20 September 2009

Glenn W. Smith : Coyote Nation

Our wily neighbor. Photo by Scott Stewart / AP.
You know why coyotes do so well? Because they are not ideologues.
By Glenn W. Smith / The Rag Blog / September 21, 2009

Coyotes have come to the city. I sit here writing in the foreshortened suburban night and listen to them howling and singing out back, hidden in what we used to call a gulch but is now called a green belt. A coyote can hold a note a lot longer than you think.

To many, they are a dangerous nuisance. Pet cats and puppies disappear. Coyotes, or “ghosts of the city” as a recent study calls them, get the blame. That study (pdf), by Ohio State’s Stanley Gehrt, says coyotes “have become the top carnivores in an increasing number of urban areas across North America…”

If pets disappear, though, so do skunks and rats. I think it’s a fair trade.

Years ago I sat on a little rise near the Rio Grande with my father and watched a pair of coyotes tag-team a deer, one resting while the other ran the deer in circles. The next, fully rested, took up the game so the partner could rest. It took four cycles. I’ll spare you the end of the story, except to say the coyotes seemed skilled and well-fed.

It’s almost too easy to paint a romantic metaphor here: wild things persist and thrive, despite human gated communities, speed bumps, stop-lights, WalMarts, chin-pulling urban planners and beleaguered city councilmen who themselves get tag-teamed at churches and Christmas parties by suburban couples who’ve lost cocker spaniels and tabbies.

You know why coyotes do so well? Because they are not ideologues.

They take great advantage of an evolved mammalian trait too often derided by humans as lack of conviction or commitment: mental flexibility, a willingness to live with uncertainty and unpredictability so that more alternative courses of action are opened.

Coyotes, we say, are wily. As regards humans, the English poet John Keats called it “negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Every ideologue in human history has failed. That’s because most ideas are contingent and bound up with current or past circumstances and often unsuited to tomorrow’s risks and opportunities. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized this. It’s why Jefferson said we need a revolution every generation. The U.S. Constitution is not an idea, and it’s a terrible mistake to read it like a list of commandments. The Constitution’s greatest feature is the inbuilt recognition of the need for its own mutability.

Jefferson, however, did hold one truth as immutable or “self-evident”: human equality. Does this contradict the fundamental insight of the Enlightenment, the insight that truth is man-made and fallible?

Maybe, but the recognition of human equality was a truth made necessary by the fact that every other idea for ordering or enforcing human inequality by economic prowess, religion, skin color, geographic origin, I.Q., or arm strength was doomed from the start.

The trouble is, of course, that technology has now empowered ideas with the ability to take us all down with them when they go.

A further trouble is, in politics those of “negative capability” often seem to be at a disadvantage in debate with stubborn ideologues. The former are made to seem weak and uncertain, the latter strong and certain, no matter how demonstrably false the ideas they cling to (the free, unregulated market comes with an invisible hand that blesses all; fossil fuels are infinite in supply and safe for the environment; war is peace, et cetera).

But who is really stronger, the coyote or the domesticated dog?

I think Barack Obama is the first president in my lifetime to possess Keat’s negative capability. The trait was made more politically attractive by its juxtaposition with the many failures of George W. Bush’s stubborn clinging to ideas already bled to death during the world’s most violent century.

I fear Obama’s attraction to Abraham Lincoln is already being trivialized by the press, but it’s a fact that Lincoln might have been the last president to possess this quality.

We should be cautious about judging Obama in the light of our own sticky ideas. It’s not that anyone should quit advocating for what they believe. Democracy depends upon it. It’s simply to put into action the recognition that in America’s gulch or green belt, if we want to survive, we’re going to have to eat a skunk or two.

[Glenn W. Smith, according to Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, is a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” This article has also been published at FireDogLake and at Glenn's excellent new blog, DogCanyon.]

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