by Willem Lange
EAST HARDWICK – I watch, listen to, and read a lot of news. It’s available, and coming in pretty fresh, around the clock seven days a week. The reliability of its sources is important to me; I like those as close as possible to the way I like coffee and whiskey – straight. Spoiled for years by the impassive reporting of Walter Cronkite, and allowed to draw my own conclusions, I can barely tolerate the breathless announcements and leading questions of Wolf Blitzer (I keep waiting for him to keel over from anoxia in mid-career); and I see that Fox News has defended its reputation in court by affirming its content to be entertainment, rather than facts. So as soon as I hear adjectives – let alone adverbs! – beginning to creep into the “news,” I’m pretty much gone. As far as so-called “social media” go, my well-worn crap detector is in Alert mode from the moment I log on.
At the same time, I keep asking myself, “Why?” Why am I bothering to watch or spend time reading – or even caring – about current events? Is it just for entertainment? The news is mostly bad, a downer. So why do I grieve about the plight of Ukrainians whose fate is in other hands? Why do I care how many have died (body-counting is a favorite activity of various media) in the Kentucky floods? There’s little, if anything, I can do about these situations. I’m just an old man, armed with nothing but a single vote, when the time comes, and increasingly irrelevant to the apparent concerns of the thundering herds around me. Abortion, military-style weapons, toxic masculinity, birth control and family planning, demographic anxiety, the teaching of history in public schools, sexual and gender politics – all of these are so far beyond my capacity (or competence) as a bystander to influence that it would be easy to join the late Stringbean Akeman of the Grand Ole Opry in his classic lament, “Lawd, I feel so unnecessary!”
Still, in over eighty years of reading newspaper commentary (I broke in on Westbrook Pegler and Drew Pearson during the war) and over forty years of writing it (I started, by mere coincidence, the same year Ronald Reagan began his presidency), I must have seen something worth noticing. And I have, of course. The changes in the United States from the end of the Second World War till now have been profound. There’s no way yet to know whether they’re simply cyclical, or if they’re the spasms of a dying empire. Either way, I won’t be around to learn the answer. And rather recently, I’ve begun to feel that’s just fine.
We’ve come a long way from the exuberance of having whipped the world to wagging our finger schoolmarmishly at other world powers and tearing at each other. It’s difficult to see any way out of our current hateful internal relationships, and easy to despair. The biggest conflict within our so-called united states seems to be a tug-of-war between those who embrace and advocate change, and those who resist it. The irony inherent in this situation is that change, as ever, is the only constant – it will happen and is happening all around us – and while we mortals squabble over who gets to use the girls’ bathroom, the greatest change of all is sweeping across the entire planet. The Milton Brunson gospel song begins to make sense: “God showed Noah the rainbow sign: Won’t be rain, but fire next time.” Meanwhile, our national representatives, cool in air-conditioned rooms and smitten, perhaps, by the magnificence of the Capital, act as if their only goal in life is reelection; and they talk, and they talk, and they talk.
President Reagan, the Great Communicator and aw-shucks Irishman, never, as far as I can discern, communicated a single original thought of his own, but rather those of his conservative supporters, who’d found him a trustworthy spokesman. So it’s hard to blame him for the mischief he set afoot by remarking that government couldn’t solve our problems because government is the problem. Read again Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which appeals to our highest natures, and contrast it with Reagan’s appeal to our basest. Demagogues have been mining that vein of dissatisfaction ever since, till one’s followers, conditioned to believe a leader whose lies are so obvious as to be cartoonish, actually assaulted their own capitol in a bizarre attempt to satisfy their imagined grievances.
I’ve followed our ups and downs for a long time now: Hitler’s invasion of Poland; Hitler’s defeat at Stalingrad; the Battle of the Bulge; the successful crossing of the Rhine. Chosin Reservoir, My Lai, Tibet, Hong Kong. It all gets to be too much. More and more I feel like Eliot’s Gerontion, “an old man in a dry month, being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.” But that seems so much like giving up. No, rather we continue the fight, remembering always Don Marquis’ mehitabel: theres a dance in the old dame yet toujours gai toujours gai