Same as it ever was . . .


You’re going to see lots of coverage of the “top stories” of 2017, mostly about what has changed this year.

But, rather than simply chronicle major events, let’s look at things that didn’t change, for better and for worse, despite, in some cases, a great deal of brouhaha surrounding them.

The very word “Islam” still provokes panic, even hatred, in some places. Oklahoma’s legislators outlawed Sharia (conservative Islamic) law. How do they figure the 7,392 Muslims (counted by the Archives of Religious Data) can force Sharia on 4 million other Sooners? Maybe the lege could lengthen the school week to five or six days from four to teach more arithmetic. My arithmetic shows 530 non-Muslim Sooners for every Muslim.

The real battle for most Muslims isn’t Islam vs. us. It is Shia (about one-sevenths of Muslims) vs. Sunni (most of the other six-sevenths). Yemen is soaked in blood as Iran (Shia) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni) carry on a proxy war at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Up in the Levant, Hezbollah (Shia) and Al Qaeda/ISIS (Sunni) stand at arm’s length, as wary of one another as of anyone else. On Thursday, they weren’t at arm’s length as ISIS executed a suicide bombing that killed 41 or more at a Shia center in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In the Persian Gulf, the majority Sunni United Arab Emirates is under pressure, if not outright attack, by Iran, which has occupied islands claimed by the UAE. Rumors come up from time to time that Iran plans to send its allies from Yemen, known as the Houthis, to invade the Emirates. Guess what. Saudi Arabia backs the UAE.

Same as it ever was.

John Boehner, former speaker of House of Representatives, was undone by the “freedom caucus,” a gang of 40 or so representatives. The caucus vehemently opposed the Affordable Care Act, even as the ACA very slowly gained favor with the people. The House voted at least 67 times for repeal, said its replacement would be better. All 67 votes were vetoed or otherwise died.

In 2017, Boehner told the truth. Republicans never had a replacement. Boehner scoffed at the idea the GOP under Speaker Paul Ryan planned to improve health-care financing.

Same as it ever was.

More than one Mainer dies every day from opioid overdose. The count late last week was 370 for 2017, down eight from 2016. Nationally about 42,250 have died this year of opioids, less than half the per capita rate in Maine.

Gov. Paul LePage has made a big deal of the opioid crisis. The president has declared it a national emergency. The governor and the Legislature have agreed very little as to how to deal with it. The governor first just wanted to crack down, more police, more jail time. It’s an old political ploy. “What we’re doing doesn’t work, so we need to do more of it.”

Some members of the Legislature wanted to combine enforcement with more treatment options for the addicted. Late in the year, the guv and the lege tiptoed closer to each other’s positions. But that didn’t keep the death rate from barely budging.

Since declaring a national opioid emergency, the president has done nothing. Nor has Congress charged into the gap.

Same as it ever was.

The coarsening of America has been going on for years. It is no clearer than in this fact. Donald Trump, a man who knows no decency, was elected president. John McCain, a decent man and war hero, was not. Yet in the new environment within which we all move, there are signs that we haven’t all turned into boors.

Last month, I took a subway from Georgetown to Union Station, almost all the way across the District of Columbia. I asked at the pay booth how to use the new card system. The woman said, “I’m going to write you a pass, then you walk through this gate and get on your train, which will be on the left side when you get to the bottom of the escalator.”

As I continued on that train trip that took me to Philadelphia to Florida to Washington to Toledo to Wisconsin and then home, I met Amtrak people who were cordial, even welcoming. This included placards reading “Welcome, Bob Neal” in my sleeping-car rooms. The lounge attendant in Philadelphia printed out the national rail timetable and gave it to me as I headed to my Florida-bound train. So, civility is still with us.

Same as it ever was.

Finally, it’s too early to tell whether the tsunami of accusations of sexual impropriety against famous men will bring change. In Wisconsin, I talked a great deal with my sister about this topic. A feminist before most people knew the word — one could not have been reared by our single mother and not become a feminist — my sister moved for two decades at a high level in a male world. She was vice-president for training at Manpower Inc. in Milwaukee. (Yes, we’re both aware of the irony in that name.)

I see the beginning of a broad cultural change in which men feel far less free to use their power to get sex or other attention from women. Perhaps coming to a time when they don’t even consider it. My sister said when the flap is over nothing will have changed.

Cannot emphasize how much I hope she is wrong when she says, “same as it ever was.”

Bob Neal farmed for 30 years in New Sharon. He hopes 2018 isn’t same as it ever was.