My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #3,
January 28, 2001


In Marilyn Abraham's book, First We Quit Our Jobs, she says the most disorienting thing of all about taking off across the country in an RV for an unknown period of time wasn't the absence of calendars and schedules; it was this: "How do you know how you're doing when the report cards stop coming? How were we to measure plans for our new life if not in dollars and cents?"

That's the thing, isn't it? Once we leave school, we're no longer measured by how well we do in history and math and playing nicely with others, and yet we're not taught to choose our own measures for our accomplishments, our own standards for a successful life. By default, we let ourselves be judged, and we even judge ourselves, by crude but visible measures. How much money do we have? How much fame? How much power?

It seems to me there are real problems with those measures. One is that they are measured on a bell curve -- for people at one end to succeed grandly, lots more of us must either fail, or succeed in a small-scale, anonymous way. That standard dooms many of us to failure in our own eyes. We don't say, like the Harvard student who admitted cheerfully to being a follower, "I'm one of the ones who make the leaders possible." If we believe we "coulda been a contender" and we didn't make it, we downgrade what we did achieve.

The other problem, of course, is that we may envy and admire visibly wealthy people without inquiring too closely how they got their money. Did they get it by medicare scams, or laundering drug money, or cheating trusting people of their life savings, or defending wealthy scoundrels in court? It doesn't matter -- they still get into the country club.

Fame is an equally imprecise measure of human worth, since it may come as much from accidents of fate as from actual accomplishments -- having been hit on by Bill Clinton can be a better springboard to celebrity status than being part of the gold medal women's soccer team or the founder of the Make a Wish Foundation. Celebrityhood can even obscure the very accomplishments that brought you there -- already a generation of kids knows Michael Jordan not for the plays he made but for the commercials he made.

Power isn't a good measure, either, because it doesn't necessarily flow to people who use it well. We've all had to suffer the consequences of incompetent or unethical bosses and teachers and politicians who got their jobs through luck, connections, charm or Machiavellian manipulation. And power is as fleeting and subject to the vagaries of fate as celebrityhood. California's governor Grey Davis was a powerful man until the lights went out and Californians realized that he had no idea what went wrong or how to fix it.

When you think about the things we claim to value in life -- generosity, taking risks, standing up for what you believe -- it's kind of odd that the report cards we've come up with don't actually measure those successes. Maybe it's time to create some new awards and honors.

Suppose we gave awards and media play to millionaires, not because of how much money they make, or how exquisitely they consume it, but because of how much they give away -- perhaps a Carnegie award for philanthropy. It's hard to honor Andrew Carnegie for the ruthless tactics that built his fortune, but what he did with it is another story. He scattered the land with libraries, left a fund to honor ordinary people who do heroic things, and preached to his fellow millionaires a Gospel of Wealth that said: "the man who dies leaving behind him millions of available wealth which was free to him to administer during life . . . the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced."

We honor risk-taking when it succeeds grandly. And yet our society depends on millions of invisible small-scale risktakers -- farmers who gamble everything on the weather, inventors and small business owners who sink their life savings into their ideas and inventions, the individuals who come up with small, human-scale solutions for grand-scale social problems, and the gadflies and protesters who insist on reminding officials that government is supposed to belong to US. As it happens, there is an award for such people, the Giraffe Award which honors "those individuals who stick their necks out for their communities. We need more public honors for "giraffes," just as we need permission to honor our own giraffeness.

We have good reason to be cynical about politicians, and yet there are honorable men and women who went into politics in order to solve community problems, and they continue to do so despite all the temptations to serve instead those who offer lush vacations and campaign funding. Perhaps we could use a "West Wing" award to honor those who can be trusted with power, politicians who have never forgotten the needs of the townspeople who elected them long ago to their first political jobs on school boards or city councils.

What we want from our political reporters and what they pride themselves on giving us are very different things. Perhaps we need a trophy for journalists who tell us what we actually need to know: what's going on and who can we trust? I suggest we name it in honor of Lars-Erik Nelson, the late lamented columnist, and that we inscribe on it the most important words he ever wrote: "The enemy isn't conservatism. The enemy isn't liberalism. The enemy is bullshit."

How about a Canary in the Coalmine award for people who help us notice that something awful is going on and give us new frameworks for re-thinking old problems? I'd nominate George Kelling for his "Broken Windows" hypothesis explaining the relationship between crime and the absence of visible public order, Robert Putnam for "Bowling Alone," which made us aware of our declining commitment to community, Rachel Carson for Silent Spring and Garrett Hardin for "Tragedy of the Commons," both of which contributed to the founding of the environmental movement.

We could use a "speaking truth to power" award for Davids who aim their slingshots at Goliaths that abuse their power. These might be whistleblowers who warn us that their companies are illegally dumping toxic chemicals into rivers, or groups like Common Cause that monitor campaign donations or PR Watch that alert us to corporate spin (see the book, Toxic Waste Is Good for You), or Brian Lamb of C-SPAN, who believes we have the right to go around the journalists and pundits, watch our government in action, and judge for ourselves how well it's working.

We need to honor admirable people in our own towns, too. My town named a complex of civic buildings after Annie Wittenmyer, who worked to aid the nation's civil war widows and Iowa's orphans. We could use more buildings named for local do-gooders; we could even hand out annual awards named in their honor to the many hardworking volunteers who turn our towns into communities.

What would America be like if we gave as much TV time for these kinds of award programs as we devote now to Oscars, Emmys and Grammys, and if we honored people who better the human condition as much as we honor actors who portray it? Would the annual survey of college freshmen still find that three-fourths of them aimed "to be very well off"? Or might they have discovered there are other kinds of rewards to aspire to? Might they aim to imitate Bill Gates for his charity in Africa rather than his ruthlessness in business? Might we have fewer wanting to be lawyers and more wanting to be peacemakers? Would they feel free to honor themselves for the difficult right choices they have made? And wouldn't it be worth a try to find out?

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