Two snowstorms of epic proportions in quick succession this month have triggered mass episodes of brain trauma among the public, and among public figures.
Drivers, of course, are the first to be afflicted. The third consecutive flake of snow divides all drivers (in all but the northernmost tier of states) into two categories: the feckless and the reckless. The feckless feel safer driving at 15 miles per hour, no matter how desperately momentum is needed to get up the next icy rise in the road, and no matter how many dozens of vehicles are stacked up behind them. They obey the legendary advice given the pilot by his mother: just fly low and slow, and you'll be fine. The reckless, on the other hand, do not lower their speed or alter their driving habits for anything, because, like, why should they?
A few years ago I picked up a young man who was standing beside the road with his thumb up at 2 am in a howling blizzard, with wind speeds in the 30s and the temperature in the teens. He was standing beside his ditched car clad in a short-sleeved T shirt, blue jeans and shoes. Period. I asked him, as I fought a very close fight to get my car under way again and keep it that way, why he had risked his life by going out in the storm (I was trying to get home from work). He looked quizzical at the idea of risking his life -- how could that be? -- and said he just felt like going to see his girl friend. I have been wracked with guilt ever since, at the thought that my intervention may have made it possible for him to reproduce.
The total disconnect from any comprehension of the operations and power of the natural world has become pervasive, especially among urban and suburban people. Food comes in plastic, the temperature is always 68 degrees, cars run because you have a key, entertainment is continuous and we are entitled to do what we want when we want in eternal comfort, for ever and ever, amen. When the snow falls, the water rises or the ground shakes, we stand in some shattered street and wail to the indifferent skies (as one woman did in post-Katrina New Orleans) "What are we es-posed to do?"
But the soft-headedness of drivers in blizzards is a major worry only for those forced to share a road with them. What is really scary is the way that public figures can use natural disasters as blunt instruments with which to attack the mettle of the nation.
Mayors are always being criticized by their adversaries for not clearing the snow fast enough. Never mind that last year when they asked for enough money in the budget to provide for adequate snowfall preparations, they were condemned as tax-and-spend, government-expanding socialists. The very same people who did that, now condemn them as out of touch and incompetent. And they are getting away with it.
Far worse is the eagerness of the avid members of the Know Nothing Party to politicize climatology, and to divide people between those who think pollution is benign and those who think it does harm. The Virginia Republican Party, a charter member of the Know Nothing movement, put up an ad while the recent blizzard was still raging ridiculing some opponents for supporting limitations on carbon emissions because, look, it's snowing, so global warming is a myth. Never mind that the people who actually study the subject (as opposed to those who know what they think before any information is provided) have predicted larger, more powerful snowstorms (and hurricanes and tornadoes) as a direct consequence of human-assisted climate change, and never mind that their predictions made many years ago have been borne out.
Never mind, also, that a cursory look at the issue will tell you that "global warming" is an inapt way to refer to what is going on, because it leads the Know Nothings to think it implies that everyplace will get constantly warmer, which is not how it works, indeed, is impossible unless you repeal the laws of physics. (Next on the agenda of the filibuster-mad Senate minority? Stay tuned.) The increased retention of heat energy in the unbelievably complex system that is our atmosphere will express itself in myriad ways, only some of which we can possibly understand and predict.
It is still possible, however, for the non-scientists among us to come to a conclusion as to whether massive air pollution -- and remember, that's what we are talking about -- is good for us, or not. All we need to do is to Know Something, and we know it's a bad idea to keep on poisoning our air and water. Which, I say again, is what we are talking about when we use code words such as "global warming."
Whether it's the self-induced coma of the self-indulgent that is shocked into an altered state by discovering you can't always go to the corner market for cigarettes; or the aggressive ignorance of the Know-Nothings using an eruption of nature's raw power to confirm they don't know anything; the flakes that swirl around us in an historic blizzard are not all made of ice.