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Life out here by Bret Kofford: Living our roles to the hilt

June 26, 2002

PITTSBURGH — Frequently when the National Society of Newspaper Columnists meets for its annual conference, a polar opposite group is meeting in the same hotel.

One recent year the NSNC was meeting in the same hotel as a conference of fighter pilots or a similar neat and trim group. No two groups could be any more dissimilar … except the group we shared the hotel with this month, the Association of Theological Schools — preacher teachers, in other words.

They were well-groomed; we decided during one of our sessions, when it was mentioned that someone should be groomed for an NSNC office, that grooming had nothing to do with our group.

They were well-dressed, and conservatively so. A columnist observed that they were all wearing the same suit, but that couldn't have been true because even though they all looked the same, the suits were different sizes; we favored Hawaiian shirts and T-shirts and shorts with tennies or sandals. "Rumpled" would be an understatement for our group. "Wrinkled" wouldn't be an overstatement.


They were put off by the punk, folk, salsa and rock 'n' roll played out front at the community "arts festival," a term one of their members said with a sneer in the elevator; we not only liked the music but we sought out more and louder music, heading to local clubs and taverns to have our ears bombed more.

They viewed those with liquor on their breath as suspect; we viewed those without liquor on their breath as suspect.

Their meetings were well-behaved and well-attended; ours were filled with people regularly getting up to get a beer coupled with a couple hearty arguments. One columnist mocked another columnist from the dais of a seminar, questioning the other man's intellect, manhood and patriotism. We were angry for our savaged comrade, but we thought it was funny, too, and we parodied it for the rest of the weekend.

They had separate dinners one night for African-Americans, Asian-Americans and women; we had only one dinner each night for our group, and it was filled with African-Americans, Asian-Americans, women, Jews, Christians, maybe a Buddhist or a Shintoist or two, leftists, rightists, sweet people, wise asses, Easterners, Westerners, Southerners, too many Midwesterners, a Canadian, old folks, young folks, middle-age folks, muckrakers, traditionalists, veterans, anti-war zealots, humanitarians, egotists, sexists and women's rights advocates. (Our drop-dead gorgeous Colorado lesbian didn't make it this year.)

They favor religious readings; we favor bad jokes.

They were taciturn and remote in the elevators; we were engaging and often drunk in the elevators.

I got the feeling they didn't much like us, and I can tell you a lot of us didn't much like them.


That's the way it should be. We both have our roles to play in our society. They push piety, good behavior, following the rules, staying clean and sober and reverent. We push the questioning of authority, doubting what you are told, telling people to go to hell if they need it, having a cold one or four and engaging in an argument for argument's sake.

When religious people go too far, and try to force on society ways we should act or think or dress or live, we are there to question them, even mock them if that is the best way to get out the message. When they don't reform what is wrong in our groups (such as having separate dinners for women, African-Americans and Asian-Americans), we demand that they do better. That is our role, and it is a noble one, one for which I have proudly taken blows and will proudly take more.

They are there to rein in the populace when our society's freedoms go too far or go awry. They are there to provide spirituality and faith when a good laugh or a cold beer won't do.

The incomparable Leonard Pitts Jr., a good man, a good soul and a renowned columnist I am proud to say we publish in this newspaper, was there to receive an award and give us a boost of faith in what we do. He told us, among other things, that we are important to this country in that we fight the stupidity of the land. We do that, but we also fight the smart and well-intentioned whose ideas don't fit or are not fair to all. Chuck Stone, a retired columnist of less renown than Pitts but no less a good man, received our lifetime achievement award. He told us we fight the good fight for the right reasons and must continue.

Each year I go to the columnists' convention I get, along with about four pounds of beer weight, a new injection of the truth of how important newspaper columnists are to this country. But as I get older and I hope wiser, I see how important religion is to our society.

Still, I realize many newspaper columnists and a lot of religious folks will never get along.


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