The climate. When we say it now, we don’t mean the weather. We don’t mean Salt Lake City’s temperate October, its blue skies, the autumn leaves, the crisp air. In fact, it’s not about the outdoor environment at all.
When some of us say the climate, we’re talking about the emotional landscape, the delicate barometric conditions under which every conversation currently takes place. We are talking about the tense political situation in these remaining moments just before Election Day.
What some people are saying is that in this climate it’s hardly safe to speak our minds. Somehow in the rush to protect America, to preserve our way of life, some people, many of them in high places, are taking liberties with liberty.
We don’t want to listen to each other anymore. When Americans, using civilized discourse, issue a reasoned, opposing opinion but others hear it as treason, we’re in dangerous territory.
If Utah Valley State College’s students had originally invited Sean Hannity, who would have cried out for Michael Moore to be invited in order to provide balance? And who would have taken that demand seriously? Whose jet would be offered up? Whose checkbook would have come out?
How is it possible that Florida Gulf Coast University’s president has disinvited Utah’s thoughtful writer Terry Tempest Williams -- because she might prejudice students before the election -- and then subsequently agreed to an appearance by Dick Cheney?
If our whole rationale for going to war in Iraq was built upon things that have turned out not to be true, and that some of us never believed to be true, why is it seen as unpatriotic to be against the war? In Utah County, if “B” is needed to supply balance for “A”, why was it perfectly okay to have years and years of nothing but “B”? To some, these are fair questions.
To some people being a patriot means keeping a skeptical eye on those in power while to other people it means never questioning those in power. There’s a lot of evidence that our founders saw it to mean the former. They made it clear that those who differ from the majority opinion are entitled to the full and free exercise of their opinions and that all people are worthy of respect.
In our world, though, everyone on our side is a patriot and everyone on their side is a crackpot. Each side thinks the other is playing dirty. “My worthy opponent” and “the loyal opposition” are warm phrases that have been rendered archaic by the present frosty climate, leaving in their place a disheartening nastiness.
Inhospitality toward polite discourse has driven many conversations under umbrellas of safety. We only speak with people we already know we agree with. Privately, many people are engaged in earnest discussions about the war on terrorism, the presidential election, the quagmire in Iraq, but many of us say that we’re too tired, too browbeaten, too intimidated by those who would cast us as un-American, to voice our opinions in the open. Quietly, to each other, we’ll say what we think.
Apart from sharing similar controversies, Michael Moore and Terry Tempest Williams couldn’t appear to have less in common. He’s rumpled and goofy looking, she’s elegant and beautiful. He’s a bullhorn, she’s a conch. Moore is a merciless satirist who seizes on a perceived wrong and often tries to right it through polemical diatribes; Williams crafts prose that elucidates the grace and wonder, and the ferocity, of the world, inspiring readers to care deeply.
But if you dig deeper, clear down to his Michigan limestone core and her Utah red rock center, they do have a lot in common. To me, they’re both thinkers, both patriots. They’re both American citizens who are passionate about their country, honoring the traditions they see as having been set up by our nation’s founders: Question. Rise up against tyranny. Be brave in the face of vehement opposition. Be fierce.
I’m grateful that they are brave enough to go up against all the big guns to voice an unpopular minority opinion, but look what they’ve been through because of it. It’s enough to drive the rest of us even further into the storm cellar.
When a foot-deep snowstorm finally clears away weeks of dull, gray muck from the skies of the Salt Lake Valley it brings out the sunshine and improves everyone’s mood. I dream that Election Day, just by virtue of its arrival and regardless of its outcome, will do the same, at last cleansing the atmosphere.
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages. She lives in Salt Lake City.