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The View from Afar: American Absurdities

I wish I could exorcise the negativity.

There is so much good about America, but goodness there is also so much bad. After living in Great Britain for thirty years, having to some degree absorbed a European sensibility, and having travelled internationally for more than a decade, my view from afar renders some things, which Americans take for granted, as absurd and often just plain wrong. Reading about American absurdities from Britain or while visiting Harari, Prague or Hong Kong might have been troubling, but I was insulated by culture and distance. Not anymore. I’m home.

It’s been widely reported that Governor Rick Scott of Florida has forbidden Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staff from using the words “climate change,” “global warming” and “sea level rise”. While this may seem like a joke, Barton Bibler, a longtime employee of the DEP and now Land Management Plan Coordinator for the Division of State Lands, was suspended from work for a couple of days for writing in his official notes on the Florida Coastal Managers Forum in February the words “climate change.” He was also required to undergo a mental health evaluation to verify his “fitness for duty”. Apparently Mr. Bibler hadn’t got the memo.

Adam Zyglis, Buffalo NewsIt’s difficult to know how to respond. We often over use the word Orwellian, but it seems more than appropriate here. This entire event – from the governor’s proclamation to the suspension of an employee – would have made a great plot in the Big Bang Theory or any number of situation comedies. It seems Scott associates the use of the words climate change, global warming, and sea level rise as an indication of possible disease making one unfit for duty, though perhaps that is a step forward given that Republican often assume people who do not agree with them are evil.

At least some Democrat Party politicians found the whole thing ridiculous and mocked the policy. At a senate budget subcommittee, Senator Jeff Clemens (D) asked Bryan Koon, Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, if the state needed “climate change plans” to qualify for federal funds. He admitted he used the words “climate change” and then said “but I’m suggesting that maybe as a state, we use the term ‘atmospheric reemployment.’ That might be something that the governor could get behind”. Clemens got big laughs from senators and observers alike. (Watch the video here).

Viewed from afar, it is more surreal than funny. Surreal: marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream; also unbelievable, fantastic. Synonyms: unreal, bizarre, unusual, weird, strange, freakish, unearthly, uncanny, dreamlike, phantasmagorical.

It would be wrong to suggest that Scott believes that climate change will disappear if we stop saying “climate change” simply because he does not believe in climate change. The fact that almost the entire international scientific community and 99.83% of peer review scientific articles agree that climate change is real and caused by human activity is irrelevant to Scott and his fellow deniers. Perhaps he thinks the issue will disappear by denying the words, and in Florida maybe it will. However, I suspect the governor’s disbelief and his strangulation of language will not protect southern Florida as sea levels continue to rise.

20 states have passed “religious freedom” laws and 12 other states are considering doing the same. Their supporters assure us all that religious freedom legislation isn’t actually about legalizing discrimination, but is instead about protecting the freedom to practice one’s faith without prejudice or offense. Of course, if you are one of the people denied your wedding cake, or your birth control medications, and/or a surgical procedure because who you are and how you live offends another’s faith, I’m willing to bet it feels like discrimination.

American politicians create, discuss and pass legislation that makes it legal for some people to discriminate against other people. And quite obviously the “other people” are those who belong to the LGBT community. If I were to demonstrate biblically and theologically that serving a person of color offended my faith, I doubt very much religious freedom legislation would allow me to deny them services or products. Western societies at considerable cost have for generations fought for the rights of all people. Some have suffered during these struggles and some have died. We have established legal foundations to protect individuals from discrimination. It’s not perfect, but it is sound and just. However, we have always given religions institutions a pass, exempting them from the law, thus allowing them to discriminate. We are now giving that privilege to businesses and individuals. This is 2015. The signs won’t read “Whites Only”, but they might imply “Straights Only”.

From the absurdity of the Orwellian deletion of words to never old use of religion to justify discrimination, and everything in-between - American politicians in full flow. To be fair the vast majority of these comical, zealous and ideological politicians are Republicans. They are driven by a fundamentalist faith, a medieval worldview and, of course, power. It would be nice if I could simply ignore them, but then I remember that they are elected to office by millions of Americans who share their faith and worldview.

Viewed from afar, it all seems bizarre, unlikely, unreal.  Standing outside it seems ridiculous, unjust, dangerous. It is almost inconceivable that such people would be elected to office in the UK and Europe, while in American they thrive – fundamentalist, ideologues, science deniers roaming the halls of power. If this were television the show would be called “Politicians Say the Craziest Things”. It’s all very baffling, in this the self-proclaimed greatest democracy the world has ever seen.

From a distance I could shake my head and laugh. Unfortunately, I now have to deal with them up close and personal.  It least I moved to the Left Coast.  

Copyright © 2015 Dale Rominger

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