The Problem With Conservative Pensacola

I have high expectations for my hometown of Pensacola, Fl. Expectations that I know will never be met. I complain a lot about my town, but it would be misleading to say that I hate it. I rather hate what it is while imagining what it could be. What is Pensacola? It’s a town held hostage by lack of creativity.

Pensacola long ago mortgaged its future to the military establishment. The city languished in the belief that the military would always be there to provide jobs and security. Because the military is a bastion of conservatism-despite being paradoxically the most Marxist organization in the country-the majority of Pensacola’s population was conservative and therefore most of its elected leaders were conservative. Perhaps if less staunchly shortsighted leaders had found their way into power, the beauty surrounding Pensacola might have been held out as a carrot to business, industry and technology. When military downsizing began in the late 80s and early 90s the tumultuous effects on Pensacola might have been averted because we wouldn’t have been such a company town reliant on one major influence on our economy. The effect of subservience to a conservative behemoth has had widespread effects on Pensacola.

With the downsizing at the Naval Air Station and other surrounding military bases, Pensacola was faced with a quick-fix solution to bringing in capital. Millions of acres of undeveloped land extend in all directions around Pensacola and could have, with some liberal-minded long-term thinking, served perfectly for the creation of what is now known as Silicon Valley, or something similar. Pensacola’s relatively low property taxes and cost of living could certainly have been used as desirable selling points to lure companies with thin finances and risky investments. Not to mention a prime selling point of being home to the world’s whitest beaches.

But that would have taken foresight. Instead, it’s much easier and quicker to do away with much of our world’s whitest beaches by constructing huge, ugly steel structures that block the view of passing motorists. I can remember going to the beach as a child and climbing dunes that seemed to reach up into the clouds. When I take my two sons to the beach now, I have to explain to them what sand dunes are. There are few left on our beaches now and you have to drive for miles to get to a part of the beach that has the puny little hills not even worthy of being called dunes. Some might argue that Pensacola took its prime focal point and successfully sold it to the world. I counter that we no longer have much of a focal point. Instead of a beach, we have a strip of hotels, motels, bars and tacky souvenir shops that I defy any person to tell one from another. The conservative point of view that natural beauty should be relegated behind commerce has destroyed what was once a pristine place to take your family.

This conservatism is by no means relegated to our economy. Expressing liberal political views is a dangerous thing to do in Pensacola. I went to an anti-war rally at the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument located downtown. A grand total of about a dozen people showed up. We were quiet and dignified as we held up signs saying that “War Is Not the Answer.” We were repeatedly assaulted by people going by in cars giving us the idiot’s salute-the bird-as well as calling out such wonderfully enlightened slogans as “Bullshit!,” “They’re dying over there for you!,” and “War is the answer!” Letters to the editor of our daily newspaper are predominantly of the opinion that Pres. Clinton is not entitled to any share of the credit for the historic growth of the economy during his eight years in office, but that he’s totally to blame for the historic downturn of the economy since Pres. Bush took office. The Confederate battle flag is seen on the back of every other pickup truck in town not because those who fought under it were fighting in part to subjugate human beings into slavery, but because it’s part of our town’s heritage. To call yourself a liberal in the company of most Pensacolians is to immediately raise questions about your love of country, your commitment to democratic principles and your belief in God. Pensacola prides itself on its conservative devotion to God and American principles and you apparently can’t be both a God-loving American and also a liberal.

Pensacola’s idea of Christian belief boils down to this one single truth: God said it and that settles it. Fundamentalism rules the roost of Pensacola worship. Room for interpretation of scripture is tight here. To even suggest that every word of the Bible isn’t literally true and written down by the hand of God is the purest of blasphemy. Of course, literal interpretation is just that, interpretation. The interpretation of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” most certainly applies to the killing of unborn fetuses, but perhaps not so much to those doctors who kill those fetuses. Some would argue that the fundamentalist climate in Pensacola should bear no blame for producing the largest centralized series of abortion clinic-related violence and murder in the world.

Pensacola is home to a Christmas Day bombing of one abortion clinic, along with several murders of abortion providers and employees, as well as a series of aggressive confrontations between abortion opponents and women seeking medical help. Pensacola has seen anti-abortion (or anti-choice depending on your political viewpoint) demon-strations on a massive scale. The underlying theme involved in all of these events has been their connections to fundamentalist Christian orthodoxy. The bombers were all young, middle-class men and women attending a fundamentalist church. The murderers were all tied with far-right wing fundamentalist religious/political groups. And the demonstrations were the result of combined church planning and organization. One wonders how many houses for the poor those demonstrators could have built with the time and money that went into organizing demonstrations. To deny a link between the strict adherence to religious dogma practiced by the majority of Christians in this town and the resultant violence toward those who question their scriptural interpretations is the ultimate in irresponsibility.

But conservatism in Pensacola isn’t confined to the openly political. Conserv-atism is the keyword for even liberal institutions. There are few who would say that contemporary rock music is a bastion of conservatism, yet rock radio in Pensacola is notoriously conservative. Notorious, at least, for anyone who has experienced radio anywhere else. Radio stations in my hometown seem to be almost paranoid in their fear to expose listeners to music that hasn’t first been approved by the Billboard top forty lists. The homogeneity of rock radio in Pensacola is such that if you closed your eyes and pressed one of six pre-set buttons set to any of the stations in Pensacola, I would personally give you a hundred dollars if you could tell me exactly what station you were on based solely on the song they were playing. Chances are that song is being played at that exact moment on one or two of the other stations.

Nationally, of course, radio has a certain degree of sameness. But in Pensacola the sameness is taken to an unusual degree, especially for a town that has a college radio station. Across the country, college radio is dedicated to providing an alternative to the conglomerate radio mentality. In many cities across the country, you will hear songs on college radio that will never be heard on any other station. Not in Pensacola. Pensacola’s college radio is dedicated to providing music to those same conservative residents who retired here after being first exposed to Pensacola through their association with the military. I have nothing against classical music. I like classical music. But would it be too much to allow two or three hours a day to student DJs to allow them to play music our residents will never get to hear otherwise? Isn’t college meant to be a place where people are invited to expand their horizons and experiences? Can’t the college radio station find a little time to extend that expansion to the musical tastes of its listeners?

Conservatism in all its forms envelop Pensacola. Our economy is based upon conservative ambitions of repeating only what has worked in the past. Our politics is based on narrow ideology that questions the character of those who think differently. Our culture is based on conservative fear of anything radical or different. To say that I hate Pensacola is misleading. I hate, instead, what narrow-minded leadership has done to eradicate any hope of changing my hometown for the better. The explicit political and social direction taken by Pensacola is less threatening to its future than the insidious psychological determinism put in place by years and years of brainwashing. I was a victim of that brainwashing. I was a conservative in all things until I began to question the values that I had had instilled in me. My conversion began in the early 80s and took place throughout most of the decade, part of it taking place once I had left Pensacola and expanded my horizons only slightly by moving to Atlanta. I have a vision of what Pensacola could be. But I live here in spite of what I know it always will be.

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