Beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s a big country in need of citizens


The view from Stony Man Mountain Trail, in the Shenandoah National Forest, Virginia. Just a reminder that it is still a big, beautiful country, with room for more citizens. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The pump at the gas station was old. So after I dipped my credit card, when it came time to choose a fuel type, I mashed my fingers on the “87.” Nothing. I paused, puzzled, then some residual muscle memory took over and I lifted the metal hook the nozzle had perched on. The pump sprang to life.

Nor did the pump, after dispensing the gas, ask me whether I want a receipt. I’ve learned to refuse them; why print one just to throw it away?

The receipt automatically spat out, and told me we had paused in Hurricane, West Virginia. I added it to the list of enigmatic Mountain State place names like Nitro and Mossy.

“Hurricane?” The ocean is 500 miles away.


What you call something, and what it actually is or represents, can be two very different things. Turns out the town is named for windblown trees.

It was odd last week to track President Trump’s Helsinki performance at a remove, while on vacation. Missing the original event, following the radiating shock waves bouncing around Twitter. People kept calling it “treason” though I don’t see how that could be. “Fawning” maybe. Not an attractive quality in a person, never mind a president. But not a crime either.

Hugely significant, for a day, then not at all, as the smoke cleared and there he was, untouched. The liquid metal man in Terminator 2. His supporters, gulled dupes clinging to their charlatan, undeterred.

I don’t want to insult them. There’s too much of that. Several times we saw a billboard, “Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Jesus is Alive.” I smiled, admiring the subtle jab. You’ll believe what we do, it suggests, if you’ve got any sense.

Really? He sure ain’t alive for me. Or for lots of folks, and believing Jesus is alive is not reason, but faith.

You can’t drive five miles in rural America without some farmer shaking his religion at you, and not nicely either. Do they win converts with that? Or are they just venting their frustration at other people insisting on believing differently than they do. It’s a threat, and they lash out, calling them irrational, even though irrationality is a definition of faith.

Enough. Maybe I’m just floating on my vacation mellow, but I don’t see the utility of provoking people, of pointing in horror at whatever Trump has just done or said and confronting his followers with it while they clamp their eyes shut and cover their ears and hum. I don’t think this crisis can be insulted away. If Democrats have beliefs — if we believe in affordable health care, sane gun laws, a non-broken immigration system, preserving wild places like Shenandoah National Forest for future generations — why don’t we insist upon the importance of those things? Why don’t we promote our values with a fraction of the intense sincerity that believers push Jesus? Maybe the lost will find their way to our light without being harried. Why browbeat his supporters, somehow expecting them to look up, comprehension dawning on their faces, popping their palms against their foreheads and exclaiming, “Ohhhh, we’re dupes supporting a fraud. How did we not see it before?”

It’s easy to mock people, harder to speak about what you yourself believe. Maybe I should start with a simple observation, based on driving 1,500 miles last week. It’s a very big country, mostly forests and farms. We still need people. Ironic that Democrats, in their crowded cities, throw out the welcome mat, while Republicans, living where you have to drive 30 miles to find a Walmart, yearn for a giant wall to keep out anybody who doesn’t look like them.

Maybe not so ironic: People fear what they don’t know.

Let’s put it another way: China is almost exactly the same size, geographically, as the United States, one of my favorite trivia facts: 3.705 million square miles to our 3.797 million square miles. Yet China has a billion more people; a population of 1.379 billion to our 325 million. Despite this, they are doing fine, striding forward, commanding the world. While we sulk and shuffle and cower and decline. We’ve been heaping contempt on our newest citizens and citizens-to-be for at least 150 years. It isn’t really helpful, is it? Why can’t we stop now, in 2018, and think about improving things we know — beyond a reasonable doubt — that we need?

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