Monday, December 28, 2009

Smile When You Call Me That

“Smile when you call me that,” said the The Virginian with his six gun drawn and cocked in Owen Wister’s famous novel about the West. The author lamented that the outsider could not discern why one cowboy calling another a “SOB” sometimes resulted in laughter and at other times led to gun fire. As the story progresses, the outsider learns that there is an unseen bond among cowboys and an unwritten code of ethics.

There are certain things that form a bond among different ethnic groups or tie generations together. There are formative events or cultural icons that transcend any other differences of opinion that may exist within a particular group.

For cowboys, it was the shared experience of driving large herds of cattle across vast and fenceless landscapes that are harsh and unforgiving. There is also the bond between a cowboy and his horse. Over long and lonely days of riding herd, the cowboy gains understanding of the unique attributes of each horse in his remuda, the different personalities, characteristics, and needs of individual horses. Through this study of horses and horse behavior, the cowboy gleans an insight into the social behavior of humans. But, owing to the lonely nature of the job, his observations and understandings are seldom spoken. The cowboy observes and acts with a suddenness and certainty that is confusing to the outsider, at least, until the outsider goes through the same experiences and acquires the same understanding.

There are events that serve to unite different people groups. The Civil War by its very nature established a bond that transcended the war between the North and South. The Civil War pitted Americans against Americans, family members against other family members, but in the end, the United States of America was reunited in order to form a more perfect union.

Certainly each of the World Wars had a similar effect on Americans fighting overseas to protect the freedoms and liberty of other nations against the aggressors.

And, then the Viet Nam War established a unique bond among baby boomers, but for a completely different set of reasons. There was deep division within the United States about our involvement in Southeast Asia, a schism largely between the World War II generation and the baby boomers. It was our first experience in a guerilla war with a loosely organized enemy that did not wear uniforms and the dangerous cohabitation of combatants with women and children. Moreover, the conflict in Viet Nam was as much psychological and spiritual warfare as it was conventional. The psychological assault continued when returning soldiers were spit upon by baby boomers and rejected by World War II veterans.

But even between the World War II generation and the baby boomers there are those events, movements, and things that serve to form that common unifying bond that makes us all American.

Events like the assassination of President Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, or the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, or the terrorist attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001, all serve to unify Americans of all generations, of all political persuasions, and of all ethnicities.

Social movements can have a similar effect. Who does not share some memory of, link to, or affinity for the Civil Rights Movement and how it changed America?

Generations remember Love Canal, or the Santa Barbara oil spill, or the Cayahoga River catching fire in Ohio, or Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. These were the events that led to the modern environmental movement which has so impacted our culture today.

Americans love affair with food also seems to exhibit the capacity to transcend all other divisions. Most of us put aside our differences and join together to enjoy the roast beast of our choice at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner each year.

And what about music? It sooths the wild beast. A young King David played the harp to help calm down then King Saul’s horrible moods and headaches. Music forms a link between generations, across ideological divides, and reminds us of our common heritage. The same music may affect each of us in a unique way. The fact is that certain lyrics or a series of notes and chords can trigger memories for all of us, and while the memories may be unique, it is that special song we all identify with that can unify us as well.

When I served at the Department of the Interior under President Bush, I was a political appointee. There is always a dynamic tension between political appointees and the career civil service employees. Some career employees agree with the philosophy of governance of the sitting President and some do not. While most of them serve the administration without political rancor, there are parlays between politicals and careerists while each tries to feel the other out. I remember one such meeting when I related a story about misdirected emails. I had been trying to send regular monthly reports to an individual whose email address was, but was inadvertently using the email handle of I kept getting the most curious replies from the unknown recipient. In the process of identifying the problem of the misdirected emails, I began corresponding with the owner of who as it turns out is none other than the drummer from Janis Joplin’s first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. We had a wonderful exchange about the history of rock and roll and the San Francisco genre of the same. Well, by telling that story to this career federal employee, who was particularly challenged by my political persuasion, he suddenly could identify with me. We were able to work well together after that and advanced several productive policy changes as a result of having first established the unlikely common bond of rock and roll.

As we all celebrate the Christmas and New Year holiday season together, let us take a little time to refresh our memories about the things that unite us as a people. I believe this country may be as divided today as it was during the Civil War. And I believe those divisions are real and significant. I am as deluxe a partisan as anyone out there, and as you have no doubt noticed, I have very definite opinions about issues and policies. But, in the end, the things that bring us together are much greater than what divides us. For our collective mental health and the future of the United States of America, let us from time to time lay down the sword and focus on those unseen bonds that make us E Pluribus Unum, a people united.

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