A Yankee Notebook

April 18, 2016


MONTPELIER, VT – The story is undoubtedly apocryphal, but that hardly matters; most of the best stories are. Around 1020 AD King Canute of the so-called North Sea Empire commanded that his throne be placed on the seashore at low tide. He sat down and, addressing the waves, informed them that he owned the land on which he sat, and forbade them from rising to cover it – and him. Shortly afterward, of course, the king was forced to beat a damp retreat.

Small minds interpreted the story as illustrative of the vanity of monarchs. Wiser heads realized Canute was demonstrating that even the most puissant of us are subject to higher powers. These days, we generally treat that latter conclusion as a given, and think of the story as illustrating the vanity of trying to stem the tide of the inevitable. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger referred to the tale of Canute in a 1980 opinion concerning the granting of a patent for a microorganism: “Denying it,” he wrote, “is not likely to put an end to genetic research.”

I think of Canute often lately, as humankind increasingly engages the ever more swiftly rising tide of change. Instant international communication, global warming, near-ubiquitous surveillance, changes in demographics, refugees, shifts in social values – all threaten the relatively stable status quo that many of us who’ve been blessed with old age have long taken for granted. And our responses tell us more about ourselves than we might commonly wish. Which reminds me of the old story (also surely apocryphal) of the behavioral scientist who put a monkey into a room with an orange crate and a banana hanging high overhead. When he peeked through the keyhole to see what the monkey was doing, he saw a brown eye peeking back at him.

One of the most prominent examples of resistance to change in our nation’s history  is that of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a fire-breathing Confederate general with a lot to lose: He was a wealthy planter, real estate speculator, and slave trader. At the end of the Civil War, he was instrumental in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, which sought to perpetuate the long-standing relationship between Southern whites and African slaves. The fortunes of the Klan have risen and ebbed in the decades since Reconstruction; at the moment they’re riding higher with the imminent threat of white minority status and the emboldening example of Donald Trump. But for all its resistance, the Klan will be diminished to token groups of muttering malcontents by the tsunami of inevitability.

Here’s another example of a lost cause: resistance to women’s suffrage, empowerment, and equal wages. Men in power resisted suffragists – even beat them in the streets – and quoted scripture to justify denying them the vote. But the women got it. They’re now an increasing – though fluctuating – percentage of members of Congress, and one of them may become our next president. Next comes an equal-pay law. All of this seems to threaten many males of our species, which I attribute to a pre-industrial notion of “a woman’s place.” It’s strongest among those on the lower rungs of the social ladder and fundamentalists of all three major Western religions.

An extreme example of it is Boko Haram. Generally translated as “Western (secular) education forbidden,” its name shows that it was founded not in idealism, but in opposition to change, reminiscent of a great deal of the grousing and character assassination you can read daily on Facebook. But Boko Haram kills people – a lot of them, in the grisliest ways imaginable – and its young fighters are so desperate for women that the group raids girls’ schools to kidnap them, convert them nominally to its version of Islam, and subjugate them. Can anyone imagine that this – like, for example, the militant effort to prevent girls from attending school in Pakistan – is a strategy with a future? The practice of male ascendancy is often brutal, but it’s going down.

In 1973 the Supreme Court, in a clear-cut 7-2 decision, legalized abortion. Justice Ginsburg sagely observed, a while later, that the court had erred in affirming a right well ahead of the majority of public opinion, causing a backlash among the outraged. Ever since then, lawmakers in several conservative states have passed new laws that in one niggling way or another have restricted women’s access to clinics, defunded Planned Parenthood (the poster child for foes of abortion), and otherwise made it nearly impossible for women to exercise this protected right.

Which raises the situation – perhaps “plight” would be a better word – of the mainstream churches of America. The term, “Christian,” has been pretty effectively hijacked by the right-wing conservatives who deplore the degradation of our godless nation and loudly decry what is most certainly the wave of the future – LGBT rights, gay marriage, non-Caucasian immigration, and “the War on Christianity.” Young people, to whom these issues are largely nonstarters, shrug and find other things to do with their lives, and congregations nationwide are slowly graying.

But perhaps the most powerful example to me of the irresistible rising tide of change was a comment made quite matter-of-factly by Ray Magliozzi (of Car Talk fame) in an interview with Tom Ashbrook on NPR. They were describing the marvelous innovations that will be tested and unveiled in the next generation of “smart cars” and the self-driving vehicles that will follow them.  Now, I love driving about as much as anything else, so I listened with great interest as Ray and Tom detailed the functions of which I’d be relieved – even though I know I can’t last too much longer, anyway – and taken over instead by the computers, radar, and sensors aboard the new car. Tom asked Ray how he felt about these currently incredible innovations.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Ray. “It’s inevitable.”

Photo by Willem lange