Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Trees are the Right Height . . .

The Trees Are the Right Height or,
What To Do With a Bayer Aspirin?

During a recent paeon to one of his home states, Mitt Romney dropped this seemingly inscrutable praise-bite:  in Michigan, “the trees are the right height.”  A purpose of the DeBlog is to put the screws to inscrutability, so I’m not content with the chatterati’s bemused relegation of this comment to Romney’s general cone-headedness when it comes to talking like an average English-speaking human.  What could the Mittster have meant?

Broadly (or height-ly) speaking, trees are pretty tall.  Taller than, say, bushes.  Therefore, Willard’s comment could have been an oblique way of distancing himself from the last Republican president – or from fading rival Newt Gingrich, who is markedly shorter than Romney.  From another angle, trees dominate a Midwestern landscape, just as 1 per-centers dominate the other 99 per cent.  Metaphor alert!

But W.M. does not come across as a person fascinated with the possibilities of figurative language (or of language in general).  Another explanation is called for, and the DeBlog offers it for your consideration:  muddily expressed nostalgia.

Willard ‘Mitt’ Romney spent his early years (as I did, at approximately the same time) in the Great Lakes area of the Midwest.  As children, Mitt and I were used to relatively flat terrain punctuated by elms and maples and birches, beautiful trees that – unless one ventured to the Upper Peninsula or far Northern Wisconsin – appeared to us in single glory or manageable clumps, preferably in our own front or back yards.  Elms were good for hanging swings; maple leaves were good for picking up because they were pretty; birches begged to have their bark peeled off so we could scratch secret messages to our friends; all trees were good for climbing if they sported relatively low-growing branches.  Other trees served pleasant functions – pines reminded us of winter holidays, beeches provided blazing yellow accents in autumn, the random gingko gave us exotic (and grade-enhancing) additions to seventh-grade ‘science’s’ mandatory leaf book.

In other words, trees in the upper Midwest were part of an idealized childhood, one in which all families were nuclear and lived in free-standing houses, moms stayed at home to make us lunch (unless they were playing bridge), Rocky & Bullwinkle (featuring Mr. Peabody’s WABAC [Way-Back] Machine . . . an important source for much of what’s happening in this year’s Republican Primary) was the cool electronic distraction of choice, and all one’s classmates looked pretty much like we did.  And in this memory-air-brushed reverie, we children had lots of time to lie under trees, look up at the branch-laced clouds, and dream of pursuing the unlimited possibilities that American exceptionalism provided us.

Of course, this is a constructed nostalgia that ignores frustrated and unhappy mothers, martini-lunch- or assembly-line-addled fathers, constipated school curricula, racially segregated communities, and profound boredom.  Nonetheless, the pull of nostalgia is powerful.  Where it changes from a personal indulgence (and obviously, I’m not immune to it) to something more pernicious is when it begins to shape political philosophy. 

Enter Bayer aspirin.  Back in those putatively innocent 50s and 60s days, girls and young women lived in mortal fear of becoming ‘bad’ by giving in to their raging hormones.  Yes, we had them, just as young men did.  Fears of becoming pregnant had the questionable benefit of preventing many of us from indulging in ‘sexual license’ (as Rick Santorum so sternly puts it), but they also drove many of us into ill-considered early marriages because . . . let’s face it . . . sex drives are strong, and for teen-aged girls who were trying to be ‘good,’ there was only one solution.  So in my (and Mitt’s era), there was a marriage stampede.  Should the huge uptick in divorces among baby boomers be a surprise?

