Tony Woodlief | Author

Mugged by reality

I feel like I should acknowledge that it’s been a year since I’ve written anything here, though I feel pretentious saying so, because it’s not like anyone has been waiting with bated breath, double-checking his calendar, pining for more posts. But yes, a year. Suffice to say I’ve been busy with other projects and not winning the lottery.

There’s also the usual life stuff. A job, home repair, my garden, kids and whatnot. Or maybe it’s not a usual life; last week I dropped off my oldest son at the departure point for his journey to U.S. Marine Corps Basic Training, then came home and changed the diapers of my youngest sons. But everyone’s life is unusual to him, isn’t it?

So, life. The point of my preamble is that it inhibits a man’s blogging. Which I suspect is for the best.

But I’ve been thinking about home, and country, and how we define both, and how we decide who gets to come into them. I’m not going to bore you with my opinions about either, but I am going to direct your attention to a fascinating Radiolab episode about a Dutch woman who moved to Switzerland and so annoyed her new neighbors that they voted against giving her citizenship, which is a thing you can do in small-town Switzerland.1

The thing you have to understand about Radiolab is that sometimes it’s like sitting on a comfortable couch inside the mind of a friendly, optimistic, intellectual, liberal New Yorker as he gets mugged by reality. A recent episode, for example, about a jovial man who labored for years after WWII to invent an entirely symbolic language that would be immune to rhetorical manipulation, took a dark turn—which the less cloistered among us might have seen coming—when it turned out he had a spiteful, controlling streak. Really? A man with the hubris to believe he can reinvent interpersonal communication for the entire human species turns ugly when people don’t do what he wants? Who saw that coming? Nobody on the Radiolab team, let me tell you. You have to go back to the early seasons of Gomer Pyle to find such continued astonishment at the ways of man.

But hey, I loved Gomer Pyle, and I love Radiolab. There’s a sweetness in their unselfconscious metropolitan naivete, and while their presuppositions frequently constrain their epiphanies (as with most of us), you can usually count on them to run the facts to ground, regardless of how distasteful they find them. And their stories are fascinating.

So what you’ll notice, as the story of the Dutch woman rejected by her Swiss neighbors unfolds, is that it begins like an interesting tale of democracy in action. Idiosyncratic, opinionated woman moves into a quiet town and begins complaining about their church bells and agricultural practices, so the townspeople tell her, “Go live somewhere else, you meddling witch.”

But the story takes a turn (which is one of the things that’s fun about listening to Radiolab), and we learn that Swiss towns appear to have a habit of rejecting, in addition to irritating complainers, men from predominantly Muslim countries. Uh-oh. Xenophobia, announces the Radiolab reporter.

This is one of those mugged-by-reality moments, because most of us outside the modern cosmopolitan bubble understand that the entirety of human history is one long tale of xenophobia. The whole purpose of having a citizenship process, in fact, is rooted in xenophobia. I daresay if lower Manhattan were suddenly to receive thousands of conservative Russian Orthodox Christians and Nigerian evangelicals, all of them eager to vote and attend school board meetings, even the good people at Radiolab might feel a twinge of xenophobia.

You can listen to the episode, but I’ll leave you with this rumination from the Dutch woman rejected by her neighbors: “Democracy is power, and power should be given to people who deal responsibly with it. And if they use this power on an emotional level, this power should be taken away from them.”

In other words, democracy only works when voters are capable of thinking rationally and acting responsibly—says a woman who literally moved next door to a church and started lodging formal complaints about the volume of its bells. Which just goes to show that you can find wisdom in the most unexpected places.

  1. You can also check out this little backgrounder, which really heats up in the comments section, where people of all nationalities weigh in, largely with words that indicate they had some post-secondary education that stuck.
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