Fraying at the Edges
The man was filled with passionate conviction: give him that.
Standing in line at the Lincolnville Post Office, I listened to this fellow — 40-ish, barrel-chested, armed with a resonant voice and fetching grin — inform another man at some length that our little town ought to scrap its police department.
Allow me to digress. The Lincolnville P.D. consists of one full-time officer, three part-time reserve officers, one cruiser, and one cramped room at the town office. It costs us a little over $100,000 per year. A survey conducted by the select board found that, by a large majority, the locals approve of this arrangement. Nonetheless, a small but vocal contingent manages to sustain a perennial debate over the fate of the Lincolnville cop.
So there things stood at the post office — the debate, such as it was, raged on. The loud man stuck to his guns, while his soft-spoken interlocutor gamely advanced the usual points in favor of keeping the chief on the beat. (The big one, to my mind, is that the money saved by firing him would then be spent on reimbursing the county for sheriff services.) The barrel-chested man was having none of it. He knew what he knew, and didn’t want to hear any different.
By the time I finished my postal chores, the topic had shifted. Now we were on to climate change. The barrel-chested man believes in climate change, as it develops. He believes the Earth is cooling and Al Gore is lying to you. I got the blazes out of there.
Extreme convictions, passionately held, tenaciously defended against any challenge from more moderate quarters: this is a subject that fascinates and unsettles me. Political craziness in particular (and I think anti-scientific views on climate change fall under the heading of politics, just as anti-scientific views on evolution and geology fall under the heading of religion) makes me deeply uncomfortable.
Anyone old to enough to have a sense of the history of the 20th Century knows too well where extremist politics can lead. For that matter, anyone old enough to remember the 90s will recall Timothy McVeigh blowing up a federal building (with its associated day care center) because of his opinions about the government. Anyone with cable television can hear the likes of Rep. Michelle Bachmann urge right-thinking Americans to be “armed and dangerous” in opposing the insidious plans of the new administration. Maybe that's a far stretch from the local Post Office. Or maybe not.
Please don't think me unduly partisan. Extremism runs in all directions, left and right, backwards and forwards, and it embraces a broad range of subjects. A few weeks ago I fell out with a very liberal neighbor over the Academy Awards.
Say what? This is not a digression, though it may sound like one. I was about to enter the yearly Guess-the-Oscars contest at our great local video store, HAV-II in Camden. So I was excited to learn that Nate Silver — the statistical wiz behind fivethirtyeight.com, who beat the pants off everyone in forecasting the 2008 election — had made some predictions for the Oscar race. I was about halfway through telling my neighbor about this when she said, “But who is Nate Silver?”
I was surprised because she is a political junkie, but I dutifully started to explain. She interrupted: “No, but who is Nate Silver really? Where did he come from? Who’s behind him?”
Slowly I understood. My neighbor does not believe in polls, which were the raw data Silver used in making his electoral predictions. Polls are rigged. Elections are rigged, too — which is why, even in theory, it’s impossible to predict the results ... unless you are part of the conspiracy. Hence, who is Nate Silver really? Obviously he is one of Them, or at least working for Them.
It was a far stretch from the Academy Awards. Or maybe not. Maybe those are rigged too. Come to think of it, they must be. Didn’t Harvey Keitel win something once? Well, there you go.
My neighbor is a 911-Truther. Those are the people, generally on the left, who believe the government planned and carried out the destruction of the World Trade Center. They are, in a sense, the soul mates of Birthers — people on the right who believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or someplace, and is impersonating a U.S. citizen in order to ... well, I’m not sure, but didn’t he win a Grammy Award? So there you go.
I’d like to laugh all this off. But my liberal neighbor and I haven’t been speaking lately, and I’ve been feeling wary at the post office. As a community, this kind of thing can’t be good for us.