Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Maybe it's just a macaque

The most delightful article I've read all month appears in this weekend's New York Times magazine: Jon Mooallem's Swing State.

It's so wonderful that I sat down and read it, out loud, to my wife, over dinner.

The article is about macaques, of course, who have been wandering the wilds of Florida for 75 years

The population of wild rhesus macaques in the middle of the state — the tribe from which, the theory goes, the Mystery Monkey strayed — was established in the late 1930s by a New Yorker named Colonel Tooey. (Colonel was his first name.) Tooey ran boat tours on the picturesque Silver River, a premier tourist destination. A brazen showman, he wanted to ratchet the scenery up another notch. So he bought a half-dozen macaques and plopped them on a small island. Macaques are strong swimmers; Tooey had no idea. According to local lore, the animals were off the island within minutes.

But perhaps the macaque is a metaphor:

the public came to see the monkey as an outlaw, a rebel — a nimble mascot for “good, old-fashioned American freedom,” as one local reporter put it. This week, tens of thousands of Republicans will pour into Tampa. There will be lots of national self-scrutiny and hand-wringing at the convention center downtown. But the most fundamental questions — What exactly is government for? Where are the lines between liberty, tyranny and lawlessness? — have been shaking the trees around Tampa for years.

For what is the monkey a metaphor? Moollem suggests that the story of the Tampa Mystery Monkey be read in the context of the increasingly polarized political discussions of the country:

It occurred to me that the two mind-sets — apathy and paranoia — probably yield the same result. You wind up off to the side of real democracy, disengaged from the strenuous project of brokering a better society.

I love that phrasing: "the strenuous project of brokering a better society." Yes, indeed.

But don't get all caught up in what the article is, or isn't about.

Just go read it: read about Vernon Yates, and Captain Tom O'Lenick, and Mr. and Mrs. Clas, and all the other wild characters that populate this marvelous fable about who and why we are.

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