Some thoughts about civil rights, responsibilities, the role of writers, and other crap

I’ll be MIA for the next few days. I’m off tomorrow for the Wallowa Mountains to spend a few days at Winter Fishtrap in conversation about “The Great Divide,” that circumstance that feels to me like an increasing polarization of the society with which I am most intimately acquainted, life in the good old U. S. of A.

I’m not taking my laptop. I’m giving myself the gift of just being present for a few days with people who like to think and talk and write, preferably not all at the same time. I love the comments and notes I get, and I will still answer them all, but probably not until Monday night.

When I told Ben I was giving myself this trip as a birthday present, he said, “Fine. You can always go. But you do realize that society has always been polarized.” Then he managed to refer to some classical Greek and Roman stuff and to a long series of circumstances in U.S. history that by virtue of his ability to read the driest books I’ve ever encountered he is somewhat an expert about. And of course he’s right. But I’m going anyway. If we are all ever going to “just get along,” I think it starts with dialogue.

I also am running into this in those letters of E.B. White I keep yapping about. White talks about civil rights being closely tied to civil responsibilities, a position with which I am in firm agreement. It’s the old cliche: “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose starts.” How do we reconcile all of these demands? I just want to spend some time thinking and talking about it.

And when the universe starts pointing a lot of things in the same direction, I pay attention.

My immediate reaction to the topic is that much of what I find wanting today is the result of a loss of civility. I haven’t checked Webster’s (or any other dictionary for that matter), but for me civility is about respect. Good manners demand respect. They don’t demand agreement, just an acknowledgement that others might have a different perspective.

There’s a lot in common here with the Ten Commandments. If you respect someone, how can you steal from him, hurt him, seduce his wife, etc., etc., etc.

Civility used to be taught. At the risk of sounding like Pliny (“Things aren’t what they used to be”), I don’t think manners and civility are taught anywhere anymore. Parents are too busy with their dual-income lifestyle. They want the schools to do it. Schools are too busy with Federal and state requirements that generate ungodly amounts of paperwork to worry about the socialization of their little charges. And children learn by example, and the example they’ve been getting for the last 30 or so years is “I want mine. To hell with you.”

Writers, to my way of thinking occupy a rather special place. This may be disappearing, as all indications are that our society is becoming less literate rather than more. But since at least Aesop, writers have used the power of the pen to deliver philosophical ideas into the brains of non-scholastic readers.

This is an extraordinary power.

But like all extraordinary powers, it can be used for evil as well as good. So I just want to go off and think about these things.

Good Lord, this post is going on and on. The bread is rising downstairs and about ready to go into the oven, so I need to see if I have a razor blade sharp enough to slash it without distorting it. Julia Child’s slashes are always perfect, but I suspect she is profligate and uses a new blade each time.

This is one of my forms of social responsibility. I’m abandoning Ben for several days. I know from experience that when I am gone he lives on things like canned minestrone soup, canned chili over freshly cooked rice (this is a major endeavor for him), canned tuna with lots of mayonnaise, and the like. So the least I can do is leave him with some real food (home-cooked spaghetti sauce, great ground beef, salad fixings, and the like). And his favorite homemade bread will encourage him to take advantage of it.

Ciao, more on Monday.

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5 Responses to “Some thoughts about civil rights, responsibilities, the role of writers, and other crap”

  1. whitishrabbit Says:

    What a fantastic post. I love reading your thoughts, it brings a certain serenity and order to my own.

    I agree, even as writer’s seem to hold a more precariuos position in society, their work is all the more important… and who better to open the great, important dialogues than a word-smith?

  2. mklekacz Says:

    What a lovely comment to come home to. But, at the risk of opening a dialogue here ( ;^} ), one of the problems with wordsmithing is that the meaning of words seems to keep changing. Brave new world, anyone?

  3. whitishrabbit Says:

    Yeah, words are used like tools, particularly with the advent of the information age (internet, 24 hour news). I don’t trust the government and large corporations to define ideas and concepts for me, so it’s very important that there is a world of diverging opinions and viewpoints available to me through books and open source information (like blogs!) Where did I hear this quote? I just heard it recently: “Artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use lies to cover the truth up.” Usually if I pay attention, I can tell if the person I’m reading or listening to is an artist or a politician.

    (p.s.- the dialogue bit… is that from How Close is Too Close? 🙂 That post came out really well to my mind, but there was definitely a pause… rather an awkward pause.. from my online contacts who read it. I love the exchange of ideas. I was sort of taking inventory of my own motives for writing, and explored some of those possibilities aloud.)

  4. MoskerVenice Says:

    Re: Civility check out “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

    Don’t be put off by the book’s title or his: Words is more of a writer’s workbook on parsing dialogue than it is touchy feely/new (actually Old Testament) age pap.

    Brave New World? Love how Ford is the exclamation. It has good sounding legs too…can’t see us going “Oh, Microsoft.” (and NO, I’m not doing the politically charged examples)

    How about destroying words? As brilliant as main part of 1984 is, I think the appendix on NewSpeak is even more astounding.

  5. mklekacz Says:

    Then there’s “My Fair Lady”:

    “Words, words, words,
    I’m so sick of words!
    I get words all day through,
    First from him, now from you.
    Is that all you blighters can do?”

    Rabbit: I’m not sure what post you’re referring to. Can you send me a link (oh my God, there’s a dialogue beginning here)?

    Dave, I’ll check out your recommendation. So many words have already been destroyed. The one that comes to mind immediately is “gay.” (That’s not a homophobic remark–you’ll just have to trust me. I was thinking more in terms of Nietszhe’s “The Gay Science,” one of my very favorite books.)

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