Are the people of Feathertown, Tennessee, Idiotēs?

I think so.  I am going to offer some information about Feathertown from Barbara Kingsolver, who invented it and described it in her marvelous novel, Flight Behavior.  She has set a major dilemma in Feathertown: what to do about the disordered migration of the monarch butterflies.  One horn of this dilemma concerns the reactions of the local citizens to the plight of the butterfly and that is the horn of concern to us today.

That brings us to the Greek term, idiotēs.  It will be obvious to all that we get the English word idiot from this Greek word, but I am going to use the Greek version because I want to set it in the Greek setting.  Also, the people of Feathertown are not idiots, as we use the word in modern English.  They do live in a very tightly confined space of information and attention, however.  The affairs of “the public” are not their affairs and it is to that meaning of the word that idiotēs points.

Here’s a clip from Wikipedia about ancient Athens.

An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private—as opposed to public—affairs.  Idiocy was the natural state of ignorance into which all persons were born and its opposite, citizenship, was effected through formalized education.In Athenian democracy, idiots were born and citizens were made through education…

So what does it look like in Feathertown?  Here are husband and wife,  Cub and Dellarobia Turnbow.  Dellarobia has been working with the scientists who came to Tennessee to find out what has gone wrong with the migration of the monarch butterflies.  Ovid Byron is the acknowledged expert on the butterfly dilemma and is the source of everything Dellarobia knows about it.  She is not “a citizen,” as defined by the Athenians, but she is right on the brink.  Her husband, Cub, is not on the brink and wants to stay well away from it.

Take this exchange, for example.  Dellarobia starts.

“Do you know what they’re saying about the butterflies being here? Dr. Byron and them? They said it means something’s really gone wrong.”

“Wrong with what?” Cub asked.

“The whole earth, if you want to know. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff they said, Cub. It’s like the End of Days. They need some time to figure out what it all means. Don’t you think that’s kind of important?”

“Well, if the butterflies fly off somewhere, the doctor and them can go park their camper behind somebody else’s barn.”

“What if there’s no place else for them to fly away to?” she asked.

“There’s always someplace else to go,” Cub said, in a tone that said he was signing off: Worries like that are not for people like us.

Dellarobia passes along to Cub the scientists’ ideas about how the migration of the Dellarobia 3butterflies might result from a huge change in climate.  Here are two pieces of Cub’s response.  “Well, if the butterflies fly off somewhere…” indicates his sense that the problem before them is that the butterflies wound up in Tennessee this year, rather than, say, Florida or Mexico.  For the butterflies, one place is as good as another.

The second is his quick sense of what that would mean for his family.  It would mean that “…the doctor and them can go park their camper behind somebody else’s barn.”  The scientists, Dr. Byron in particular, are living, at Cub’s invitation, in a camper by the Turnbow barn and using part of the barn as a laboratory.  In Cub’s sense of the situation, there are always other barns where they could park, just as there are always other places the butterflies can go.

Dellarobia raises the crucial question, “What if there isn’t anywhere else?”  Cub’s response is, “There’s always somewhere else.”  It is the quality of mind that produces “there is always somewhere else” that I want to point to here.  If you look at the globe and the climate and the needs of a particular species, you see right away that there is not always “somewhere else.”  But when you look at the world of Feathertown where things “go away” pretty frequently and are never heard from again, it is an entirely understandable response. It is not correct, however.

It is resolutely private, please note, and efficiently sheds the possibility of public engagement.  That is what Kingsolver means by seeing Cub’s remark as a “signing off” and it is what she means by giving his statement the meaning, “worries like that [public] are not for people like us [private].  We are very close, here, to the Athenian meaning of idiotēs.

The Greeks imagined each polis had a “team,” the people who met to debate public affairs, and “others”—private people, people who belonged to no team at all.  That’s not the way Kingsolver sees life in the Appalachian highlands.  When Cub says, “people like us,” he is thinking of their team, not of “no team.”  Clearly, this changes things.  Who, we want to know immediately, is on Cub’s team.

Let’s start with Johnny Midgeon, a local radio voice.  Midgeon is the source—or at least the local relay point—for the line about Al Gore.

“What persuaded the butterflies off their track?” Cub asked,

“Well, see, that’s what they’re wanting to figure out,” she [Dellarobia] said. “And Dr. Byron’s not the only one wondering. There’s more to it than just these butterflies, a lot of things are messed up. He says it’s due to climate change, basically.”

“What’s that?”

She hesitated, “Global warming.”

