This commentary is by Darryl Benjamin, who holds a B.A. in English literature from McGill University, an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a certificate in leadership in sustainable food systems from the University of Vermont. In 2016, he published “Farm to Table: The Essential Guide to Sustainable Food Systems for Students, Professionals, and Consumers” (Chelsea Green). Recently he completed his second book, “SeedLand,” a speculative ecofiction novel.
When my wife and I moved to Florida three years ago from Vermont, we had no idea what to expect. Moving from a state with barely more than 600,000 people to a state with over 22 million people was an adjustment. My wife had enough of the cold and we moved next town over from my elderly mother, the better to care for her.
But nothing prepared us for our experience here.
One morning I was awakened by a heavy thudding by my window. Outside I was shocked to find two men hauling away at my raised-bed garden with sledgehammers. Apparently the garden was in violation of HOA rules (Homeowners Association). The owner of the house that we were renting from hadn’t bothered to inform us of the notices she’d been receiving. Instead, she simply sent two men over with sledgehammers to dismantle the garden.
The sense of violation outraged me. “Get off my property or I’m calling the cops,” I screamed. They left muttering.
That experience turned us off from buying the house. We moved, determined to find a home without an HOA. The notion of regulated conformity screamed against every pore in our collective bodies. Neither of us like being micromanaged, which is exactly the purpose of HOAs.
We were fortunate to find a private, lovely house next to a river on a relatively quiet street. We spent the better part of 2022 settling in.
And then came the knock on the door. An older woman stood there with literature in her hand. “Hello,” I greeted her. “What can I do for you?”
She handed me the literature. It supported Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. I frowned.
“Are you aware that Donald Trump killed over 650,000 people through his lies and inaction about Covid?” I asked. “No he didn’t,” she said.
“Are you aware Ron DeSantis banned mask and vaccine mandates and the teaching of critical race theory and actively suppresses voting rights?” “No he didn’t,” she said.
She decided to change tack. “Let me ask you something,” she said to my wife, who had by now joined us. “My family has been in this country for three generations. How long has your family been here?”
At that point I saw red. How dare she ask such a blatantly racist question, especially noticing my wife’s accent (never mind that I am a third-generation-born American)? The implication that she somehow has more right to voting Republican? That because of her heritage we should change party? Following her logic was difficult.
“Here’s your literature,” I said, handing it to her.
Whereupon she shoved it back into my hands. So I tore it up and flung the pieces on the ground. She gathered them up and attempted to hand them back.
“What is wrong with you? Get the hell off my property!” I screamed. I don’t remember screaming once in the 15 years I lived in Vermont.
“Don’t talk to me that way. I’m a lady,” she said.
I slammed the door in her face. Some lady. Like Donald Trump is a gentleman. Later, when I left to walk the dog, the pieces came raining down from a crack in the door where she had inserted them as a parting gesture.
Shocked by her persistence, we subsequently learned that 95% of our neighbors are registered Republicans. Clearly she figured her new neighbor would fall into lockstep.
We had no idea that moving from Bernie Sanders territory to Ron De SantisLand was like moving from Brooklyn to pre-war Germany. My wife, who, incidentally, is German, was appalled to see the invincible ignorance on public display. A certain amount of culture shock was expected, but the barenaked, seething hatred and in-your-face defiance is astonishing. We live in the time of the normalization of crazy.
Take, for example, driving along Route 1, the main artery along the East Coast. One is likely to see signs of unthinkable aggression everywhere, from storefronts to vehicles displaying stomach-churning decals. What kind of constipated, demented moron would actually put these on the back of his pickup truck? Answer: The Florida Kind. Promoting violence is a way of life down here.
Anna Paulina Luna, who recently ran for the House seat in Florida’s 13th district, is another tarnished example. She claims three political rivals were trying to murder her.
Deep freeze in Florida
Word travels fast. Overnight our neighbors have gone from welcoming to shunning us. The guy from North Carolina across the street who took us deep-sea fishing three times now practically runs when he sees us. Our immediate neighbors on either side ignore us when we pass them on the street or see them putting out the cans or collecting mail.
The same goes for the rest of our street, about half a mile of beautiful homes with perfect lawns and lazy palms.
So what do we do? Nothing, really. My wife greets them with smiles and hellos, all never returned. I avoid them altogether by walking the dog (and myself) down by the river, where nature blooms in a radiant embrace and whose generosity of spirit leaves one agape and aghast at the constipated spirit of nearby residents who appear forever locked in the fevers of hate and anger. If only they didn’t try to present themselves as kindhearted people. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A lie cannot live.”
We have come to accept that we need to dig deeper to find thinking, feeling people. And though it takes time and patience, we are making progress.
Explaining why Florida has turned to the Dark Side is based on empirical experience over a lifetime.
Florida has an abundance of elderly whose brains are in various stages of wasting away. It’s as if the mind is a play in three acts and as the curtain closes in the final act, so does the mind. There’s no point in putting a pretty frame around an ugly truth.
But it’s not just age. It’s also the hyper-processed crap that is the only food many elderly can afford on a fixed income. Shopping options are for the most part limited to Publix or Winn Dixie, both purveyors of junk food disguised as real food. Unless it’s organic (and not greenwashed), the elderly buy familiar processed items from the 1950s and ‘60s when TV dinners were considered haute cuisine and Velveeta Cheese was in everyone’s fridge.
Poor diet, lack of exercise, spotty health care at obscene cost, combined with a soupçon of existential grief, mostly exhibited on the second-childhood off-ramp of popularism, brain atrophy, and dread of imminent death. It’s enough to make anyone cranky.
Will you ever catch these people reading The Washington Post, The New York Times, or listening to NPR? Critical thinking — the fine art of asking why, digging deeper, seeing both sides — requires effort. It’s much easier to watch Fox or the other blithering hairdos on nightly news. (Especially if you live alone with no one to talk to). It’s as easy as pouring poison in the ear of Hamlet’s father.
Populist figures like Trump and DeSantis prey on these people who listen with anxiety and alarm. It’s like shooting fish in the barrel. And there are millions of fish, and they vote.