The Dividing Line

When I was a boy, my mother would sometimes let me fall asleep on her bed while she watched television. I would drift between sleep and wakefulness, my thoughts penetrated by the sound of Johnny Carson’s chuckle, or the earnest baritone of a news anchor. One night, when I was maybe ten, I woke to the sound of my mother weeping. The bed shook with her crying, and I was afraid. I pretended to be asleep, but out of the corner of an eye I looked at the television screen. There were men in brown uniforms carrying red flags emblazoned with broken black crosses. Others wore long white sheets. They were marching outside the public library where my grandmother often took me.

I didn’t know why they were at the library, though I suspected it wasn’t to check out books. I didn’t know why my mother was crying, only that she was crying and it scared me. I closed my eyes, and soon she stopped crying, and then I was asleep.

Not long after, my mother wrote a letter to the newspaper, and her letter made the marching men angry. I know because they called our house. Once, I answered the phone before she could get to it. “Hello?” I said. “Just what is your mama’s problem with the Klan?” The person on the other end was an angry, stupid-sounding woman. I wondered if she was someone’s mother. My mother took the phone and hung it up. Later, I heard her call the sheriff. We stayed inside, and I wondered if the angry men were coming.

They never did, and later, when I was in college, I thought it was silly when my mother would warn me that writing some of the things I wrote was going to get me killed. It was an unfounded worry, because I had neither a large audience nor anything consequential to say. Every age is filled with men willing to murder the carriers of ideas, even when they don’t understand them. The words first have to strike at their hearts, however.

I’ve been listening to Martin Luther King’s speeches today, and lamenting that the times of great oration have passed for our country. Words are cheaper now, as are most of the men who utter them. Ideas have been displaced by soundbytes. It’s safer to speak that way, I suppose, and the overriding goal of the politician is to win, not to lead. I think people hated King because he spoke unsafely. He illuminated what Solzhenitsyn called the line dividing good and evil, the line that runs through every human heart. That is surely dangerous business.

I wonder where the prophets of this generation are. Where are the ones who will illuminate that line in every heart? It is so much easier to draw lines between people, between a virtuous Us and a nefarious Them, than to say: This is the evil we do, the evil I do. I wonder if no modern-day Martin Luther Kings rise up because our civilization is no longer capable of producing them, or because we no longer deserve them. Or perhaps they are there, crying out in the wilderness, and we all of us — myself included — have our televisions and ipods and internal self-focused monologues turned up too loudly to hear them.


  1. Jennifer

    I just love this post, on so many levels.

    I’m of the belief that our Great Men and Women *are* out there, drowned out in the drone of our electric lives. This makes me a little sad, but it also makes me go looking for the good, wherever I go.

  2. Gray

    Reagan was one of those who lifted the spirit of those who listen to his voice. It pains me to say that I believe that Barak Obama is one of those too. His ability to connect with the audience is almost surreal…

    It pains me because his politics based on his voting record will push our country toward a more European socialist state than the free market.

    Hooray for those who prevail against the Klan and those that are in favor of keeping free men and women down! Unfortunately, the folks today, who are most in favor of keeping free people down, are progressives or liberals! I long for the day when to be ?liberal? meant that you were for freedom at the expense of the state! Long live Classical Liberalism!

  3. Evan Kincade

    This post made me horribly uncomfortable.

    As a youngster(at the wee age of 17), I find it harder and harder to put my trust in my peers and even the people who are slightly older than myself. I look around me and see my immediate friends who are intelligent people, but outside that circle the world seems to be filled with oblivious teenagers and self-righteous college-age kids who are on their own crusade to prove how wrong everyone else is and how right they are.

    In this new world where our future leaders are fully focused on themselves, there is no room in their minds for new ideas or upholding what our grandparents and other ancestors stood for.

    My peers are pathetic. There is not much hope at all for the future of the United States.

  4. Jeff

    Great post! I agree that the great men of whom you write are rare. I find encouragement in the fact that, though, they are rare, they are unmistakable. Their words are so arresting because they usually deliver both guilt and hope all at once.

  5. Llana

    The fact that you can understand these things (at the wee age of seventeen) is outstanding. When I read about folks like you, and when I spend time with my grandchildren, my hope for the future is restored.

  6. Jim Ratajski


    Once again you touch something that is real. As real as “Christmas Armaments” and “Tracks”. I remember those and I will remember this as well. It will serve us well on our journey. As far as a voice or a prophet..? All ages seem to have one or some. Faith still exists, so keep walking, keep fighting, keep loving. And certainly, keep writing.

  7. Stefani

    Gorgeous piece of writing, Tony. Really thought-provoking. I think though, that the cream has always risen, you know? There have been dire straits before, there have been dark ages, and apathetic generations, and still there have been great men among them. The best we can do I guess, is our part in raising them to stand tall and be heard.

  8. Lorrie

    I think there are great men and women out there who stand for what is right and good and moral- but they are NOT in politics. The westernized world is made up of sound bites today – because we have allowed our children to spend way too much time in front of TV’s and movies and video games and cartoons – you’re right, the days of oration are gone forever – no one wants to take the time to hear – very sad.

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