Once upon a weekend sunny, I was feeling . . . kinda funny . . .
As I cruised the stories sketched upon my laptop’s memory core.
While I noodled, idly hashing over plots, there came a crashing,
As of someone wildly thrashing—thrashing in my stovepipe’s bore.
“’Tis some chipmunk brash,” I muttered, “thrashing in my stovepipe’s bore—
Only this and nothing more.”And the steely, harsh, resounding echoes of the stovepipe’s pounding
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some chipmunk brash that’s greeting from inside my stovepipe’s bore—
some brash chipmunk with his greeting from within my stovepipe core;—
This it is and nothing more.”
Unlike Edgar Allan Poe, Gentle Reader, I cannot keep this up indefinitely.
The part about fantastic terrors is true, though.
The space where I hatch my writerly triumphs is not heated by the furnace that serves the rest of the house. So in this otherwise pleasant room, we have a woodstove instead. Its black chimney rises four feet, turns horizontal to shoot through the outer wall, and zooms skyward again, rising another ten feet outdoors to disperse the smoke above the roof.
A frantic scrabble sounded forth from the two-foot horizontal run just inside the wall.
Something alive was inside the stovepipe and, from the sound of things, wanted out.
The stove and its pipe were cold, but I had plans to lay a fire there soon. That might smoke the occupant out—or else, gruesomely, cook it.
How had something gotten in there? Not through the stove: The firebox door was closed and in any case, we don’t have wildlife wandering through the sunroom. The outdoor chimney has a cap on top that ought to keep things out. It had failed in its duty.
I wanted this new tenant evicted. But how to dismantle a stovepipe, I do not begin to know; much less how to put it back together afterwards. I would need to call for professional assistance, at about eighty dollars an hour. As the late Chester A. Riley would have said, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”
I sat and pondered.
There came a great whump!, and from the edges of the loose-fitting firebox door rose a cloud of gray ash.
Time to relapse into verse. I’m sorry, Dear Reader, I can’t help myself.
Down the chimney a sparrow had come with a bound.
He was dressed all in feathers, from beak down to toes,
And stood amid soot which on all sides arose.
He spoke not a word but made straight for the light
With a flap and a flutter as he took his flight.
Fancy that—not a chipmunk at all.
A Small Bird
An English sparrow, or house sparrow. Male, to judge by his black bib.
One of the commonest, almost the least of birds. The kind that, in olden days, you could buy two for a farthing at the temple in Jerusalem.
He stood on a bed of fly ash and blinked as the light struck him when I opened the cast-iron door. Then he flew up and bounced off the ceiling.
He bolted for daylight and bounced off a window. He tried again and bounced off another window. His little brain clearly was be-twittered.
I went out through the wide-open door, hoping to set a good example. I came in and did it twice more, to make sure he got the idea. Then I stayed out, went around the corner, and looked in the end window from outside.
Left to his own devices, the winged warrior hopped across the tile floor, closing the distance to the open door, hop by hop, until he stood on its threshold. He hopped out, cautiously, to the low deck outside.
One more hop, testing the alfresco, and off he flew. None the worse for wear, I hope.
Just another day in the life of a literary lion.
The Preachy Part
Close encounters with God’s wild creatures always leave Your New Favorite Writer a bit breathless. I’m glad the little guy slipped his predicament with all feathers accounted for.
But on a deeper level, I stand in awe of the Creative Power that fashioned both a geezer like me and a striving sparrow, and put us together in one space for a few moments’ mutual instruction in the sketchy parameters of life.
In the 1950s we watched professional wrestlers of the day: Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Dick the Bruiser, and the unprecedented Gorgeous George.
These TV wrestling matches were not sporting events; they were melodamas. Beefcakes with crafted personas played hero or heavy for the crowd. No villainy was too base, no gallantry too phony to be aped in the ring—or even outside the ring.
