Gerry Bell: Pogo had it right

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For those too young to have seen him or remember him, Pogo was the lead character - a possum -- in an Okefenokee Swamp comic strip that ran in national syndication from 1948 to 1974. His creator was Walt Kelly, an early Disney animator who struck out on his own and found fame as a social commentator and gadfly. Kelly's satirical targets, particularly in the moribund and authoritarian `50s, were institutional and societal racism; the conflating of protest and dissent with communism; and the societal apathy that grew out of widespread self-absorption.

I look at the state of our nation today and I'm tempted to think, "Poor Walt. Poor Pogo. Doesn't look like they changed things very much." But the truth is we had made some progress, at least until 2016, when Pogo's most famous utterance again took center stage. He paraphrased naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Wow. Pogo had it right, and he was way ahead of his time. I suppose we're all free to define our own enemies, but the players in this 2020 drama are pretty clear to me. To be sure, we are not all the enemy. Many of our countrymen are heroes: the doctors, the health care workers, the police and postal workers, the firefighters, the supermarket clerks, the local and state government workers, and the members of the general public who observe the mitigation guidelines. Crisis brings out the best in a lot of people.

But the crisis itself - COVID-19 - is not the enemy; it merely provides the setting. Nor is the enemy hatred, racism, sexism, xenophobia, bullying, or hyper-partisanship. Those are only the everyday tools employed by the president of the United States and his acolytes. And, tempting as it may be to say otherwise, Donald Trump isn't the real enemy either. Granted, he's a narcissistic sociopath and a monstrously insecure man who must surround himself with yes-men and sycophants. But he himself is not the enemy.

Mr. Trump has one real talent. He can identify and leverage the real enemy among us to support his two principal objectives: his own glorification and his re-election. The real enemy, which Trump is a master of manipulating, is stupidity. That is the malignant cancer loose within American society - rampant, unrestrained, contagious stupidity - and its handmaidens of ignorance, willful ignorance (even worse), and uncontrolled greed and selfishness (unaware and unconcerned of their own consequences).

To borrow somewhat from the president: "There are some very stupid people on both sides." Cases in point:

On the far left are the hysterical snowflakes and their paroxysms of political correctness. They excoriate pop singer Adele for posting a photo, in the context of thanking health care workers, showing that she's recently lost weight. They attack supermodel Tyra Banks for advising an aspiring model to arrange for some remedial dental work. They bray about too many airplane seats filled on a flight carrying (masked) California physicians home from volunteer work in New York, when they'd just spent weeks in close quarters with each other and their patients. (If you're keeping score, these represent , in order, fat-phobic shaming, lookism, and inadequate social distancing.) Gasp! The horror! Honestly. These people are cluelessly stupid. Their country is in mortal peril of going over the precipice of having the inmates run the asylum, and they're spending all their time demanding apologies for every minuscule imagined offense they can perceive. No wonder they lose elections.

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On the far right - my God, where do I begin? Retail clerks in Oklahoma assaulted, shot, and killed in their own stores for asking customers to wear face masks. Again in Oklahoma - hijacking and phishing a Zoom-assisted digital college graduation ceremony with porn and swastika images. Breaking the arm of a Target store employee for asking customers to wear face masks. Overcrowding a way-too-early red state bar opening, and in defiance of mitigation guidelines, ostentatiously refusing to wear face masks. The mayor of Las Vegas offering the city as a "control group" - "Let's open it fully and see what happens." The president of the United States openly fomenting rebellion among Republican county commissioners in Pennsylvania, urging them to ignore the mitigation guidelines issued by the duly elected (Democratic) governor. The Congressional enablers and the talking heads of Fox News discussing "acceptable losses" for reopening the economy, especially among the (non-productive) elderly. (Looks like Sarah Palin's "death panels" have found a home in the Republican Party!) And finally, the musings of a head of state who ponders injecting disinfectants into your body while looking directly at a solar eclipse, all the while rejecting the best scientific evidence offered by the nation's leading infectious disease expert.

There is only one explanation for all this - stupidity itself, or the cynical attempt to leverage stupidity for votes. But, as comedian Ron White has often said, in his own classic tagline every bit as insightful as Pogo's: "You can't fix stupid."

But I fear the Democrats, in their misguided idealism and naive belief in the perfectibility of humankind, will surely try. "We'll appeal to the better angels of their nature." Forget it. The stupids are so steeped in their certitude of being on target in their hatred that they no longer have better angels. "We'll explain why our approach is more in their self-interest." Nah. You'd be sowing seeds on barren land; the stupids won't listen, and they're bereft of reason and logic anyway. "We'll shame them by holding their excesses up to the bright light of day." Won't work. Ingrained stupidity is beyond shame.

In this nation today, there is only one way to combat stupidity: outvote it. The pathologically lying tweeter-in-chief must go, along with the appointed thugs of his executive branch and as many of his shameless enablers in the U.S. House and Senate as possible.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. The last guy standing between the two stupid extremes is named Joe Biden. He is a good and decent man, imperfect like all of us, occasionally a little inarticulate, but a man who has overcome devastating personal tragedy and who has deep empathy for the troubles of other people. I believe he wants most of all to bring us together and heal the wounds inflicted on this country in the last four years. As he said several months ago - in the words that got my vote - "If we throw this guy out in 2020, it will take a good long while to repair the damage that has been done. If we don't, it will take at least a generation for us to heal."

He's right. But we don't need to declare war on stupidity; we only need, as a first step, to outvote it. Then we can start the gradual process of educating a new generation in reason and logic, and steer them away from gut-level reflexive stupidity, until the last of the stupids are irrelevant.

Don't just vote yourself; call your friends and family and classmates and service buddies in other states and urge them to join you. Tell them to vote this time like their whole world depends on it - because it does. If we do that, we will have met the enemy, and he will be ours. Pogo will be very happy.

Gerry Bell lives in Shaftsbury.


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