We Betray a Childish Indifference

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – “Call this a govment! why, just look at it and see what it’s like….The law takes a man worth six thousand dollars and up’ards, and jams him into an old trap of a cabin like this, and lets him go round in clothes that ain’t fitten for a hog. They call that govment!…I’ll never vote ag’in as long as I live.” – Pap Finn

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” – Ronald Reagan

Those two comments on the United States government are separated by about 125 years, but express a skepticism – a cynicism, even – that’s dogged our republican experiment ever since the revolution that started it.

Even our organizing document, written and ratified by a convention split almost evenly between slave-owners and non-owners, contains provisions and compromises that give the lie to the notion that “all men are created equal.” We’ve been tinkering with it ever since – through the Fugitive Slave Act, Sedition Act, Prohibition (and repeal), Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and Defense of Marriage Act (is there a discernible pattern here?) – and we’ll continue to tinker. But when dissatisfaction leads to laying the axe to the root of the tree, as in President Reagan’s first inaugural address, we betray a childish indifference to the possible results.

The recent attack by a mob upon the United States Capitol (incorrectly called an insurrection – there was no plan beyond destruction) in order to prevent the formal certification of the 2020 election results is a perfect example of that. Clearly inspired and incited by the pathological, and even surreal, rhetoric of the disgruntled loser of the election, the riot exposed the fragility of an institution we’ve long thought to be founded on a rock and unbreakable.

It reminds me of nothing else so much as a lovely 1965 Mustang that one of my carpenters bought from one of our customers. The carpenter’s interest was less in automotive beauty than in speed, and within two weeks the poor Mustang was essentially a heap of rubble beside his house. We’ll never know for sure how close the mob actually came to having to back up its murderous threats against Speaker Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Vice-President Pence. In spite of the suspiciously delayed arrival of reinforcements, and because none of the rioters seemed to know what to do next, enough branches of the institution held firm to ensure the succession, which spared us finding out.

Now it appears that the Justice Department, a branch until recently in thrall to the Executive, appears ready to begin prosecutions and plea-dealing with those identified in the hundreds of video clips of the action.

Government is designed by leaders during their best, most thoughtful moments, and equipped with checks and balances to protect us from impulses that drive us in our worst moments. Ours is about as good as it gets – at least conceptually. Yet, as Shakespeare notes, “Ships are but boards, sailors but men.”

The task of governing a vast and varied nation, in which a large percentage of the population has been conditioned to hate you, must be daunting. According to the “Montana Post,” the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church of East Helena (presumably a tax-exempt religious institution) “is encouraging the formation of militias to take down the evil cabal that has led us to …” – you’ve got to Google the complaint (it includes the little-known fact that many Americans are being held incommunicado in concentration camps) to begin to appreciate how far into the dark woods many aggrieved people’s imaginations have wandered.

The COVID vaccines have been infused somehow with tracking chips so the government can keep tabs on us. As one whose dealings with the government have been almost always positive, I find this idea too unhinged even to contemplate. Besides, my daughter-in-law in Arkansas has discovered a tracking system worthy of even the Chinese. She ordered some groceries for curbside pickup at Walmart, and on her way in, called to tell them she was coming. “Oh, yes,” the clerk on the phone answered. “We see you’re currently thirteen minutes away. We’ll be waiting for you.”