A Bit Over the Top

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – “Then the wolf shall live with the sheep, and the leopard lie down with the kid … the cow and the bear shall be friends …. The lion shall eat straw like cattle; the infant shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the young child dance over the viper’s nest.”

Those of us who were raised in the faith remember well this prophecy from the scroll of the first Isaiah. Whoever of us was tagged to read it aloud in Sunday School had to endure the only partially suppressed snickers of his pals when the King James Version we used forced him to say “shall play over the hole of the asp.”

That idyll painted by Isaiah seemed to me then, and still does, 75 years later, a bit over the top. Lions eating straw? I doubt it. Still, the state of our union at the present time – rather like a Florida beachfront after a hurricane – might induce many of us to slip into such a fantasy (which would not, of course, include beating our swords into plowshares. Perish that thought). So how do we as a nation begin sorting out what Oliver Hardy would plaintively call “another fine mess”?

We start by agreeing we’ve got problems, ranging from a deadly pandemic still thought a hoax by many, to a flood of children being shipped north away from the terrors of central America, to an economy flailing in disarray, to multiple efforts to disenfranchise minority voters, to increasing asperity and falsehoods in social media.

Then it’s important, I think, to stop attempting to blame others. It’s also critical to put away our labels; they’re the result of lazy thinking and the resort of critics without arguments; and lately they’ve become meaningless: What’s a “Christian” anymore, or a “conservative” or a “liberal,” or a “patriot”? For that matter, with the Grand Old Party of my ancestors appearing to follow the Whigs into oblivion (see Professor Jelani Cobb’s article, “How Parties Die,” in the March 15 New Yorker), how do we resurrect the ancient art of governing by negotiation and compromise? And finally, can we possibly begin to base our important civil decisions upon empirical evidence rather than our personal principles?

We appear, from our incredible (and still growing) political and financial inequities and legislative gridlock, to be in late-stage capitalism – Bernie Sanders our Jeremiah – yet no one seems to be seriously proposing a solution. We used to say that only people crazy enough to think they could change the world are the ones who do. Now, when the inmates seem to have taken over the asylum, I yearn for someone sane enough to believe that. My man in this situation is Bobby Kennedy, who, like many of our leaders of the past century, was assassinated: “Some men see things as they are, and say, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were, and say, ‘Why not?'”

Why not experiment again with Universal Basic Income (UBI)? Mitch McConnell has said that the $1400 stimulus checks issued to eligible citizens will discourage them from seeking work ($1400! As if!). But where UBI has been tried – Stockton, California, and Dauphin, Manitoba, it’s been a qualified success, and deserves further experiments. I’m no economist, but it seems evident that money does more good to us all in the hands of those who have to spend it, rather than in the portfolios of those who don’t. Principle, more than economics, stands in our way. So why not?

Universal health care — why not? We know damn well why not: Insurance companies, often miscalled providers, and their executives and shareholders will suffer. The cries of “Socialism!” are frankly old hat, and fears of “government incompetence” utterly unfounded. As a 20-year participant in Medicare (and my late wife in Medicaid), I’ve found it as near to perfect as I can imagine health care insurance to be. It’s not free by a long shot. But it works. So why not?

We’re all against abortion – who isn’t? – but it’s too often framed as a matter of religious or moral principle. It never will be eliminated, but only made more lethal by banning it. Why not take a look at a place where efforts to eliminate it actually have worked? Just Google Colorado abortion rates. A combination of education, state-provided contraception, and other support has more than halved the rate.

Where often-grisly appeals to principle and legal maneuvers have failed, cooler heads have made the greatest difference. I can’t help but wonder why government-supported – and reversible – vasectomy wouldn’t be even more effective. What’s good for the goose, eh? 

We’ve got the resources to make this country so much better for all of us; so why not clean up that hurricane-littered beach and, as mariners say, make it so? Why not?