One of the Saturday morning radio shows on WNYC in New York is Reveal, produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, located in
Emeryville, California. The Center and Reveal do vintage journalism – ask questions, pursue leads, verify sources, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
A recent broadcast called “America’s Ring of Fire” examined wildfires in the United States, which occur far more often every
year than I realized and are a little-known scourge throughout the country.
Reporters on the show interviewed many officials in charge of both putting out the fires when they start and trying to prevent them from
happening. These interviews inevitably touched upon the border conflicts between human desires and the physics of the natural world.
I heard many experts talk about their work, and in listening to them, I admired how they married a broad understanding of science with sweaty
physical work on the ground. Each anchored each, and as they talked in close detail about what they do, I felt that they were people I could trust: savvy, modest, committed,
steeped in the “thingness” of their world, quick to admit their limitations, prompted by what the Jews call tikkun olam, repairing the world.
I wish that all members of our political élite exhibited this same trait of acting from knowledge earned rather than ideologically birthed. Do
not propose eliminating food stamps unless you have tried for a year to live on the income that qualifies you for the benefit. Do not diminish access to health insurance unless
you’ve had to deal with medical bills and an insurance company’s indifference.
Such a litany of prerequisites would be a long one, but, in short, don’t act like you know how people live their lives until you actually
sweat along with them as they sweat through their lives. Until you do that, you have no authority to act on their behalf.
I’m not going to hold my breath, though. I am thankful we have people like the wardens and biologists featured in the Reveal program, and not everyone in the political élite is clueless about the lives of ordinary people. The trick today is figuring out how to organize this competent class so that they can suppress Twitter wildfires, weed out the underbrush that allows apparatchiks to hide their schemes, and arrange our territories for sustainable growth.
And these fire suppressors do, we should also do within the provinces of our own lives – clean out our ideological tinder, scale down our
own blowhardiness, and let facts put out the embers of hubris.
In many respects, America has always been burning because a country founded on violence and division will always smolder, always rise to a
whirlwind to sear the land, and there is always a whirlwind to oblige. As Taylor Mac showed in his epic 24-decade history of popular music, much of American life is fired by a
history of pain and damage, making Americans lean readily toward apocalypse and rage.
But none of our history fates us to anything. “America’s Ring of Fire” will consume us all if we let it, and it won’t
if we don’t. It’s that simple.