Editor’s note: David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.
The hate on display among rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6 still has the power to shock, but the degree of hatred that day and its quality of desperation had a familiar feel to it.
A 20-year-old piece of hate mail that had rested all these years among my notes and papers recently drove home to me the reality that extreme hate is nothing new.
Back then, I was reporting on Vermont’s struggle to enact civil union legislation to guarantee marriage rights to same-sex couples. At the time, Bill Lippert of Hinesburg was the only openly gay member of the Legislature, and he had become the target of vitriolic attacks from across the nation.
To show me what members of the Legislature were exposed to at the time, he gave me the photocopy of a letter he had received from someone in Missouri.
Two sentences from the letter capture its message: “You are a filthy rodent. Hopefully Vermont will die of AIDS soon.”
The letter from Missouri was just one among many received by members of the Legislature during that time. Someone using language of that sort is deep into the process of dehumanizing those he sees as an enemy or a threat.
Anti-gay language was usually more subtle, but 20 years ago, a good many Vermonters shared a sense of grievance and alienation, expressed in extreme terms by that letter writer, and similar to the grievance and alienation shown by supporters of Donald Trump today. Then and now, the rallying cry is to “take back” something that has been lost. “Take Back Vermont” signs proliferated around the state back then. The former president on Jan. 6 exhorted his followers to “take back our country.”
The idea that we must take back our state or our country supposes that someone else has taken it away. And as we saw in January, those who feel that something has been taken from them, who feel marginalized, who feel rebuffed by elites, can allow their sense of powerlessness to lead them toward hatred and, sometimes, toward violence.
One of the most stirring and long-lasting lessons from Vermont’s struggle over civil unions and marriage equality was the enduring strength of those who refused to hate. The advocates for marriage equality had carried out a campaign over many years to get their message out: meeting with Vermonters, talking in respectful fashion, aware of the hostility that many felt but determined to continue their effort over the long haul.
It wasn’t just Lippert — it was lawyers, activists, politicians and ordinary citizens — gay and straight — who were willing to push forward, even as the hatred grew. Howard Dean, governor at the time, began to wear a bulletproof vest. Threats, intimidation and vile language created an atmosphere like the one today, and yet political leaders and ordinary citizens exhibited uncommon courage.
It is a lesson for us today.
The campaign for marriage equality followed the lead of the civil rights movement when leaders such as Martin Luther King and John Lewis urged followers to take the high road, maintain their dignity, and respond to hate with love.
Easier said than done. But the way that advocates for marriage equality in Vermont conducted themselves showed the power of a persistent dedication to the values of dignity and equality. They knew that respecting the dignity of others, even those who disagree with you, is one of the best ways to encourage others to respect your own dignity.
During the fight for civil unions, there were incidents where a kind of mob-fueled anger took over, and lawmakers were shaken by the dangerous levels of hostility they encountered. That was a preview of what has happened 20 years later.
The Trump mob was the antithesis of a respectful, dignified movement. Video shown at the impeachment trial put on display the kind of hatred that is never satisfied. The letter writer from Missouri seemed to reach for the most extremely insulting language he could find, referring to “filthy disease-carrying rodents” and to “an ungodly nauseous lifestyle.” Nothing he said seemed fully to capture the rage within.
The Capitol’s rioters seemed to be driven by a similar rage, reaching for the words that would convey their feeling of grievance. “Traitors,” “scumbag” — these words were not enough. Only violence would do, and so they followed the logic of their hatred to dangerous forms of violent action.
Anti-gay bigotry still exists, but the anger that gripped Vermont 20 years ago has subsided. In time, one hopes, those drawn to violence and vigilantism today will see the futility of their efforts. But in order for violence and vigilantism to seem futile, those who believe in the rule of law and the dignity of the individual must show they are futile by standing up against them. Countering hate with love can take many forms, including tough love. That is what the criminal justice system is for. That is what the impeachment clauses of the Constitution are for.
One need not be full of anger or hate to uphold the law and the Constitution; firm adherence to justice and respect for our common humanity will do.
James Baldwin wrote in “Notes of a Native Son”: “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”
The mob that invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a sorry lot. News stories have suggested that many of them have experienced financial hardship and trouble with the law. One is not inclined to feel sorry for them, but the kind of desperate action they mounted suggests the kind of desperation and pain that Baldwin was alluding to.
Others who have been marginalized — African Americans, women, immigrants, gays, the disabled, workers — have fought back with more effectiveness and deeper conviction than the mob at the Capitol showed.
Those in government now — in Congress, law enforcement, the judiciary, and in state and local governments — need always to remind themselves that defending democracy requires unyielding belief in the dignity of the individual, which means that those who use hatred to trammel our rights or our institutions have to be shown a better way.
We are all dealing with pain in one form or another. Pain that produces anger and violence cannot be allowed to rule the day.
2022 Election Briefs
- Update voter registration by Aug. 31 to guarantee mailed ballot, secretary of state says (August 25, 4:15 pm)
- Bernie Sanders endorses David Zuckerman’s bid for lieutenant governor (August 1, 6:14 pm)
- 2nd poll shows Becca Balint well ahead of Molly Gray (August 1, 5:15 pm)
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