Wednesday, August 23, 2006

True conservatives

That is the post heading that John Burgess uses: True Conservatives. Most readers will not read the word conservative without thinking about politics, but true conservatism is much bigger than politics. It represents a lifestyle, a mark of character that will not be understood by someone who has been spoon-fed the idea that progress means getting accustomed to change, change may be uncomfortable but it often brings improvements, and work (and this is the most damaging assumption of all) is something to be avoided.

Here are three anecdotes from my personal experience.

During the time I was in the Army in Korea selected Korean Army troops were assigned to live and work among us. They were called by their acronym, Katusa Soldiers (sounds somewhat like those rockets Hezbollah is using, Katyusha) as in Korean Army assigned To United States Army. Though they were there to learn, I remember learning a few things from them as well. One conversation sticks in my memory that changed my attitude about society. At my first assignment there were three or four Korean soldiers in a company of about thirty or so GI's, and I was asking questions about them. Of the three, only one had reasonably good English conversational ability and it was through him that I was asking questions. He came across as a smart, ambitious sort from an enterprising family in Seoul. He had already told me that he hoped to return to school when he finished his military assignment. He seemed to have ambitions to be an entrepreneur.

Through him I asked one of the other men what he intended to do when he go out. After a brief exchange between the two, the translator said to me, "When he is finished in the army, he plans to return to his village and be a GOOD farmer." As he said these words he looked carefully into my eyes as he said the word good, as if to underscore the meaning. From talking with me he had picked up my typically American attitude that everyone should be always striving to climb a ladder of success, meaning more education, getting ahead and leaving behind ordinary hard work. Returning to a rural Korean village which at that time meant living without electricity or plumbing would certainly not qualify as getting ahead, and he knew it. But the soldier who understood my language also understood something else that I needed to know: not everyone in Korea was able or willing to do as he was planning. And because the man for whom he was translating was a plain-spoken man from a farm family, he could not expect to become anything less than a good farmer. There was dignity there that I needed to understand and I got the point. As I later saw the dedicated hard work of Korean farmers I came to admire and respect a simple work ethic that I had not seen since my childhood in Kentucky. And I never forgot what I saw.

Second anecdote. In 1986 my wife and I went to our first Cursillo weekend in the form of a three-day event sponsored by the United Methodist Church called the Walk to Emmaus. This is not the place to give a sales pitch for the Cursillo weekend but in a nutshell it is a prescription-strength dose of Christianity crammed into a three-day weekend, presented in a way that most people who attend come away having experienced what can only be described as an encounter with the living Christ. Known variously as Tres Dies, Chrysalis, Kairos or other designations, this trans-denominational movement is not limited by lifestyle, politics or social standing.

As I had done when I was in Korea, I went into this event with preconceived ideas about faith and how it intersects with one's level of learning and level of sophistication. Having been reared as a Southern Baptist only to have my faith shaken to the core in my developmental years by events in the Sixties, I had been rescued, I thought, by a slicker, more enlightened manifestation of The Faith in the form of High Church Episcopalian liturgy and a nearly Unitarian understanding of the Creed. In other words, I was just as ignorant about the meaning of Christianity as I had been as a child.

During a life-changing weekend I was able to know, up close and personal, not just a few but an overwhelming number of people who I would have not appreciated before because they seemed too simple, too unsophisticated in their understandings, to qualify as what I would consider Good Christians. Such was my ignorance. But thanks to the patient witness of these people I was finally able to know and understand that faith does not correlate with education or lifestyle. As I saw ordinary people talking with God about whatever concerned them, whether their own issues or those of others for whom they were praying, I realized that all the beautiful language in the world was no better than a simple petition to the Lord to reach out His mighty hand and touch someone. Faith is the highest expression of character in any human being. And it cannot be measured by educational or financial accomplishments. Really. Since then I have been better able to see past appearances of wealth, education or other achievements and to glimpse the character inside the people I encounter.

Third anecdote. My years among those who make the food business run smoothly have given me a daily chance to be close to what I have come to appreciate as "salt of the earth" people. I must be careful here not to sound condescending, for that is the last impression that I want to leave. But in order to make my final point, I have to say that my chances in life to travel, meet lots of people, read and study and, yes, finish college, have worked together to give me advantages that will never be available to many of the people with shom I have worked (and continue to work with to this day). And on an almost daily basis, as in the military and during the Walk to Emmaus weekend, I am privileged to work side by side with others whose present life and hope for the future will always be filled with simple chores such as cooking, keeping the floors clean, clearing tables of dirty china, and running a dish machine. I say privileged because from time to time I catch a carelessly dropped attitude from someone who might say "She's one of our worst waitresses," or "Looks like you're short on Help."

Well thank you, Ma'am, when someone has earned a vacation and someone else has a death in the family and someone else has a sick child...all at once...that is not a shortage of "Help." And when today's service is not as prompt as it normally might be due to the fact that that "worst waitress" happens also to be the newest, least experienced on staff and has not learned where to find that special request you wanted which was buried in some hard to reach place she had to ask someone to help her get the idea. Don't get me started.

Some years ago I was in the bakeshop chatting about something a customer had mentioned: Virginia Spoon Bread. It is a kind of sweet-tasting pudding made with corn meal, served with a scoop. I haven't eaten it but once, but made right it is as delicious as any pudding or dessert. But this is the point. I thought I had seen a recipe in our file for Virginia Spoon Bread but I couldn't recall. One of our bakers immediately said, "Sure we have it. It's Number [so-and-so]." I realized at that moment that although she had never made that recipe, and would never expect to, she had remembered the number from having seen it while looking through the box for something else.

This may not seem important at a glance, but it is. I began to notice from that moment how many people in our kitchen have extremely good minds and very high levels of intelligence. Some people seem able to recall names, dates and details of events without any effort at all. And I have found that such people are just as many people among the "salt of the earth" as there are in well-kept carpeted environments with soothing background music and no unpleasant aromas. Never for one moment do I take for granted or overlook the intelligence of someone just because they use poor grammar or have made choices that have tracked them into a life of poorly-compensated hard work.

If you have read what I just wrote and get the point, go read the link John Burgess found about fishermen in Saudi Arabia. They represent to me the foundational population of a society that is, as John Burgess points out, truely conservative. I know lots of people who might call it backward or primitive. But they are wrong. Dead wrong. And in their wrongness they are apt to do harm in the world around them.

According to Sehab, there are now 89 commercial fishing companies operating in the Arabian Gulf, which are competing with the traditional fishermen. The biggest mechanized fleet is owned by the Saudi Fisheries Company (SFC), which has also processing plants in Dammam and Jizan and distribution depots in Riyadh and Jeddah.

All operations of SFC are linked together with a modern communication system ensuring up to the minute information throughout the organization. SFC operates fourteen modern trawlers and a fleet of 35 traditional boats that operate in Saudi and international waters.

“In the fishing villages of Tarut Island and Qatif, known for their fishing industry since the early days, the number of traditional Saudi fishermen is dwindling. The commercial companies now dominate the fishing industry. Yet, despite the offer of support to modernize in order to be competitive, Eastern Province traditional fishermen prefer to struggle as they are,” said Sehab.

There are may ways to promote progress, but pushing around the weakest among us is not the way to do so. Just as the old-growth forests of North America were chopped down, the simple fishermen in that part of the world will also eventually be out of business. As a friend of mine once remarked, seeing a tractor pushing down trees behind our house to make way for some large development, "I think they call it progress."

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