Writers Talk About Writing
The Power of Equality: An Independence Day Special
All men are created equal.
This sentence stands among the most powerful five words penned since Biblical times. America's founders declared the sentence a "self-evident truth," and for two hundred and thirty-seven years it has been both the rock on which the nation's democracy has stood firm, and a lightning flash that has inspired rebels everywhere to fight against the lies of tyrants.
Let's not let this glorious political history, however, dim the sentence's more prosaic value. As well as a cornerstone of our public life, "All men are created equal" can be a cornerstone of our personal point of view and of our writing.
I like to give the sentence two modern tweaks. First I change "men" to "humans" to counter any gender bias, then I change "are created" to "are" to counter any notion that we are equal at birth but become unequal afterwards. Thus the five words become four:
All humans are equal.
— from which I derive a hyper-short version that I call "The Equality Equation":
i = u
You and I and our neighbors are each unique, each different, but we are all equal because we all live in a now ever moving into an unknown future. The content of our nows varies infinitely, and we prefer healthy and wealthy nows to sick and poor nows, yet the context of our nows, the fact of living on the edge of time is the same for all of us. Equality is a rule with no exceptions; living now, ignorant of the future, is an unalterable fact of human life.
"Wait a sec," I hear many of you saying. "We're all equal? Nonsense! Any fool can see how unevenly our daily bread is buttered in this world. What about the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the...?"
Whoa! I'm not blind to inequality. Of every attribute we humans value, some have more, some have less. Some are tall, some are short; some strong, some weak; some sharp, some dull. Kings rule above nobles who ring them in descending hierarchies. Below this upper class is the middle class, itself divided into upper-middle, middle-middle, and lower-middle, and below that lies the lower class with its own lower-lower class. Inequality weaves through history as one of the strongest threads in the story of our past: the unrelenting battle, stretching back to the dawn of human culture, between families and clans and cities and nations and empires to maintain or expand their superiority over other families, clans, cities, nations, and empires.
Still I assert that, compared to equality, inequality is a veil blown by every breeze, a house of cards a breath can tumble, meaningless words no matter how many people believe them to be true. Grasp the fact that we all live on the edge of the unknown, and you grasp the knife that will pierce inequality's veil. Pale inequality lives as a facade revamped for every fashion; robust equality lives like the stars, the sun, moon, and the poles of our planet, always and forever bedrock.
Any writer who hopes to describe human life faces human equality as a fact too big to ignore. We value writing because writing can capture life in its squiggly black marks like a firefly in a bottle and by that light reveal our world. News clippings, road signs, slogans, and jokes capture little truths of life; Homer, Cervantes, and Shakespeare capture big truths of life. Whether little or big, what keeps writing alive is the truth it captures. Since equality is a truth staring us everyday in the face, writing must in some way capture and convey that truth to be of value.
With a pen and notebook in hand, go anywhere you can see many humans. You could spend hours and days observing and scribbling down the differences between the people you see. Many of the differences will tell you much — differences in age, height, dress, and body shape; the colors of hair, eyes, and skin; the sound of voices and the style of facial expressions. Remember: you are there as others are there, and you may be observed as you observe.
We can see such human differences more clearly if in making our notes we stick to what we can see and don't add value judgments. Yes, that man walks and talks and dresses just so, and that woman, and that child, but better, worse, higher, lower? Can I see that? No, I cannot. What I can see is the fact that unifies us whatever we look like, wherever we have come from or are headed to: the fact that now we are equally here together.
We can also use equality to imagine and describe the lives of people we will never meet. If you're writing history, it will help to remember that your subjects were humans like you, living now, facing an unknown future. Abraham Lincoln didn't know that John Wilkes Booth would kill him at Ford's Theater, no Union or Confederate soldier knew whether or or not he'd survive the battle of Gettysburg, and no slave knew what life would be like after Emancipation. If you're writing a novel about ancient China and want to paint a woman waking up in a little house by a rice paddy, you can begin by thinking, "Hmm, she was a person living in her now as I am living in mine. She'd yawn and stretch and decide between the red or the green jacket, add, according to her taste, a lot or a little honey to her tea. If her husband spoke to her roughly or the children misbehaved, she, like me, might snap at them, or she might make up a reply that she hoped would restore harmony to the house."
Great writers who paint realistic word pictures of human life — Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, Henri Stendahl, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, and Theodore Dreiser, to name a few — see the truth of equality through the illusion of inequality. In their tales characters with money tend to rise in society, characters without money tend to fall. Upper class characters use codes of dress and manners as barriers against the lower orders; social climbers try to surmount these barriers and sometimes succeed. Mothers hope to marry daughters to husbands from the ranks above; young men look for mistresses from the ranks below. These writers create their great cities — Paris, London, Moscow, and New York — as enormous hives of human activity. The inter-locking demarcations of inequality — wealth, talent, lineage, beauty, and all the rest — give the hive its honeycomb structure, which structure, by some strange osmosis, all the human hive-dwellers seem to understand.
Yet what do Balzac, Tolstoy, Dreiser, and the rest show us overall, what is their biggest picture? That all the characters live together in the city! That despite their protestations to the contrary, the characters are connected to each other by countless criss-cross links; that the duke lives upstairs and the cook lives downstairs, but both are humans in the same house, dealing with whatever "Now what?"'s come their way.
As marquis mingle with moneylenders in Balzac's Palais Royal, as cockneys brush shoulders with country gentlemen in Trollope's Westminster Hall, so too do businessmen and beggars, cops and crooks, Americans and Australians, Japanese and Germans walk and talk and stop and turn and walk again in the Grand Central station of my New York — people moving this way and that, young and old, well-dressed and in rags, every color, every size, every shape, all together in one enormous room. As I look about I realize, "I am here equally with all of you." Why are we here? The reasons why are as varied as the people, but we could all answer with equal truth, "We are here because all our nows until now have brought us here."
Happy Fourth of July, everybody! As we and our neighbors drink beer, eat hot dogs, and ooh and ahh over the fireworks exploding high above us in the star-spangled summer sky, let's raise a rousing rousing hip-hip-hurray for the soul-stirring truth the day celebrates:
All humans are equal!