Once I had occasion to dine with Garrison Keillor. During the meal he asked who my favorite writer is. I told him it was this guy he’d never heard of—a boss I had once, named Larry Ragan.
Until is death in 1995, Larry wrote mostly in the weekly newsletter he founded, The Ragan Report, which was printed on paper that looked like someone had pissed on it. Before that, in the 1960s, he’d spent his literary energies on a column for Reporting, the magazine he edited for an association with the unbelievably dreary name, International Council of Industrial Editors.
Whenever he was told he ought to be writing for a larger audience on subjects broader and more gripping than organizational communication, Larry grunted and scoffed and dismissed—without quite disagreeing.
But the truth was that Larry was incapable of writing a dull sentence, on any subject, for any publication.
And so I remember much of what he wrote, some of it word for word.
And no piece of Larry’s writing educated me more permanently than a little prayer that wrote in a little Catholic newsletter, sometime in the 1970s.
There are the insiders and the outsiders. Two kinds of people. Two ways of looking at life. Two ways of making things happen.
The outsiders raise hell. they demonstrate; they organize marches. They issue reports that excoriate the establishment, challenge the status quo, appeal to all who thirst for justice.
The insiders? Often dull. The insiders speak a different language: they know the tax tables, the zoning variations, the assessment equalizers, the square-foot cost to educate the kids. You’ll find them on the school board, city government, on the village board. Ordinarily not word people, they have mastered the art of the platitude.
Outsiders are often wild. At first, they don’t seem to make sense. The first black kids who sat at a lunch counter and refused to move were outsiders. The first marchers to Selma were outsiders. Surely it was an outsider who first proposed the shocking idea that the generic “he” is a sexist word. Dorothy Kay, who in the 1950s stopped Manhattan traffic to protest atom bomb tests, was an outsider.
Please God, let us always have outsiders and give me the grace, in my better momnets, to know how to be one. But I’m torn because I want to be an insider too. The insiders resist the first answer that comes to them: they have heard it before. They are offended when they see the world’s complexities reduced to slogans shouted into a microphone or preached at a town hall meeting. They are saddened when they hear someone argue that God is on his or her side, and they wonder why God doesn’t speak so clearly to them.
Sometimes you’ve got to feel sorry for the insiders. When they win, few know of their victory. When they go wrong, their mistakes are branded as evil. Often they share the goals of the outsider but continue to say, “things aren’t that simple.”
The world is filled with people who like to feel they are right. Insiders are not always certain they are right.
They are unhappy when they must resist the simplicities of popular sloganeering. So when we tip our hats to outisders, as so often we must, let’s not do so with such vigor that we fail to give two cheers to the insider.
For speechwriters and rhetoricians of all kinds, this prayer seems especially important—maybe even as a New Year’s resolution. —DM