Santorum’s pocket multi-millionaire’s erstwhile joke about squeezing an aspirin (and Bayer was the only brand of aspirin anyone knew back then – the free market protected its own without any ‘mandated’ generics) between our knees is another homage to baby-boomer idealized nostalgia.  For sugar-money-daddy Foster Freiss, it evidently is all so simple . . . if a young woman (aka ‘gal’) didn’t open her legs, no pregnancy would result.  Case closed.  No accountability for young men (unless they indulged in masturbation, which somehow was more unnatural and sinful than non-conjugal sex).  Abstinence is free -- and thus good for the economy and reducing the deficit. Not to mention that the image of using an over-the-counter-medicine as a miniature chastity belt brings up all sorts of inquiries into connections among big pharma, political power, blaming-the-victim modes of thought, and gender prejudice.

To be fair, Santorum’s own issues with birth control apparently stem from an extremely rigid Catholicism that doesn’t resemble the beliefs and practices of most American Catholics. Yet Santorum’s concepts too are a form of nostalgia – for the time when the church hierarchy, on all levels (not just the Pope) was regarded as infallible, when patriarchy in religion and in family life was seen as tantamount to natural law, when Eve was to blame for Adam’s fall (and thus all mankind’s), when questioners and dissenters were monitored and persecuted.  Matters such as the church’s handling of pedophilia, on the one hand, or the change from Latin to demotic mass, on the other hand, are ignored in a nostalgia-driven swoon towards a non-existent religio-moral purity.  (This is not the post in which to consider the convergences between LDS and Evangelical Christian {which includes Evangelical Catholic} beliefs . . . such a post may be on the horizon, or it may be so tacit that it’s not necessary.)

Great religions change along with and in response to the cultures in which they reside.  So do normative ideas of family and community.  (The changes occur in jerks and starts, sometimes behind and sometimes ahead.)  It’s not that the past is necessarily retrograde; indeed, there’s much to be learned and some of it is worthy of being recovered.  But when nostalgia swamps the ability to analyze the past and discriminate between its strengths and weaknesses, its useful lessons and nostalgia-driven delusions, we’re not able to use the past as a component of understanding the present or as a way to envision a better future.  Instead, we’re locked into a self-serving longing  (particularly if we’re male) for a morally easy childhood-turned-adulthood . . . when trees were the right height (for us and what we wanted to do [ignoring the fact that Dutch Elm disease altered our very notion of the correct size of trees]) and sexuality was “bad” unless it led to (potentially innumerable) babies within a socially sanctioned marriage.

To sum up:  Romney’s tree-maunderings and Santorum’s birth-control dicta converge into the shared space of nostalgia – often nice for individuals, usually unfortunate as a public policy motivator.  Solution #1:  Stick a Bayer aspirin into the crotch of a Midwestern tree and hope for the best.  Solution #2:  Vote for Obama this November. 

[Fun facts for 2/17/2012:
--New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed the marriage equality bill passed by the NJ legislature.
--President Obama signed the payroll-tax deduction bill passed by the US Congress.
--Jeremy Lin has been added (last minute) to the NBA All-Star program; both President Obama and Half-Governor Sarah Palin have succumbed to Lin-Sanity.
--Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney has refused to participate in one of the fast-upcoming, way-too-many, designed-to-provide-free-air-time-for-Newt primary debates.]

{Semi-full disclosure:  The Deb in DeBlog is a baby boomer born and raised in Wisconsin but who has lived for most of her adult life in North Carolina after a collegiate detour to New England.  By profession, she is an elite-snob academic.  She is what used to be called a ‘moderate Democrat,’ meaning that she usually single-votes for the Democratic slate (not too hard to justify in the South today), supports unions, contributes a little bit to Democratic causes and candidates, but doesn’t march or protest (perhaps this admission makes her self-identify as a ‘lazy Democrat’).  She also doesn’t believe in bumper stickers because she’s afraid her car might be keyed.  Old enough to trust that the United States can weather bad/incompetent/not-her-choice politicians, she sees politics as fairly important, magnificently entertaining, and excellent fodder for unsolicited commentary. 
            Her other interests include sports, art, music, history, theology, and hanging out/shooting the shit with friends.  Despite her desultory efforts, these interests might seep into her blogs, so be forewarned. }

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