The Miler and the Mechanic
Syncopated Politics grows out of a long running debate with some of the best, most thoughtful and insightful people I’ve ever met in my life, and to the extent that any reader finds something of value here, the credit largely belongs to them. I hope they share the liveliness of their intellect and their passion for excellence.
My first inclination was just to talk politics with a historical perspective. I looked at the present (and recent past) and found, between Clinton, Bush and Obama, so much to be disillusioned with, that I wanted to retreat into a better history. Two decades of acrimony seemed more than enough.
My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. They escaped Hitler and the Czar. But these were hardheaded realists who didn’t look back, instead they went towards the light. In America anything was possible. They could speak freely, open shops and buy houses, move about, worship where they wanted to, and as they wanted to, and have a real expectation that their efforts would inevitably lead to a better life for themselves and particularly for their children. They had nothing in common with John Adams, or Washington or Jefferson, except they were glad to be Americans and be part of its potential. They went to night school, learned (accented) English, became citizens, served in WWI, and voted religiously. They hunkered down and made it through the Depression, and sent their children off to serve in WWII and Korea. In Europe, no one had ever asked them about their opinions, certainly no one cared what they thought or allowed them to play a role in picking their destiny. Here, they lived prosaic but productive lives that were infinitely better than the ones they left behind. They were not famous, they aren’t in the history books, and yet, like the millions who came before and after, they joined a community that was willing to have them, a community that let them participate in a common destiny. The fact that this is so much an oft-told tale is not just re-recitation of a cliché. It can be told over and over again because it is true. And because of its truth, it creates a powerful emotional and intellectual bond.
But my sense of where we are as a people has also been impacted by two conversations I had recently with friends. Both have the blues, at the very time when they have accomplished things and have lives that many would envy; they are happily married, have great children, they are educated, healthy, stable economically. And they are both profoundly uncertain as to the future-their future, and what the future holds for their children. The limitless potential that lay before my grandparents seems now somehow crabbed, and grudging.
In my friend’s eyes, it is slipping away. The world has changed. In 1960, computers were massive structures tended to by white-coated acolytes. The primary role of women in the workplace was as teachers, librarians, and administrative staff. We had a giant industrial base, and millions of blue-collar Americans were able to earn good livings, buy houses, educate their kids, go on vacation, and retire decently. There were still deep pockets of poverty, and pervasive racism, we were locked into a stare-down with the Communists, but we were a growing, flexing, economic powerhouse, easily most richest and powerful nation on Earth, with a society that both encouraged and rewarded effort and acknowledged a social contract.
That era has seemingly come to an end. In 1960, America was at the tail end of the baby boom, and life expectancy was about 70. Now it is 79. That single demographic fact has undercut the core assumptions of key programs such as Social Security and Medicare, just as that massive baby boom begins to lean heavily on them. Private pensions (and public sector pensions) are on their way out, with business shutting them down and hostile state legislatures looking for ways to walk away from them. Massive competition from emerging nations have made cheap-labor outsourcing into the tool that creates millions of blue-collar dinosaurs. And technology has helped to finish off white-collar workers as well. I read a letter in the New York Times by a (presumably) former secretary bemoaning the destruction in value of her particular skills, and all that is lost by that. She was eloquent, but I say that as I write this on a notebook computer sold by a stupendously successful company (Apple) that didn’t exist when I was in high school, using software written by another new company (Microsoft) that duplicates many of her functions. When I return to the office next week, I put that notebook in my briefcase, and will use it to run my practice, much of it through emails and attachments.
A close friend once wrote me that skill and craftsmanship were no longer valued. He’s largely correct. Price drives everything now and the time needed for excellence costs money. I don’t have a secretary because I have a less than two-pound box that (partially) replaces her, but I also don’t have one because I can’t economically justify it. I need to focus on content, not presentation.
Where does that leave us? Do we have that crabbed future of decline, with our politicians, and our generations, fighting over scarce resources instead of creating new ones? Or are we capable of more Apples, more Microsofts? That’s the true challenge facing our society.
