“I walk slowly, but I never walk backwards.” The words are attributed to Abraham Lincoln, one of Kentucky’s most famous and respected natives. The tremor beneath our feet could be the 16th president turning in his grave.
From above ground, astute observers of recent history and current political strategies are groaning.
Among the latter would be Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman, a fixture on op-ed pages from the tenure of Gerald Ford through the election of Barack Obama. Books of her columns are a part of my treasured collection of the work of female journalists. So it was with delight that I recently discovered a signed copy of her 2004 book “Paper Trail: Common Sense in Uncommon Times” at the Battery Park Book Store in Asheville, N.C.
It was like meeting an old friend after too many years of separation. I couldn’t wait to hear her unique voice, which I’d been missing since her final column rolled out in 2010. What hit me like a lightening bolt, however, was how the columns ring true today.
Goodman’s bio says the writer has “spent most of her life chronicling social change and it’s impact on American life.” Her running commentary on issues from foreign policy to political personalities to family life called on readers to think — to ask questions — to ask if we really heard words and events that were hurtling by with such speed there was little time for reflection before the next thing hit.
There are 166 columns of 750 words in Paper Trail. Two in particular reminded me of the Lincoln quote, and our own current crazy whirlwind existence whose tornadic forces may be causing massive direction blindness which prevents recognition of how dangerously far we are being walked backward.
“The Gospel of Abstinence” was written in 2002 as the state of Louisiana put public funds into a “Passion 4 Purity” program and the Bush administration advocated massive expenditures for abstinence-based sex-ed programs despite health professionals’ objections of inaccurate education, and the ineffectiveness of this fear-based approach.
The second, “On Civil Rights and Civility” (1993) deals with the inequities of our society which has “ been forced to deal with civil right ... but I cannot tell him why there is less attention paid to civility.”
“Civil rights protect individuals,” Goodman writes. “Civility protects the community. Individuals plead their own cases in courts. Who pleads the case for community? At long last we are making a strong progressive case for civil rights. But the rest of the work world waits to be civil-ized.”
The most recent storm statewide has been walking education backward, dragging the arts and humanities with it. With attention on these vital areas, it’s little wonder that the abstinence bill went unnoticed until headed for the governor’s desk and more steps backward.
Nationally, a new storm erupts with such regularity each day that the backward march toward dictatorship and isolation from allies is masked in the latest shocking revelations, whether from attorneys turned TV stars or polarized congressional hearings.
Here in Kentucky, we have worked too long and hard for decades to raise educational standards and showcase the talents of the commonwealth to allow the personal agenda of any single politician to walk us backward in these areas, as well as in accurate and effective sex education and the modeling of civility.
This is where our work must start, where we can make a difference in turning us back toward the present and future. As Goodman says, we must look at “ what we’ve been through, who and what we are ... It’s a small world, with a wide-open future.”
Only so if we turn around — now — and refuse to be walked backward.
Kay Collier McLaughlin, an author and leadership consultant who lives in Nicholas County, is a community columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.