By Hal Herring
Imagine you are a traveler on a good horse, in eastern Kansas, 1854. It’s a warm early summer day, the scrub oaks full of birdsong, the road not yet dusty under your horse’s hooves. At a ford on Potawatomie Creek, you meet a band of rough-looking men, riding skinny mules. They tote a variety of weapons, knives and dirks, a pepperbox jammed into a rope used as a belt. They smile. The oldest, a bearded man in an old slouch hat, Sharp’s cavalry rifle in his left hand, rides up directly to the water’s edge, blocking you from crossing. He grins, the black stumps of teeth in his gums glistening. “So, friend,” he says, “How do you stand on the goose?”
If you are smart, you’ll kick your horse and make a run for it.
The phrase “I am sound on the goose” is 1850s Kansas code for saying that you are in favor of slavery, and of Kansas becoming a slave-owning state. Since both pro-slavery and abolitionists had their murderous militias in Kansas at the time, there was no safe answer to the question, “How do you stand on the goose?”
I tell this little story because, after reading Todd Tanner’s post on climate change, and the excellent work of my friend Bill Geer, I couldn’t get the goose-question out of my mind. In Montana or Alabama (the two places I know best), spring of 2011, the question of whether you “believe” in human-caused climate change is much like the goose-question. It no longer means exactly what it asks. The person who asks it is not prompting a discussion of what can done, or what the effects of climate change might be. They are, simply, asking if you are a conservative, or a liberal.