‘These things are old; these things are true’

This is my weekly column published Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009 in the Hibbing Daily Tribune. I read a portion of this for a recent episode of “Between You and Me” on 91.7 KAXE.

‘These things are old; these things are true’
By Aaron J. Brown

We live in a time of great abstraction. Economists most folks have never heard of tell us that an inconceivable amount of money is needed to partially fill an even larger economic hole dug by other people we’ve never heard of. Some say we should do something grand but can’t predict how it will all turn out. Others say we should do nothing, and watch the ship fill with water. What word could describe this?

Most of us learned early in primary school that nouns describe people, places and things. Sometime later in school, usually when the kids stop eating paste, teachers pull a fast one and explain that nouns also describe ideas. People, places, things … and ideas.

Along these lines I was impressed most by an idea in President Obama’s inaugural address, one that was passed over by many newscasts for the sound bite that followed. In describing the fundamental values upon which America’s future rests – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – Obama said “These things are old. These things are true.” This line struck me first because it just doesn’t sound like the kind of sentiment that would come from a guy whose face adorns the t-shirts of a billion attractive college students around the world. But it later struck me as significant even beyond the context of the speech and the general state of the country.

Old ideas are often cursed, attacked and then replaced by new ideas that are really just repackaged versions of even older ideas. Humans only generate new ideas every thousand years or so. Fire, the wheel, written language, democracy, engines and circuitry. I don’t think we’re due for another legitimate new idea until my distant descendant Brownbot Xiang Ping 9000 graduates from the 27th grade.

Great ideas span time and generations because of their inherent worth, a value not altered by whims, and this is also true for people, places and things. Owners of things often keep those items far beyond the time they could have traded them in. Once the depreciation finishes feeding on the artificial sticker price the only question left is “does it work?” That’s true value. I have in my garage a boat owned by four generations of my family, painstakingly overhauled by my father and dimwittedly maintained by yours truly. I know a lot of other boats would be easier to operate but I’m content to let this one ride.

Meantime, place. We track places with maps but the lines on maps can bend and melt over just a few years. I have a map hanging on my office wall that I found in the basement of our old house in Hibbing. It was published in 1939 during a period a history teacher friend of mine says only lasted a few months. The Nazis were expanding German influence in Europe, colonial powers spread across Africa and Southeast Asia. This entire map is a testament to the kinetic energy of the time preceding World War II. The topography and geology of the land, however, change much more slowly. Even on my native Iron Range, where a 100 years of mining shaped manmade canyons and mountains, I drive past the same mine dumps my dad did when he was going to school in the ‘70s. My boys’ school bus will drive past them too.

And people? I’ve learned that people are best judged not by their age, but their reliability. The most reliable people are those who figure out that everything is old. But only certain things have value. In hard times that’s something worth thinking about.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the
Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog, MinnesotaBrown.com. His new book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now.

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