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The nature of mistakes

Essay by Martha Quillen

Publishing – August 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

DESPITE THE DISPARITY between the two matters — except for a coincident timeliness in their airing — I’ve found myself correlating our Mt. Kiamia woes (if you haven’t heard about them see the letters in this issue) with recent findings in the JonBenĂ©t Ransey case. And I’ve concluded that mistakes don’t just happen; they happen frequently and are, perhaps, inevitable.

But far more troubling, some mistakes are not rectifiable. You can’t take back the blunder that leads to a deadly accident, or fix a tragedy caused by a faulty bridge — or our justice system.

Patsy Ramsey was unjustly vilified and now she’s dead. But at least Ramsey had the resources and drive necessary to avoid malicious prosecution (despite hasty conclusions and unbecoming conduct on the part of many official investigators, countless media outlets, and Governor Owens).

We’ve been taught from babyhood that our justice system grants the accused a presumption of innocence until accumulated evidence demonstrates otherwise. But societal trends tend to overwhelm such standards. Thus flocks of innocents sometimes get herded into American prisons. Jurisprudence is usually more cultural than fair, and in the not so distant past, Americans imprisoned people for witchcraft, miscegenation, homosexuality, promiscuity, and not being white.

Modern DNA analysis has shed new light on the fallibility of our current justice system, but our system was never perfect. Crooked lawmen, police corruption, and insufferable prison guards are the stuff of American folklore. In the 20th century, reform movements improved matters, but reformers also challenged some of our most cherished notions about American justice and virtue.

We’ve been forced to recognize that our cause is not always just. Our forebears were not always noble. Many of our founding fathers were slave owners, and some of our national heroes have been adulterers and bigots.

Clearly, our leaders are not always right. Our armies are not always triumphant. And our intelligence agencies can be wrong.

All of this, of course, is no surprise. Americans are only human, after all.

Yet how we view such truths about American imperfections seems to depend upon our political affiliations.

The Right supports an authoritarian approach. It’s not right to slander pioneers, Presidents, generals, soldiers, rich men, captains of industries, or CEOs by dwelling on their mistakes. As conservatives see it, those who don’t sufficiently support America’s wars, generals, soldiers, or Republican leaders are disloyal and traitorous.

The Left, on the other hand, champions the underdog, and defends the poor, abused, maligned, downtrodden, and school teachers. As liberals see it, they must safeguard our country’s social servants, social safety nets, and environment against greedy bigots.


LATELY, I’VE BEEN THINKING about mistakes, and the nature of mistakes, and how they happen, and whether they can be prevented.

And in regard to our Kiamia blunder, in a similar situation, I think we might still make the same mistake, because to avoid it, we would have to be a lot more suspicious, accusative, and wary of deception than we are now.

And we probably will be, for awhile, but….

Ed had talked to Bruce Salisbury about Kiamia before, but Ed wasn’t surprised that someone else was behind a celebratory event. That’s the nature of long-term projects:

I think of Elizabeth Glaser as the primary leader in pediatric AIDS activism; others cite Ryan White.

Still, I suspect Ed may have asked more questions about this matter if the timing had been right. But he was doubtlessly worried about stickier issues — since Kiamia was basically an uncontroversial, feel-good feature, rather than a heated expose. So Ed passed it on to me. And as the copy editor, I checked the spellings of Hight and Kiamia. And talk about distractions….

I became obsessed with an insignificant side issue: Everybody spells Kiamia differently. KIA-MIA, KIA/MIA, Kiamia. Finally I decided to go with Ed’s preference — right or not.

As for the story itself, I read a few local features and an AP version, and they all contained the same basic information our story did. Such is not always the case, and therefore routine copy editing sometimes leads to significant changes or even sending an article back for a total revision.

But this Kiamia thing totally took me by surprise.

In his letter, Mr. Murdock says there are a lot of people eager to take credit for other people’s work. And I’m sure that’s true. But I’ve never encountered anything like this before. On the contrary, I’ve worked for lots of small town publications over many decades, and if anything, locals often get more carried away than Oscar winners trying to give everyone else the credit they’re due.

