Column: Fighting the arc of the moral universe

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 5/21/2019 10:30:23 PM

The late, beloved professor Allen Foley of Norwich, author of, among other things, What the Old-Timer Said, used to recall an interview between a newspaper reporter and an old Vermonter:

“You’re quite old,” observed the reporter. “You must have seen a lot of changes in your time.”

“Yep,” said the old fellow. “And I been agin every one of ’em!”

That old-timer, were he still with us, would no doubt be dizzied, and possibly outraged, at the current rate of change in his native state — not to mention his native nation.

I remember well the beginnings of it in my lifetime: the Second World War. Responding to the demands of a struggle to the death with two powerful empires at once on opposite sides of the Earth, we developed or perfected sonar, radar, jet propulsion, atomic energy and antibiotics. It took a while for us laypersons to understand all that was going on around us, but at least we had time to catch up.

We learned that the nuclear scientists who conducted the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, N.M., had been concerned (needlessly, as it turned out) that the Trinity test would trigger a runaway chain reaction involving the entire planet. We were delighted that the first bombardment of the moon with radar waves didn’t fracture it. What naifs we were!

And still are. My desktop computer and little sedan can do things that I don’t even know enough to ask of them. Likewise my iPhone. I can no more get an “app” (whatever that is) for it than ride a pogo stick. Only my occasional visits with my savvy granddaughters — and there’s a visit coming right up — give me occasional flashes of hope that I can do more than make a phone call, take a photo, send the photo to my email account, or operate the tiny flashlight.

But that’s small potatoes compared with the tsunami of social change washing through the low-lying coasts of our consciousness. The anti-abortion bills dominating the news from Alabama, Missouri and Ohio are a direct result of the old-timer’s agin-every-one-of-’em attitude. They’re also affirmation, if one were needed, of Newton’s third law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

For millennia our society and our environment have been supervised and operated by men. That fact is a natural descendant of hunter-gatherer days, which morphed, as nations developed, into warfare. But now, as the 21st century begins to blossom ahead of us, with its promises of incredible scientific advances (read Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus) and climatic catastrophe (read Bill McKibben’s Falter), new players have entered the game — ones without Y chromosomes, ones more numerous than the men, and determined to break the apparent impasse created and sustained by testosterone-driven political leaders.

Predictably, the pushback has been vigorous, to say the least. Newton’s law is, after all, a law, not subject to amendment. So, while Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg assures us, from her perspective of over eight decades, that the pendulum irrevocably swings, the old and middle-aged white guys writing the laws in part of our so-called heartland have passed a few that they are betting will hold up in a Supreme Court newly decorated with social conservatives.

They may well succeed. But that success will be short lived. Very few issues will galvanize the left — and particularly its women — as this will. The tide is rising against repression, particularly if it appears misogynistic, and nothing will stem it. Those aging Southern suits probably have never heard the story of Canute, king of England in the 11th century, who had his throne placed on the beach at low tide and commanded the sea not to rise — with the predictable result. The story is even mentioned in a Supreme Court document (Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303).

Also, those lawmakers need to take a look at their class picture, which has been displayed prominently on the internet the past few days. The operative words describing them — old and white — describe as well the predicament they’re in. Their reaction to the rising tide — the arc of the moral universe, as Theodore Parker described it — shows they know they’re going down, perhaps even in their own lifetimes, and that they’re determined to go down hard.

But pick whichever metaphor you wish — Ginsburg’s pendulum, Newton’s third law, or Canute’s demonstration of the futility of human vanity — time, demographics and women, who are lately ditching their Handmaid’s Tale costumes for the breastplate, sword and buckler of Xena, will eventually prevail in the pursuit of equality and personal autonomy. Don’t even get me started on the kids, the ones who have been dodging bullets and rehearsing lockdowns because of the intransigence or pusillanimity of us old white guys. Imagine what they’ll accomplish!

I just wish we old guys could be remembered more warmly.

Willem Lange can be reached at

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