Nothing about this spectacle was authentic or uplifting. Absolutely nothing. And we, the people, ate it up.
Which reminds me: The Presidential Debates are coming our way.
The first Presidential Debates ever, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, took place in 1960. Both men played serious adults seeking to guide our nation’s future. Since then, many such debates have been held, the seriousness and adulthood slipping a notch or two downward every four years.
Modern presidential debates were probably inspired by the seven three-hour, open-air arguments held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, candidates for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858.
The stakes could not have been greater. Slavery’s hour of reckoning was at hand. The nation paid close attention as the Railsplitter and the Little Giant spoke forth two divergent views on the great question of the day.
No moderators fed questions to the candidates. There were no assigned topics, no short answers. Everybody knew what the topic was.
Each man spoke at length, without interruptions by the other. One candidate would speak for an hour. Then his opponent spoke for an hour and a half, after which the opening speaker got half an hour in rebuttal.
Lincoln and Douglas spoke for up to ninety minutes at a stretch, made themselves heard without amplification by vast crowds of farmers and townsmen. They spoke without notes or prompters, analyzed the issues in detail, used good grammar, and unleashed rhetoric that sometimes rose to the sublime.
Those who heard their speeches or read verbatim transcripts in their newspapers could know Lincoln’s and Douglas’s views and know exactly on what points they differed.
Here are two brief samples from their fifth debate, in Galesburg.
DOUGLAS: I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion, this Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come. But while I hold that under our Constitution and political system the negro is not a citizen, cannot be a citizen, and ought not to be a citizen, it does not follow by any means that he should be a slave. On the contrary . . . [h]umanity requires, and Christianity commands, that you shall extend to every inferior being, and every dependent being, all the privileges, immunities and advantages which can be granted to them consistent with the safety of society. If you ask me the nature and extent of these privileges, I answer that that is a question which the people of each State must decide for themselves.
LINCOLN: Every thing that emanates from [Judge Douglas] or his coadjutors in their course of policy, carefully excludes the thought that there is any thing wrong in slavery. . . If you will take the Judge’s speeches, and select the short and pointed sentences expressed by him—as his declaration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down”—you will see at once that this is perfectly logical, if you do not admit that slavery is wrong. . . . Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.
These are small fragments of much longer speeches made on this occasion. I quote them only to show the candidates engaged in making complex arguments, drawing lawyerly distinctions with as much precision and power as possible. They supposed their hearers, no matter what their level of education, could follow their arguments.
What if I challenged you, Dear Reader, to read any one of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in its entirety? (Go ahead. It’s easy to Google them up. I’ll wait.)
I predict you will find, as I do, that reading these speeches and comprehending them is a heavy intellectual workout.
In so many ways, both physical and mental, we are not up to our ancestors.
Leaving aside any elegance of expression, consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates for gravity alone.
By comparison, one may confidently predict that Trump and Biden will appear as bull elks in rut, pawing the earth, shaking their antlers, banging heads with great thuds.
The political world has no incentive to include rational content in these debates, because when the spectacle is over we will all go and vote as we had planned to vote all along.
Neither high rhetoric nor weighty arguments can sway us. Tribe is all that matters. We lay our bets on the fighter who punches the chords of our ancient tribal harmonies.
If we had a shred of honesty, we would admit this fact and stop fussing about debates.
Perhaps, instead, we could spend some of our energy tracing the sources of our tribalism, seeking to learn what unwholesomeness it is within ourselves that nurses our blithe, reflexive hatred of The Other Tribe.
Today we wrap up our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
The final step is to build what is called an “author platform.”
Step Six: Build Your Platform
Suppose, Dear Reader, you have written a book. You have sold your book to a publisher. And your publication date is fast approaching.
Now comes the fun part. You and your publisher will strive to sell your book to hundreds—no, make that thousands—no, make that tens of thousands of people.
