Who let the dogs out? I think we all know the answer to that…
This week, in the unraveling after Trumps’ rally to March and Attack the Capital along with the elected officials and the police protecting them, I have been reminded of the frightening side of human nature. We all like to think the very best of ourselves and of each other. Each day I tell myself to rise up and move on. To follow the good news and do what I can to make the world shine just a bit brighter. To make my way with hope. And I think this is how we all view our life. But right now, I’m crushed by the ignorance, the credulity, and the indifference that resides in too many Americans. Sadly, we have been here before. Even a superficial understanding of history will underscore this tragic point. But I find myself desperate for reasons if only to face another tomorrow.
The year was 2000. During two winter nights legislators invited citizens to the statehouse in our Vermont capital of Montpelier to debate Civil Unions between same-sex couples. My spouse and I had already been living together for nearly a decade, blissfully consumed with the day-to-day of our careers and the lives of our three children. We were in the chauffeur stage of parenting. Soccer game to violin lesson. Piano recital to birthday party. Grocery store to sneaker shopping. We drove miles daily, as one often does in rural America, carting our crew from event to event, and in occasional desperation, even a quick drive-through at McDonalds. Two women, committed to making our family the very best every day we could. It was on one of those drives listening via radio that we heard the debate from the statehouse.
What followed was what Howard Dean later characterized as “the least civil public debate in the state in over a century” — so uncivil that, at times, the governor wore a bulletproof vest.
At hearings, anti-civil union activists denounced gays and lesbians as abominations, people who were sure to experience the wrath of God. They warned that approving civil unions would destabilize “traditional” marriage” and allow outsiders with a “homosexual agenda” to propel the state down an immoral path of no return.
One of the most vocal opponents, Republican Rep. Nancy Sheltra, brought in anti-gay, anti-abortion activist Randall Terry, who ran his operation out of a storefront just down the street from the Statehouse. The national media descended on the nation’s smallest state capital.
“My feeling was that the entire country was focused on what we were doing,” says Lippert, who has served in the House since 1994. “It was the most intense conversation ever about the place of gay and lesbian people in our communities.”
Proponents of civil unions, and full same-sex marriage rights, argued that marriage was a civil, not a religious, right. They spoke of their families, some talked about their gay children, and of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. (“How Vermont’s ‘Civil’ War Fueled The Gay Marriage Movement“)
I can still clearly remember that snowy ride, everyone in our car tired from a long day at work or school and added extra curricular, along with the feeling of utter disbelief, dread, and despair as we listened to the negative comments voiced from the Take Back Vermont crowd. Much like our current Representatives before the Impeachment vote, these citizens spoke for a minute or so in the packed statehouse alternating from pro to con continuously for several hours. During that memorable night, what struck us was the difference between the two responses. The pro voices spoke with empathy, community and love. The cons stuck with quoting the Bible, which even our young children riding along in the dark thought not reason enough to negate their moms’ right for legal protection and union. The center of the argument asked was/is marriage a religious or a civil right? This question gets murky when discussing the divorce rate and vast ways that current lives diverge from scripture. What we didn’t know at that time, was the fear of retaliation that our state legislatures were readying for.
“…Vermonters packed the Statehouse for hearings, filling the House chamber, its window wells and balcony, clogging its hallways. In the event the emotional crowd turned on the legislators, state police had devised an escape route through a door in the back of the chamber, through the cafeteria and out.
Edwards and Lippert recall the police telling them that if they were ordered to leave, they needed to do so immediately — no questions asked.” (“How Vermont’s ‘Civil’ War Fueled The Gay Marriage Movement“)
Listening to many of the 197 Republican Representatives who stood in the same chamber that had been breached only days before on a direct command from Trump I heard echoes of that same hatred and off-topic remarks. I heard Hillary Clinton mentioned. Biden’s family members. Even Obama, again. Ultimately, they echoed, impeachment is being raised only because the Democrats simply don’t like Trump, one Republican after another, like lemmings, shouted out their delusional opinions. In the ongoing investigation into Trump supporters’ violent insurrection, we now know seven of these very legislators gave guided tours to the same criminals who sought to attack them, only one day earlier.
As a teacher of literature, three classics have reverberated in my mind all week. When the majority of our elected officials were huddled in fear and danger, ill-prepared for this well-staged attack, how could one not think of The Handmaid’s Tale? How quickly their seemingly solid world turned backwards, into a swift and troubling nightmare of a totalitarian state. All week there have been scholars wondering out loud, how safe is our democracy? The Hunger Games comes to mind. The dismissal of life made painfully obvious by the legislators who spoke: on the one hand they condemned the violence, yet on the other, they see no culpability in their clear role in inciting it. But beyond either of those dystopian and fantastical novels, the words of William Golding in his haunting Lord of the Flies is everywhere I look. How quickly citizens turned into a vicious and murderous mob at our capital must frighten us all. These domestic terrorists, yes, many of them dangerous fringe players, igniting others through their horrifying and misinformed websites, but others, no different than your neighbors. Those storming our capital sat in my classroom and your office. Played on high school basketball teams or swam in the Olympics, they repair our cars and furnaces and run companies. They are us. Only they bought into the concept that sedition is a means to a better life. They are part of a team which fueled their disappointment to absolute delusion. They are part of a team who promised a return to white entitlement. They have been egged on by a bombastic narcissist for years. Just like the boys who followed Jack to Castle Rock, these people turned to savagery and blood was spilled. On January 6th these men and women swept up in their bigotry and racism, in their delusion, forgot math and science and morality, and lost everything. There is no return from this watershed. Like Ralph, we bystanders now, “[weep] for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart.”
Elie Wiesel is the voice of reason that I return to time and time again, and especially this week. Wiesel was a beacon of light for his generation, and many to come. As a survivor of the Holocaust, he warned of the dangers of complacency. He articulated the risks of indifference: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
This week we have seen this indifference in too many elected officials who are still voting along party line, as in voting to protect Trump, and yet, incredulously, overlook the recent atrocities that stained their very chambers and threaten their life, all of which he promoted. These legislators and Senators are quick to denounce these acts of violence yet just as quick to call the 2020 Presidential election results fraudulent, without acknowledging how those two ideas melded to create this firestorm. They would do much to unify our country by admitting that Biden won the election fairly, and that there is no evidence to support a contrary view.
Wiesel encourages us, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Now is the time to heed Wiesel’s words, to speak out, to demand consequences for the guilty, to oppose the terrorists and the elected politicians who support them, and chose the right side. There is only one.