It was my father, an old, small-town Minnesota newspaperman, who taught me the concept of “news.” It was the early 1960s. I was a freshman in high school and eager to write for the school newspaper.
For something to be newsworthy, he told me, it had to have what he called “proximity,” which he defined in both geographic and personal terms.
“If it happens here,” he said, “it’s news. If it happens in Iowa, it’s not.” That’s geographic. But he added, “If it happens in Iowa to somebody from here, it’s still news.” That’s personal.
I gained experiential knowledge of my father’s wisdom as time went on. Like most people, I never gave too much thought to tragedies in other parts of the state. When somebody’s ice fishing house fell through the ice up north, I thought it was funny. Wintertime car accidents on Minnesota’s icy two-way roads didn’t bother me much.
But that summer when a family of four from our small town all died in a head-on collision with a semi-trailer truck somewhere near North Dakota, I felt the impact. We lived in a town of less than 1,000 people, and everybody knew everybody. The oldest daughter in that family had been my baby sitter.
I’ve come to understand that the notion of “proximity” plays a critical role in how each of us understands and relates to the world.
It’s the underlying concept at work when Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio who once supported the Defense of Marriage Act and voted to ban gay couples from adopting children, recently reversed his position.
He now supports same-sex marriage, putting him at odds with most of his Republican colleagues.
Portman’s departure from the GOP line occurred because marriage equality suddenly became a personal issue for him. Two years ago, Portman’s 21-year-old son announced he was gay. The senator issued a statement last week saying he now believes “the government shouldn’t deny them (same-sex couples) the opportunity to get married.”
Former vice president Dick Cheney had the same revelation many years ago when he learned his daughter was a lesbian, making him aware of her struggle for sexual identity and how federal policies affected her.
I suspect U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has a keener appreciation than some other justices about the effects of California’s Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage, which came before the court this week. Roberts has a cousin living in San Francisco who wants to marry her same-sex partner.
Parents who lost children in Newtown, Conn., or Colorado or at Virginia Tech might or might not have changed their minds about specific gun control proposals or schools’ mental illness awareness policies, but it’s certain their thinking is more complex and emotionally rooted now.
There was a newspaper story several years ago about parents who had sent their two sons off to the Iraq War with almost unbridled enthusiasm for the cause. After they buried their boys, they weren’t so sure any more.
Without my father’s idea of proximity, it’s easy not to care about some other guy who got cancer, or the young man killed in Iraq whose life never got started, or the gay and lesbian couples who just want a normal life.
Without a personal stake, we’re mostly immune to the tragedy and hardships endured by others. It’s a natural defense mechanism because it’s simply too overwhelming to assume everyone else’s burdens.
My father had a terrific insight when he observed that people are most moved by – and interested in – events that impact them personally.
But I can’t help thinking of a world where all people naturally seek to see how the world looks from behind the other person’s eyes. Imagine a world where everyone attempted to understand each other and where we all accepted those differences without feeling threatened or the need to “fix” the other person.
Sounds like heaven to me.George Le Masurier, publisher of The Olympian, may be reached at email@example.com.