Sounds like a big job, doesn’t it? And one which is not much related to the skills and urges that led you to write the book in the first place. (Unless, God help you, you wrote a book on how to market, platform, and sell a book.)
But do not despair, Dear Reader.
There is a time-honored way to do this.
Have your publisher send you, a publicist, and one or two assistants on a junket called a “book tour.” You will ravage all the major cities in the United States. Your publicist will have paved the way by arranging dates with the biggest newspapers, radio outlets, and TV stations.
You will sit for magisterial interviews at each outlet and come back at the end of each triumphal day to a fine dinner, followed by exercise, massage, and sauna; after which you will retire to your well-appointed suite in a four-star hotel—a suite freshened with a new bouquet of roses and several bottles of Dom Perignon to celebrate your—well, let’s face it—to celebrate your celebrity.
We are only kidding, Dear Reader.
In the actual, dystopian world of today, your publisher will spring for exactly none of the aforementioned flourishes and furbelows. If you are lucky, the publisher will buy cookies and ginger ale and will help you arrange an indoor venue for your official book launch party, which will be counted a smashing success if two digits’ worth of loyal supporters show up to munch the Lorna Doones and a few of them buy copies of the book, which you will smilingly autograph for them. Unless, of course, you hold the darned thing on Zoom and refer attendees to a website where they may buy the Kindle version for the special introductory price of $0.00.
About this, we are NOT kidding, Dear Reader
And, by the way, about one week after your book launch, the publisher will be off to the next book launch, featuring some other up-and-coming author.
But we repeat, do not despair. After all, we are here to help you through this dark valley.
It helps to have a long-term strategy. Pause for a moment to reflect that most of a book’s sales do not occur at the launch party, or even during the first week.
Any book, successful or less successful, scores most of its sales weeks, months, and years after publication. And a prime factor in the strength of those sales, which can generate increasing royalty checks for you year after year, is, wait for it . . . dumb luck.
That’s right. You may get lucky and some random, unpredictable factor may cause people to buy your book. Or maybe not so much.
Because another, completely separate, prime determining factor is your own strategy, skill, and persistence in raising the profile of your book by building your author platform in the months before publication and the years after publication.
What is a platform?
Here’s an example: Suppose you commit a string of sensational murders before being caught by the police after a highly-publicized and hazardous high-speed chase in a crowded tourist mecca like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon—or, better yet, Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons (the ones on Long Island, not the nationwide motel chain that offers free and usually satisfying breakfasts).
Yes, make it the Hamptons, by all means. Because thereby you add snob appeal and a dash of carefree wealth to the revolting barbarity of your crime spree.
As soon as the police allow you to do so, call your lawyer. And make sure your lawyer calls an agent. Because there’s a sure-fire book in this.
We kid you not, Gentle Reader. Millions of people will shell out real U.S. simoleons for a book, almost any book, written by a notorious serial killer nabbed in a glamorous high-speed chase in a well-known playground of the rich. As long as your book has some tenuous connection with your celebrity. For instance, The Long Island Murder and Mayhem Guaranteed Weight Loss Cookbook. Perfect.*
* The asterisk to this particular achievement is that in most jurisdictions, crime is not allowed to pay. So the court will confiscate your million-dollar advance and distribute it to the families of your victims. (The Hamptons may be an exception, for all we know, Fair Reader. But don’t say we offered you any legal advice, because we will deny it. We would never think of doing such a thing even if we were allowed to, which we are not.)
But our point is: This would be a platform.
So now, to translate it into something where you are allowed to make money: Let’s say your crimes are only political. You are a major party candidate for president or any other high-profile political office. Perfect. Feel free to cash in by writing a book.
It’s a reliable platform—at least in the sense that the effete eastern snobs and nattering nabobs of negativism who run the Big Five publishing houses will pay you a million bucks up front—before a line is written. Whether any copies of your books get sold is surely beside the point.
“But what,” we hear you say, “what if my political appeal is limited and I can’t get on the ticket? What else might be a platform?”
