Red Elephant Blue Elephant? (an experiment)
Please note, this is an experiment. I’m trying to write a straight essay that I’d like to keep working on and improving. I’d invite anyone who comes across this to make suggestions, etc. if you care to over the next week. Of course, only if you care to. I’ll then edit again and repost.
American Reality: Red and Blue Shadows
My hometown, Sebastopol, California is so politically blue that our city council is mostly green. Our city limits sign welcomes visitors to a “Nuclear Free Zone.” The feed store in this one-time apple-farming town sells Birkenstocks. Every new vehicle here seems to be a Toyota Prius and each bears a bumper sticker: “Proud member of the Reality-based community.”
Two months ago, Virginia Senator George Allen, suddenly You-tubed his campaign into reverse by first calling his opponent’s American-born campaign worker “Macaca” then welcoming S.R. Sidarth and his video camera to America and the “real world.” In Breaks, Virginia the real world includes waffle houses filled with cigarette-smoking customers and pickup trucks come standard with gun racks and Confederate flags.
If both George Allen and my Merlot-swilling, hybrid-driving neighbors have a grasp of American reality, they must be like the fabled blind men and the elephant. Each claims first-hand knowledge of the same America, yet it sounds as if one is holding the tail and convinced that it’s a kind of rope for hanging enemies of “democracy,” and the other is feeling the front leg and insisting that it must be a tree and thus is a good place to sit with Shel Silverstein.
Red and Blue Realities
One sees the Bible and the Constitution as intertwined documents. The other believes the two should at a minimum keep separate bedrooms divided by the Bill of Rights.
One hails the groundbreaking for a new McDonald’s as civic development. The other cites the golden arches as super-sized symbol of moral decline.
One insists that operating a chainsaw is a significant rite of passage. The other protests by chaining himself to a tree.
One equates the Iraq War with the American Revolution and the Emancipation. The other sees the taking of the Phillipines and Joe McCarthy.
One labels undocumented workers an epidemic and screams for a “quarantine.” The other talks about the Statue of Liberty.
One insists that global warming is hype and that the only race issue left is “affirmative action.” The other insists that both the racial and the actual climate are the real WMD we need to address.
To quote an unnamed American intellectual , “Two pairs of matching bookends, different as night and day.”
The only place these two reality cousins converge culturally might be on Brokeback Mountain, but only if Jack and Ennis don’t apply for a marriage license.
Like S.R. Sidarth, the fable of the blind men and the elephant has East Indian origins, but John Godfrey Saxe’s poem was so American it was published in 1878 in Linton’s Poetry of America, an anthology that included Negro spirituals, our national anthem, Poe, Longfellow, Emerson, and Whitman. We don’t have much use for poetry anthologies today. A hundred and twenty five years of progress has culminated in Myspace.com instead.
With more than a century of perspective on the America of 1878, we see it now as a nation in the midst of enormous changes. Manifest destiny, the incorporation of millions of “emancipated” slaves into “free” society, industrialization, a massive wave of immigrants (some welcomed and some—like my Chinese ancestors—legally excluded), urbanization, the third Great Awakening, and continuing shifts in the role of women have profoundly transformed American social reality. So much of what was graspable about America in 1878 is barely recognizable in 2006.
In particular, late 19th century essayists insisted that the certainty and precision of science made an eventual social order based on consistency and logic possible. Social science, one of the driving forces behind the Progressive movement, justified itself with the promise that it could make America better simply by making it more rational. Belief in the rational suggested to many that democratic consensus on social issues was possible and even inevitable, a comforting notion a decade after the Civil War. Americans reading Saxe’s “The Blind Men and the Elephant” no doubt convinced themselves that they, unlike the Indostani men in the poem, were not blind and would, with the help of science, soon see the whole elephant.
Those who chronicled 19th Century America, from de Tocqueville to Twain to Henry Adams, knew otherwise. Before Einstein, Godel, and Heisenberg, they intuited that America was not the kind of culture to sit still for a portrait. They saw through the mismatch of American rhetoric and reality and identified a culture that often thrived on fertile self-contradiction. De Tocqueville’s Jacksonian America—celebrating the common man except for Indians and slaves, Huck Finn, and Adams’s Virgin and the Dynamo—caught the emergent world power better than any scientists.
The contradictions persist. Our national sport, baseball, makes its participants spend most of the game standing or sitting. Descendants of slaves created our celebrated art form, “jazz” by bringing “freedom” to the slavemasters’ musical instruments. We simultaneously celebrate equality and competition. As a result we too often confuse wealth with wisdom. We link individualism with patriotism as if unaware of possible paradox. We eschew royalty, but recognize the poor white Elvis as “the king” and our most famous Duke and Count were black musicians. Our most influential painter, Jackson Pollock, stopped using a paint brush. TV talk show host, Oprah, tells us what to read. Saddest of all, we still pair optimistic talk of personal freedom and open-ended wealth with often shocking acceptance of economic and social injustice.
With the benefit of 20th century science, we should by now understand that the real America remains impenetrable and ungraspable—a moving target. When it comes to seeing ourselves, we are a nation of the blind, which may explain why Ray Charles recorded the definitive version of “America the Beautiful.” In that spirit, we are a nation held together by its own paradoxes, its multiple realities.
The reality is this. The people of Breaks, Virginia, and Sebastopol, California, are unquestionably real Americans.
Looking at the Saxe version of the fable with modern eyes, I tell myself that when it comes to seeing the entire elephant, we are all hobgoblinned by consistency. The poem reminds me that so many disparate and seemingly incompatible elephant parts—trunk, tusk, tail, and torso— conspire to combine into a single organism. Depending on your perspective, the elephant is either a marvel of evolution or the product of God’s peculiar genius. It violates all notions of efficient design yet it has survived and flourished for thousands of years.
In fact, the animal now controls all three branches of our Federal Government. I couldn’t ignore that obvious a symbol could I? Yet, is there any better proof of America’s constantly shifting self-contradictory nature than the fact that Earl Warren was the Republican governor of California just a generation before Ronald Reagan? Let’s pretend though that our elephant happens to be non-partisan, perhaps because of California Representative Pombo and the Endangered Species Act.
The last lines of Saxe’s poem:
“…. each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!”
America has long taken pride in its willingness to accommodate diverse cultures and viewpoints. The seeming cultural contradiction of the waffle house and the organic market should simply remind us that we are a creature of wildly different parts who thus far has found ways to move forward regardless.
In 1987, I bicycled from Los Angeles to New York to experience the elephant myself. During the six-week trip, I stayed with Lakers-jacket-clad Navajos in New Mexico, went to a Jewish wedding in West Los Angeles, attended service at the Church of Christ in Nashville, slept in a homeless shelter in D.C., was offered pulled pork by the overalled proprietor of a tin-walled shack in Tennessee, ate Eggs Benedict in Montclair with a Salomon Brothers vice president, and talked with a Baptist mom in Oklahoma who explained why she didn’t believe in dancing while her musically-talented ten-year-old listened to rap music on the doorstep. All these people had separate notions of the “real America.” At the same time, each welcomed me and thrilled to the fact that we were somehow different yet joined. I came home convinced that America was as improbably beautiful as any elephant.
That said, it might surprise some that there’s an Islamic version of the fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. This one ends,
“If there had been a candle in each one's hand, the difference would have gone out of their words. “
As my country threatens to pull apart in arguments about whether the rest of us need to choose tusk or tail, I’m lighting a candle and praying that we open our eyes in time to grasp this reality—there can be unity in diversity and paradox can at core be coherent. It might be the difference between learning to ride the elephant or being trampled by it.