Home > Michiana Chronicles > Opinion Polls, Common Sense, and the Pleasures of Reading Essays

Opinion Polls, Common Sense, and the Pleasures of Reading Essays

September 20, 2002

For several months this year pollsters said that President Bush had an absolutely tremendous approval rating. Huge majorities of people applauded his approach to various aspects of public policy. Whether I agree or disagree with their popular views, mega-majorities like this make me nervous, and I’m usually glad when any politician’s rating dips back down to a more humbling and motivational 45 % or so. It’s not normal for people to come to a tidy agreement about complex issues, so when approval ratings soar I start to wonder whether the backbone has gone out of the old democracy.

Every year or two a pollster reports that a small percentage of Americans still think that the world is flat or that the moon landings were actually filmed on a Hollywood sound stage. I like to hear these dissenting voices, even when their opinions are plainly wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong, because it means there is still room in our society for thinking your own thoughts. It amazes me that there are people who believe, for example, that Keanu Reeves can act, or that an Indy 500 race car is the proudest emblem of the state’s history and so should appear on the back of Indiana’s new state quarter, but I’m glad when people who hold these opinions speak up. They give me something to think about, at least for a moment.

And anyway, some of their views are probably not much more kooky that some of my own views. For the average person, what could be more mystical than, say, accepting a physicist’s claim that there are invisible forces of attraction linking every atom to every other atom in the universe? When it comes down to it, perhaps all of us spend a portion of our time doing what essayist Joan Didion called “felling trees in some interior wilderness.” If we build cabins out of those imaginary logs, and sit by the window typing manifestos in those imaginary cabins, who can say ahead of time how the manifestos will hold up in the give and take of public debate back here in the world as we know it. That is, if there is a debate.

In the meantime, we need more quirky voices talking up their experiences and their views. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of essays, taking pleasure in that sly, heretical literary form that often quietly and playfully serves, as practitioner E. B. White said, as “the last resort of the egoist.” Essayists trot out their favorite stories and announce their articles of faith, not least of which is a clear-eyed but absolute love for their hero, their Everywoman or Everyman, who goes by the name of I and who often sets traps for any disciples of conformity and common sense who may follow them through their pages. Essayists imply and persuade the thing Walt Whitman said directly at the start of his poetic masterpiece, “I celebrate myself and sing myself,/ and what I assume you shall assume,/ for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I recommend both of the big anthologies that have come out in recent years, one called The Art of the Personal Essay and the other called Best American Essays of the Twentieth Century. Also take a look at any of the annual volumes from the Best American Essays series.

From that first book I’m rather fond right now of G. K. Chesterton’s little essay called “On Running After One’s Hat.” In this essay the author notices that most people are annoyed when the wind gusts and suddenly they find themselves running down the avenue chasing their hat. Chesterton attacks our petty, selfish, common sense notion that a roving hat is an inconvenience rather than a chance for an unscheduled adventure. In that spirit, he says that “an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.”

“Think otherwise,” then, is the essayist’s proper motto. Imagine a new coffee house somewhere in town, with a small sign hanging near the door that says, “Holders of popular views and common sense notions have no special privileges here.” I would gladly walk in and fling my chapeau, Frisbee-like, toward that shop’s hat rack anytime.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired September 20, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.