So there he was, the newly inaugurated president of the United States, all set to review several dozen marching bands and other honor groups, and what does he do? He pops a wad of chewing gum in his mouth and begins chomping away in public like a ninth-grade dropout hanging out on a street corner in Tampa.
Is this an overly critical view of Barack Obama last week as he stood in the reviewing stand and acknowledged the plaudits of the citizenry? Is there anything illegal or disreputable with chewing gum in public? Illegal, no. Disreputable, yes. At least in my opinion, which is often twisted, off-base, snobbish and condemnatory. And I plead guilty to all of that.
But at least now I’m more aware that some people chew a special kind of gum that contains nicotine, which helps them resist the urge to smoke cigarettes, another disreputable habit. By recognizing the Nicorette chompers and tipping my hat to their attempts to quit smoking, I have become slightly less narrow-minded than before.
If I continue to wage war on my long-term narrow-mindedness, I’ll have a long-term conflict on my hands. I’m critical of too many things, in myself and others. The shame of it all is that most of my griping pertains to perfectly harmless practices.
Such as tattoos. I’ve spent decades of my life searching for any tattoo – large, small, simple, elaborate, witty – that is more attractive or otherwise superior to the naked, unadorned, pristine God-given skin that the tattoo replaced. I have yet to find such an epidermal engraving, nor do I ever expect to.
I first encountered tattoos in the U.S. Navy. Many of my shipmates sported them. They said such imaginative things as “Mother,” “God and country,” “Arlene,” and “Death before dishonor.” I quizzed the tattoos’ owners thusly: “Were you drunk when you authorized the tattoo?” The answer was invariably “yes.”
I can understand doing stupid things while drunk. But today I encounter intelligent, educated people who rarely hoist a beer or smoke a joint but who nonetheless have tattoos. Their reasons for disfiguring themselves are as varied as the tattoos themselves. After years of privately scorning most tattooed persons, I’ve finally learned to withhold judgment and walk away. (Please hold your applause.)
I’ve tried to do likewise with folks who install metal balls in their noses, earlobes, tongues, navels and reproductive organs. Still I find it difficult to keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself when I encounter an otherwise rational human who has chosen to adorn himself/herself like a float in the Gasparilla parade.
Each time it happens, I’m flooded with questions: Are these people off their rockers? What sort of statement are they trying to make? Is there some sort of brotherhood or sisterhood that they’re admitted to when they attach metal balls to their carcasses? Or is the presence of a ball or a tattoo a sign of defiance, a middle finger thrust into the face of conventional society? I cheerfully admit my ignorance of the answers to these and other questions. I just tell myself “It takes all kinds” and pass on.
But what happens the next time I’m scheduled for major surgery and I notice that the surgeon or anesthesiologist is sporting a golden ball in his nostril or a forehead tattoo proclaiming “Elvis Lives!”? Does Medicare cover the costs of surgeries canceled by panicky patients who roll off the gurneys screaming, “Find me some doctors who don’t look like Christmas trees!!”
Dislike of tattoos and decorative balls is a minor blip on the radar screen of narrow-mindedness. I’m not sure which area of life contains the largest degree of intolerance. Religious belief is surely among the top ten. As much as Americans like to wave the banner of religious freedom, the evidence of religious prejudice is on display every day of the week.
The same goes for political bias. It’s natural and acceptable for people to have contrasting ideas about government. But narrow-mindedness occurs when you or I absolutely refuse to admit that the other guy’s ideas should at least be listened to and examined. The years ahead will determine whether political narrow-mindedness was powerful enough to sink our beloved ship of state.
I’ll close by revealing two minor victories I have managed to achieve over my cultural blinkerdom. One is my previous bafflement over people who wear baseball caps on backward. I use to call that practice stupid and purposeless. Now, I just look away. Same thing for men (many of them in high positions) who routinely carry around a three-day facial stubble. I once favored prison for such clods. Now I’d settle for a simple $500 fine.
Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.