As I write this sentence, it is 12:38 on Monday afternoon, October 6, 2014. It’s a lovely day, if considerably more overcast than the consecutive pair of autumnal dazzlers that preceded it over the weekend just past. It’s also a little warmer today, but there’s still plenty of fall in the steady breeze, especially if it greets you with a full-on embrace as you round the corner of any one of several of our larger downtown buildings.
It is the kind of day that makes me think that Birmingham might just be the best place on earth. At least it does that for me; if you do not experience the same feeling for one reason or another, I don’t take that to mean that my love for the city and community in which we both live is greater or runs deeper than yours.
I just want to spend some time on this idea of Birmingham as the “best place on earth.” When I say that, I am not talking about something geared toward some ponderously vague point in the future, whether it is one proffered out of blind optimism or as the latest of the prophecies of defeat that Birmingham, for most of its history up to this very same minute, has too often seemed more than happy to fulfill. I am not speaking of those equivalently — if not quite equally — wrongheaded extremes of civic engagement.
Put another way, I am not speaking of something that might happen, or even of things that I, personally, want to happen in a civic sense. I am talking about Right Now, and about the feeling that I have had for Birmingham for my entire adult life, the feeling that this place is where I am supposed to be. For well over 30 years and counting, I have loved Birmingham as it has been at any given moment, even as it has changed before my eyes — and not always for the better.
On this fine Monday afternoon, though, it is a simple matter to let one’s musing have its head, to give over completely and willingly to the contemplation of the better. I have just returned to my office from lunch, a light one and quick, bolted down in interstitial accompaniment of a worthwhile, if necessarily hurried, conversation. As an added bonus, having walked a cumulative mile-and-a-quarter or so at the brisk clip that is my default setting for achieving optimal time efficiency when traveling from Point A to Point B on foot, I am passably — though considerably short of optimally — exercised for a male human being of my age, size and health profile.
Birmingham just might be the best place on earth, I thought as I walked through the door of the Weld office and strolled back to my desk. I feel good.
And so I did. And so I do still, though not quite as all-encompassingly good as I did just minutes ago. The problem is that upon returning to my desk after any extended absence during a typical workday, it is my habit to check email, along with a number of go-to social media sources. Knowing that I am probably not the only one among us so afflicted provides only the smallest of comfort, and that little profoundly outstripped by the vast preponderance of what I encounter in the digital world.
Actually, to be fair, it was no better or worse than most of what social media brings us on any given day. By which I mean, Good Lord! Do you folks ever look at this stuff? Our (more or less) noble experiment in democracy, in making freedom of individual thought and belief and expression the presumptive basis for finding commonality in larger purposes — has it actually come to this?
But this column is not about social media — neither its pernicious role in devaluing what little remains of American culture nor the many constructive and beneficial ways in which it is used, both routinely and in times of community emergency or need. Instead, let me hone in on the specific influence of social media on what previously had been an experience, now all too brief, of the ecstatic. In the vernacular, it got me to thinking.
Without making any value judgment, I hope we can agree that in the digital world, middle ground is hard to find. Democrat or Republican? Liberal or Conservative? Alabama or Auburn? Where do I stand on abortion rights? Gun control? National defense and global affairs? Government programs for the poor? Obama? Religion? Obama and religion? Have I picked a side?
That’s the gist of what I encountered in less than five minutes of sitting at my laptop, scrolling and tapping my way into the chasm where middle ground used to be. That’s where, not so long ago, most people in this country viewed themselves, economically, socially and politically. Now, at least as the preponderance of voices on social media would have it — and much of traditional media as well — it’s becoming increasingly compulsory that we choose a side.
As all of this relates to us in Birmingham, it occurred to me that part of our problem — more correctly, the compendium of persistent problems we carry like an albatross — is that Birmingham has never found its middle ground. There has not been a prominent point around which citizens from throughout the city and region can rally, no vantage from which to view a shared future.
What Birmingham has opted for instead, at every critical point in its history, is neutral ground. Here, open hostilities are rare, the trade-off for that being that nothing is done to alleviate the prejudices, the inequities and injustices, the corruption that created the air of hostility to begin with, and that continues to perpetuate it today. In the allocation of public resources, it’s about who gets how much.
Do I believe that can be changed, even at this late date? Yes, I do.
Do I believe that it will change, now, soon or ever? Let’s just say the jury’s out on that one — and add that we’d be well advised in the meantime to focus on the opportunities of this moment, to find and form our ranks on that elusive middle ground. That’s our only chance, really — to define and pursue common goals, to ask hard questions and be prepared to deal with the answers, to make Birmingham work for the benefit of all of its citizens. To understand that overcoming our divisions is the ultimate expression of progress.
And while we’re working on that, let’s all take time to enjoy this fine weather we’re having.