by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – Most of us, I daresay, learned the story of Bluebeard as children (though, apparently, it’s too frightening and thus off-limits to some modern children). The wealthy, but grotesque nobleman, before leaving on a trip, gives his new wife the keys to all the rooms and treasure chests in his castle, including a tiny key to a closet into which he adjured her not to peek. So, with all that wealth available to her, guess which key she can’t wait to use. Human nature and curiosity cannot be stifled, even by the direst threats.
In my own childhood, when my godly elders discovered I was a precocious reader, they offered me the then-princely sum of two dollars for reading the Bible cover to cover. But, like Bluebeard’s bride, I was warned away from “The Song of Solomon” till you are older.” It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what I went to straightaway, tucked in there between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah. I found it quite as boring as Paul’s letters to the various infant Christian churches. In fact, except for the excitement of reading of the genocidal slaughters performed by the Hebrew children as they invaded the Promised Land, and the drama of the week before Christ’s crucifixion, I really earned my two bucks. Much, much later I was able to discern that Paul was most likely paid by the word for his efforts, and that my elders were trying to keep me from reading explicit poetry about the most universal and venial of “sins.” But the lesson was hardly lost upon me: Forbidding any behavior as a tool of control is worse than a waste of time.
Shakespeare says it best (as he so often does): “You may as well go stand upon the beach and bid the main flood bate his usual height. You may as well use question with the wolf, why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb.”
You’d think we’d’ve learned by now. Not too long ago in our nation’s history – there are a few still around who may dimly recall the Volstead Act – it was illegal in the United States, thanks to the unstinting efforts of latter-day puritans, to manufacture, sell, or transport alcoholic beverages. Booze was gone forever.
Well, not quite. Although consumption of alcohol decreased; the cost of enforcing the new laws increased; and organized crime, ever vigilant for new opportunities, blossomed, along with gang violence. Lydia Pinkham’s and many potent cough syrups became staple comforts in logging camps and barns. Here in the North Country, the free-lance rum-runners who transported the water of life from Canada weren’t considered criminals, but heroes along the lines of Robin Hood (Google “Bert LaFountain’s Packard”).
According to the news that I can watch, now that I’m home from nursing care, several states are proposing, debating, or have passed laws – the products once again of ideologues – prohibiting women’s free exercise of their right to privacy. Just as in 1919, lawmakers have taken notice of where their votes are coming from, and are feeling free to propose prohibitions that, in the context of the 21st century, seem almost grotesque. As in the past, ignorance of Newton’s Third Law seems epidemic in conservative legislatures.
The prohibitions and restrictions are largely the product of a shrinking and (in their own minds) threatened demographic: aging, white, self-identified Christian males who seem to have no appreciation of the numbers, looming power, and values of those who naturally will supplant them. The survivors of school shootings will soon be running for state or Congressional offices – as will young men and women who will insist upon personal autonomy – as will children who today can’t find “Beloved” or “Huckleberry Finn” in their school libraries, and whose teachers must tread carefully in class discussions, lest they fall afoul of forbidden topics. The West Virginia legislature apparently is considering requiring that Creationism be taught alongside the theory of evolution. You can almost hear the rumble of tumbrels on the pavement.
It can’t last, and it won’t. Its champions are growing old and increasingly out of touch, and the pressure from those whose liberties are being curtailed, or who find the trend archaic, will grow only greater. But it’s hardly sufficient for those of us adversely affected simply to wait for the new restrictions to collapse, like Prohibition, from their own weight. Many of them are designed specifically to challenge Constitutional guarantees and invite resource-draining lawsuits, all the way to the Supreme Court, where an equitable decision, at least for the time being, hardly can be guaranteed.
It’s difficult, living as we do in a relatively isolated and rock-ribbed blue state, to conjure anything we might do to combat the nation’s slide into bans, prohibitions, and censorship. Boycotts won’t work for us, or letters to the editor, or marches. I suppose a contribution to the ACLU might help, as well as doing all we can to make this a state where people can live free of hunger, homelessness, and autocracy.