Morris: From Podunk to Nimrod
by Leo Morris
Sooner or later, every political columnist quotes George Santayana, and this is my week. If you have a problem with that, then go back to Podunk with the other nimrods.
That was probably a bad way to begin. Some readers might take offense.
Let me start over.
“Podunk” was a common insult when I was growing up, and it generally meant a dull, insignificant place, a cultural backwater where nothing ever happened. People from New York said it of Indianapolis, people in Indianapolis said it of Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne residents said it of Lima, Ohio. Like that.
I discovered later in life that there are several towns and a few regions around the country actually called Podunk, and that the word is of Algonquian origin and denoted both a people and their winter village in what is now Connecticut.
In today’s climate, when we are being shamed into removing all references to indigenous people from the public consciousness, it’s a word we probably shouldn’t even think, let alone write.
Another bad start, so let’s try again.
I suppose we can still say “nimrod.” That was another common insult from my youth, and it meant a stupid jerk, especially one with a Barney Fife attitude, a dimwit going through life full of empty boasts.
I later learned – I seem to do that a lot – that the word comes from a king mentioned in the Bible as “a mighty warrior on the earth and a mighty hunter before the Lord.” Extra-biblical sources link him to the tower of Babel, which its builders foolishly thought could reach all the way to heaven. Such effrontery offended God, who decided that people would no longer have a common tongue but start speaking in different languages, forever after unable to understand each other.
That makes for a wonderful metaphor about the state of the world today, but, come to think of it, tends to extol Christianity, which some might see as a denigration of other religions.
So, never mind.
Maybe I should have started with my main premise, which is that people have different breaking points. In today’s insanity, with chaos crowding out rationality on every front, there comes an event that causes the ordinary person to finally say, “Enough! Reset to normal right now.”
For some, it was when the toppling of Confederate statues morphed into attempts to stigmatize all of America’s founders. For others, it was when so-called pandemic scientists said it was perfectly OK to mass in the streets for social justice but the rest of us should continue to stay inside.
For my sister, it was when the Twitter mob came for Vice President Pence’s older brother Greg for having “racist antiques” at his mall in Edinburgh, a Podunk tiny community around Indianapolis. She happens to be an antiquer, and Pence’s place is one of her favorites, being clean and neat and climate controlled, with scores of dealers in a building big enough to have its own ZIP Code.
“It’s an antique mall, for God’s sake,” she railed. “That means the past, including the Jim Crow era. What do they want to do, erase all of history?”
Well, yeah, sort of.
They found my breaking point when the mob came for Warner Brothers, crowing in victory when it was decided to take away the guns from Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd, allowing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to keep tearing through the cartoon universe unchallenged, mayhem and destruction in their wake.
I thought about writing a column to eulogize the passing of Yosemite, one of my childhood heroes. Funny hat, big mustache, waving his guns around and yelling about varmints – I could name several of my uncles in Kentucky he reminded me of.
But, you know, old, white guy with a gun. Not a good role model these days.
Then my research uncovered – I later learned – an interesting tidbit from those old cartoons. Both Bugs and Daffy referred to Elmer Fudd as a “nimrod” – someone who thought of himself as a mighty hunter but was, in fact, a silly, little pipsqueak.
How sly and clever of those subversive cartoon creators. How wonderfully intricate the way history wanders off and meanders and then circles in on itself.
Oh, that reminds me that I was going to throw a Santayana quote at you. I almost – heh, heh – forgot.
He famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s been misquoted in a hundred ways and wrongly attributed to many other historical figures, most notably Winston Churchill.
But what’s interesting about that sentence is that is just a part of a longer thought that no one ever quotes.
So, a little context:
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Santayana was not saying merely that ignoring history could cause us to keep making the same mistakes. He was saying that knowledge is cumulative, that if we forget the baby steps that got us here, we can never master the baby steps that will take us forward.
In other words, if we destroy the past, we destroy the future.
But I repeat myself, nimrod that I am.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.