The usually reliable Escort Wagon was dead. The starter motor cranked, but nothing happened. Being stranded with my young son might have seemed like a small nightmare, but it was one of the best moments we ever had. I told him, “There are only three possibilities – fuel, air or spark.” I showed him how the air cleaner was clear, and whiffed the gasoline that came out of the tailpipe unburned from the cranking. Leaving only spark, I fiddled with the ignition wires until I found the main distributor lead had come off. A few seconds later, the car roared to life and we were set to go.
My son remembers this episode very well, and he got from it the lesson I was hoping. His Dad can do anything! No, that’s not the lesson – the lesson is that the things in our life are understandable and fixable if you’re schooled in the basics. You don’t have to know just what the problem is, but knowing how to figure it out will get you there. Troubleshooting isn’t just a practice, it’s a way of life.
This was repeated the other day when the dishwasher died. I don’t know jack about dishwashers, or at least I didn’t before yesterday. But I know that if it doesn’t drain it has something to do with a small number of pieces that I could dig out info on one at a time. It turns out it was only plugged up with ick, but I had to take the whole thing out to clean it. More research and a jack improvised with a 2×4 later, we were at the source of the problem.
I didn’t know what I was doing the whole time, of course. But that’s not important. I knew the basic principles, so I could wing it.
The world we live in is almost entirely devised by humans. We aren’t hunter-gatherers out on the plains who have to worry about starvation, predators, and weather as immediate threats that might kill us. The machines we rely on were built by humans and are thus understandable by humans. Our social structures are even more obviously nothing more than the people that make them. If something isn’t working, we have at our disposal everything we need to fix them.
Fixing machines may seem very different from fixing social, economic, or political structures. However, a good writer with the same Troubleshooting outlook has everything at their command to do just that. As John Steinbeck said, “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.” This was elaborated on in Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Inaugural Address, which Steinbeck wrote:
“I do not believe that the Great Society is the ordered, changeless, and sterile battalion of the ants. It is the excitement of becoming—always becoming, trying, probing, falling, resting, and trying again—but always trying and always gaining.
In each generation, with toil and tears, we have had to earn our heritage again.”
It’s poetry, it’s literature, it’s the essence of progressive politics. It’s also the logical extension of the Troubleshooter outlook, a way of life based on the belief that nothing about our world is so mysterious that it has to be accepted as some kind of talisman to be dealt with only by a select few.
This outlook is the antidote to the world of over-specialization that I believe is the main cause of this Depression and Depressions generally. It starts with the basic principle that this is our world, made by people more or less like us. It goes on to assume that when things go wrong we aren’t helpless in the face of the difficulty. Whatever the source of trouble is, if it was made by people it can be fixed, improved, or replaced by people.
As some other rhetoric of the 1960s didn’t go, “There are those who see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ There are others that see things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’ What we’re looking for are people who say, ‘Let me get my wrench.’”
My son will be ready to do his part. That, I’m sure of.