Column by George Sibley
Society – January 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine
THERE WAS A PEACE RALLY in Gunnison in mid-November, and I didn’t really rally. I went to hear the speeches because some friends were speaking, and I saw a lot of people there that I like a lot. But I couldn’t bring myself to join in the two-block march up and down Main Street, led by a police car.
That goes back almost forty years to the early 1960s when I was marching in the Reserve Officer Training Corps in college. My ROTC training first led me to “thinking critically” (the way Americans are allegedly supposed to think) in reaction to the kind of thinking ROTC encouraged, which was so blatantly indoctrinational that it made me see how indoctrinational — if more subtly so — most of the rest of my education had been. Thus ROTC inspired some bumbling, personally evolved critical thought in me.
But the marching drill every Thursday was almost seductive: drilling in this tightly ranked unit, all dressed uniformly, each shouldering our identical antique M-1s, arranged by height to minimize our human differences, wheeling across campus with our feet all hitting the pavement together in a kind of four-four thunder. The marching was so alluring that, put together with the indoctrination in the classroom, it was scary.
That marching induced in me a kind of mental claustrophobia, a fear not of small closed spaces but of small closed minds in large orderly numbers. And I know my own mind well enough to know how small and closed it gets, especially when I’m feeling so right about something that I become self-righteous.
But coming back to the Gunnison rally last month, I was bothered by the awareness that the rally wouldn’t do anything to close the cracks in an already somewhat fragmented community, not just about peace versus war, but about practically everything. This local fragmentation is generally “peaceful,” in the sense that no factions are too aggressively in each other’s faces, and everyone seems generally tolerant of everyone else’s follies.
In a nice letter in the paper by the peace rally organizer, “everyone” was invited to the rally — just like “everyone” is invited to the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet. Some of us, however, go to one such event, and some go to another.
And some of us try to hang with a broad array of these local factions, but that involves narrowing the thinking, harnessing the mind to fit the occasions, whatever they are. There aren’t many of us together enough to be “a man for all seasons” — or maybe “a person for all reasons.” I’m definitely not that together.
At the Headwaters Conference at the college this year, Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick suggested that what we need to make our places more sensible and whole is a commitment to “reconciliation” — not in the sense of “peace at any cost,” but in the sense of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Adams called it trying to “explain ourselves to each other before we die.”
There may be times coming when Americans will again have to get in each other’s faces, like they did in the 1960s or the 1770s. Right now, the President and Attorney General, for example, are starting to push pretty hard on that row of dominoes, irksome to the obsessively orderly, called the Bill of Rights.
Someday soon, it may come time to march once again without parade permits — with the police cars blocking the march rather than leading it. I hope not, but when even the good gray New York Times carries an editorial titled “Wake up, America!” (Anthony Lewis, Nov. 30, 2001), you know we’re being pushed that way.
MEANWHILE, back down on the ground in Central Colorado, I think about reconciliation, and the difference between marching and dancing. I never really danced as a young man; I was one of the many for whom those high school mating rituals called dances were more like a form of marching. The girls danced together in a kind of display, then the guys marched out for a little body-rubbing during the slow tunes. A guy who was out there really dancing was either drunk or different.
But after I stopped marching — after the Army — I retreated to the mountains, and I began to learn how to dance. I don’t mean the kind of dancing where you take lessons to learn complicated steps; I mean the kind of dancing where you first learn how much everyone needs to occasionally forget who they are. While dancing, we all get out there together, under the spell of music, to learn to move with careful abandon (not cautious, but full of care), among people on whose feet you don’t want to step — because they are trying not to step on yours. When dancing, everyone is in motion with everyone else, and it’s all making sense without having to talk it through. It reminds me of lines from T. S. Eliot: “From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit/ Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire/ Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.” Reconciliation.
George Sibley writes in Gunnison and teaches at Western State College.