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A Yankee Notebook

July 15, 2013


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – It’s long intrigued me that Canada was able to effect its independence from Great Britain without going to war over it. Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War suggests at least one reason: that the many American colonists, much more a mixed bag of social classes and religions than Canadians, remembered angrily the slights they’d suffered from their British comrades-in-arms during the Seven Years’ War. Colonial military leaders had been chosen largely by merit – often even elected by their men – while the primary requirement for an officer in the British army was that he be a gentleman. Any twit could be a colonel – some twits were colonels, even generals – but their colonial peers were regarded as social inferiors. That had smarted.

So it was no great task for Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and their ilk to start brush fires in the tinder-dry sentiments of fellow colonials already whipped up by the 18th-century equivalents of Rush Limbaugh and Father Coughlin. To be fair, the English king did his part to foment a rebellion in his colonies by turning a tin ear to the protests over, among other things, the Stamp Act and the enforced quartering of soldiers in private homes. (Very few British soldiers were what you would call pleasant guests.) But the point is that, while the Canadians could wait for Great Britain to realize that the cost and trouble of maintaining their far-off colonies weren’t worth the chalk, the American colonists couldn’t. Ever impatient, we had to have independence right now.

We immigrated here from societies dominated by large landowners and a rural economy. Farmers lived in villages surrounded by the fields they worked, and commuted to them daily. The immigrants, by contrast, found themselves looking westward at an apparent infinitude of open space ripe for the taking. Never mind that it was already inhabited by native people; it was, as far as they were concerned, available for settlement. James Kunstler, in his brilliant book The Geography of Nowhere, describes what happened next. Every settler seized as much land as defensible – often hundreds of acres – and built his home in the middle of it. This is an impulse that continues today. Seeing a real estate ad about a country home for sale, we look immediately at its acreage.

Once Lord Cornwallis had been cornered and cut off at Yorktown (with the invaluable help of France, a nation we have often since disdained), and the British Army had gone home, we set about to write ourselves a constitution. The resulting debate, among idealists, firebrands, classically educated gentlemen, and pragmatists, produced a brilliant document that’s served us well ever since. But it’s far from perfect: The framers, in forming a “more perfect union” and “establishing justice,” were forced to kick the can of slavery 80 years down the road. The popular reactions this past week to the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial indicate that in some ways we’re still kicking that can. Those of us who are honest with ourselves will admit that, had the verdict gone our way, we would have been much more nearly satisfied with the American justice system.

Impatience is at once our virtue and our albatross; we’re unwilling to wait for change, and often make mistakes because of it. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a very important point, in my estimation, when she said she thought Roe vs. Wade good law, but poor timing. The Court, she opined, should not be in the business of making law, no matter how justified. It should, rather, affirm values – in accord with the Constitution – as they change and demand new interpretations. With over half of Americans more or less opposed to the notion of abortion on demand, the Court was ahead of public opinion. If the law survives the current nitpicking assaults upon it by Republican state legislatures, it will in time become unremarkable.

The Dred Scott decision of 1857 was terrible, but it did evoke public outcry and debate, contributing to the political tension that snapped with the shelling of Fort Sumter. It was de facto defunct with the post-Civil War Reconstruction amendments. Citizens United is another terrible decision, absurd on its face. It, too, has spurred public debate that will in time lead to its being overturned. But a revolution is probably not the best way to accomplish that. Patience, constant pressure, and intelligent voting, rather, will do it.

The Court’s decisions regarding California’s Proposition Eight and the Defense of Marriage Act are perfect examples of the results pressure, patience, and time can accomplish. And in those cases, it’s the court doing what Justice Ginsburg suggested was proper: affirming a shift in public attitudes concerning activities against which there is no express Constitutional prohibition.

Congress is, as we know, currently in stasis. This is exacerbated by the ubiquitousness of video news cameras that record every hyperbolic remark, and the little-known fact that looking into a video lens lowers the speaker’s IQ by at least 40 points. Everybody’s playing to the home crowd – which reminds me of an old Bob and Ray man-on-the-street interview in which Ray, clearly irritated, says, “I’ve never understood why the network places such credence in the intelligence of the man on the street.” In any case, you can bank on this: The stasis won’t last.

We impatient Americans have a lot of problems and dysfunctional systems at the moment: Guantanamo, foreign policy, deficit and debt, medical care, climate change...the list goes on. Our demographic is changing; we old white guys are on the way out, kicking and screaming all the way to the door, and even hanging onto the jambs. One way or another, all of these will be resolved for better or worse – perhaps not in our lifetimes, but eventually. They’ll be replaced by a whole new set of challenges that we’ll either pull together to try to overcome, or continue to use to attack each other on the way to eventual resolution. So stay cool. Patience and pressure are the keys.

Photo by Willem lange