Even today, our republic is on shaky ground
“What really shaped me was doing all of those community programs and talks, where you could really make a connection with the people around you. It was about getting to interact with people and having them share their memories with you.”
— George Frizzell, retiring special collections librarian, Western Carolina University
Sounds so simple. George Frizzell likes to get out in Jackson County and talk to people, interact with them. That’s undoubtedly why some of the most famous writers of this region, people who celebrate Appalachian culture like Ron Rash and Charles Frazier, were eager to talk to our reporter about George when we did an article on him for last week’s paper (www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/17833).
That kind of interaction — and people who value it and know how important it is — seems to be getting less popular every day. As we all know, so much is done today via electronic communication. Even historians and researchers now rely heavily on the vast archives that have been digitized. The number of people who like to talk to people and listen to them, those who like to learn from that kind of interaction, is dwindling.
I’ve witnessed this phenomenon in journalism. We discourage reporters from asking questions via email, but it is getting more common. Talking to a source allows a reporter to follow the line of questions and answers and change course if necessary. It gets you into the thought process of the newsmaker. It is more enlightening and allows us to better explain complicated issues. But some sources now refuse to answer questions unless they can filter them through email.
I remember listening to the famous author David McCullough give a speech about a year ago after his book, The Wright Brothers, was published. McCullough is a writer of historical fiction who relies heavily on his own research to gather information. He wondered how books such as his — including Pulitzer Prize winning biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams — would be written in the future because no one writes letters ruminating on their emotional, familial and professional challenges. That personal correspondence, he mused, was fundamental to all of his work.
Historians writing about this day and age will have newspapers and blogs and websites for source material, but they won’t have access to the internal thoughts of most people who become famous because not many people write letter or keep a journal. It’s a different era.
What struck me after reading the SMN piece on Frizzell is how what he said about enjoying getting out and talking to people and listening to them could come across as quaint and antiquated in today’s fast-paced world. Yes, it’s fantastic that we have Google and can find all the accumulated knowledge in the world at our fingertips. But it seems that being able to access all that information has, perhaps, made the world as a whole less smart. We are moving into a time and place where wise people — you know, those who value reason, are well read, those who treasure human connections and are not always trying to be witty or bombastic — aren’t respected and revered.
The truth is that it sometimes seems as if we live in a society that has devalued wisdom. This is not a political column, but that has surely contributed to the Trump phenomenon. He doesn’t know history or foreign policy, isn’t well read, says he wants to undercut fundamental First Amendment rights, and lies whenever it suits him. Nearly any of his GOP primary opponents would have been a far better choice for president.
As people like George Frizzell retire, I can’t help but be reminded that our connections to the past are tenuous, as is our hold on the values make this country so great. Sometimes it seems as if we are on shaky ground.