I read E.B. White’s short essay The Thud of Ideas today, printed in the The New Yorker 9/23/1950, and holy smokes was it relevant. Eerily so. It is about the freedom of expression we have here, that other countries, such as Russia (yep), don’t. About the letters-to-the-editor page of the New York Times, he writes,
…it…is one of the chief adornments of the society we love and seek to
clarify for the world. The privilege of writing to the editor is basic; the
product is the hot dish of scrambled eggs that is America.
Even more so today – lots of ingredients have been thrown into the scramble since the mid-1900s – but we have retained the right to voice our opinions.
White’s essay was a great read after such horrific events in Boston last week. My initial response to the bombing was of course, sadness and anger. There are some who can immediately move on to the big picture when a tragedy occurs – America can’t be terrorized, we the people will carry on, Bostonians are tough as nails. But I have to say it takes me a while. I’m stuck in the grief of the situation, the unsolved mystery of who’s responsible, the sorrow over violence in our world. All gloom and doom for a day or so. Eventually my hopefulness kicks in and I’m pointed toward heaven again.
Then I can see the big picture. I can recall that not all people want to kill everyone who disagrees with them, or even those who hate them. That Martin Luther King Jr. made his point in peace. That E.B. White highlights what makes America great: “We can safely leave Truth to the Kremlin, and can broadcast instead the splendid fact of difference of opinion, the thud of ideas in collision.” I was hanging out with friends yesterday, talking a bit about politics. We didn’t get too deep, but I know we don’t all agree on every political topic. And that makes this place great – I can sit in a group and say what I want, knowing someone disagrees and that’s okay. No one will arrest me for my opinions, no one them for theirs. The men who apparently dropped the bomb-filled backpacks at the end of the Boston Marathon route, inspired by hate and malice, didn’t appreciate this. A thud wasn’t strong enough – they used a blast to let the world know they had something to say.
White’s essay begins “Americans are willing to go to enormous trouble and expense defending their principles with arms, very little trouble and expense advocating them with words.” How true this rings today, sixty-three years later. Same country, same problem. I suppose you could read that and feel hopeless, thinking of how little progress we’ve made on the issue of violence. But people are a stubborn, slow-to-learn group. We have wars, tell lies, oppress others, act grouchy to our families, eat too many Christmas cookies, think that today we will be ready for work on time even though we hit the snooze button six times. History repeats itself because, for all our intelligence – we’ve explored outer space, figured out how to replace a heart with a machine, learned that high fructose corn syrup is bad for you – humans are dense. But. Sometimes something sticks. Sometimes we make changes. Sometimes we emancipate slaves. Sometimes we’re kinder to our spouses. Sometimes we only hit snooze three times, and a chosen few learn to avoid the button altogether.
In light of the hate that was demonstrated last week, I’m glad to have read this essay today. White finishes with mention of Korea and Russia; the correlation between his world and ours is profound. He writes that “…neither can unsettle this land whose citizens’ torments and hopes, big and little, are aired daily in the press.” No matter the contempt that some feel for our freedoms, I’m thankful for the one that gives words power, and us the power to use them. I choose the thud. What a calm and lovely sound.