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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Acts of folly, or acts of wisdom?

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at the Interior

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at the Interior Department in Washington on Wednesday after signing an order lifting a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands and a related order on coal royalties. Credit: AP / Molly Riley

A rather auspicious date slipped by last week, far too quietly.

It was 150 years ago Thursday that the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. Critics labeled the deal Seward’s Folly, after U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the treaty. They saw Alaska as a frozen wasteland whose primary commodity, sea otters, had been nearly wiped out by the fur trade.

But the price — $7.2 million then, about $125 million today — turned out to be a pittance, given Alaska’s size, mineral riches, natural resources, tourist magnetism, and geopolitical importance.

The anniversary came during a week filled with actions swiftly pronounced by some as folly, leaving one wondering which, if any, of the actors will be regarded more highly 150 years from now.

It won’t be the Republican Senators who voted to make it more difficult for cities to create retirement plans for workers whose employers don’t offer them, and who are ready to block states, too — unless it exposes the GOP hypocrisy of extolling individual and states’ rights but trampling on them when convenient, like current talk about rescinding California’s right to set tougher emissions limits than the federal government.

It won’t be Sen. Chuck Schumer and fellow Democrats who talked about filibustering Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, or GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell if he takes that bait and blows up the 60-vote rule for Supreme Court confirmations in favor of a simple 51-vote majority, like Democrats did in 2013 for other presidential appointments — unless that leads to an attack of conscience and the Senate gets together to restore the 60-vote rule for all appointments.

It won’t be Venezuela’s Supreme Court, which issued a ruling dissolving the national legislature and giving itself authority to write laws, strengthening the hand of its ally leftist strongman President Nicolás Maduro — unless it leads to a Venezuelan Spring that leads to a working democracy.

It won’t be Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke who backed the White House’s effort to roll back former President Barack Obama’s climate change policies by saying there is no such thing as clean energy, or the climate change-skeptic scientists who encouraged a House committee to fund “red teams” to challenge established research including authoritative work done by the UN’s climate science panel, or the congressmen who are listening — unless the Earth is uninhabitable by 2167 and humanity has relocated 235 trillion miles away to one of the three Goldilocks planets orbiting the Trappist-1 star and everything is so great there that what does it matter anymore.

It won’t be Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who said of the U.S. education system, “I’m not sure how they could get a lot worse,” or GOP Rep. Steve King, who said Congress should risk a government shutdown to fund Trump’s wall — unless both turn out to be such minor historical footnotes that no one remembers them.

It won’t be Vice President Mike Pence, whose vote broke a 50-50 Senate tie on a bill to let states block federal funding of Planned Parenthood and take away health care from potentially millions of women — unless it leads to another massive women’s march and enough activism to start turning state and federal legislative seats.

And it won’t be President Donald Trump, who attacked the right-wing Freedom Caucus after its opposition to GOP health care reform scuttled the bill — unless Trump ends up being able to isolate the bloc and set the stage for moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats to move forward on . . . something.

Then again, the Russians in 1867 thought the sale of Alaska would help improve relations with the Americans.

There’s all kinds of folly.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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