Sunday, July 4, 2010

What We Gain By Being Curious Rather Than Critical

Author Joe Queenan reread Ben Franklin's book, Poor Richard’s Almanac, and shared his thoughts in a July 4th NY Times article called, Ben Franklin s a Big Fat Idiot. It's a well-meaning piece on the man he considers to be a "titan" worthy of his "esteem and affection". That's why it seems odd to me that Queenan doesn't give Franklin's work - one that he has admired for decades! - enough credit. It was the article's concluding paragraph that particularly bothered me.

I still admire Ben Franklin, and will never cease to do so. But from now on, that homage will be qualified. Much as I hate to admit it, sayings like “If it were not for the belly, the back might wear gold” and “A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things” just don’t cut the mustard. They’re the kind of pointless, obtuse, third-rate flapdoodle Franklin himself would have hated, and for which there is only one proper response: Hey, buddy, go fly a kite.

First of all, one's homage should always be qualified. Admire, believe in, follow, but never blindly.

Second, Queenan abandons much of his favorite historical figure's work. In his race to critique, he misses the opportunity re-find wisdom in the words. One should look to their past inspirations not with a critical mind but a curious one.

In the conclusion, Queenan dismisses the line “a life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things.” Rather than seeking fault, he could have tried to find Franklin's reasoning by asking questions like "How could Franklin's words be right?" and "What's special about them being "two things?"

As a guy whose life revolves around releasing stress, Queenan's dismissal of this line was particularly disappointing to me. I regularly talk with people who feel that if they don't work hard (avoiding leisure) nothing will get done (laziness). Franklin's words correctly state that leisure does not necessitate laziness. They are two separate things. You can get plenty done in a relaxed manner. Plus, the fact of the matter is that everything can't get done, nor should everything that can be done actually be done. This is often overlooked in our do-more society (the Story of the Mexican Fisherman comes to mind).

Third, the attitude of "Hey buddy, if it's not going to be brilliant after 200 years, don't write it!" is a really hostile and unproductive one to have. I have a feeling that Queenan wouldn't ever write a word (let alone this article or his books) if that standard was applied to his own writing.

Lastly, "go fly a kite"? I know it's a historical quip, but in our society it's also a blow-off. If you wouldn't say it to your titan's face (and I have a hard time believing Queenan would), don't write it.