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A Yankee Notebook

October 16, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I wonder if Isaac Newton ever considered that his laws of motion, so brilliantly induced long ago, applied to human society as well as physical objects. The first and third in particular: First, that objects, whether in motion or not, tend to keep on doing what they’re doing (or not doing); and the third, that for every action there’s an opposite and equal reaction. The events of the last few years cast these laws in bright colors on the screens of our consciousness.

In 1822, Dr. William Beaumont, a military surgeon at Mackinac Island, Michigan, was called to treat a young voyageur whose stomach had been blown open by a shotgun discharge. Beaumont saved the man’s life, but the stomach developed a fistula that remained open, exposing the young man’s peristaltic activities for scientific study. In our current century, instant electronic messages and news provide us, if we wish, an equally clear look into the workings of the political digestive system. Like the unfortunate voyageur’s stomach, it’s not pretty, but it’s fascinating; and nothing excites it so much as change or a threat of change. That really gets the juices flowing.

“Change” is a mild-mannered sort of word: It’s descended from Latin, meaning to exchange or swap; so over time it’s come to mean a departure from the status quo. It occurs when the status quo becomes undesirable or unbearable. The nobles of old England forced change upon King John, and got the Magna Carta. Martin Luther unsuccessfully challenged the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, which didn’t change essentially; but much of the rest of the world did. The English Civil War, the French Revolution, and the American Civil War all exploded because of the insupportability of the status quo in each case. Change was necessary; it was resisted; and an equal and opposite force was required to effect it.

The implications of change probably explain what appears to be gridlock in our nation’s capital. Americans being the impatient people we are, we fear nothing will change the current stalemate. Republicans appear to be banking on the next national election to validate their resistance to progressive ideas; Democrats are praying the results will cement the few changes they’ve managed to pass during the present Congress. Like two moose in rutting season, they’ve locked antlers and gotten into a shoving contest. Something eventually will give.

A few months ago, three members of the New Hampshire Executive Council, in a blatant failure to separate personal religious beliefs from government policy, voted to remove all funding for Planned Parenthood in their state. Those of us who deem the work of Planned Parenthood invaluable were appalled, but then later tickled when the federal government stepped in and funded the organization – causing one councilor to grumble about “government arrogance.”

In an e-mail I received just today, I read that the State of Mississippi has proposed Initiative 26, a “personhood” initiative that apparently will outlaw abortion without exceptions, and possibly the use of female (note “female”) contraceptives. I consider such a move a Neanderthal spasm of the fading patriarchy, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is to note the source and vehemence of the opposition – there’s a lot of pent-up steam behind it – and to remind ourselves again of Newton’s Third Law.

Americans have long been singular in the developed world for their enthusiasm for capital punishment. It’s therefore a major eyebrow-raiser that a recent Gallup poll shows declining support for the death penalty. This probably explains a rising sentiment among conservative lawmakers favoring “traditional” methods of execution - electric chair and firing squad. Just such a bill may shortly be introduced in the Florida legislature.

For hundreds of years we have denigrated and even despised immigrants who have taken seriously the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. Irish, Polish, Italian, Hungarian – all the folks who came here, took the most miserable jobs, and wove themselves into society – were routinely called the rudest names and suspected of the most horrible crimes. So the news of Alabama’s recently enacted immigration law is hardly a surprise. But the fact that Alabama lawmakers are willing to cut off their noses to spite their faces – their tomato crops, for example, are rotting in the fields because of the mass exodus of Hispanic workers, both legal and undocumented – that does seem a bit much. Its source is a rising dread of imminent minority status among people who check “White” on their census forms. They’re pushing back, hard; Newton’s Law again. But it’s not to worry. Change, like a tsunami, eventually sweeps everything before it.

The Arab Spring seems to have become the American Autumn. Organized and informed by the quintessential symbol of change, the iPhone, protest against banking oligarchs is jamming many cities’ streets. The mayor of Boston, in a 19th-century-style comment, claimed the protests “are organized by foreigners.” Representative Peter King (R, NY) complained on Laura Ingraham’s talk show: “[The protesters] have no sense of purpose other than a basically anti-American tone.” He was old enough, he said, “to remember when the left wing took to the streets and somehow the media glorified them and it ended up shaping policy....We can’t allow that to happen.”

With due respect for the congressman, he’s defending a philosophical Maginot Line that will soon be outflanked. As the old Isaac Watts hymn puts it, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” Change; it’s happening. Look at it critically, even skeptically. But work with it. Resistance is futile.

Photo by Willem lange