Well, perhaps you are a leading national authority on welded joints. You make fifty speeches a year to state welders’ associations. It’s an average of two hundred attendees per conference, and they all love you. Now suppose you write a book about about your favorite subject: Spot Welds, Brazes, and Heliarcs I Have Known; or, What Are You Doing in a Joint Like This?
You can probably sell twenty or thirty books after each speech, if you carry them with you in a cardboard box. You’ve got a platform. Your fame as a welding expert is your platform. In that case, we’d advise self-publishing, as long as your book is professionally done. Why split the profits with a traditional publisher?
You see how it works?
“What if I’m just the author of a book I enjoyed writing and want lots of people to read? I mean, I’m not a celebrity or a noted speaker with a built-in sales base.”
Then, Dear Reader, you will have to build yourself a platform, plank by plank.
There are lots of books and articles on how to build an author platform. Most of them recommend the heavy use of social media. We will not gainsay that. Social media can help you build a nationwide, even worldwide, coterie of friends who will encourage you. A few of them may even buy your book.
But you don’t have to be a whiz at Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or anything else like that to build a platform.
Unless there is something else you are widely noted for, your book itself will be the main plank in your platform. Once you have a book in print, you have something you can flog. You can, literally or figuratively, hold a copy up to the camera and say, “Buy this book!”
The existence of your published book gives you a perfect reason to call podcasters and arrange to be interviewed about your book. Why podcasters? Because they are among the most powerful influencers in America today. Noted book marketing guru Dan Blank says, “Again and again, I hear from authors how they would get an appearance on a major TV morning show, and saw barely a blip in book sales. But that a podcast appearance would cause a huge ripple effect in their book sales.”
For some reason, readers get attached to podcasts and give them their trust. So when you and your book appear on their favorite podcast, they are likely to buy the book.
Podcasters are known in the marketing business as influencers. The same is true of bloggers. If you get the opportunity to do a guest blog, take it. What will it cost you? A few hundred well-considered words, that’s all. And those words can and should be about yourself, your passion, and your writings.
Also, get yourself invited to every local book club you can. Now that we are all hooked on Zooming, you can even make this a national quest. If your book is chosen as book of the month by a book club, x readers will buy it just so they can take part in next month’s discussion. When you, The Author, appear and answer their questions, some of them will talk up your book to their friends, and you’ll get additional sales.
Lastly, whenever you do one of these “influencer” gigs—a podcast, a guest blog, or a book club—mention it prominently in whatever social media posts you routinely do. In this way, with a little thought and careful coordination, you can build yourself a brand.
If you have written an RGB (Really Good Book), then your efforts in the first year after publication will pay off handsomely down the road. Many books with sluggish but persistent sales in the first few years suddenly reached a take-off point purely by word of mouth after three to five years, much to their authors’ surprise.
When your first book has sold thousands of copies, that itself becomes another plank in your platform. People who liked your first book will be more likely to buy the second.
With chagrin, Dear Reader, we must admit that what we have just written is, well, theoretical. In other words, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
But we wouldn’t know, because our first book is yet to be published. We’re still working on that part.
Today we resume our series, “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
Step Five: Submit
Previously, we urged you to embrace your role as literary lion, to write something, to seek honest feedback from readers that you can use to improve your text, and to form supportive friendships with fellow writers and others in the literary community.
But sooner or later, you will wish to submit your work for publication.
So here, in Step Five, we offer tips on getting your work accepted and published. Of course, you may choose to publish it yourself, as Walt Whitman and others have done. However, we shall leave self-publication for others to address.
Here we will focus on traditional publication, a process in which you need somebody—most likely a stranger, and often more than one stranger—to say yes.
Fiction and nonfiction take somewhat different paths to publication, but in all cases there are certain overarching principles you should observe.
Submit only your best work, in its most polished form.
