Lately we’ve been watching Yellowstone, which is about a ruthless Montana ranching family who are trying to hang onto the valley and cattle operation they’ve owned for 100 years rather than let city folks buy it up to build airports, ski resorts and condos. The family’s ancestors stole the valley from Native Americans, who had tried to keep the ranchers, cows and fences out.
As the descendant of folks who stole land in a different frontier generations ago — flatter, swampier, hotter Florida — I find the plight of the change resisters in Yellowstone relatable. Not so much the opposition to the “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” component; most of that happened here before I was born. It’s the attempts to change the character of the place itself that pisses me off.
Here’s an example from Hernando County, Florida, where local school board member Shannon Rodriguez, a “Moms for Liberty” GOP operative, ratted out her daughter’s fifth grade teacher, Jenna Barbee, to the state department of education. The teacher’s offense was showing Disney’s “Strange World” movie to part of her class while classmates finished a test. There’s no sexuality in the movie, but there is a gay character, and acknowledging queer people’s existence is verboten now for K-12 public schools.
“It is not a teacher’s job to impose their beliefs upon a child: religious, sexual orientation, gender identity, any of the above. But allowing movies such as this assist teachers in opening a door, and please hear me, they assist teachers in opening a door for conversations that have no place in our classrooms,” Rodriguez said at a May 9 school board meeting…
“A school board member, an elected official of power, who was supposed to be nonpartisan, is allowed to present to the public that she is Christian and that God appointed her to the board. And yet it is indoctrination that I showed a Disney movie,” said Barbee.
Rodriguez responded, “as a leader in this community, I’m not going to stand by and allow this minority to infiltrate our schools … God did put me here.”
Rodriquez has it exactly bass-ackwards — she and her fellow god-bothering morons are the “minority” who are infiltrating our schools and government. Will the rest of us stand by and allow it? So far we have.
As Yellowstone portrays it, Montana values are self-reliance and toughness. Florida’s character was quirky and mostly tolerant until the morality police took over the government. It wasn’t always tolerant of everyone, of course. This is a former Confederate state that is still culturally about one-third Alabama. Racism, sexism, homophobia and stunning levels of corruption and greed have always had a home here.
But Floridians reveled in our weirdness for a generation or two, from Key West’s big gay Fantasy Fests to the Redneck Riviera’s wild scenes of spring break debauchery to Florida Man’s ubiquitous antics. As Sun Sentinel columnist Fred Grimm suggests, we’ve lost something many of us didn’t even know was precious as “nasty, intolerant politics takes the fun out of Margaritaville:”
Florida’s reverse-metamorphosis from butterfly to caterpillar, from moderate, tolerant, multi-cultural tourist destination to an immigrant-bashing, drag-queen-hating bastion of white Christian nationalism has become our most noteworthy attribute. No one cares anymore about a Florida Man so desperate for a ride to Hooters he called 911…
Florida expat nautical writer and world traveler John Kretschmer has noticed that Europeans have a new regard for the state. “In the not-so-distant past, the mention of Florida would bring a smile and talk of sun, beaches, good times, maybe not too serious, but a place everybody wanted to go,” John told me. “Not so much these days. People look at me with concern. Almost like I said I was from Texas.”
The truth is, the morality police were playing the long game for decades while the rest of us lounged on the beach. Those who sat on the sidelines let this happen, and unless they get off their duffs and help reclaim what we had, it will stay lost.
On some level, the chief of the morality police, DeSantis, understands that his values aren’t compatible with the state’s, which is why he explicitly disowns the quirky Florida he grew up in. Here’s how he primly signaled that to the tens who’ve read his shitty book:
“I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay,” DeSantis writes, “but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio — from weekly church attendance to the expectation that one would earn his keep. This made me God-fearing, hard-working and America-loving.”
I don’t know if that asshole and the extremists he’s summoned from the woodwork will remain a Florida problem or become America’s problem. My sense is the latter option is less likely today than it was a few months ago, but we’ve seen demagogues who’ve been declared dead by the celebrity Beltway press rise again, so this is no time to relax.
As for Florida, where the wreckage is piling up daily, the seeds of potential redemption may be germinating in the current governor’s ambitious overreach. I don’t say it’s inevitable that we come back from this, but I do believe it’s possible.
One memorable line from Yellowstone sums up the plot: “You build something worth having, someone’s gonna try to take it.” The mistake those who valued quirky, tolerant Florida made was in thinking all the stuff worth having was already gone. It wasn’t. We can take it back, and maybe these three words can be the slogan of that effort: Keep Florida Weird.