Social separation breeds contempt

There is no better place to learn the delicate ballet of social skill than in a big city

By Garrison Keillor
Published January 13, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

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

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.

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