June 22, 2015
WAKING THE GIANT
MONTPELIER – The United States is a land of free speech. Nowhere is speech freer – not even here where we sedulously cultivate it in its most repulsive form. – Winston Churchill
I could be wrong – I’m old enough to know that I often am – but it seems to me that this part of the world (and Vermont in particular) is as nearly a perfect perch as there is from which to view the turmoil of the rest of the world. The old alienating strictures of distance, transportation, and disjunction have been largely removed by interstate highways and round-the-clock instant communication and news cycles. We may badly lack real-life experience with many of the social problems and quandaries facing other parts of the nation, and certainly of the world; but if we wish, we can get it at a distance from the news, the hundreds of pundits commenting on it, and the personal comments on the comments. Those personal remarks often deserve Churchill’s designation of “repulsive.” But they’re honest – if sometimes obscene – expressions of the feelings of many of our far-scattered fellow Americans.
At the same time, it’s easy here to feel free of the various pressures that seem to affect so many others elsewhere. Freedom of speech is here not a figure of speech; a single long day at any Town Meeting will confirm that. Freedom of (and from) religion is also a widely respected ideal; fewer Vermonters identify as “religious” than do citizens of any other state, and those of us who do choose church membership are utterly free within those groups to express nontraditional opinions and welcome others of different backgrounds or identities. Vermont’s mass marches and protests are amazingly polite; the majority of fervor and anger recorded in our Statehouse is that expressed by citizens invited to comment on pending legislation. The outstanding recent examples of that have been the public hearings about Civil Unions and Gun Regulation, when at one, the Bible-wielding faithful inveighed (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) against state recognition of the abomination of homosexual relationships, and at the other, when grim-faced gun owners in orange duds expressed an apparent dominoes-theory fear of government interference in their current free-wheeling exercise of firearms ownership. The gay marriage argument is over, except in the aforementioned distant parts of the Union; the gun regulation kerfuffle is a long way from over.
This relative freedom from the Sturm und Drang rampant elsewhere has given us upcountry observers a certain anthropological point of view. The trick is to prevent its becoming the view from an ivory tower. From all the information pouring in here, I get the sense that the amorphous American public behemoth is beginning to stir. I pray my feeling is accurate.
You’ve probably heard the comment that “nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” Commonly attributed to Winston Churchill, it was most likely first expressed by Abba Eban in the 1960s. Doesn’t matter. What I’m after is that it begins to appear that the United States, after flailing vainly at a host of problems, domestic and foreign, may be just starting to behave wisely – which in our case, means losing our timidity and fear.
Surely most of us remember the beginning of the so-called Iraq War: shock and awe and all that. Because it was portrayed as a righteous response to the 9/11 attacks, and Iraq was reputed to have “weapons of mass destruction” – a base canard – few of us spoke out against it. Michael Moore, his Oscar for “Bowling for Columbine” in hand just as the attack began far away, denounced it as a “fictitious war” waged by a “fictitious president.” But most Americans, fearful of being denounced by others as unpatriotic, kept quiet. Only slowly did the objections build, till finally today the attack is recognized as worse than a fiasco. But it took time.
The excitement with which Bernie Sanders’ message is being received by surprisingly large crowds on the campaign circuit is a hint that, just maybe, Americans are ready to get up on their hind feet and speak out about Citizens United, creeping abortion restrictions, the NRA’s stranglehold on legislators, wealth discrepancies, and byzantine medical care insurance programs.
For far too long, too many of us have assumed there’s nothing to be done about matters that appear beyond our control. Lobbyists reportedly spend more each year on persuading Congress than Congress spends to run itself. Organizations like Planned Parenthood and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense are easily outspent, but are slowly growing in influence by enrolling new members nationwide. Then this past week a hate-filled kid, convinced of the need for a holy war against African-Americans, joined a church prayer meeting, pulled out a birthday present pistol, and killed nine members of the group. Predictably, the NRA and Fox News commentators blamed the pastor of the church for not arming his members against assault. But the citizens of Charleston, where the murders were committed, were galvanized by the act and the hateful fantasies and symbols that inspired it. They’ve marched in great crowds (composed of people previously too timid to speak out singly) to demand the removal of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (erroneously called the “Confederate Flag”) from State property.
It’s an old truism that leaders are led by their followers, but it certainly hasn’t seemed that way for the past few years. Congress, at its lowest poll rating ever, has seemed totally in thrall to corporate money and competing ideologies. But suddenly today, the marching crowds of Charleston saw their governor and both their US senators finally locate their backbones and urge the legislature to remove the flag. The verbal gymnastics are about to commence in the legislature, but the important lesson has not, I hope, been lost on the people: We can do this!