Not so very long ago my wife had a conference in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The town and the surrounding countryside figured prominently in the lives of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two Presidents who earned their stripes as Founding Fathers of this country.  They were major contributors to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, not to mention the University of Virginia.

I made a pilgrimage to Jefferson’s home of Monticello back when we were living in DC, so this time I took the time to visit the University of Virginia campus and Montpelier, Madison’s home.  Montpelier has undergone an unusual, multimillion dollar “facelift” designed to obliterate a significant renovation by the Dupont family, of whom you may have heard.  Not long ago, the house was about four times the size it is now.  The restoration looks very much like a work in progress.  There are a number of virtually empty rooms at Montpelier, including one with peeling wallpaper and partially exposed lathe under crumbling plaster.

When the guide began his tour, it soon became obvious that historical hagiography has suffered a setback.  This new narrative was not exactly warts and all, but it was certainly less idealized than the presentation I got when I went to school. Both Madison and Jefferson had flaws, after all, and these were not glossed over by our guide.  It is hard to reconcile the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” with the fact that Jefferson (and Madison) lived off slave labor.  The enslaved men, women and children from Africa were obviously not the “men” Jefferson was talking about.

This gradual shift toward a more realistic and nuanced approach to our history seems to fly in the face of the voices that are dominating the political scene today.  It is as if a Pied Piper has come along and serenaded all the responsible adults away somewhere.  Belligerent children are in charge. How else does one explain the uproar over health care reform and the upcoming fight over financial regulation, not to mention the regular tantrums that Republicans seem to have at the very mention of Obama.

First, there were the people who rejected his right to be President because he was supposed to have been born in some other country than the USA.  Hawaii may be different enough and far enough away from the mainland states to give people that impression, but then, so is Alaska.  And no one questions Sarah Palin’s credentials as a red-blooded Yank.

Now, we have the tea party people.  According to a recent CBS poll, 18% of Americans identify with the movement.  They are white, older, better educated than their fellow Americans, and angry–  about Obama, health care reform, government spending, unemployment and the economy.  They seem to believe that Democrats are leading us down the path of socialism.  Every older American entitled to it loves Medicare and still hates health care reform.  Go figure.

Despite the facts, the tea party people are convinced Obama has raised taxes.  They believe same sex marriage is awful and gun control laws should be eased.  Australian readers may be astonished to learn that Americans can now take handguns into national parks (for our own protection).  Inebriated campers are going to be far more dangerous to us nature lovers than Grizzly bears, rattlesnakes and alligators.  Tree huggers, beware.

Walt Disney must have anticipated this when he adopted this country and built an empire built on fantasy.  Americans seem less inclined to tolerate other people’s opinions and more inclined to believe in paranoid conspiracy theories now than at any other time in my life.  We have turned into a nation of ignorant people, deliberately turning our backs on the opportunity to learn from other countries or wiser minds.  It is frightening that we wield such a big stick and use it so carelessly.

I made peace with my Peter Pan syndrome some time ago, but the fact that I managed to stretch childhood into my retirement does not mean everyone should do so.  In fact, it is a really bad idea.  Countries need citizens who are willing to take a certain amount of responsibility on their shoulders and not mess things up.  The world is not a finger painting, after all.  It is possible to screw things up so badly that they can never be fixed.  Time is running out.

American grownups, please come home!  We need you.