Fast-Forward 71 Years

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – During my first year at a boarding school where all the students worked about ten hours a week, I was assigned menial labor in the barns. Perversely, perhaps, I loved it — spreading chopped silage as it poured in overhead from a chute, shoveling manure from the gutters behind the cows, grading apples and potatoes, beating the feathers from dead, scalded chickens (not a favorite), and slopping the hogs. The one place I was warned not to get too close to was the bull pens. A giant Holstein bull brooded dangerously in each, pawing rocks out of the mud with such force that they smashed the clapboards of the barn behind them.

When a cow came into heat, the herdsman slipped a pan of oats under the door of the pen and, when the bull dropped its head to scarf up the grain, snapped a spring-loaded hook onto its nose ring. Thus he led the huge creature, as easily as a puppy, out across the yard to the breeding pen, where his lady love awaited. We students watched, fascinated, but wary, from a safe distance.

Fast forward 71 years. A current Internet post by the organization Occupy Democrats quotes Matthew Dowd, a former Republican strategist now running as a Democrat for Lieutenant Governor of Texas: “A supermajority of Americans want Roe v. Wade kept in place, want common sense gun reform, see healthcare as a right, want an increase in the minimum wage, and want voting made easier.” As the news from all the media pours in daily, the image of that great bull being led by the nose springs always to my mind. What’s become of us?

Rewind about ninety years. The parallels between our often bland assumptions that the nation’s Constitution will protect us from all assaults, domestic and foreign, and German citizens’ assumption that the Bundestag would find a way out of the country’s economic woes, are too ominous to be ignored. Author Sinclair Lewis picked up on it way back in 1935, with “It Can’t Happen Here,” in which it does happen here. The appeals to the basest instincts of the turbulent electorate, the leadership of a manic populist, the scapegoating of minorities and aliens, the demonization of the media, the impotence and corruption of the elected legislative body, the repetition of the Big Lie — all have happened before; and what is there in that list that isn’t happening around us right now? January Sixth was only a foretaste; and who among us believes that the Congressional committee “investigating” that event — an investigation that, owing to legal foot-dragging and wrangling, resembles running in knee-deep mud–– thinks it will lead anywhere?

Remember the scene in “Huckleberry Finn” in which Huck attempts to explain different languages to Jim? Jim’s final poser is that, if a Frenchman is a man, why doesn’t he talk like one. My question is that, if a supermajority of us wants to preserve Roe v. Wade, enact some gun control, pass the Voting Rights act, and expand health care protection — if indeed we are a majority, then why don’t we start acting like one?

We’ve been bullied by armed goons who stalk our streets, public places, and now even our legislative chambers, citing an interpretation of the Second Amendment that bears no resemblance to its original intent, and personifying an implicit threat to those who disagree. We’ve been bamboozled by the constant erosive comments designed to destroy our confidence in our sources of information. We’ve been outmaneuvered by a legislative body in thrall to a narcissistic despot, which has transformed our last resort — the courts — into political kabuki. We’ve failed to fight the integration of far-right politics with a perversion of Christianity. We’ve allowed the power of large fortunes and corporations to co-opt our representative democracy and render our middle class impotent. We’ve failed to remember Elie Wiesel’s admonition that acquiescence is complicity.

Compare the resources and passion expended in the attempt prohibit a woman’s access to an abortion with those spent to protect our schoolchildren from random lethal mayhem. A supermajority of Americans, apparently, find that imbalance insupportable. So where are they? With no divine intervention in prospect, the American experiment as we have known it could end. Ben Franklin and his colleagues gave us “a republic, if you can keep it.” If we can’t, Shakespeare will have written our epitaph: “The fault…is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.”