With Malice Towards Fun

[14 August 2007]

By Ryan Smith

Only in our increasingly bizarre postmodern media-centric world where two blonde girls getting trashed in LA (ala Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan) and the wavy mane of an androgynous Indian teen (ala American Idol’s Sanjaya Malakar) generates more headlines than a war in Iraq, and a world in which an anthropomorphic snowman directs questions to presidential candidates during televised debates (ala the 2007 Democratic presidential candidate debates) could Homer Simpson have a chance to beat Abraham Lincoln in a popularity contest in Linconl’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois.

Outside of Central Illinois this state of affairs comes as no surprise. Evidence has shown that the churlish, beer-swilling, half-witted fictional character, has gathered more stature in most of the world than his Springfield counterpart, the (arguably, of course) greatest president in American history.

In a recent BBC poll, those whip-smart Brits chose Homer Simpson as the “Greatest American” with Honest Abe coming in a distant second —just ahead of Dr. Martin Luther King. (George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt trailed Mr. T significantly.)  As a native of Springfield, Illinois, I witness this snub to Ol’ Abe et al firsthand. As a citizen of the birthplace of the 16th President of the United States, I often feel, when conversing with people from other places, as if I’m unwittingly conducting one of those Jaywalking segments from The Tonight Show. The ones where Jay Leno smugly asks people off the street random general knowledge questions like “Do you know who Condoleezza Rice is?” They, of course, stammer answers like, “She’s Jerry Rice’s wife, right?” which entitles Leno to smirk, the audience to laugh, and everyone involved to feel oh-so-superior to Joe Q. Public.

For someone from Springfield, the Leno-ish scene goes a little like this:

“So, where are you from originally?”
“I’m from Springfield, Illinois.”
“Hey, isn’t that where the Simpsons are from?”
“I don’t know, I don’t think the creators have ever said for sure.”

It’s one thing for this to kind of conversation to happen in Seattle; quite another to have it happen in Springfield, Illinois. The region’s nickname—clearly indicated on every auto license plate—is “The Land of Lincoln” for the love of Mary Todd! But this summer Fox network’s favorite family teetered dangerously close to stealing away the heart and soul of Springfield from the man who saved the Union, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and commanded such a respect and reverence that the poet Vachel Lindsay famously called him, “the quaint great figure that men love / The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.” To borrow a phrase from the man of the moment, “D’oh!”

I know I risk sounding Bill O’Reillyesque, as if declaiming that the United States is going to hell because it’s citizens (and others) can more readily name a fictitious cartoon sitcom character than it can a major player who has truly had his hand in shaping its culture.  But let me risk it, anyway: this is all Hollywood’s fault.

See, there was this film released recently called The Simpsons Movie. You may have heard of it. You may have also heard of a competition / publicity stunt from the movie’s marketing team as part of the massive wave of gimmicky hype that involved a dozen or so towns around the country named Springfield. Each of these Springfields made promotional videos touting their town’s to The Simpsons.  Their aim: to be christened the “real” Springfield and host the movie’s premiere.  (Go here on USA.com to see the videos submitted by Springfields throughout the US.)

The contest managed to whip many of the good citizens of my hometown into a Simpsons loving frenzy. Morning DJ’s couldn’t stop blabbing about it; the local newspaper wrote breathless updates on a near daily basis about USA Today poll results like it was reporting on a presidential primary; ordinarily apathetic teens posted MySpace bulletins demanding their friends vote; and a picture of Homer was even added to the front page of the city’s official website. Finally, in an act of supreme undignified behavior, Mayor Tim Davlin called a press conference in which he told the other Springfield’s to “Eat my shorts!” 

Sure, Mayor Davlin’s participation was embarrassing in a “My Dad is trying way too hard to seem cool” way, but I didn’t getting riled up until I watched the city’s official video. In it, legendary retired newscaster Don Hickman (who I always thought of as a poor man’s Pat Summerall) introduces Davlin, who cites the BBC poll I referenced earlier and notes that Homer and Abe are “both from Springfield, Illinois.” Then a Lincoln impersonator appears in the classic stovepipe hat, beard and the full garb and says, “I reckon when it comes to Homer Simpson, I’m fine with being the second greatest American.”

Rubbing Abe's Nose for Luck: A Springfield Tradition

Rubbing Abe’s Nose for Luck: A Springfield Tradition

Wha??? Could you imagine if the Queen of England said that London was the home of Danger Mouse and oh, yes, Winston Churchill, too?

As a child I was immersed in stories of Abraham Lincoln.  I lived under two miles from his historic downtown home, went on countless school field trips to his New Salem log cabin, rubbed the worn nose of the large Lincoln bust outside of tomb. I attended plays about Lincoln, participated in dramatic readings of the Gettysburg Address, and around the Fourth of July I’d go downtown for LincolnFest (which had less to do with Abe than it did booze and fireworks earning it the snarky nickname ‘Drinkenfest’). I took classes at Lincoln School and sometimes passed Lincoln Street or Lincoln Park on the way. After school, I’d go to Lincoln Library to check out books. I liked Lincoln.  The only thing I seemed to miss out on in my childhood was Lincoln Logs. (I had Legos.)

Yes, there was something about my youth spent in Lincoln-immersion that was like a Communist China style brainwashing. I was fed the myths right along with the facts. Like the one about Lincoln the Shopkeeper walking for miles (uphill, both ways, etc.) to give a few pennies back to a forgetful customer.  Once he supposedly floated down to New Orleans via the Mississippi River, saw slaves being mistreated and declared that one day, (in his folksy, plainspoken way) he’d do something about it. He was strong, too and was the best wrestler, railsplitter, and farmhand in all of the Midwest. If I believed all the propaganda, I’d believe he was a combination of Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Hulk Hogan.
Yet there was enough truth there that growing up as a shy loner reading about this gawky, introverted guy that spent most of his younger years reading books and splitting logs in the rural Illinois and Indiana, I felt a sort of kinship with Abe.  His story is the ultimate pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps story, from pauper to President. I didn’t want to be a politician, but I did have dreams to one day leave my quiet little Springfield neighborhood for something better and Abe made it all seem possible.
Maybe I’m just the sentimental type. Maybe I’ve got a place in my heart for the Founding Fathers and other such “dead white men”.  Alas, maybe Homer Simpson is the Man For Our Times, and maybe he does represent America and Springfield, Illinois better than a politician who died 150 years ago. He’s the anti-hero – a bumbling, ordinary fool with few scruples and fewer ambitions. Someone like the vapid tourists Jay Leno interviews who don’t know the answers to simple historical trivia. Someone whom we can laugh at and therefore makes us feel a bit better about ourselves.

At least in the case of Springfield, Illinois however, the state of Vermont saved Lincoln from having to step down to second place in our hearts. Springfield, Vermont won the contest to take The Simpsons as their homegrown pop icon. Don’t get me wrong, I like The Simpsons; the show and the movie is an amusing satire about American life.  But I’ll take my heroes larger than life, thank you very much, and by that I’m not referring to how they appear on a movie screen.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/with-malice-towards-fun/