A cold rain drips from the eaves. The dog’s occasional trips outside are either aborted or brief. The house fights the impulse to grow chilly. I fight the impulse to turn up the thermostats. There’ll be no walk in the woods today. So I face the computer screen with an attitude best described by one of the books we used to read to the kids ages ago — “The Large and Growly Bear.”
For solace, I look to the rest of the week: a hike with Kiki and Tom Ryan and his dogs, Samwise and Emily, in the Whites tomorrow, followed by a few days with old friends in my beloved Adirondacks. But even those prospects don’t do it because I no longer have another personality in the house to swap ideas with. I have to rely instead on communicating with other people through mass media — newspapers, magazines, television and the internet. And if you’ve been at all in touch through any of these media, you know what the news and chat are all about: polarization, controversy, subpoenas and lawsuits.
Everybody seems to think he’s right, except for those who know they’re wrong, who, like cats trying to cover up miscues on the carpet, rake debris over the fact. And over it all looms the face of the man who, as very few in our history ever have (Jackson in 1831, Lincoln in 1861 and Roosevelt in 1933 come to mind), utterly dominates the common conversation. Say what you will about his intellect, proclivities, business dealings and executive ability, you have to admit this president has got firmly hold of the United States — and much of the rest of the world — by their eyes and ears. Millions deplore his behavior and character, yet follow every tweet and impromptu news conference with all the enthusiasm of people addicted to “Days of Our Lives” or “The Young and the Restless.” You can see similar crowds at train wrecks, dog fights and bull rings. Actually, it is rather like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
The operative word there is “slow.” Because of apparently uncompromisable positions, constant resorts to the courts and legalistic give and take, our governmental soap opera drags on seemingly forever, with no clear end in view, and damaging everyone involved — including us hoi polloi. Shakespeare says it beautifully in “Macbeth,” describing the exhausted, but still battling, Norwegian and Scottish armies: “Doubtful it stood, as two spent swimmers that do cling together and choke their art.”
So, while China builds a high-speed rail link to Europe and a 1,000 kph Maglev transporter; while Russia spreads opportunistically south into territory not its own; while American-based auto manufacturers decamp overseas to avoid capricious tariffs and instability; while Central and South American farmers find other markets; while Europe wrestles with its demographic problems without a reliable ally to its west; while responsible governments and businesses everywhere come to grips with the truly existential threat of global warming, we seem obsessed with who knew what when, ferreting out damning information about political opponents and advancing impeachment inquiries. Good Lord! Have we nothing better to do? Have we forgotten we’re all of us, for better or worse, in the same boat? (Speaking of which, I’ve long regarded the open 12-person pulling boats used by the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School to get across the message of mutual interdependence as the most effective teaching tools possible. But not many of us have had the advantage of that wonderful experience.)
Ben Franklin, when asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, what the delegates had come up with, reportedly answered, “A republic — if you can keep it.” That pithy answer speaks worlds about the innate glass-like fragility of our governmental system, which we’re currently treating as if it were cast iron. If you know any history, you know it’s not.
The internet, where, as I’ve mentioned, I go often for conversation, is often a toxic stew of shouted conflicting opinions that generally degrade within two exchanges into personal insults and nasty name-calling between people who probably will never meet each other personally. It’s no doubt that assurance of relative anonymity deeply encourages that degeneration. Its net effect is negative.
Years ago in a graduate education course, we learned that if two people make opposing statements, restating them (“doubling down,” in the vernacular) will widen the gap between them. But a mediating statement by either party will often elicit a response in kind, and the beginning of a meeting of minds may have begun. Thus, after months ago deciding to refrain from calling His Nibs (whoops!) anything but the president, I have now begun — if it seems there is the slightest chance of a dialogue — to compose soft answers to the most vituperative of posts. I’m prepared to pretend to believe Hillary Clinton has ordered multiple murders, or Barack Obama’s millions are ill-gotten, or Mitch McConnell is a pillar of righteousness. It seems to settle their hash, and in the long run, what difference does it make?
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.