Right now, our leaders seem not up to the task. Newly elected Governors and State Legislatures are strong-arming half their populations. Having led the nation through an absurdist stare-down on the debt ceiling, the President and the GOP-led Congressional delegation will now fight over how much to take and from who, how many promises to walk-away from. They mouth words like growth and jobs, but it’s hard to see it as anything more than just fighting over the pie. I keep hoping they are better than this, I’m hoping because I still believe that the shouters and the absolutists will somehow be talked off the ledge, and reason and compromise will prevail. Because, if it doesn’t, then the winners of this round will be the losers the next time. The pendulum will lurch back and forth, each movement causing more damage. And without a broad national consensus on how to fix our problems, a consensus that we must share, even though it might not be everything we want, we are doomed to repeat this cycle, to the detriment of everyone except the very well connected. We cannot accept this.
And yet, I still have optimism. In part, because of the Miler and the Auto Shop. Last year a friend and I took our daughters to a track meet. Jim Ryan, the legendary miler from the 1960s, was there, and we took the girls over to his tent. I have absolutely nothing in common with Jim Ryan. He was a ten term Republican Congressman from Kansas, and he probably earned a perfect score from the American Conservative Union. He’s a committed evangelical who runs a running program that combines fitness and faith. He signed both girl’s posters with a biblical reference. And yet, as I watched him spend a couple of minutes with them, easily and openly expressing his own pride in his family, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a man I could have asked to speak at the girl’s school, and if he could have come, he would have This was someone who would disagree with every single political position I might have, but still make sandwiches for the homeless, or stand next to a complete stranger (and a Democrat) filing sandbags or handing out water. Maybe he and I would disagree on every thing-except a few of the really important things. And, where we disagreed, we would do so civilly.
Then, this past weekend, when Hurricane Irene was smacking around the East Coast, I traveled up to the Catskill Mountains to bring home my daughter from summer camp. Got a flat tie. Saturday morning, with Irene bearing down, and a car to be loaded with some of the dirtiest laundry ever, I found myself in Don Oralls Garage in Hancock, New York. It’s a kid’s delight-big yard, junked cars, trucks, huge tires, wreckers, all kinds of great equipment, and a charcoal grey cat who was clearly in charge. Family business started about 60 years ago. The office had old pine paneling, a faded poster, and toy trucks up on the shelves. One of the mechanics, who was wearing work clothes that looked as if they had been literally soaked in oil and then dried out, examined the tire, found the (rather large) split, found another, mounted it on the rim, replaced it, checked the other three, and got us on our way. My late father would have said “the man knows his business”. If I had nothing in common with Jim Ryan, I surely had absolutely nothing in common with the mechanic. But as I sit here in my office in my suit and tie, typing this on a sunny day, having left behind an area which is now a mess of flooded streams, washed out roadways and bridges, and ruined homes, I’m grateful for the man’s swift competence.
Maybe my Jim Ryan fantasy was pure fantasy-just wishful thinking for a time when elected officials didn’t always have to pick up every dollar on the table, and then rub their opponent’s faces in the mud for good measure. And maybe the mechanic went home and laughed about the hapless city couple-at least I hope he did-we were pretty darn hapless. It’s irrelevant. But, when I look back at the history of this country, I see a powerful strain of community that is built on small moments of kindness and competence. We share a common destiny, we search for a common purpose, and we are heirs to a great treasure. And when I look forward, I know that our times demand politicians who can fight like cats and dogs, but ultimately put it aside for the common good. And our times demand that mechanic, a man who knows his business. We need statesmen and builders, not nihilists.
So, as long as I keep Syncopated Politics going, I’m certainly going to look for and write about every over-reach, every hypocrisy, every bit of corruption. But I’m going to hope for opportunities to talk about the small grace notes, the Miler and Auto shop. We are, at bottom, a creative, adaptive, and generous people.