"A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car."
- Kenneth Tynan
Maybe it's a quirk of personality. Maybe it's human nature. Or, like the therapist who counseled dysfunctional people only to begin seeing the dysfunctional in everyone he met, maybe it's the job.
"Writers, keep your antenna out! There are stories everywhere!"
The writing instructor might as well have said, "Newspaper columnists, keep your spectacles on! There are wrongs to right everywhere!"
Not that righting wrongs is necessarily bad but, oh, how easy it is to point out the wrong in these brief epistles I've been churning out for the past 25 years.
Besides the job, I guess I could blame my studies in behavioral psychology, or a faith that teaches more about "behavior" than I ever learned in school. Throw in an acquired interest in politics and perhaps my critical nature is easy to explain.
However, in defense of my negative self, there aren't enough soap boxes or column inches for all the topics my lengthened antenna find. For instance, last January when I was in South Carolina just before that state's presidential primary, I received a call on my temporary, residential phone.
"Hello, Ma'am," the caller began, "we're doing a political survey and, if you don't mind, will you tell me your political party preference?"
"Republican," I answered dutifully.
"Do you plan to vote in this week's primary?"
"No, because I'm"
My response was interrupted by another question in what I realized too late was an automated call. No explanations allowed; no chance to lessen the implication that Republicans are too lazy or disinterested to vote. Blood pressure rising, I was determined to let someone know how skewed and phony these political polls are, until the memory faded and I let that one go.
But during research into the plight of African-Americans in this area before and after emancipation, I had a far more difficult time letting that subject go. How, I asked repeatedly, could one group of people treat another so badly? Even worse, how could I write about that era without my anger showing through?
Fast forward to July 2008, and a trip to Maine to attend my high school reunion.
Following lunch and pleasantries, my former classmates and I engaged in the usual sharing of experiences since we were last together five years ago. Sometime during the afternoon they learned about my Columbia County history project and the difficulty in writing about the subject without my northern bias showing through.
"Have you seen the postcard of that Ku Klux Klan parade they held in Milo in 1922?" someone asked.
The Ku Klux Klan in Milo, Maine, 800 miles above the Mason-Dixon line, two hours from the Canadian border? Was this some joke?
Not at all, my informants - plural - replied. Only, this time the protest wasn't against blacks; it was against Catholics.
I did remember the continental divide between Catholics and Protestants even when I was growing up (later than 1922), but we didn't have vigilante groups protesting their very presence, did we? More evidence, including the following incident, proves that we did.
With poverty the norm in those days, most men had only one pair of shoes which they wore to work, to church and, apparently, under a Ku Klux Klan robe. And since everyone knew everybody else in that small town, those parade participants were recognized by their shoes. One young child was even heard to say, "Hi Daddy."
No one mentioned a 1923 postcard or any further KKK parades, with or without exposed footwear, but the lesson was not lost on me.
It still may be the job, or a quirk of personality. But maybe criticism - prejudice - in one form or another is human nature, not just in folks from another geographic location or of a different political or religious persuasion from our own, but also in ourselves.
Maybe that's the first place to start when we of any profession or point of view set out to right the wrongs of the world.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.)
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