A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1897
November 27, 2017

Rising Tides

MONTPELIER – You hang around long enough, and keep your eyes and ears open, you begin to notice stuff that you wouldn't have paid much mind to, say, sixty years or so earlier. Now, in the twilight of my eyes and ears, I notice a lot of things in process that, regrettably, I won't be around to see come to fruition. Some of them I find depressing or ominous, and others quite hopeful. Either way, it's pretty clear that the world as we have known it in recent generations is changing radically and ever more rapidly. Some trends are rising, while others decline. On the one hand, I begin to appreciate how the Sioux and Pawnees must have felt when they spotted the first wagon trains of migrants leaving the west shore of the Missouri River and heading into the buffalo plains. On the other, I can remember how different the world suddenly seemed when the Salk polio vaccine made life a lot safer and more predictable for all of us young people.

History, of course, is rife with rises and falls, most of them instructive and almost all of them ignored. We think of our republic, aged 234 years, as pretty aged and stable; yet Rome, from its beginnings as a monarchy, through its republican period, and ending as a dying empire, lasted about 1100 years. We're but a bubble rising to the surface of a simmering pot; but lately, while we debate social issues largely inconsequential in the long run, and try to revive the glory days of coal mining and heavy manufacturing, we've been overtaken by an Asian nation that, looking forward, now leads the world in solar power generation and takes seriously the multiple threats of global climate change.

What's prompted all this has been a recent series of photographs in the media of white men in well-cut dark suits, who range in age from elderly down to others barely old enough to know better, standing in ranks behind the Speaker of the House or the Majority Leader of the Senate to announce and celebrate their progress on the revision of our antiquated, porous, and almost universally maligned federal tax code. Their appearance evokes a line of Shakespeare: "some that smile have in their hearts, I fear, millions of mischiefs." Could any of them sell me a used car? I doubt it. Then there's the photo of a fairly large group of legislators discussing "women's issues." The group is extraordinary for including not one woman.

All this Wizard-of-Oz obfuscation naturally prompts the question, "Why?" If these aging white guys are truly the representatives of the citizenry, why aren't they availing themselves of the best help possible? Why are they clustering together like wagon trains attacked by natives?

I think it's because they sense that some important phenomena are rising around them, provoking a deep existential fear because there's nothing they can do about them but circle the wagons.

The first is climate change. No matter what any talk show host may say, it's happening; and graphs can demonstrate its correlation with human industrial activity. The irrevocable corollary to global warming is a rising sea level. Surely most members of Congress are intelligent enough to recognize this, but trapped in the sticky goo of the financial support that insists they deny it, many do. They seem to be hoping they'll be gone before the Jersey shore, Miami Beach, and New York City's subways are under water. I picture even Mar-a-Lago resembling a Venetian palazzo on the Grand Canal before too much longer.

The second ineluctable rising is the percentage of "non-white" United States citizens. In just a few decades, we pink-skinned folks, who not so long ago replaced the red-skinned natives of this continent, will be inferior in numbers to citizens of Central American, Middle Eastern, Asian, and African descent. I won't be around to see it, though I'd love to be. Others of my ilk, however, feel deeply threatened by the prospect, and act out their anxieties by parading with symbols of rebellion and tiki torches, or by signing restrictive racist executive orders in rooms once hallowed by the likes of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy.

Last: Possibly less important in the long run than rising sea levels, the rise in the status of women is poised to alter our society markedly. I'm almost thankful to the brutish Harvey Weinstein for tripping the trigger of the long pent-up frustrations of women repressed, harassed, or abused. It may be premature to say the genie is out of the bottle, but I think it is. The reason is that women now make up a greater percentage than men of students in undergraduate and graduate programs, like biological research and law school. They're closing in on 50% in medical schools, and their numbers grow yearly in legislatures municipal, state, and federal. (Vermont, by the way, ranks third in the nation in its percentage of women in the legislature.) This should be a matter of rejoicing – for too many centuries societies have operated with one hand tied behind their backs – but instead it seems to have provoked defensive, punitive, and inhumane responses. I'm left with the image of muskoxen I've seen, huddled in tight, outward-facing circles when threatened, little realizing that, once modern weapons came to the tundra, it made them easier to dispatch.

Photo by Willem lange