Maine: Designed By Geniuses, Run By The Rest of Us
"The first thing you've got to learn about this ship," declares the Fred McMurray character near the start of The Caine Mutiny, "is that she was designed by geniuses to be run by idiots."
A good line, a great line. It was still getting quoted twenty years later, when I joined the Coast Guard, though the text had been jiggered slightly: "this ship" had become "the military," thanks I suppose to Vietnam. A quick look around the Intertubes reveals that the quip is still in play and that a further escalation has occurred. "The ship" has become "America" — can we thank George Bush for this? — and via the miracle of online commerce, you can wear this happy thought on a t-shirt.
I disagree with the basic premise, though — and so, I suspect, would Herman Wouk, who penned the original version in his 1951 novel. Our society is ingenious, no doubt, but it still requires, at the very least, people of good will to run it properly.
Consider the immediate state of Maine civic life. I don't mean just politics, though the current electoral season certainly merits an acidic quip or two. I'm talking about the whole atmosphere of disrespect, indiscriminate anger, and general edginess that has drifted over our normally courteous and even-tempered state.
Not long ago, I met a fellow named Nikolai at a dinner party. A colorful guy with a complicated personal history (childhood in the old USSR, young adulthood in Israel), he seemed like one of those great characters you encounter in Maine with surprising frequency — "extra-vagant" souls, to use Thoreau's term — who for one reason or other have fetched up on our welcoming shores. But all was not happy with Nikolai. He confessed to me a particular fear: that his car might break down along a stretch of road — the road I live on, in fact — near a house that sports an ever-changing display of populist signage. Long before those huge LePage billboards became available, this fellow mounted colorful, sometimes cryptic homemade manifestos: Watch Fox News and LEARN. Generals, Not Washington. 8/28: Honor Restored!
I could see Nikolai's point. But since when is any Mainer afraid to break down in front of the house of any other? And this guy in particular, as it turns out, owns a tow truck. (I happen to know because he pulled my old Saab, R.I.P., out of a snowbank one day.) He's the head of the local American Legion, a gregarious local fixture. I relayed all this to Nikolai, who did not seem much mollified. He seemed to feel that when all is said and done, he and this Fox News guy — colorful Mainers both, and practically neighbors — stand on opposite sides of some unbridgeable divide.
I don't know; maybe he's right. I hope not, but maybe.
Last week there was a local candidates' forum, sponsored by the Maine Municipal Association, where people running for the state legislature spoke to an audience of whoever turns out for such things. I wasn't there. But by the following afternoon, via phone and e-mail, I'd heard all about it. There's no need to belabor you with details: you've seen this kind of thing on cable TV. As one attendee reported, the prevailing mood was one of "free-floating anger." Another observed, "It's as if the whole culture of Facebook and text messaging, where people feel entitled to say anything they want, has bled out into the popular culture, so now people are saying all these things right out in public."
As I said, I wasn't there. But this kind of thing, which seems so un-Mainelike, seems distressingly pervasive nowadays.
We weather the seasons pretty well up here, and no doubt we'll weather this one. But like a stretch of stormy weather, it's not a whole lot of fun while you're hunkered down waiting for it to blow itself out.