The Private Citizen / The wedding-guest
Published 4:39 pm, Thursday, September 16, 2010
The most common "take-aways" from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's longest poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," are probably the image of an eighteenth-century sailor with an albatross hung around his neck, and his despairing refrain, "Water, water every where, nor any drop to drink." But today my focus is on his reluctant interlocutor, The Wedding-Guest: "The bridegroom's doors are opened wide, and I am next of kin; the guests are met, the feast is set, mayst hear the merry din." The Wedding-Guest does not have time to listen to the mariner's tale, because he is already expected somewhere else. From the second verse onward, you can almost hear him tapping his foot. Just get me to the church on time.
My own interlocutors will tell you that I call upon the wedding-guest regularly, as a metaphor for a reluctant and impatient listener. And it isn't just me. All of us constantly have places to go and things to do. We want the highlights, the headline, the take-away, the five-cent summary. Spare us the details. "Cut to the chase," we say, although that originally meant "skip most of the movie and go straight to the car chase at the end." I nominate the car chase as a metaphor for the way we live now.
School children, on the other hand, are taught to be "critical thinkers." We encourage them to read skeptically, to test assumptions and reasoning, to hesitate to take statements at face value, and not to jump to conclusions. These are the supreme skills of citizenship, but their mortal enemy is our impatience. We react too often, in my opinion, to the five-cent summaries and the headlines. We make decisions on too little information, when we might have thought and acted differently if we had read the whole story.
Consider, for example, the tyranny of the 24-hour news cycle. President Clinton's campaigns were famously able to respond to potentially damaging stories within the same news cycle. But there is a new poster child for the 24-hour news cycle: Shirley Sherrod. She was the Department of Agriculture official who was urgently forced out of her job before an apparently damaging story about her could air on cable news that night -- and before anyone could take the time to listen to the rest of her story. The whole story was that she had gone "all out" for a white farmer who had come to her for help.
In some ways, the sound bite is the antithesis of the relentless news cycle. It is usually created at leisure, not in haste, not casually but with considerable care, and it is deployed not to enrich debate but to foreclose it. "Tax and spend," for example, a term of opprobrium consisting of two verbs used as an adjective, is customarily used to end a discussion. But it means the same as the approved "pay as you go," and the retort "it beats borrow and spend" (two verbs used as a noun) is rarely heard. Or take "mosque at ground zero," which is punchier than "Islamic center two blocks from the World Trade Center site," although less accurate. I have learned to detect the slant of an article or the attitude of a letter to the editor, simply from which of those two terms it uses.
The Wedding-Guest must be our hero. We do not have the time to read every story or listen to every tale, but what we do read or listen to, we must read or listen to with care, and even patience. We must beware those who are too eager to simplify our task, for they have their reasons -- they have done their thinking, and they want to do ours. But taking a sound bite at face value is like drinking salt water: it is tempting, especially when you are thirsty, but it will make you crazy.
James H. Lee's column appears regularly in the Fairfield Citizen.