by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – “Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines: We are all of us looking for the key.” – Alan Bennett, Beyond the Fringe, 1961.
That used to be my tongue-in-cheek mantra when I was young and convinced that life had a purpose that could be sussed out by diligent reading and rumination. Now that I’m old and pretty much convinced that it may have none, I’m more guided by “I’d rather live with questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”
The years surrounding the recent past Presidential administration have seemed to evoke – or perhaps reveal – a wide and deep streak of yahooism in the American psyche. Not since I first read it as a kid has W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” seemed more appropriate to our condition, both cultural and political. We may try to understand why so many of our fellow citizens are threatened by the ineluctable changes sweeping over us all, but that doesn’t suggest a way out of our fix.
The major struggle, as I see it, is between principle and pragmatism; in other words, between faith-based and data-based decision-making. In a nation that still largely defines itself as “Christian,” and whose zeitgeist is led, as if by the nose, by millions of experts wielding social media accounts, this has caused, and continues to cause, intractable political logjams.
One of the most comprehensible issues is that of abortion. I know of no one who thinks it a matter of small moment; it’s a last-ditch solution, and not, as its foes claim, a mere convenience. But we have historical data to demonstrate the utter impotence of prohibition. The results of the Eighteenth Amendment were catastrophic; some of them linger to this day. If we’re truly interested in making abortion as rare as possible – it will never be extirpated; instead, made available only to the affluent and deadly to the poor – we should study policies that actually achieve what our moralistic approach has always failed to do. The world’s lowest abortion rate by far is enjoyed by the Netherlands, where the procedure is available through national health insurance, and public education about family planning and contraception are prominent in the media. Shouting, shooting up clinics, murdering physicians, and passing restrictive laws get us nowhere; facts and data will.
Most likely we all know why the idea of national health care has gained so little ground in our national debate. As a very satisfied recipient of Medicare, I find the objections ludicrous and self-serving. Consider who stands to lose if it were enacted; poll those of us who pay a modest amount to maintain our coverage; compare what you or your employer pays for private insurance to what universal coverage would cost; and compare our medical outcomes to those of all the other nations who, strangely, exhibit no interest in repeal. Data. Not principle, profit, or lobbying.
Our nation is suffering an epidemic that no vaccines will cure. It’s clearly a product of fear-mongering, a decaying culture, and a bizarre interpretation of the Second Amendment (see former Chief Justice Warren Burger’s comments on the subject). Grown men stalk our streets hugging assault-style weapons like Linus van Pelt in “Peanuts” with his security blanket. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg notes, “If more guns made us safer, we’d be the safest country on earth.” The data – not principle – suggest the need for something more than namby-pamby measures like “rigorous background checks.” We’re killing, maiming, and publicly threatening each other.
Like a politician, I’ll stipulate that I’m no economist; but if anybody can demonstrate to me that Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” benefits anybody but those at the top who hoard wealth, rather than the now-all-but-defunct middle class, who spend it, I’d like to see that data.
Looming over everything, of course, is the acceleration and existential threat of climate change. We don’t need to rehearse the catalog of increasingly destructive weather events to know that worse is afoot than we can control anymore (Texas Representative Louis Gohmert has asked if the Forest Service can combat it by altering the orbit of the moon). Miami Beach is considering a massive seawall, while we folks here in the hills are ordering emergency generators to get us through the next “weather event.” The data in this case is, like the message at King Belshazzar’s banquet, written on the wall, and only fools stand on principle to ignore it.