How our wa­ter­front home has shaped our views

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY DR. RAND ALL H. NIEHOFF

Go­ing Coastal, Liv­ing Free

Al­though it goes with­out say­ing, it gets said all the time by those who live here: We live in a very spe­cial sec­tion of a very spe­cial coun­try. Words to that ef­fect have been spo­ken lo­cally for over 100 years— and na­tion­ally for over 200.

An early wit­ness to Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism was the French states­man and au­thor Alexis de Toc­queville. Af­ter ex­ten­sive trav­els in the U. S. dur­ing 1831 and 1832, he pub­lished his two­vol­ume book Democ­racy in Amer­ica ( con­sid­ered an early work of so­ci­ol­ogy and po­lit­i­cal sci­ence). Hav­ing trav­eled through­out Europe, he rec­og­nized that the New World colonies al­lowed the freest pos­si­ble ex­pres­sion of the na­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics of the mother coun­tries ( for ex­am­ple, French Amer­ica em­pha­sized the au­toc­racy and class sta­tus of Louis XIV’s France, and Span­ish Amer­ica the disor­ga­nized with­hold­ing of knowl­edge of Philip IV’s Spain). Im­pressed by English com­mon law and di­vi­sions of power in govern­ment, he cel­e­brated that English Amer­ica ex­ag­ger­ated the lo­cal­ism, the mer­can­til­ism and the lib­er­tar­i­an­ism of the Bri­tish state. He wrote that “the Amer­i­can is the English­man left to him­self.”

Like de Toc­queville, for­eign vis­i­tors through the cen­turies noted at least seven pe­cu­liar char­ac­ter­is­tics about our so­ci­ety. Those who come to our Gulf Coast is­lands to­day make men­tion of the same seven, and the list is a mea­sure of our Gulf Coast Zeit­geist (“spirit of the times”): 1) the many non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions, clubs, char­i­ties and foun­da­tions; 2) the cheer­ful ma­te­ri­al­ism en­joyed re­gard­ing food, shop­ping and out­door ac­tiv­i­ties; 3) strong lo­cal govern­ment in town and county; 4) the pleas­ant co­ex­is­tence of dif­fer­ent re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tions; 5) a de- em­pha­sis of the ex­tended fam­ily in fa­vor of in­di­vid­u­al­ism and a cir­cle of friends; 6) a fierce de­fense of pri­vate property and free- mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion; and 7) a rev­er­ence for per­sonal free­dom first and then col­lec­tive need.

A recurring theme in the crit­i­cal study of what makes our na­tion unique has been to con­nect lib­erty ( which English speak­ers take

for granted) with ge­og­ra­phy, viz., the pro­tec­tive bor­der of the sea. Most English- speak­ing cul­tures are on is­lands: Great Bri­tain, Ire­land, New Zealand, Aus­tralia, Hong Kong, Sin­ga­pore, Ber­muda, and the more demo­cratic Caribbean states. North Amer­ica though not lit­er­ally an ar­chi­pel­ago, was geopo­lit­i­cally more re­mote than any of them, “kindly sep­a­rated by na­ture on a wide ocean,” as Thomas Jef­fer­son pointed out in his 1801 in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, “from the ex­ter­mi­nat­ing havoc [ of Europe].”

English par­lia­men­tar­ian Daniel Han­nan writes in his new book In­vent­ing Free­dom: How the English- Speak­ing Peo­ples

Made the Mod­ern World: “Isolation meant there was no need for a stand­ing army in peace­time, which in turn meant that the govern­ment had no mech­a­nism for in­ter­nal re­pres­sion. When rulers wanted some­thing, usu­ally rev­enue, they had to ask nicely, by sum­mon­ing people’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives in an as­sem­bly. It is no co­in­ci­dence that the world’s old­est par­lia­ments— Eng­land, Ice­land, the Faroes, the Isle of Man— are on is­lands.”

How lucky we are to in­habit a coast, to live and move and have our be­ing on the wa­ter. Whether you en­joy it vis­ually through the win­dow of a car, on sandy bare feet, ped­al­ing a bike, strad­dling a pad­dle­board, sail­ing in a boat or fully im­mersed in a re­fresh­ing swim, sa­vor our water­ful won­der­land. Abe Lin­coln ob­served “most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Our stun­ning sea­side set­ting makes that de­ci­sion easy! Our Gulf Coast life­style comes giftwrapped by the wa­ter each and ev­ery day. And in this coun­try, we are free to be …

“By the sea, by the sea, by the beau­ti­ful sea! You and me, you and me, oh how happy we’ll be!”

— At­teridge and Car­roll ( 1914) Re­tired af­ter 41 years of par­ish min­istry, Dr. Ran­dall H. Niehoff and his wife, Mar­i­lyn, have been res­i­dents of Sani­bel for 22 years and are grate­ful for the na­ture and neigh­bors of our unique Gulf Coast.

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