Research the publication, publishing house, or agent to make sure you are submitting an appropriate piece.
Address the editor, publisher, or agent by name, not “Dear Editor.”
Find the applicable submission guidelines and follow them. Every periodical, book publisher, and literary agency posts submission guidelines on its website.
Communicate cordially, courteously, and professionally. Never whine.
Now let’s look at the submission processes for fiction and nonfiction.
Fiction is usually written before it is sold. You have an idea and you develop it into a manuscript that says what you want it to say. Then, with completed work in hand, you begin to shop around for a publisher.
If you have written a short story or a short-short story (“flash fiction”), the process is simple. You seek out magazines or literary journals that publish fiction, or contests that award prizes for short stories, and you submit.
Pay close attention to submission guidelines. Usually they’ll want the complete manuscript with a cover letter stating something about yourself. Most contests, and some publications, charge a small reading fee, but plenty of others do not.
Some journals and magazines pay money for short fiction, but many highly respected literary journals pay nothing. You write for the prestige of publication in their pages. But that feather in your cap may pay big dividends later.
With a whole book—a novel or novella—the process is more complex. You will pitch to a publisher, usually to an acquisitions editor at a publishing house; or you will pitch to a literary agent who might agree to represent your work to publishers.
“Why do I need an agent if I can submit directly to publishers?”
Almost all books accepted by the Big Five publishers and their many subordinate imprints come to them through established literary agents. The only practical way to sell your book to Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, or Macmillan is through an agent. That’s why you need an agent.
But here’s the Catch-22 of the publishing industry: It’s difficult for an unpublished author to get an agent.
Not that you shouldn’t try.
But while you are pitching agents, you can also pitch directly to many smaller publishers—independents, regional publishers, and specialty publishers. These presses are just as real and legitimate as the Big Five. They are more numerous, and they may be more responsive. Many books, perhaps yours, naturally “belong” with a smaller publisher.
Note: Make sure you know whether you are dealing with a traditional publisher, who will own the publication rights and pay you a small royalty on each book sold, or with a fee-based publisher who charges you money up front to publish your book.Either arrangement is okay, but a publisher who tries to take money at both ends may not be your best partner.
Whether you pitch your book to an agent or directly to a publisher, follow the submission guidelines. You will need three well-honed documents:
A one-page query letter, briefly and powerfully characterizing the contents of your book and telling a bit about yourself as author.
A synopsis of your book’s plot, about one page single-spaced—no more than about four hundred words.
The first part of your manuscript. Most publishers or agents will want to see the first ten pages; or they will ask for the first chapter or the first two chapters.
Some agents and publishers want to see only the query letter. On that basis alone, they will decide whether or not to ask for more. So make sure your query letter is great.
Some want you to send the synopsis along with the query letter. Some want the query letter, the synopsis, and the first ten pages. Send what they ask for—no more, no less.
Do not throw these documents together casually or on the spur of the moment. Put as much work into their composition as you gave to the manuscript itself.
It will seem unfair that, having spent a year or more writing an 80,000-word book, you must now encapsulate the same story in a synopsis of 400 words! But remember, Dear Reader, life is not always fair. And a great 400-word synopsis may get an agent or editor to read your 80,000-word book. So get to it.
Since agents and editors may take their first impression of your work from its first ten pages, you might think it’s a good idea to go back and revise the first ten pages one more time, to make them as compelling as possible. If that’s what you think, you would be correct. Make it so.
Oh! And then, by the way, go back one more time and make the rest of the book as good as the first ten pages.
Remember, we said these steps to literary stardom were simple. We never promised they would be easy.
What if you write nonfiction?
If your nonfiction is of the special kind known as personal memoirs, the submission path for most agents and publishers will resemble that of fiction.
All other types of nonfiction follow a different path.
The model for nonfiction is: Pitch the work first, get a deal—or at least an understanding—and then write it.
