Before there was Facebook or Twitter, there were pre-digital devices that were amazingly effective at distributing and delivering information.
These devices were called “small towns.”
Spending my formative years in a small town, I headed into the world richly supplied with memories of occasions when I thought I was speaking to one person, but I was actually addressing the world.
Consider the occasion when my mother and I went to the high school to watch the annual senior play. We got it in our heads that the unusual ineptness of this performance originated with the newly hired teacher who had been conscripted into serving as the play’s director.
During the intermission, my mother and I forgot what we knew about the leaky borders of communication in small towns. We chatted vigorously about the director’s failure to hold the play together. And then, when a person near us informed us that the woman right in front of us was the director’s wife, my mother and I got reacquainted with a fact we should never have forgotten: in a small town, your voice carries.
Having lived in Colorado for almost 30 years, I am both pleased and unsettled by the way that this super-sized state duplicates the “echo chamber” workings of a small town.
Here’s a recent example. On Aug. 6, around 2:30 p.m., I responded to a question from the audience at the Rocky Mountain Energy Summit, the annual meeting of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. The questioner spoke critically of a recent chain of events in which my congressman, Jared Polis, challenged the arrival of a drilling rig in proximity to his rural second home.
Trying to moderate to the intensely critical stance of the questioner, I said that, in my opinion, Congressman Polis had been trying to use his prominent and visible position to call attention to a situation that troubled a number of his constituents. I said that I did not think that his first step — filing a lawsuit — was necessarily the wisest way to achieve this goal. And then I said that I thought it would be a good idea for the association to invite Polis to join us to this conference.
Less than three hours passed before Polis sent me an e-mail. If I had indeed invited him to the conference, he told me, he would try to fit this into his schedule.
When I made my statement, on Aug. 6, to a room occupied by several hundred people, it never occurred to me that I was also addressing the congressman and maybe thousands of others, as information rippled out of the Colorado Convention Center and into the “small town” called Colorado.
Polis’ response to my invitation forcefully reacquainted me with the key lesson of my small-town childhood: Do not forget that your voice carries.
When I got to the convention center the next day, Polis was already on site.
To maintain the neutrality of the Center of the American West, I do not endorse political candidates. And yet it is entirely in line with the policy of the Center for me to endorse and even celebrate Polis’ instant eagerness to appear in a room where he knew he would not win the prize for popularity.
If more Americans followed his example, we would take a very big step away from the pointless polarization of our time.
When I was a kid, I had moments of thinking that small-town life would drive me crazy. In hindsight, the unrelenting psychological training I got there did me a world of good. Whatever weaseling I might attempt, I knew I was never going to escape the consequences of my actions. Time after time, I got reacquainted with the reality that what I said to one person became, almost instantly, the shared property of everyone I knew.
Somewhere in Colorado is a good soul who passed on my invitation to Congressman Polis. I will take this opportunity to say thanks.