At rope's end, hold on!

In civil society's metaphorical tug of war, it helps to keep a deft hold on the rope.

Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith (R) made headlines recently by announcing that the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war has not worked and needs major changes.

The reversal was surprising, but what really caught my attention was how he illustrated his gradual transformation. "I, for one, am at the end of my rope," he said, describing military tactics he considered repetitive, deadly, and ultimately ineffective.

The rope trope resonates with me and I hope it doesn't fray away. I grew up in a household where "I'm at the end of my rope!" was invoked on a regular basis, usually by my mother in response to some household transgression on my part. (Her other lament of exasperation was, "Someday the men in white coats will just come and take me away.")

Everyone has their version of the rope. It symbolizes a dilemma every citizen faces: When the outside world starts pulling, how far should you go along and when should you pull back?

I try to keep plenty of slack in my own rope. I realize that maintaining a civil society requires cooperation, team work, sacrificing personal desires for the benefit of larger goals, and all that good stuff. But this country also has a proud heritage of individual freedom, maverick pioneers, and a willingness to challenge authority. Contending with these forces is a daily tug of war.

There is no school for rope management. Knowing when to dig in your heels and pull back is learned through intuition and experience. It can happen on the floor of the US Senate, or anywhere. For a man named John Russo, it happened last month at a restaurant in Quincy, Mass.

Mr. Russo made news by declining to hand over his driver's license in order to be seated. The restaurant had created the rule to discourage "dine and dash" thefts. Media attention has ended the policy, but many customers had not objected.

Such situations, and our responses, are difficult to predict. Why did all those other patrons give the restaurant management so much slack? How much rope separates a compliant pushover from an obnoxious prima donna?

Somewhere in between those two extremes is a middle section for people like me. I can't prevent my rope from getting yanked. But I'm always holding tight enough to keep from getting pulled in the wrong direction.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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