If you’re thinking about a short piece like a magazine article, send the editor of the magazine a brief query letter—usually by email—describing the content of the article you hope to write, pointing out its timeliness and likely appeal to readers, and stating your qualifications as its author.
Give the editor a fair amount of time to respond—at least a couple of weeks—before following up with a cordial note reminding her or him of your original query.
If the editor says no, say “Thank you” and move on.
If you get a positive response, it will come in one of two forms. You may receive a definite assignment, which is an offer to buy the article, provided you write and submit it by a given deadline. The editor will specify a “kill fee” to be paid if you deliver the piece as promised but for some reason it is not published.
Formal assignments usually go to established writers. The next best thing is a general statement of interest, such as, “Yes, we’d like to see it.” Such a statement does not guarantee your piece will be bought and published, but it means the editor would like to publish a piece like the one you have proposed, if it’s well done.
If an editor says, “Yes, we’d like to see it,” your best move is to get back to the editor right away to seek further guidance. Is he or she looking for any particular angle? What is the preferred length? Is there any sensitive area where you should tread lightly? When the editor answers even one or two intelligent questions of this nature, you now have a blueprint for the piece. Write the article as specified in that conversation, and how can the editor say no?
What if you want to write a whole nonfiction book?
The same approach applies. You pitch the general idea and get a commitment before you write the work.
Instead of a magazine editor, you will pitch to a book publisher or a literary agent.
And instead of a simple query letter, you will submit a book proposal—a multi-page document outlining the book’s scope, organization, potential audience, and marketing possibilities. The publisher or agent may give you a very specific format for submitting this information. If not, there are good books and articles readily available on how to prepare a book proposal.
A successful proposal will result in a publishing contract. You will then need to write the book and turn in the manuscript by a date certain. Contract provisions will cover what happens in the event of non-performance by you or the publisher or in the event of creative differences with respect to your execution of the work.
“Can I submit the same material to multiple publishers or agents at the same time?”
Yes, or no.
Pay close attention to what you read on the publisher’s or agent’s website, and use common sense.
Agents receive thousands of queries. Even the most conscientious agents are sorely tasked to respond to all of these queries. Many say, right on their website, “If you do not hear from us within eight weeks, consider that a pass.” If you are an unrepresented author sending a cold query, you need not wait for an agent’s rejection before querying another agent. However, do not query two agents in the same agency at the same time.
Some journals want to have time to read your short story before you submit it elsewhere. They don’t want to invest time and effort evaluating your work, only to learn someone else has bought it. So if they promise to respond within a period you can live with, submit the piece and respect the editor’s prerogative.
Other publications are okay with simultaneous submissions, asking only that you let them know promptly if the piece is accepted elsewhere.
Book publishers live in a world of simultaneous submissions. In fact, some agents, when in possession of a great manuscript, will try to start a bidding war between two or more publishers. If you’re querying publishers directly, you may do the same.
Keeping track of what’s okay with whom is part of your job as a writer. Let your conscience be your guide. Treat others as you would like to be treated, but remember that you and your work work have value.
A Final Thought
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, short pieces or books, the process of seeking publication is frustrating because (1) there are thousands of worthy manuscripts seeking publication and (2) the market for literary content is highly specific and differentiated.
Each agent or editor has a particular list of wants and preferences, which your piece may not match. That does not mean your work is worthless.
Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen’s Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 144 times before finding a publisher. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance scored 121 rejections. Both of these books became classics and sold millions of copies. Persist. You only need one agent or editor who lights up when reading your work.
But here’s something to think about. If it will take 300 submissions to get your work accepted, what would happen if you went back over your query letter, your synopsis, and your manuscript itself, and made them even better than they are now?
Maybe you would cut that down to 100 rejections. Just sayin’.
Our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood” will resume next week with Installment 5: Submit.
