If ever there was a year in which it is a good thing to be past the midway point, 2020 would appear to be it. Between the illness, death and mass economic suffering ushered directly in by the pandemic, the truck-size fissures, inequities and injustices in our society that the crisis has brought into sharper-than-ever relief, and the stunning incompetence, venality and racism with which the political leadership that the nation finds itself suffering under has responded, it’s difficult to conceive of a way in which the year could have taken a more disastrous downturn.
UNC law professor Gene Nichol got it right this week in an op-ed for Raleigh’s News & Observer, when he turned to the old Bob Dylan song. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and concluded with this two-word assessment of the current situation: “it’s falling.”
And still, as many a keen political observer has noted down through the years, it sometimes takes a crisis (or crises) to rouse a society and usher in the kind of dramatic and pent-up change that is desperately needed.
It took the Civil War to pave the way for the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
It took the Great Depression to bring about Social Security and scores of other advances in American society attributable to the New Deal.
Perhaps we’re on the cusp of another such moment.
This week’s surprising and welcome headline that the local energy giants, Duke and Dominion, have decided to scuttle their long-planned and already hugely destructive natural gas pipeline that was to have bulldozed its way through hundreds of fragile miles of eastern North Carolina had the feel of such a change.
A year or two ago — perhaps because it felt as if it had no choice in the political environment that was then ascendant — the administration of Gov. Roy Cooper was, in effect, a cheerleader for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Now, with a global pandemic helping to awaken people to the realities that await a planet unwilling to grapple with existential environmental crises, the situation is dramatically different. Sunday, the governor issued the equivalent of an official sigh of relief in welcoming the turnaround: “This decision and the changing energy landscape should lead to cleaner and more reliable energy generation in North Carolina. Our Clean Energy Plan provides an excellent framework and stakeholder process for renewable energy moving forward.”
And so things seem to have been going of late with respect to a lot of important topics in which hopeful change has been suddenly and surprisingly realized.
Despite many varying explanations from analysts and experts, three recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on LGBTQ equality, immigrant rights and reproductive freedom had the feel of a Court that was paying attention to public opinion.
A year ago, one could have almost envisioned North Carolina Republican legislative leaders and their allies on the UNC Board of Governors and in the local conservative think tanks stubbornly donning Confederate costumes to reenact the moment at which the Silent Sam Confederate statue was erected on the UNC Chapel Hill campus. Removal of the monuments to white supremacy on the grounds of the state Capitol was an impossibility.
Today, suddenly, those monuments (and dozens of others like them) are gone from places of public honor and won’t be coming back.
Six months ago, there was no prospect at all that giant corporations and professional sports leagues around the globe would be embracing the motto “Black Lives Matter,” much less affixing it to their uniforms and their equipment. There was no chance that a Major League Baseball franchise in Cleveland and an NFL team in Washington, DC, would be in the process of finally discarding racist nicknames that they had sported and clung to since the early 20th century. There was no chance that NASCAR, of all institutions, would be turning its back on the Confederate flag and the troubled souls who wave it.
Of course, the acid test for all these inklings of hope and progress will take place over the coming months. The nation in which so many have suddenly, at long last, awakened to the evils of racism, inequality and environmental somnambulance is perfectly capable going back to sleep. We could be on the verge of a period of enormous progress and transformation or one in which the forces of despotism and greed are unleashed with renewed ferocity.
The polls indicate that the public is narrowly divided and that the resistance to change will be fierce.
If ever there was a time for all caring and thinking people to help seize the moment and come to the aid of their country, this is it.
Rob Schofield is the director of NC Policy Watch.
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