by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – During what’s turning out to be a relatively long life so far, and in spite of generally straightened financial circumstances, I’ve had the opportunity to travel in some of our country’s most beautiful places. The first that comes to mind is the Wind River Range of Wyoming, where a friend and I, the late Paul Kelley, packed in several miles to a pair of glacial lakes, set up our tiny tent, and next day made a magnificent, but abortive attempt on the highest mountain in the range, Gannett Peak. The Adirondacks, green, moist, and rugged, still hold my heart (and eventual grave plot). And Mount Katahdin, whose fabulous Knife Edge I’ll never even reach again, let alone hike, often floats across the screen of my imagination.
There was the arid limestone, mesquite, and prickly pear Permian Basin of Texas; the Big Sur, far below our light plane, as we sought majestic soaring condors nesting near the tiny national park called Pinnacles; the plains of Kansas, so utterly flat that, on a ten-mile jog, I could see the turnaround point five miles away; the Great Smokies, with their long-abandoned settlers’ cabins and still-active wild hog wallows far off the trails; the almost other-worldly coast of Maine and its spruce-crowned islands in the fog.
We possess – almost all of us through no virtue or efforts of our own – an unbelievably beautiful homeland.
From the Everglades to the Olympics, and from the Sonoran desert to Eastport, we’re more variously blessed, I’d say, than any other nation on earth. And yet we often treat our blessings the way a child treats a toy of which it has temporarily grown tired.
All this treasure that’s been given us is protected (where it has been) by a compact forged from a coalition between our better selves and our Constitution. We’ve written and enacted our laws during our rational and conscientious moments to protect ourselves from our occasional irrationality. Our problem, increasingly, is that we often assume our republican system, like the carelessly discarded toy, is unbreakable. It’s not. As the Gospel of Matthew warns, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”
For some decades now I’ve felt that the seeds of our self-destruction have been baked into our DNA. The current national news makes that feeling seem eerily prescient. If ever there was a dramatization of the old trope, “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” this is it. The watchers on our towers have seen it coming, and blown their trumpets as best they’ve been able. While ever-larger fires turn our wild lands to ash and blacken the sky, biblical droughts dry up our rivers and reservoirs, and violent floods scour the valleys where our most defenseless brothers and sisters live, thousands of our fellow citizens, in a seemingly suicidal frenzy, are actively planning to rupture the fragile compact that protects the things we hold most dear.
Ronald Reagan planted the seed some years ago by remarking memorably, “Government can’t solve your problems; government is the problem.” The idea lay more or less dormant, though hardly forgotten, until just a few years ago a real estate magnate identified by his New York City peers as a con man and a grifter brought it to life by opening, as skillfully as a medieval leech ever opened a vein, the deep-seated fears and frustrations of the reflexively anti-establishment and anti-intellectual among us. They were captivated and energized by the constantly repeated claim by the losing candidate that the election was stolen. His evidence: that if it hadn’t been, he’d have won. It took very little to move a mob of them actually to attack the national Capitol in a bizarre attempt to prevent the certification of the winner of the last presidential election.
A recent article by David Leonhardt in The New York Times limns ominously the possibilities ahead of us: “In 11 states this year, the Republican nominee for secretary of state…qualifies as an election denier….In 15 states, the nominee for governor is a denier, and in 10 states, the attorney general nominee is.”
If you feel the ground shifting beneath your feet, it’s not the San Andreas Fault or the Yellowstone Caldera that’s causing it. It’s thousands of little hammers, wielded by little people with no more appreciation of the natural magnificence amid which they were raised than would a stone, chipping away at the foundations of the structure that protects all of us from chaos – for what? Can state legislatures literally annul the results of an election with which they disagree? Is there a plan beyond defeating their imagined foes?
As Sinclair Lewis wrote the year I was born, it most definitely can happen here. Confidence in the strength of our Constitution is misplaced; confidence in the Supreme Court has never, or for better reasons, been lower. The more our government institutions fail to reflect the popular will – the abortion decision and veiled threats against the LGBTQ folks will do – the closer we are to the sort of cataclysm that brought us nearly to our knees 160 years ago. Our votes must be as sacrosanct as our lives, or what’s life here for?