RAMBLINGS • We Have Met The Enemy; He Is Us

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I’m an oldie (if not a goodie), but I don’t have many answers.

As a culture, we are in dire straits as we enter the premier holiday season of 2021. Because all of us are a part of this culture, we all share the blame for what’s happened, myself included. Please consider this “Ramblings” as both my apology for whatever mistakes I’ve made and my Christmas present to those who read The Journal-News.

Perhaps we are on the high end of a pendulum swing to conservatism needed to balance the high swing to liberalism which was marked by the presidential election of 2008. Each political party has had a chance at power since then, but extremism rather than needed moderation has been the result. I don’t think extremism reflects the majority of either party; I know it isn’t how I feel or hopefully act.

Usually a pendulum slows until it stops in the middle. Democracy was built to be that way; the “my eay or the highway” so prevalent today used to be the realms of athletic coaches, a few autocratic teachers, and the military. Now nearly everyone feels “I’m correct, so you’re wrong,” with no room for agreement. If we don’t change, we are headed for disaster.

It may take that, sadly. Universally as a country we’re always rallied to defeat a common enemy. Cynics, of which I’m becoming one, would charge that. Recently leaders have helped develop false threats in hopes of rallying strength to their positions. Besides, if we consider all humans on earth as a part of us, as we should, then the exterior threat would have to come from another universe/world. I hope I miss that experience.

When I was more hopeful about the state of our world (the descriptive word is naive), which was taken from me either by old age or the 20 years of political interaction I’ve endured on the county board, I once had conservative and liberal heroes. Examples from the past include American naval officer Hazard Perry and the not-quite-current cartoonist Walt Kelly and his spokescreature, Pogo. In a Pennsylvania history class while I attended Marion Center Joint High School, we learned of Admiral Perry and his report to William Henry Harrison during the War of 1812. Perry and his ships defeated enemy ships on Lake Erie (the tie to Pennsylvania) and messaged, “We have met the enemy and he is ours.”

Fast forward to Kelly, who in 1970 had Pogo standing on the edge of a very littered park, carrying a short pole with a nail at the end and a bag over his shoulder to hold the refuse, sighing, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” as he began clean-up duties. Because of ignorance, I have been a part of both of Pogo’s roles.

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I helped carry refuse (tin cans, pieces of broken plates, glass bottles, obsolete iron or utensils–anything that wouldn’t burn in the stove used for heat or cooking) from the immediate farmstead to the junk pile. It was off a field road and just south of the mountain spring on which we depended for drinking water. I suspect my mom’s ancestors began the pile, not knowing nor considering possible contamination. I was assigned the task of carting the junk up the hill to the pile and then throwing it over the road edge onto the pile when I was 10 or so; it was just another chore I could do, and I had no questions to ask.

Most if not all rural houses in that area, (and the area was a part of Appalachia) disposed of trash in the same way. I’ve heard archeologists have found treasures in those piles in the last 50 years or so. They can have those rewards. My only excuse for that type of pollution was ignorance, but that rings hollow, given how often I told students, (and my children, and my grandchildren) that ignorance isn’t a valid excuse.

Even when I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, I wasn’t overly impressed. Now that I have more scientific knowledge, I need to reread it; hopefully I can find my copy. Because I grew up on a farm and made an aborted attempt at farming on my own, I’ll never be a full-blown, Sierra Club card-carrier, but I wish I and more of my peers had paid attention to Al Gore.

Before the end of this column, I’ll write an off-the-cuff list of divisions we encounter not just nationally but also locally. A teacher somewhere (I spent hours in classrooms between 1961 and 1985 or so–high school graduation was in 1961; my Masters came my way in 1985 when I was finally able to appreciate attending class) once told me one had to identify a problem before searching for a solution. Now I find it easy to define problems, not so easy to solve them, because so many elements of truth exist on both sides.

A current issue locally seems to be that of local control. I’m for local control–as long as it’s thoughtful and takes into consideration all possible consequences. To have that happen, though, we need to re-evaluate the consequences we as citizens visit upon our public officials: school board members, city council members, and county board members too often are so harshly viewed that the people with knowledge to govern effectively shy away from running.

If one owns a business and makes an unpopular-with-someone decision, that business may be boycotted. Nasty comments appear on Facebook. Those are only two examples, but I have more. Those two are enough to make even the most civic-minded say “nay” when asked to run. Because those not used to looking at both sides of an issue don’t often run, meetings can become sixth-grade type name-calling episodes rather than measured, regulated by common sense, debates. To say “I’m right because I’m right” is neither a civil nor an advisable debate tactic. Chasms between parties grow wider. We are our own worst enemies.

Here is the list I promised earlier; I’ll try not to editorialize. Some are serious, others are not until one side or the other becomes angry: Ford/Chevy; car/truck; American made/imports; union/right to work; Republican/Democrat; conservative/liberal; house/apartment; vax/anti-vax; rent/own; farm/country; motorcycle/bicycle; worker/unemployed by choice; fit/not fit; married/single; believer/skeptic; sports enthusiast/non-fan; football/soccer; Cards/Cubs; Methodist/Free Methodist/Baptist/Pentecostal/Presbyterian/Catholic/cults; male/female; pro-abortion/anti-abortion; educated/not educated; veteran/never served; poor/wealthy; North/South; immigrant/native; aged/young; labor/owner; teacher/administrator;teacher/student; use cash exclusively/checks/credit cards; comfy with technology/I; inclusive classrooms/selective classrooms; and mask/anti-mask.

Too many choices cause first confusion and than complete bewilderment. The list above is not all-inclusive, of course, but I hope it illustrates the point I hope to make (even if I’m not sure what the point is). As I’ve lived my over-seven decades, I faced those decisions, some consciously and others not so mindfully. I acknowledge I didn’t care about some (Ford/Chevy) and had no control over others in the days of draft boards (veteran/never served). Other choices were difficult, and I most likely fudged on many of them (I was 24 and teaching before I valued education) by choosing part of this and part of that.

I’m reminded of a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks that we once taught in freshman Introduction to Literature classes at HHS. It was called “One Wants a Teller in a Time Like This.” I fear that in spite of copious notes, freshman were too young to understand how important the right teller (advice giver) can be to a person. Fifteen year olds didn’t (and don’t) take well to advice.

Even I need to pick my advice-givers very carefully.

Merry Christmas; may we have a better, less stressful year.

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