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Wednesday, June 13, 2007 01:05 am

Getting it right

Why it takes work to keep off the road to hell

Untitled Document Long, long ago, I was the host of a public-access cable-television show in St. Louis, a boring gabfest about world affairs. We had a panel of regulars — academics and journalists ­— and guests, most of them foreigners: An anti-Marcos Filipino. An Iranian whose father had been a general. A Sandinista official from Nicaragua. Nobody watched. The first time we attempted to take calls, the phones were silent. The next time, we made members of the production staff take turns calling us. In the third and final attempt, we rang up people we’d invited to watch the show. It was a live program — and the first viewer, when I reached him, had forgotten: “Who is this? Why are you calling me?” Figuring that the show was already a comedy, I dialed the White House and asked for Nancy Reagan. The switchboard operator just said no.  Anyway, as the moderator of the program, I wasn’t expected to be much more than a talking head, an emcee of sorts who would set up segments by our guests and panelists. What the producers didn’t count on was my tendency to mangle English. For example, I teased a very boring panelist for trying to “beat a horse to death” (instead of “beating a dead horse”). That got a good laugh. (Friends still ask me whether I’ve been beating any horses.) I’m always screwing up something; that’s why it’s harder for me to give up a copy editor than quit smoking.
Even now, I get things all mixed up — and, I discover, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Take the familiar expression “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Here’s how I understood it: A person who intends to do good often risks reaping a whirlwind of unanticipated bad consequences.
An easy example: I have no doubt that President George W. Bush, in his way, intended for the invasion of Iraq to liberate its people from a tyrant and introduce democratic practices to that nation. Oops. Or another example, one closer to home — my home. A wall in a bathroom needed repair. It was a simple matter, to be sure, to fix it, and fixing it was a good thing. Unfortunately, good intentions led to a major demolition project. At the end of the day, the new bathroom works like the old one, although it’s prettier. I’m sure we could have spent all that money on something else — and avoided months of travel through home-repair hell.
But, as I said, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Hell isn’t the place where things are difficult and uncertain. That, after all, is part of the human condition. Hell is where you are when you realize that you intend to do good — and you really never try. You just run your mouth about what you’re going to do.
Take, for example, the governor’s health-care proposal. It was thrilling to see an elected official embrace universal coverage.How inspiring to have a progressive guy at the helm of this state. Turns out, there really wasn’t a plan. Poorly presented and poorly thought out, the governor’s health-care proposal was virtually DOA when it went to the legislature. Why? Rod Blagojevich didn’t lay the groundwork. He didn’t build the requisite public and political support. He didn’t unify opposing special interests in a common cause. He didn’t mend fences with important elected officials. Rather, his administration tried to lead on this issue by way of press release. Today we’re no better off than we were six months ago. Maybe we’re in worse shape — and just a tad more cynical. The health-care crisis continues, and the hope of a solution seems even more elusive. People who pinned their hopes on the governor’s plan have a right to feel cheated. Intending to do good is easy.  Doing it isn’t — not always. It takes work. And work isn’t supposed to be easy. I never had much use for Chairman Mao, but he had a quote that stuck with me for many years. It’s from his famous, or infamous, “Little Red Book”: “What is work? Work is struggle. There are difficulties and problems in those places for us to overcome and solve. We go there to work and struggle to overcome these difficulties. A good comrade is one who is more eager to go where the difficulties are greater.”
We need harder workers. We need more good comrades. And, of course, we certainly need to stop beating horses to death.

Contact Roland Klose at editor@illinoistimes.com.
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