A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
The Common Sense
As a seventy-one-year-old White American male, the media tell me there is a way I ought to feel and behave: disenfranchised and angry. I am neither—and I wonder in these contentious times why I’m not. Hindsight enables me satisfy that curiosity.
Chris Mooney has written a book with a title that will put you off, so I won’t mention it. But his thesis is interesting: Mooney cites chapter and verse from scientific (i.e., objective) research that, as our species evolves, we are becoming two distinct subspecies: one actively engaged with the World, prepared for and welcoming change; the other resistant to change, favoring the known over novelty. I am personally on the fence here, preferring the comfort of the campfire and the security of the cave on most days. But when shoved outside its shelter, I’ll respond to new and strange conditions with as much creativity as the next guy, maybe more. But if Mooney’s thesis is true, was there ever a time before the bifurcation; a time when there was a common sense, a shared vision of the World and our purpose within it? Having written this column for more than thirty years [has it really been that long?], I’ve looked at a lot of Agincourt’s history and tried to tell its stories with accuracy and enthusiasm. And I think there may have been a time in our community’s past, when our small world was new, that we shared a vision. Then, again, it may only be my hope.
In David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, his character Sonmi-451 is asked for her version of the Truth. Her reply, “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.” By Sonmi’s understanding, I have not been entirely truthful. Yet my “Truth” is all that I have to offer in these columns. If it resonates with yours, so much the better. When, on the other hand, it has struck a sour note, a hollow chord, I have been grateful for your kind and gentle upbraiding.
The renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a member of the Lloyd-Jones clan of southwestern Wisconsin, a band of 19th century Welsh Unitarians whose family motto was “Y Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd” (“Truth Against the World”), which pervaded Wright’s architecture as well as his personal life. That note of counter-conventionality has sounded in Agincourt, as well, and it has been at those times that I believe our Truth has a common sense about it. I’ve written here about a few of those moments.
There was the case of Sheriff Joe Pyne [the antithesis of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio?] who performed his duties with due diligence in 1933 yet spared the Rifini Brothers Circus from what may have been unjust prosecution. Pyne served six consecutive terms as Fennimore County’s sheriff principally because he understood the difference between that binary pair, Justice and the Law.
We were civilly disobedient a second time when in 1942 the community rallied ’round Tadao Ito, a Nisei in our midst when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and authorized the interment of all Japanese in the United States for the duration of World War II. Chance had marooned Ted Ito here and a group of citizens spared him that ignominy, hid him in plain sight as staff at the Blenheim Hotel and explained his appearance as “Native American.” This occurred during Sheriff Pyne’s last term of office, one of his last opportunities to “look the other way.”
Other examples include the tenure of Father Francis Manning, priest at St Ahab’s, who everyone knew was a woman but preferred “his” familiar services to those of an over-zealous priest fresh from seminary and eager to please his bishop. Long before the Ecumenical Movement of the 1960s, Fathers Manning (RC) and Grimaldi (Episcopal) shared pulpits and administered sacraments without prejudice—unknown to their respective bishops.
Or the triumvirate of women Annabelle Miller, Sissy Beddowes, and Martha Tennant (my great-grandmother), who sheltered the lives of “fallen women” and engineered their transition back into polite society when others would savagely cast them aside, and were added in this conspiracy by Dr Rudyard “Ruddy” Fahnstock.
Or the creation in 1909 of the Muskrat Valley Building Association, a coöperative venture in providing low-interest loans for families of modest means. Or the creation of “Common Ground” a few years later to thanks those who sacrificed so much for the Great War.
All things considered, Agincourt has been a kind and nurturing community throughout much of its history. It’s even reasonable to think of it as the “Mayberry” of 20th century civil disobedience. But I’m beginning to suspect those days have passed.