The Common Man
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SPOKESMAN: Hollywood’s biggest night.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: We have been so stupefied in recent years with a celebrity- crazy value system that we have forgotten the significance of the ordinary citizen, the person who once was known honorably as “the common man.”
In the 18th century, he was the subject of Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” In the 19th, he was a farmer, the man with the hoe. In the 20th, he was the ordinary Joe, sometimes the G.I. Joe, the character played by Gary Cooper who was exalted in the movie “Meet John Doe.”
ACTRESS: A baseball player. What could be more American?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The common man was the essential American, though hardly perfect. He could be beaten down, and he could do the beating.
ACTOR: Hurry up.
ACTOR: All right. Sit down.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The hard hats of the 1960s with whom the student antiwar movement tried pathetically, and often comically, to ally itself, often acted against minorities and women. Nonetheless, the common man and woman remains the American ideal, even when we forget that, as we have until recently. In our touching hypocrisy, all of us want to be rich, powerful, and ordinary at the same time. The regular guy is exalted because, flaws aside, he was assumed to have a code of honor as well as a work ethic. It is he who stabilizes society, and he who shakes it up. All revolutions start from the bottom.
It was he and she who ran into the falling buildings on September 11th, who dug into stones with their hands for their comrades, who removed their hard hats and made a column of space so that the flag-covered bodies could pass through, who expressed sympathy for others, and embraced.
In his essay “What I Believe,” E.M. Forster wrote, “I believe in aristocracy; not an aristocracy of power based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky. Its members represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves; they are considerate without being fussy; their pluck is not swankiness, but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.”
Forster’s definition is nicely democratic, but its special accuracy lies in its three components of praiseworthy conduct. By “pluck,” he means endurance of the sort that neither swaggers, nor dresses itself in Hamlet’s black. By “considerateness,” he means the exercise of just enough attention to others to display genuine feeling, but not so much as to be cloying. It is significant that he names sensitivity first. To be sensitive within oneself and for the benefit of others– that is an aristocrat.
All these common-man qualities have been in evidence on so many levels since September 11. And they have not been confined to the obscure, either. The Yankees’ Derek Jeter was one of hundreds of well-known people who visited ground zero, raised money for the victims, or otherwise showed what the country is made of. Baseball hero Jeter called the workers “the real heroes.”
Perhaps the most heart-rending display came from families of those lost in the war so far. I am always amazed at the ease with which everybody appears on television these days. I think that it is due to camcorders; anyone can do it, but not everyone can do it right. The aristocracy of spirit shown by the parents of Nathan Ross Chapman, the first American soldier killed by enemy fire in early January, was completely human. Chapman’s father talked of their son’s sense of duty, and his mother faltered a little when she considered whether the war was worth the death of her boy. They said a few soft words, and that was that.
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.