There is no better place to learn the delicate ballet of social skill than in a big city
I went to church in San Francisco on Sunday, the big stone church on Nob Hill, whose name is an old slang term for a rich person, where a gaggle of railroad tycoons built their palaces high above the squalid tenements of the poor back in the Gilded Age, and there with considerable pomp we baptized a dozen infants into the fellowship of faith and we renounced the evil powers of this world, which all in all is a good day’s work.
The term “evil powers” is one you hear only in the church, or in Marvel comic books, or Republican speeches, and it isn’t something I renounce every day. I am a romantic democrat, raised on William Saroyan and Pete Seeger and Preston Sturges, and we have faith in the decency of the little guy, and we believe you can depend on the kindness of strangers. But it ain’t necessarily so.
Evil lurks in the heart of man, and anonymity tends to bring it out. Internet flamers would never say the jagged things they do if they had to sign their names. Road rage is anonymous; there is no equivalent pedestrian rage or bicyclist rage. (Have you ever yelled vile profanities at a fellow motorist — a spontaneous outburst — and then found that you’re holding a cellphone in your hand and a female colleague is on the other end? I have and it is excruciating.) War requires very well-brought-up people to do vicious things that they are able to do efficiently because the recipients of their viciousness are unknown to them. The bombardier never sees the quiet shady street of brick houses that he is about to incinerate.
I want to believe in the kindness of strangers. I believe that if voters actually knew gay couples, they would not vote to ban gay marriage. This particular cruelty is the result of social separation, which breeds contempt. I know something about that, having spent time in grad school. When I was 24 I was an insufferable snob, thanks to lofty isolation from the ordinary tumult of life, and what cured me eventually was entering the field of light frothy entertainment. When you strive to amuse a crowd of strangers, you have to drop your pants, and a man without pants gives up the right to look down on anybody.
We liberals can be as rigidly humorless as anybody else: You learn that, writing a newspaper column. Hardshell Baptists have nothing on us when it comes to self-righteousness. Mostly we look down on Republicans and the iconic small-town values that they have exploited so successfully, and yet, deep down, we share those values. We admire personal enterprise, we are wary of the power and blindness of big bureaucracies, and we do not admire self-pity. When I hear long tales of woe — Poor Me, my benighted life — my inner Republican thinks, “That was you who poured all that alcohol down your gullet. You. Nobody else. And why didn’t you work a little harder in school? Duh. Your mama tried to tell you and you sneered at her. You did it to yourself, pal. You got on the train to Nowheresville and guess what? You arrived.”
The center of civility in our society is not the small town but the big city, where you learn to thread your way through heavy traffic and subdue your aggressiveness and extend kindness to strangers. Small-town Republicans are leery of big cities and the anonymity they bestow, but there is no better place to learn the delicate ballet of social skill. Isolation is a difficult trick for a pedestrian, even with music pouring into your ears.
And here, this morning, in a city famous for eccentricity, we strangers in a cathedral embrace other people’s children and promise to fight the good fight in their behalf, a ceremony that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. We renounce evil powers. I renounce isolation and separation and the splendid anonymity of the Internet and the doink-doink-doink of the clicker propelling me through six Web sites in five minutes. I vow to put my feet on the ground and walk through town and make small talk with clerks and call my mother on the phone and put money in the busker’s hat. We welcome the infants into our herd and though some of them sob bitter tears at the prospect, they are now in our hearts and in our prayers and we will not easily let them go.
(Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.)
© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive. More Garrison Keillor.
More Related Stories
- Slave descendants seek equal rights from Cherokee Nation
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Is abortion about to doom Republicans again?
- Anti-voter-fraud Tea Party group sues the IRS
- The Bachmann-inspired romance novel
- Nate Silver: Why the scandals aren't hurting Obama
- How to oust Michele Bachmann from Congress
- Rand Paul: Congress should apologize to Apple, not the other way around
- Who is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford?
- Colorado judge rules Abercrombie parent company violates Disabilities Act
- When America became a third-world country
- Inhofe and Coburn: Red state hypocrites
- It's Whitewater all over again
- Teen activist to meet with Abercrombie CEO
- Anyone regret slashing National Weather Service budget now?
- Oklahoma senator: Tornado aid "totally different" from Sandy aid
- Aloof, shifty Obama: Nixon times ten thousand!
- Obama: Moore "needs to get everything it needs right away"
- California Tea Party group files first IRS lawsuit
- Still no polling backlash for Obama
- Oklahoma senator wants to offset tornado aid with other cuts
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11