OP-EDS

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November 27, 2007

How squirrels explain the world

Squirrels in Hyde Park are something of a cultural phenomenon. Aggressive, cute, and possibly radioactive, they bewilder pedestrians and drivers alike, and, for better or for worse, serve as de facto cultural ambassadors to visitors from around the world. Prospective students may not remember how many Nobel laureates taught at the U of C, but it’s unlikely they’ll forget the time they nearly tripped over Rocky while walking across the quad.

In the United Kingdom, however, the rise of the gray squirrel tells a different story. Introduced in England around the same time Teddy Roosevelt was flaunting American supremacy in Latin America, gray squirrels were more aggressive than European red ones and thus managed to take over, scaring the docile reds away from food, mates, and turf. As the balance tipped against the natives, the grays became personae non gratae. Ill-mannered and destructive, they came to embody American materialism at its worst. Noted squirrel-ologist A. D. Middleton noted in 1931, “I know of more than one patriotic Englishman who has been embittered against the whole American nation on account of the presence of their squirrels in his garden.”

More than just a nuisance that overturned bird feeders, stripped bark off trees, and disrupted traffic all the way down to the white cliffs of Dover, expatriated squirrels parallel a larger historical trend.

Americans have always held an unwavering belief in the rightness of their nation and its ideals. This is not altogether uncommon—citizens of many countries see themselves as extraordinary—but what is rare is the sense of entitlement and divine right taken by the current administration. This is a view taken by a small but vocal minority—the current political elite. In October 2005, 71 percent of the American public agreed that the American government should focus on domestic issues more than foreign ones.

American exceptionalism has been taken to an extreme by neo-conservatives. Years of realpolitik and a general desire not to upset the apple cart were replaced with what Condoleeza Rice called “transformational diplomacy.” The Bush administration viewed America as a nation above all others, one that had a moral obligation to put into place “American values” with the gun and gold. The values they chose to promote included a heavy dose of religious language and Friedman-esque free-market values—beliefs that have not been well received by the rest of the world.

Democratic ideals have great appeal across the world—even in places like Pakistan and Turkey, where U.S. popularity is in the doldrums—but we must not confuse respect for democratic principles with respect for U.S.–style democracy. Even in Britain, only 43 percent of the population has a strong like for American-style democracy, and only 37 percent of Britons prefer U.S. economic practices. There is also a general consensus on the absurdity of implementing a system that is based on the will of the people with M16s and Hellfire missiles.

So, what can we learn from the gray squirrel? Behaving as though you own the place may be amusing at first, but if you continuously take what you want without asking, then you will find yourself with one bloody paw stuck in the jaws of a trap.

Charles Yarborough is a first-year in the College.