“Jesus answered with these words, saying: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ . . . This was said so tenderly, without blame of any kind toward me or anybody else.”—from Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (1343-1416 or later), English mystic
We find ourselves thrust into an age when the foundations of the world seem to crumble. We wish we could re-anchor our world, put it on a firmer footing. But all hope seems foolish.
May I offer a word of good news? There is something simple—not always easy, but radically simple in concept and execution—that each one of us can do to help set the anchor.
Let us restore Trust.
How often have we seen intractable disputes between nations or between factions moved toward resolution by the use of “confidence-building measures”—small things that begin the restoration of trust? Small things that lead to big things later on.
I would be the apostle of that which is minute. I wish to insist that what is tiny, accumulated relentlessly, sooner or later rules the great.
Once we trusted our government more than we do now. Once we trusted our churches more than we do now. Once we trusted our news sources more than we do now. Once we trusted our police more than we do now.
Once we trusted our neighbor more than we do now.
I am old enough to remember when it seemed we trusted one another in general, with a few exceptions. Now it seems we regard one another through slitted eyes.
None of this happened overnight. I have watched the seepage of Trust from our society, bit by bit, most of my adult life. I cannot precisely measure the outflow, but there can be no doubt that it happened.
This will not be news to you. You know it, too.
A young friend of mine, involved in our community’s nightly street disturbances, posted this justification on Facebook:
i think something people dont understand is that these protests and riots aren’t dangerous. spray painting city property is not dangerous. marching in the streets is not dangerous.
it gets dangerous when police start a fight
arguably, rolling dumpsters to the courthouse and setting them on fire really isn’t that dangerous. it was very controlled. we aren’t idiots.
Okay. Point taken.
So forget windows broken, stores looted, buildings torched. Forget the potential for people to be maimed or killed. Those, after all, are large issues; whereas I am, by my own admission, the apostle of the small.
My young friend is quite right to focus on the trivial, as in “spray painting city property is not dangerous.” But let us examine that modest claim. Wouldn’t it depend on who or what you might think is endangered? It’s true that painting slogans or graffiti on a public building does not directly threaten anybody’s life or limb.
But something even more important is endangered: Trust.
“Wait. Did you just say Trust is more important than life and limb?”
Indeed. For when we endanger life and limb, only one person is affected—or maybe a few people. But when we weaken the Trust that is our society’s glue, we harm everyone.
When we take somebody else’s stuff and spray paint our own message on it, we have taken what is not ours to take. In so doing we have dissolved a smidgen of the mutual trust that society absolutely requires in order to function.
When did we stop knowing this?
Any time we encroach on someone’s property or person, we are tearing down the house we all live in.
By the way, that is the reason bullying is so roundly condemned. Not only for its physical effect on the immediate victim, but because of the harm done to all of us when it is tolerated—leaving us exposed to a more dangerous world we do not entirely trust.
“But, it was city property.”
Okay, but city property is ours only in the sense that it is also everybody else’s. We own it in common with all other citizens. How do we arrogate to ourselves the right to paint it with indicia of our own choosing?
In doing so, we harvest more than the physical results of our vandalism. For our fellow citizens will now trust us less than they did. Or rather, since they may never know exactly who wielded the spray paint, they will now trust people in general less than they did.
It would be the same if we set a dumpster fire. We steal somebody’s dumpster and damage it with flame, smoke, and ash. We release smoke and probably a vile smell into our common air.
We loudly champion the environment, but look: We have just committed a gross act of pollution. The air is not ours alone to foul. It belongs to everybody.
Have we forgotten such elemental concepts? Have our parents failed to teach them to us?
The direct effects of encroaching on other people’s rights are as nothing compared to the erosion of trust that eventually affects us all.
Vandalism, arson, and looting may destroy physical property, sinking the efforts of those who created that property in the first place. But far harder to repair is our broken trust in fellow members of our community.
“Thank you for your touching concern, but I can look out for my own reputation. The trust of my fellow citizens is not as important to me as you may think, Old Timer.”