ORDINARILY, people want to include the entire promotional committee of an organization and all of a project’s sponsors in a story. In fact, people frequently want to include the names of all of an event’s organizers, sponsors and volunteers in a single Colorado Central calendar item.

Which is good, right? In fact, this small town sense of fair play is actually rather extraordinary when you think about it.

Although I suspect I owe Mr. Salisbury and Mr. Murdock apologies for seeing a silver lining in Colorado Central’s blunder, this incident actually cheered me up a little. (Probably because Ed graciously took credit for this gaff.)

Otherwise, this summer has been pretty trying. Salida has been exceptionally busy this season. There are people everywhere, with their engines revving and their cell phones ringing; turning in front of me on the highway; standing indecisively in the streets, unsure about where to go; and blocking sidewalks and store aisles.

This place is not like it used to be. There are buildings going up and buildings coming down. It takes more money to live here, so I’m working more hours, and multi-tasking more than I feel comfortable with, and trying to understand all those modern things people expect me to know — like how to use cell phones, e-mail attachments, Facebook, and U-tube.

MEANWHILE, I keep trying to stay informed about news, books, community events, and local, state and national politics (mostly because I have jobs which require it). Yet I keep letting important priorities pass by. I seldom seem to have enough time to stop for anything: a parade, a concert, a dinner, a birthday, an anniversary, or even a visit.

Salida has become a happening place. But I can barely keep up with all of the things that should be going into our calendar — let alone attend any of them.

Time is of the essence, but I never seem to have any. Or at least that’s how I feel.

On the other hand, I also feel like I’m wasting my time, that I’m not keeping up, and not accomplishing what I should be accomplishing.

Life in the 21st century seems to be getting more and more complex — and exhausting.

And as for mistakes?

Ahhhh, the possibilities….

McCain and Obama agree that there have been serious mistakes made in Iraq (even though they don’t agree on what they were). These days, mortgages are shaky; foreclosures are routine; gas prices are high; food prices are rising; and American’s health care costs are the highest in the world.

Former Texas Senator and McCain adviser, Phil Gramm, says we’re a country of whiners, and he’s right. A lot of Americans are whining. But the Republicans sure don’t offer much help when people lose their jobs, their homes, their savings, their health insurance, or their pensions.

It seems to me that when people end up down and out, they do what they have to do. They get by without health care and housing; they live in alleys; rummage through trash cans; wash in public restrooms, and sleep in parks. If the Republicans don’t like that, then they should build shelters, provide jobs, and make affordable housing and health care a priority.

As a Democrat, I’m incensed by the Republicans’ favorite solutions to everything: anger, disdain, and a good old-fashioned lecture.

Are you worried about money? According to John McCain and President Bush America’s economic problems are merely “psychological.” All we need to succeed is more confidence.

On the other hand, it’s not like I have any easy three-step plan for turning things around, either.

So where do we go from here?

John F. Kennedy said, “This administration intends to be candid about its errors. For as a wise man once said ‘An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.”

CLEARLY IT’S IMPORTANT to correct our mistakes. But how are we supposed to recognize them? I suspect that even Kennedy didn’t always agree when someone said he had made one. It’s hard to see your mistakes, and it’s even harder to admit them.

I think it’s important to recognize that we are human and fallible and sometimes wrong. And I think it’s important to acknowledge our mistakes and try to rectify them. But I doubt doing so would help you become President.

We want a President who’s confident, charismatic, charming, strong, congenial…. Not one who’s always nattering on about his mistakes.

Mostly, however, we want a candidate who says what we want to hear.

Why? Because we know what we want, and what we think — about Iraq, Iran, China, stem cell research, abortion, torture, free trade, FISA, global warming, and oil drilling.

But how do we know?

Well…. We must have learned it the same way we found out that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and Patsy Ramsey killed her daughter.

After reflecting upon the nature of mistakes, I can only conclude that no matter whom we elect to represent us — here at home and in Washington — we will never have a shortage of mistakes to contemplate.