Cub snorted. He kicked up a cloud of dusty frost, “Al Gore can come toast his buns on this,” It was Johnny Midgeon’s line on the radio, every time a winter storm came through.

In this debate, had it taken place in ancient Athens, only a person who wasn’t on the team could have said this and he or she would have offered it as a personal opinion.  But in the modern Appalachia of Kingsolver’s book, Cub can say this because his team says it.

Dellarobia 5What do we see here?  Let’s start with “Al Gore.”  Al Gore’s 2000 campaign for the presidency involved a serious claim about the changing nature of the climate.  And he lost.  Since then, conservatives have thrown a dart at the Al Gore Dartboard every time it gets cold in the winter.  What Cub actually knows hangs on the fact that Gore’s environmental contentions were…well…contentious and that he lost.[1]  But Cub doesn’t know that in any well-focused way.  What he knows is that Johnny Midgeon, the local radio guy, dismisses Al Gore with this line.  It becomes something “our team” does, for Cub; not necessarily something our team believes.  This distinction between knowledge and belief is something Dellarobia knows and Ovid does not—and Dellarobia cannot find a way to convey it to him.

Next, let’s take “Al Gore can come and…”  The refutation of Gore’s “global warming” claim is local.  It is right here on our farm.  If Gore wanted to know the truth, he would come here—here, where the truth is.  And the truth is that there is snow on the ground.  A lot of the tension in this story is produced by the fact that “Al Gore” actually did come to Feathertown.  Ovid Byron is “Al Gore” to Cub and his teammates.

So “global warming” is not an explanation Cub can use and he doesn’t have another one.Dellarobia 4  Giving up your one hypothesis might be thought to be prohibitively onerous, but it is not.  Why?  Because “the weather is the Lord’s business,” according to Cub.  This is really not a religious sentiment for Cub.  He has no notion of the Providence of God by which one weather pattern is seen to be God’s gift and another God’s curse.  By “the Lord’s business,” Cub means only “not our business.”  He means the same thing he means when he refers to the scientists as “those people.”  He means they are not “our people” and therefore not “our concern.”

In that sense, it fits completely with his dismissal of Dellarobia’s concerns about the landslides that logging causes in Mexico.  “That’s Mexico,” says Cub, “This is here.”  Or the heavy rains that have caused flooding on his parents’ farm.  Cub says, “This rain won’t keep up.  They’re saying it’s a hundred-year flood. So it won’t happen again for another hundred years.”  Cub’s whole world is “here and now.”  Mexico is not here—so the basic principles that applied there will not apply to us—and the flooding is not “now.”  The weather in this valley will follow the old rules even if the climate has changed, disordering the old weather patterns.

Dellarobia understands this.  Her exposure to the facts Ovid has at his fingertips have caused her to raise new questions, but she understands—as Ovid never can—how Cub and the other members of his team, actually think.

Let me conclude our visit to Feathertown, Tennessee with the most discouraging assessment of all.  This comes in a discussion Dellarobia has with Ovid.  Dellarobia understands why Johnny Midgeon is trusted and the community of global scientists are not; she knows why a cold snap brings Al Gore jokes and why the natural laws that brings catastrophe to Mexico won’t happen here because “this is not Mexico.”  Dellarobia understands that things aren’t the way they were in Athens, where the idiotēs were solitary and private.  The Idiotēs are a team now; The Fightin’ Idiotes.  They have the same tee shirt and the same secret handshake; they are brothers.

Ovid says, “You think…it’s a territory divide? We have sorted ourselves as the calm, educated science believers and the scrappy, hotheaded climate deniers?”

Dellarobia replies, “I’d say the teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around.”

I think that’s powerful.  “The marketplace of ideas” was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ notion of how a good argument defeats a bad argument in fair and open competition.  He would have been stunned, officially at least, by Dellarobia’s observation that the teams come first and then constrain—one set of facts to each team—the beliefs.

“Team camo,” she says, referring to Cub’s team.  “We get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. T

“The other side,” she doesn’t even know what to call the other team but contemporary conservatives call them Limousine Liberals, “wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants.”  Dellarobia doesn’t have a name for the “other team,” but she knows they are rich (wear something expensive, lattes, second chances) and progressive (recycling and population control).

One team cites the preponderance of the evidence as collected by climate scientists.  The other cites Johnny Midgeon and Al Gore jokes.  That’s the state of the debate in Flight Behavior.  Things are bad for the environment.  They are amazingly good for Dellarobia herself, however, and I’ll get to her shortly.

[1] Only by 5-4: surely the closest presidential election ever.  And they say a single vote doesn’t matter!

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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