The Rituals of Boundaries

The ancient Romans had an annual religious celebration called the Terminalia. It consisted of neighboring landowners coming together at the marker that divided their land to give thanks to Terminus, the god of boundaries. At the end of the Roman year, an altar was built, a sacrifice of a lamb or suckling pig was made, children offered grain and honeycombs, the fire was lit with coals brought from the families’ hearths, and the neighbors would feast on the riches they have shared with the god and each other. As the Roman poet Ovid explained it in his Fasti, “You [Terminus] are the limit of peoples, cities and vast reigns; Without you, all land would be strife.”

Now that the political boundary lines have clearly been drawn after the September primary, would it be too much to hope that candidates concentrate on the common concerns that merit discussion, compromise, and possible solutions? Evidently and unfortunately, the answer to that question is a stentorian yes.

The primary victory of Keith Ellison as the DFL congressional nominee in the Fifth District is the best wedge issue the Republicans could have possibly hoped for. Ellison represents the “perfect storm” of everything Republican strategists would like people to be afraid of. He’s African American; he’s Muslim; he’s liberal; he’s personally disorganized; he filed his taxes and other government reports late; and he said some really stupid things when he was a college student. Except for the African American and Muslim parts, he sounds a lot like me.

Then there’s Alan Fine, the Fifth District Republican candidate. “Alan Fine will be a mainstream voice, and the kind of consensus builder the 5th Congressional District needs to cut through the partisan rancor”—or so says the quote from Ron Carey, Chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, on the home page of Fine’s website. From Fine himself, though, we get this last week: “[Ellison] is unfit to represent the voters of the Fifth District. … He is the follower of a known racist, Louis Farrakhan … a person who believes that the white man is the anti-Christ, a person who believes that Jews are the scourge of the Earth. I’m personally offended, as a Jew, that we have a candidate like this running for U.S. Congress.” (Did anyone besides me think it odd that Farrakhan would be misquoted to the extent that he would imply being an anti-Christ would be a bad thing?)

If this is what we get from a “mainstream consensus builder,” I naturally wondered what a partisan hack could come up with. As if in answer to my question, Senator Norm Coleman, who is also Jewish, weighed in: “I think folks in the Jewish community are going to have to look closely at that, with his associations with Farrakhan.”

Hey guys, remember the last guy who tried the “Self-Righteous Jew” argument? Does the name Rudy Boschwitz ring a bell?

To cap things off, that old admirer of consensus building, Chairman Carey himself, tried to stick Democratic candidates Amy Klobuchar and Mike Hatch to the Ellison-Farrakhan tar baby, calling for them to “let all Minnesotans know if they support Ellison.” (As of this writing, Klobuchar and Hatch have bravely not commented.)

Sounds to me like Fine, Coleman, and Carey are toeing the party line—a line drawn by someone in Washington to emphasize that some of us are on one side of it and some on the other. You want some strong circumstantial evidence of the party hand? Fine refused to answer Strib columnist Doug Grow’s question about whether he wrote his anti–Ellison statement himself. Evidently, he can play the “no comment” game just as well as Klobuchar and Hatch.

I’m not saying Democrats aren’t engaged in similar guilt-by-association tactics, although they usually don’t so blatantly rely on religious differences. Their core strategy this year is to associate every Republican candidate with George Bush, Iraq, Katrina, tortured prisoners, gas prices, and warrantless electronic eavesdropping. Calling Bush a tar baby would be a gross underestimation of the Democrats’ allegorical aspirations. The Democrats hope Bush will be the whole damn La Brea Tar Pit of politics. If their wish comes true, the symbol of the Republican Party will morph from an elephant into a mastodon and be sucked down into oily oblivion.

If both parties’ proscriptions prevail, your choice in November boils down to this: Who is more repulsive—a candidate who once associated with the blithering idiot who heads the Nation of Islam or a candidate who once associated with the blithering idiot who heads our nation?

Two thousand years ago, Roman citizens got together at the cairn that divided them to celebrate the common interests that united them. Today, we tear up that pile of rocks and use the stones for weapons. No matter who wins in November, the feast we consume after our version of the boundary ritual will be bitter indeed.