Listening Was Never His Strong Suit

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Years ago, on his monthly pastoral circuit through northern New York State, my father visited us at our house in the Adirondacks. He was having trouble getting a fire going in our fireplace and asked if I had any kerosene. Yes, I told him, in the blue can above the cellar stairs.

Listening was never his strong suit. He got the red can, splashed some of its contents on the smoldering kindling, and blew himself and our four-year-old son halfway across the living room. By sheer good luck, the rest of the gasoline in the can didn’t catch fire, as well.

I’m reminded strongly of this punctuation mark in our lives by the news that Air Force One and the President will be visiting Kenosha, Wis. “The White House has been humbled,” said Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere Sunday evening, “by the outreach of individuals who have welcomed the President’s visit and are longing for leadership to support local law enforcement and businesses that have been vandalized.” This announcement followed a plea by Governor Tony Evers of Wisconsin and the Mayor of Kenosha to, essentially, butt out: “Now is not the time for divisiveness.”

Ah, but it is! The technique of conquering by dividing is at least as old as Thucydides. The strategists in the purportedly humbled White House, to whom victory in the coming election is clearly more important than any other concern, seem to see this as their only chance for a second term. If the conflicts among us Americans, lately personified by camouflage-clad patriots bearing arms designed for homicide, versus opportunistic looters and car-burners smelling of tear gas, can be exacerbated, or elevated into an existential dread of chaos, perhaps millions of us who haven’t the energy, wit, or subtlety to peek behind the Oz-green curtain will be convinced that the cause of the chaos will also be its cure.

A current cartoon depicts a medieval king standing on his castle ramparts, while below, the peasants have massed in revolt, carrying torches and pitchforks. An adviser standing beside him counsels, “Oh, you don’t need to fight them. You just need to convince the pitchfork people that the torch people want to take away their pitchforks.”

William Falk, editor-in-chief of “The Week,” writes in the current issue: “Both Democratic and Republican partisans…have come to despise the other tribe and their elected leaders more than they like their own leaders….Harnessing fear and hatred can drive turnout, which has become the key to winning national elections.” This, he says, bodes trouble if, following the election, the losing tribe, in contravention of established democratic practice, refuses to concede that the winners “have a legitimate, if temporary, claim on power. Will that happen this November…?”

If we have been at all awake, we’re aware of the swift incremental establishment of presidential cronies in positions of power in the federal government, and the evaporation of watchdog positions designed to keep an eye out for official chicanery. The diminution of polling places and offices at which voter identification cards may be obtained has been limited to poor and minority communities: a pretty obvious attempt to disenfranchise those who likely would vote the wrong way.

The constant trashing emanating from the White House (by Twitter, a name so silly I’d be loath, even myself, to use it)) of the media, journalists, judges, and scientists – most of us could go on – sets the stage for something that I’m afraid, in spite of Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary tale, most of us have doubted could happen here. Men and women, both armed with increasingly lethal weapons and imbued with righteous zeal, stalk the streets and shops and now confront each other at scenes of urban chaos. It’s dismaying to see how little it’s taken to stir them to fever pitch. Rumors of a “deep state,” dark money, and conspiracies are as common as birthday greetings on the Internet. One of our defining characteristics as a culture is to shoot our problems. So once again we’re shooting at each other. And – I don’t know why we’re afraid to say it – if I were black and at all far from home, I’d check all my car’s lights every day, make sure my papers were in order, carry a cell phone, but no weapon, and treat every traffic stop as a potential life-ending encounter.

In 1887, Edward, first Baron Acton, coined an opinion we’re all familiar with: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We have only to look about us to see the truth of it; many governments around the world have changed or tacitly ignored their constitutions to ensure the political longevity of their leaders, who rule essentially to save their own hides: Chinas’s Xi, Russia’s Putin, North Korea’s Kim, Egypt’s Al-Sisi, Turkey’s Erdogan, India’s Modi, Saudi Arabia’s Salman, the Philippines’ Duterte. This patently absurd phenomenon, and the collateral suffering and death it causes for millions of people, exists primarily to salve the ego and ensure the power of one, often elderly, man, who, like Ozymandius, will be but a memory in less than a generation. It was made possible in every case by the cowing or compromising of a complicit body of enablers. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is.

Evan Osnos, writing in the current “New Yorker,” has conducted lengthy interviews with the candidate seeking to replace the current president. Referring to our current chaos, Joe Biden reflects: “…I thought you could defeat hate. You can’t. It only hides. It crawls under the rocks, and when given oxygen by any person in authority, it comes roaring back out … the words of a President, even a lousy President, matter. They can take you to war, they can bring peace, they can make the market rise, they can make it fall. But they can also give hate oxygen.” It’s not clear that any leader can bring us out of the hateful funk we’re currently in. The world may end not with a bang, but a whimper. Can a great nation end with gunfire in the streets, nightsticks, paintball guns, tear gas, body armor, and epidemic self-righteousness?