brave.

Race hatred, as odious as overflowing sewage, has been with us since prehistory. It ebbs or advances as the haters feel more or less threatened by demographic events. Many American citizens seem to be driven half-mad by the reality of a half-African President.

What should concern us far more is the intrusion of socio-religious values into the republic’s electoral campaigns. Though the sixth clause of the Constitution specifically forbids any religious test of any candidate for office, the rule is observed more in its breach than in its observance. All three major Western religions have been hijacked by their most conservative adherents, and all prominent candidates must try to convince evangelical voters that their values are not that far apart – even though they in fact may be. Recent events – Governor Romney pandering to the students of Liberty University and President Obama apparently abandoning hope of winning the evangelicals in favor of the much more liberal youth vote – clearly illustrate this sad fact.

Evangelical voters seem obsessed with moral minutiae – contraception, abortion, premarital sex, gay marriage, intelligent design, and creationism, and with passing laws imposing their values on their fellow citizens – rather than with the boring, but far more important political and moral issues of the national deficit and debt, international relations and trade, and aid to people worldwide dying of starvation, disease, and military oppression. To quote, in rebuttal, their usual source of authority: “You blind guides, which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.”

Mark Wilson, an alumnus and professor of geology at my alma mater, a lively Presbyterian college in Ohio, recently lamented our nation’s lack of progress in understanding evolution science: “As a teacher, my aspiration was that if we could just educate people better on this issue, it would make a difference. We are educating people better, but it hasn’t made a significant difference. In the 30 years I’ve been teaching, the numbers reflecting the American public’s attitude about evolution have remained essentially the same: 45 percent reject evolution; 45 percent have varying degrees of acceptance, and a minority are straight evolutionists.

“We’ve won every court case. We’ve won every debate and intellectual battle, but as far as the hearts and minds of America, it’s still very problematic....Many people believe that without a literal understanding of Genesis, the Christian faith makes no sense, and thus evolution must be false.”

It’s only May, but the artillery of the left and right have already opened fire, their caissons replenished almost infinitely, thanks to the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court. Our choices are posed in apocalyptic terms, and true believers are at a fever pitch. If things pan out as we hope, Mother and I will be in France again just before election day, and we’ll have another golden opportunity to gauge the opinions of the people so many Americans despise. Once again they’ll most likely agree that The United States is indeed an exceptional nation. But as before, they’ll probably voice the opinion that, if that’s true, it’s high time it began to act like one.

Photo by Willem lange