Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rough Winds

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Sunday, April 17, 2011

As I sit here, more than halfway through April, snow is flying and the wind portends an imminent power outage. Ah, spring in Michigan. I thought the previous month was supposed to come in like a lion, and all that shit. Well, nothing's certain except death and taxes, the latter of which, incidentally, are due tomorrow.

All of which puts me in mind of the opening lines of one of Shakespeare's sonnets:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

It would seem that England, like Michigan, promises nothing when it comes to warm weather, thus disappointing no one. My head is still in California, though, and this spring has been especially hard to get accustomed to, not to mention the fact that it's been late in developing into anything resembling spring. Well, I can see I'm on the verge of sounding like some aww shucks doofus human interest columnist for the local newspaper. We have Tom Rademacher here, but they abound throughout the country and you know who yours is, if you even read the paper any more. I'm amazed at how few people do. I set a good example for my kids when they were growing up, but none of them followed it, and none read newspapers. They get their news from other sources, no more or less believable, I suppose, but less consistent.

What I like about the Grand Rapids Press is its reliability and consistency. It is reliably and consistently Republican, which isn't a good thing. But just as you can compensate for a consistently inaccurate speedometer in your car by adjusting your speed up or down, you can compensate for a right wing newspaper by making certain mental calculations. You know, for example, that stories about Obama are never going to make him look good, being slanted, subtly or not so subtly, against him. By the same token stories purporting to objectively report on west Michigan's freshman congressman Justin Amash will fail to take into account that he's a certifiably paranoid far right geek. So, as with almost everything you see and hear, you make mental adjustments. You put your head down and do the sudoku, the word jumble, and the cryptoquip. You read Dear Abby and the medical advice column and find out which celebrities are having birthdays. That sort of thing. But as a newspaper, the Press will at least tell you if someone has been assassinated and give you a few salient details while sparing you the endless hours of utterly irrelevant hairspray-fueled drivel you'd get on television.

Another thing I'll say in favor of the Grand Rapids Press is that its editorial slant is Republican in an almost old fashioned way that makes it comparatively free of the shrill nonsense you get on Fox or CNN, for example. It's as if the very steadiness of the conservatism of the newspaper has kept it from moving too far to the right. It seems stuck in a time warp along with the likes of Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush, guys who, in the harsh weird light of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump look, if not good, then at least less horrifyingly cartoonish.

Any newspaper serving the Grand Rapids area must after all cater to its core constituency, which is, unfortunately, a pack of evangelical Christians. To understand this I keep reminding myself of the cultural heritage of the region, especially Kent and Ottawa Counties. That heritage, as I pointed out in one of the earliest posts on this blog, is rather odd and narrow in scope. The Dutchmen who came here in the middle of the 19th century weren't Dutch in any way that resembles the Netherlands of today, or for that matter the Netherlands of those days. They were genuine religious fanatics--people you could pretty accurately liken to the outcast English Puritans or the Mormons wandering across the country in search of a homeland. Their brand of Calvinism was far more conservative than that of the already hidebound official Dutch Reformed Church. Combine that with the fact that they were mostly farmers and outlanders and not sophisticated urbanites, and you have a recipe for some pretty backward thinking. To exacerbate matters, when they got here they began splintering into ever more conservative groups, religiously speaking, becoming increasingly exclusive and fundamental and insisting on strict adherence to the Bible and the catechism. One thing that particularly rankled these so-called Secessionists was the idea of "open communion." Well, you get the picture. And like the 17th century New England Puritans and many groups of Islamic and Christian fundamentalists today, they looked to their fanatical clergymen for more than mere religious leadership.

The result of all this is that west Michigan carries on its shoulders the heavy legacy of religious intolerance. The normative expectations of this area are weighted in favor of racial, social, religious, and political exclusivity--vestiges of the thinking of this bunch of stubborn Dutch hicks and bluenoses who made their homes here well a century and a half ago.

The most notable thing about such a legacy is that the locals, especially those who don't get off the reservation much, really don't know the difference. West Michigan might as well be the center of the universe for all they know, and its God-fearing mean-spirited business-at-all-costs values are taken utterly for granted. Anything southeast of Lansing they refer to as "Detroit," regarding it as a sort of Satanic jungle filled with commies and malingerers. Outsiders, however, know west Michigan well for what it is, and conservative politicians and businessmen have long appreciated Grand Rapids and its environs as a friendly region in which to give ugly political speeches and launch campaigns against the public welfare with the full support of local Bible-thumping colleges and that little cadre of social Darwinists--the Van Andels, the De Voses, the Prince family--that dominates the financial elite. I imagine Republicans see Grand Rapids very much the way the Nazis saw Munich back in the early 1930s.

Standing out oddly in the midst of all this moral depravity is the City of Grand Rapids itself, whose largely non-Dutch population keeps it Democratic and whose mayor, George Heartwell, is that rarest of birds hereabouts, a reasonably liberal preacher.