Things We Used To Say (First in a series)
What the “Things We Used To Say” series is about:
I’ve been a bit overwhelmed trying to get a handle on today’s culture of Conservatism. I grew up conservative but today’s version isn’t recognizable to me. The word has become shorthand for “Selfish, short-sighted ideological bully” and I’m not even sure it has language in common to explore the difference. But two weeks ago it occurred to me that a few, almost-forgotten aphorisms, which once defined what it meant to play a constructive role in society, are overdue for a visit. I started writing them down on an index card and here’s one I picked more or less at random.
“DON’T BE A LITTERBUG!”
My dad raised us – by example – to throw out our trash, even if we had to carry it for miles. So I admit it bothers me when people won’t even walk fifty feet to dispose of their trash properly.
Once upon a time litter was a big national issue, and there were television PSA’s about it:
Litter is today considered pretty much the trivial end of the crime spectrum. Is it even a real crime? Does it matter if there are bottles and cans and french-fry wrappers and cigarette butts all over the place?
To answer that question, I have to get into the Way-Back Machine and travel to a time when there was a concept called “The Common Good”. A lot of people forgot about it back in the “Greed Is Good” 80′s, but it goes something like this: “We all have to live in whatever kind of society we create, so let’s make it a good one.” It goes by other names, including “The Golden Rule”.
Many people alive today won’t remember, but within my lifetime we decided as a country not to tolerate pollution, or unsafe drinking water, or wildlife dying from ingesting litter. We decided to pay a little more for unleaded gas so inner-city children wouldn’t have high lead levels in their blood. We got tired of “smog alert days” when asthmatics filled emergency rooms and the radio warned people to stay indoors. It actually bothered us when the Great Lakes fisheries collapsed, or when the Cuyahoga river caught fire. For a while there, we gave real attention – and resources – to the quality of life and not just its quantity. But that has been changing. Roughly half the electorate seems to be against enforcing any environmental rules, and my intuition tells me that litter is a visible sign of it.
Trashin’ and tossin’ is a revealing act: it makes a social statement against the idea of community. It says; “Don’t even talk to me about the Common Good.” Occasionally it is accompanied by some nonsense about how litter cleanup creates jobs, but how likely is it that litterbugs want to pay taxes to clean up… their litter? Today it might even be dangerous to confront someone for littering.
There was a time when police even wrote tickets for littering – and people had to pay them too! Today people might say the men in blue have better things to do. But tickets and social disapproval might improve the environment for thinking, along with the ecological one. I have a hunch industrial and municipal pollution will be less acceptable to people who recycle. Because we all have to live in whatever kind of society we create. So let’s make it a good one… and putting trash where it belongs is an easy place to start.
- “Wait – what does litter have to do with Conservatism?” Here’s what: Michele Bachmann pledges to “Shut down the EPA” (an agency signed into existence by Richard Nixon). She is the leading Republican candidate. Leading candidates are a pretty reliable proxy for the attitudes of a political party or movement.
- A “revealing act” is something that tells you about a person’s character. For example I once witnessed a college student having a quiet conversation with his girlfriend. He didn’t like something she said. He was holding both her hands across the table. He locked eyes with her and squeezed her hands until she said quietly; “You’re hurting me!” He waited a few more moments, released the pressure, but held eye contact for some time after that. I felt it revealed something about his character.
- The famous “Crying Indian” PSA above wasn’t completely on the level either. Anti-litter campaigns – valid and important as they were – were partially funded by corporations that wanted to direct attention away from their smokestacks and drain pipes. Notice – the commercial shows a lot of different kinds of pollution but ends up focusing on litter.