Glenn W. Smith : Coyote Nation

Our wily neighbor. Photo by Scott Stewart / AP.

You know why coyotes do so well? Because they are not ideologues.

By Glenn W. Smith / The Rag Blog / September 21, 2009

Coyotes have come to the city. I sit here writing in the foreshortened suburban night and listen to them howling and singing out back, hidden in what we used to call a gulch but is now called a green belt. A coyote can hold a note a lot longer than you think.

To many, they are a dangerous nuisance. Pet cats and puppies disappear. Coyotes, or “ghosts of the city” as a recent study calls them, get the blame. That study (pdf), by Ohio State’s Stanley Gehrt, says coyotes “have become the top carnivores in an increasing number of urban areas across North America…”

If pets disappear, though, so do skunks and rats. I think it’s a fair trade.

Years ago I sat on a little rise near the Rio Grande with my father and watched a pair of coyotes tag-team a deer, one resting while the other ran the deer in circles. The next, fully rested, took up the game so the partner could rest. It took four cycles. I’ll spare you the end of the story, except to say the coyotes seemed skilled and well-fed.

It’s almost too easy to paint a romantic metaphor here: wild things persist and thrive, despite human gated communities, speed bumps, stop-lights, WalMarts, chin-pulling urban planners and beleaguered city councilmen who themselves get tag-teamed at churches and Christmas parties by suburban couples who’ve lost cocker spaniels and tabbies.

You know why coyotes do so well? Because they are not ideologues.

They take great advantage of an evolved mammalian trait too often derided by humans as lack of conviction or commitment: mental flexibility, a willingness to live with uncertainty and unpredictability so that more alternative courses of action are opened.

Coyotes, we say, are wily. As regards humans, the English poet John Keats called it “negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Every ideologue in human history has failed. That’s because most ideas are contingent and bound up with current or past circumstances and often unsuited to tomorrow’s risks and opportunities. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized this. It’s why Jefferson said we need a revolution every generation. The U.S. Constitution is not an idea, and it’s a terrible mistake to read it like a list of commandments. The Constitution’s greatest feature is the inbuilt recognition of the need for its own mutability.

Jefferson, however, did hold one truth as immutable or “self-evident”: human equality. Does this contradict the fundamental insight of the Enlightenment, the insight that truth is man-made and fallible?

Maybe, but the recognition of human equality was a truth made necessary by the fact that every other idea for ordering or enforcing human inequality by economic prowess, religion, skin color, geographic origin, I.Q., or arm strength was doomed from the start.

The trouble is, of course, that technology has now empowered ideas with the ability to take us all down with them when they go.

A further trouble is, in politics those of “negative capability” often seem to be at a disadvantage in debate with stubborn ideologues. The former are made to seem weak and uncertain, the latter strong and certain, no matter how demonstrably false the ideas they cling to (the free, unregulated market comes with an invisible hand that blesses all; fossil fuels are infinite in supply and safe for the environment; war is peace, et cetera).

But who is really stronger, the coyote or the domesticated dog?

I think Barack Obama is the first president in my lifetime to possess Keat’s negative capability. The trait was made more politically attractive by its juxtaposition with the many failures of George W. Bush’s stubborn clinging to ideas already bled to death during the world’s most violent century.

I fear Obama’s attraction to Abraham Lincoln is already being trivialized by the press, but it’s a fact that Lincoln might have been the last president to possess this quality.

We should be cautious about judging Obama in the light of our own sticky ideas. It’s not that anyone should quit advocating for what they believe. Democracy depends upon it. It’s simply to put into action the recognition that in America’s gulch or green belt, if we want to survive, we’re going to have to eat a skunk or two.

[Glenn W. Smith, according to Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, is a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” This article has also been published at FireDogLake and at Glenn’s excellent new blog, DogCanyon.]

The Rag Blog

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4 Responses to Glenn W. Smith : Coyote Nation

  1. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed your post. Though I understand it’s not about coyotes, I want to respond to one thing you said about them. You wrote: “If pets disappear, though, so do skunks and rats. I think it’s a fair trade.” Well, you’re entitled, of course, but that’s a rather callow, glib, and incompassionate thing to say. Like you’re going all Henny Youngman on the loss of someone’s lifetime friend. Just saying. Besides skunks are cool, and you’re obviously not if you don’t like them (see, I have my prejudices too). Your thoughts on negative capability regarding Obama? Well, I think and hope you’re right. It’s one of those time-will-tell things, but I’m on your side about it. It’s a good insight, I believe, and have tried to follow his decisionmaking in that light, though it strains credulity at times. Maybe that’s because I’m more ideologue than not. Regarding Jefferson and the mangled context of his generational revolution quote, isn’t the true context that he said there must be a revolution every so often because a certain segment of the population is going to remain ignorant of what the government is actually doing, and therefore will rise up in ignorance? And then government will have to resist the rise of ignoramusism? That’s my new understanding anyway. It certainly applies to latter-day teabaggerism. Well, that’s enough showing my own ignorance for now.

    – L. Piltz

  2. Glycotech says:

    If your cat starts not wanting to go outside, best not to make him. They know what’s out there.

  3. Mariann says:

    Where there are deer, there are coyotes. Austin’s new anti-deer-feeding ordinance is designed to keep the traditional prey out of its traditional stomping grounds, now paved and condo-ized, by force of starvation. We’ll see.

    Many areas of the City are quite risky at dusk or sunrise due to the beautiful but dangerous deer population. My son hit and killed one on Brodie Lane a couple of weeks ago; thank goodness he was in his truck and not a smaller vehicle! Of course Bambi’s mama doesn’t feel the same way.

    We often see deer at my condo near E. Riverside, and coyotes are said to lurk in the channellized creek nearby, with both species wandering the ACC golf course. Over the brutal summer, I’ve seen a decline in the feral feline population, and also in a once-extensive lizard population — the lizards have flat vanished.

    It’s a dog-eat-deer world.

  4. Mariann says:

    Last week I watched an interesting historical film on Turner classics, “Juarez”, a biography of Mexico’s revolutionary indio leader, Benito Juarez.

    Juarez, somewhat stoically played by Paul Muni (in response, it was said, to Bette Davis’ over-the-top performance as the Empress Carlotta) was, like Obama, a great admirer of Lincoln, his contemporary, going to far as to adopt a frock coat and stovepipe hat as his daily attire.

    The men corresponded extensively during the Civil War and Lincoln promised to visit Juarez in Mexico when that conflict should end; he was prevented from doing so by his own assassination.

    Interestingly (and the POINT of all this), Juarez himself was no ideologue. He had a goal (national liberation), and the cojones to get there BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.

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