Ah, no, Grasshopper: If it were only a matter of your reputation suffering at your own hands, I would not mind hanging you out to dry. But something far greater is at stake.
Namely, our future happiness, and that of our children and grandchilden.
Because trust, or lack of trust, does not exist in a vacuum.
When we transgress against what is not ours, the markdown of trust does not accrue to us alone.
The general Trust that keeps society glued together is all one common tissue. Our little bit of it is part of the common pool.
Whenever we squander trust through our own actions, no matter how trivial, the total Trust throughout society goes down. Whenever our conduct vindicates the trust others place in us, the world’s general level of Trust is increased.
That quantum—the summation of small bits of responsible or irresponsible conduct—makes the difference between a High-Trust Society and a Low-Trust Society.
In a Low-Trust Society, everybody locks everything up. Properties of any size at all are guarded by walls topped with barbed wire and broken glass. Cameras lurk everywhere. Shops and offices have small windows or none at all. Strangers are always suspect. A large and aggressive police establishment is required, because nobody is to be trusted.
A High-Trust Society has less need for such precautions. Store owners can display fine merchandise in large picture windows. There is a plenitude of goods and a smaller propensity to steal them. The police, such as they are, may seem more like Andy and Barney in Mayberry. People, in general, are more relaxed.
We would rather live in a High-Trust Society than in the Low-Trust version.
“But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. All this talk about small virtues is just a smoke screen to maintain the horrific status quo. You’re defending racism.”
It’s understandable that people may think some violation of others’ persons and property is the small, justifiable price to pay for a more perfect society. If a little spray-painting or dumpster-burning saps Trust, then police brutality really zaps Trust. And what about racial discrimination? Does it not automatically send Trust down in flames?
Well, yes. But those are large things, which I hesitate to address. Remember, I am only the apostle of the small.
However, if we should wish to speak of the large: How does it cure the enormity of a race-based murder to pile a thousand little dumpster fires, vandalisms, and angry speeches or social media screeds on top of it?
Please consider: The murder will never be cured. It is too late to restore the victim to life. The chief complaint voiced after each such tragedy—the dreaded future prospect—is that the community continues to live in fear.
Fear is a terrible thing to live in.
Trust is better.
Every act that encroaches on persons or property reduces the total Trust in our society. This includes not just things done in the heat of demonstrations or riots. It also includes acts of larceny, coercion, intimidation, or brutality committed in the course of everyday life. And it includes offenses, large or small, that are done by law enforcement officers who should know better.
All such encroachments—not just those motivated by racism—are bad. All of them make it harder for us to function as a society of people who mostly trust one another.
It is mistaken to think that our graffiti or our dumpster fire is okay, or even laudable, because it is not a racial slur or a police shooting. Two wrongs, in all human history, have never yet added up to a right.
What I Am Not Saying: I am not saying we should simply trust one another, regardless of the evidence of our experience.
What I Am Saying: I am saying that to get more Trust in society we must first act in ways that engender trust, not in ways that dissipate trust.
What I Am Not Saying: I am not saying we should not protest wrongdoing.
What I Am Saying: I am saying we will not cure a great wrongdoing by means of lesser wrongdoings.
To restore Trust to our world requires millions of acts of decency, not contempt, by millions of people, over the course of many years. That’s the kind of army one might hope to join.
But an act of vandalism in the streets is the same category of thing as the police shooting of an unarmed black man. They are both the same kind of act.
They are misguided aggressions which degrade the community as a whole, leading not to a better society but to a Lower-Trust society, and thus a worse one.
Small, seemingly unimportant, acts of incivility and barbarism are major contributors to the sweeping malaise of our society, which boils down to a deficit of Trust.
Our world lacks Trust because so many of us, so often, fail to be trustworthy.
If each one of us undertook, as a personal mission, to treat other people and their property with unfailing respect, we could begin to restore a world we can all trust.