A Yankee Notebook

December 18, 2017

Time for Amateur Hour

MONTPELIER – Each of us, I suppose, has ancient snippets of experience living in his memory – an accident, a conversation with a long-gone friend or parent, an appearance in court, the moment of agreeing to marry – that bob up now and then. The first movie I ever saw was Pinocchio; the memory of the whale's maw gaping as Geppetto and Pinocchio glide in helplessly on their raft has remained vivid ever since.

Another one that returns to make me smile now and then is a scene from the 1955 movie Mr. Roberts. It seems especially timely just now, as the various media lambaste us daily with earth-shaking developments at the seat of our national government. From the flap over the about-to-be-passed budget (or tax scam, as its opponents describe it), to the massive amputations on a couple of national monuments whose terrain may contain oil or natural gas, to the withdrawals from international commitments, the whole operation feels to many of us like the death of a thousand cuts. Speaking of which, we're told the next targets will be domestic programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Feelings from irritation to outrage to aghastness reign in many hearts.

This is where the old scene from Mr. Roberts pops up before me. You may recall the USS Reluctant, a scruffy little US Navy supply ship in the Pacific captained by an autocratic and obsessive (and comic) James Cagney. Lieutenant Roberts, who's many times been denied permission to apply for a coveted transfer to combat duty, has finally had it, and in a moment of solitary mutiny, uproots the captain's precious potted palm from its place on the deck outside the captain's cabin and pitches it overboard.

Predictably, the captain throws a fit, and in his rage at Mr. Roberts begins to show signs of apoplectic vomiting. The whole crew has heard the raging; the captain's microphone has been left on. The old man collapses into a chair, Mr. Roberts bends down and speaks into the microphone: "Surgeon to the captain's cabin on the double. Surgeon to the captain's cabin." The ship's surgeon, William Powell, clearly relishing what turned out to be his last movie role, strolls leisurely from his quarters and slowly along the deck, pausing to take a few last drags on his cigarette and flick it overboard. Then, with exquisite deliberation, he climbs to the cabin, where he supervises holding the captain's head over a waste bin.

It's that slow stroll I remember as I read and hear of the frustrations of our current executive and his minions in implementing their various orders. Every time another zinger bursts forth from Washington – exclude visitors from mostly Muslim countries, whack a few hundred thousand acres of incredibly beautiful tribal land off an Obama-designated monument, open the Internet to the highest bidders, forbid the use of certain words by the employees of government agencies – there comes a flurry of answering lawsuits, federal injunctions, and citizens' marches. The crippled order slows to a crawl or a dead stop while the appropriate judicial authorities sort it out; a few hundred thousand of us pray that the process will take till at least the midterm elections just a few months from now; and the most excitable of us begin buying shillelaghs, torches, and pitchforks.

Meanwhile, frustrated by a wrong-headed and apparently irredeemably sclerotic Congress, scientists and entrepreneurs are picking up and running with the balls government has dropped. For all the chest-beating surrounding the revival of coal mining, for example, it's not happening. The market for coal is collapsing; capital is going elsewhere, to alternative energy development. The World Bank is financing renewable energy development at record levels, and by 2019 will no longer support gas and oil projects. In the vacuum created by our nation's withdrawal from international compacts, other nations are taking the lead, like the Little Red Hen in the children's story. "America First!" may soon become "America Alone."

The luxury brand Volvo will shortly offer only electric automobiles. Volvo is owned by a Chinese company; China, in a massive effort to reduce its debilitating air pollution, will in a few years mandate electric vehicles. Wal-Mart has pre-ordered 15 futuristic Tesla electric tractor-trailer trucks. Elon Musk is leapfrogging NASA with reusable space delivery vehicles.

Change is occurring ever more rapidly, and there's a lot of money to be made from it. Thus, while our principled representatives, many in thrall to lobbyists and special interests, concern themselves with a border wall, causes of global warming, health care, and judicial appointments, their constituents are going ahead with the 21st century and doing quite well at it. Two New York women have formed a company specializing in cold-weather geothermal home heating. Dandelion; look it up. As one of their customers says, "...we're not going to get any action at the federal level now, so everyone who cares about this has to do more themselves.." That's a good mantra for more than just home heating buyers. It's probably the attitude that'll pull us through this period of loosening corporate regulation and increasing personal restriction. This country was founded and first defended by amateurs. It's time to stand up and do it again.

Photo by Willem lange