I’m in the process of reading “Style; Lessons in Clarity and Grace”. It’s a book about how to create good prose, focusing on a set of tips that tend to produce rich and impactful writing, and by providing examples that illustrate each point. Some of those examples are obviously crafted for the purpose of demonstrating the author’s ideas, but others were taken from already existing and excellent pieces of literature.
One such quote was not only a masterpiece of English, but also contained a powerful, thought-provoking idea.
The passage was originally from the author Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Frontier in American History” and is as follows:
This then is the heritage of the pioneer experience – a passionate belief that a democracy was possible which should leave the individual a part to play in a free society and not make him a cog in a machine operated from above; which trusted in the common man, in his tolerance, his ability to adjust differences with good humor, and to work out an American type from the contributions of all nations – a type for which he would fight against those who challenged it in arms, and for which in time of war he would make sacrifices, even the temporary sacrifice of his individual freedom and his life, lest that freedom be lost forever.
When I read that, I got hit with a flood of resonance, the reasons for which are so many I don’t even know where to start!
Firstly, my ideals sit so flush with Fredrick’s described pioneer. I want great things to happen to me and to the people of my communities, from the small scale of my immediate family, all the way up to that of my country and beyond. And I believe that this greatness is a function of individual progress and well-being.
But that’s just me being excited about life. I want to go to California and to Colorado and to Alaska (and SCUBA diving, too)! And I want everyone I do and do not know to be happy. The only play I can run is to try and make all happen one step at a time.
However, the passage also contained another more intricate and interesting idea; one that had much broader implications. The idea that this country’s greatness – America’s greatness – was founded in trust of the common man; for him to be tolerant, lightheartedly compromising, dynamically principled, and above all, immovable from this basis.
This country was founded on faith in people.
And I believe its fall will be the fault of loosing this faith. But it hasn’t fallen yet, and it doesn’t have to.
A while back my buddy Charlie and I had a talk about a mutual habit of ours. In conversation, we would use the word “everybody” when describing our views of the world. Saying things like, “everybody thinks this” and “everybody does this”, but “we are different, because we do this and we think that”. After years of this type of talk, a mutual friend pointed out that we were being idiots. The abstract everybody that Charlie and I used in conversation wasn’t actually describing the world, it was a tunnel-visioned lens, focused on the people we had happened to be in front of us at the time. Everybody was a illusion we used to unwittingly bootstrap cynical attitudes, even if the actual evidence didn’t support it.
We’d go surfing and some stranger would get angry about one of us accidentally getting in their way. Now everybody in the water was being selfish, looking out for number-one, while we were the only ones there trying to have fun. Why can’t everybody be like us? (Never mind the forty-something other people all around us who hadn’t gotten angry.)
We’d go to the bar and look around at superficial people judging other superficial people. Why can’t everyone just dance, be open and friendly, like us? (As we simultaneously judged everyone else in the building and ignored those singing and laughing.)
We’d go to the beach to kitesurf and get yelled at by a local birdwatcher who thought we were disturbing his passion’s limited habitat. Why can’t everyone just be stoked like us…
But that’s the thing: the majority of the other people in the water were having fun, most of the other people in the bar were smiling, and the birdman was stoked. He was stoked on birds. We were stoked on kites. The common thread: we all need to get along.
There’s this tendency for us to divide the world into us and them, and it’s not doing anyone any good. The news makes this even worse, because it takes the actions of a few thousand people – the people and groups being reported on – and provides it to the general public as brick and mortar for the building of more false everybodys.
Its not their fault, it’s an artifact of system we built for ourselves.
But on the other hand, at this very moment the next layer of that system is being constructed around us. Social media – be it the internet or some good old spoken word-of-mouth – can go either way. Social media is a catalyst. If you propagate the perceived sense of division, you provide more brick and mortar. But if instead, you try to be tolerant, compromising, and principled and do all of this with “good humor”, you build a sense of mutualness and cooperation for yourself and those who follow what you do (or post).
I believe that most of us are good-natured. Most of us don’t want to shoot up schools, or fly planes into buildings, or protest soldier’s funerals. Most of us don’t want to kill, hurt, or sadden anyone. So let’s stop arguing about those bad people who do! Let’s go even further, let’s stop talking about them all together. It’s not those few bad people that are hurting our country in the long run, it’s the fuck-you-you’re-wrong attitude we direct toward one another when discussing those bad people!
So instead of continuing that conversation, lets do something else. Lets be tolerant of each other's beliefs – conservative and liberal alike; lets lightheartedly compromise about local policy that concerns topics which we actually have the expertise to discuss; and lets build righteous value systems metered on the results of responsible experimentation.
And when the time comes that someone outside of our community threatens to take all of that away, let’s stand our ground and defend it. But right now, isn’t that time. Right now, the only real threat to America is Americans.
See someone who doesn’t believe in gay marriage?
Help them with their groceries.
See someone who’s gay?
Help them with their groceries.
Think it's ridiculous that someone could be one way for regulating guns but hold the opposite view when it comes to regulating abortion? Take the time you would’ve spent triple-reposting that
witty politically themed meme on your Facebook page, and go help someone with their proverbial groceries.
We need less time spent in the circle-jerk of people who already agree with us, and more time spent bridging the gap between the two factions, be it at the diner table, walking down the street, or on the internet…