March 19, 2013

Bowen Craig: It’s OK to have a few free places


— Everyone knows that dingoes are communists. It’s as true today as it ever was. Those grubby, baby-stealing, pack-dwelling quadrupeds have always gravitated to the ideology of Marx and Mao.

All my life I’ve heard people concede that communism is a good, but flawed, idea. During the Cold War it became a mantra like “It takes a village to raise a child” and “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day — teach a man to fish and you can get rid of your husband for five hours on Saturday mornings.” Like most small children and cable news viewers, I listened and repeated the lines that I heard without needing to actually think about them.

Then, I turned 7. With age comes circumspection. After a while everybody starts questioning things they’ve always taken for granted. That’s why college freshmen eventually realized that it’s not worth wearing a propeller beanie cap in order to get into a fraternity.  

We teach kindergartners the value of sharing and then spend the next 12 years of schooling mentally beating it out of them. That’s weird, cute in a way, but definitely weird. And, America, despite holding firm to the idea of free market competition, still dips back into the kindergarten well when tragedy strikes.

When there’s a flood, a hurricane or a tornado, we give money, canned food, write encouraging letters and send prayers to those in need. That’s beautiful. I’m not ranting against helping hurricane victims. I’m just saying that when we need to, we share. There are times when our overriding ideology goes out the window. And it should. Ideology is the cozy Slanket we drape over our sleeping grandmother so she doesn’t drool on the couch, but it’s not what we’d want to actually give her for her birthday. She wouldn’t understand the exotic fusion of blanket and fashion anyway. We cling to our various ideologies, but when it comes right down to it, we usually realize that our kindergarten teachers were right to make us share the Legos and make us stop eating crayons.

I am not a dingo. I’m a capitalist like the majority of the city, the country and, these days, the world. Although I can understand the abstract ideological motivations for a communist system, the underpinnings of at least the IDEA of our system are better in at least one way. People need motivation and, historically, money has proven to be a really good motivator. It’s not the only thing that people strive for in life (we also like peanut butter and jelly premixed in one jar and the idea of alligators in our sewers), but money often does the trick for most folks. Can you imagine how bad the communist versions of popular board games would be? If the Hungry Hungry Hippos had to share the tasty marbles, they’d have to work together to share the one marble. It’d be more like they were chainsawing the one marble instead of furiously gobbling as many of them as possible. That’s not what hippos do. And Twister? You’d spin the wheel and it would always land on left foot green. The board would be one big green dot and everyone would be hopping around trying to balance on one leg like a pack of drunken flamingos.

That being said, a lot of the great Dalton achievements have been of the free, shared variety. Would Civitan Park be as great a place to spend a Saturday morning if you had to pay a toll and go through a turnstile before you walk the track? Would we enjoy the statue of Joseph E. Johnston downtown as much if we had to drop a quarter in one of those nailed-to-the-ground gray viewfinder lenses on top of Fort Hill in order to see the little guy? The recreation center would be Six Flags. Much of the community wouldn’t be able to afford to enter the Mack Gaston Community Center.

Like most of the other libraries in the state, our public library is hurting for cash right now. Being a literary sort of guy myself, I know that I’m biased, but trust me when I say that we need libraries. We need some free stuff. The idea of the free market is great (ironic since it’s, you know, not free). Still, there is a place, even in a country as dedicated to capitalism as ours, for free stuff. Libraries and the idea that they represent, the free sharing of knowledge and its resulting empowerment, is one of the best things ever dreamt up by mankind, along with the Rubix Cube and deep-fried chickens stuffed inside of turkeys.  

Amazon.com is an amazing compu-wonderland where the entire world can buy and sell books, music, movies (hint-hint: buy my books on Amazon). But, America needs libraries. They’ve played a vital role in our history. Setting aside the irony that his face is on the $100 bill, Benjamin Franklin was a big proponent of the idea of freely disseminating information. In between his journalistic endeavors, his expansive love life on two continents and discovering electricity, Franklin started the first lending library on our shores. So, I think Benjy (we’re tight, I can use a nickname) would approve of newspapers for sale and books free for all. I think he’d want to keep Dalton’s public library.

This is not merely an American problem. Libraries are closing all over the world. In her new book “Moranthology,” Caitlin Moran described a library as “... a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination.” She was writing in response to recent closings of British public libraries in favor of book stores and the Internet.

Where else but in a library can you find free Internet access, even if it comes in small incremental blocks of time (which makes sense because libraries are about sharing)? Where else can you find children’s book authors reading to actual children? Where else can homeless people even go to the bathroom without getting arrested (except that one park, also free, across from BB&T)? Other than the library, what other entity currently around has the audacity to charge late fees that can be paid in full with change found underneath your couch cushions?

The recent state dustup with the Georgia Archives proves three things to me: that democracy is still alive and can, even with its current limitations, function as it was intended; that the idea of a small minority of people owning everyone’s history is distasteful (sorry Ancestry.com, your looming monopoly is even sicker than most, and definitely anti-capitalistic); and that people still want and need free access to information. Google’s not just popular because it has a funny, memorable name. It also gives us quick access to information. (I do think it won out over the other competing search engines, though, mainly because it has a name that reminds us all of little babies spitting up half nonsense words and so we all do a collective “head tilt and awww ...” move).

We need libraries. We need communal meeting places. Despite the efforts of some political opportunists masquerading as historical revisionists (yes, I’m talking to you, Glenn Beck, please put down the chainsaw and take your meds), completely unbridled free market capitalism has never actually existed in America. We’re closer than a lot of other countries have ever been, but I know that it sounds a little backwards, but we need the free stuff in order to be able to keep paying for the not-so-free stuff. People are weird, but that’s what makes us better than dingoes.

Well, that, and opposable thumbs.



Bowen Craig is a former Dalton resident and a 1993 Dalton High School graduate now residing in Athens. His opposable thumbs give a thumbs up to public libraries.