A nation of pocketknife-carriers
Americans sometimes take "rugged individualism" to an unhealthy extreme, but we really shouldn't under-appreciate the value of having a country full of pocketknife-carriers.
Writer Michael Harriot comments that "If you watch regular season baseball, I GUARANTEE your grandfather carried a pocketknife." Putting aside the strict veracity of that claim (and it certainly rings true in the light-hearted anecdotal sense), what does it mean to carry a pocketknife? It's not like the description has some deeply embedded cultural cachet, but yet it seems like people still got what he meant.
■ But what does it mean to carry a pocketknife -- not metaphorically, but literally? Like virtually all other tools and technologies, knives themselves are morally neutral; they only mean what the tool user brings to them. Should we think of them only as things carried by old men?
■ The answer is: No. The pocketknife is actually quite a good metaphor for general preparedness -- it is a tool to be carried by those who are ready, willing, and able to take care of matters for themselves (and often for others).
■ Those three words mean a lot. Readiness means alertness, vigilance, and preparation for the unexpected in life. Willingness is a choice to have the disposition to do what needs to be done, rather than to wait for others to act instead. Ability is a measure of having both the skills and the resources to take the action needed.
■ It's important not to read too much into an individual signal like carrying a pocketknife. Plenty of highly capable people never carry them, and plenty of unprepared dunces never leave home without them. But there's something to the metaphorical significance of the tool itself. The Swiss Army knife (or its American cousin, the Leatherman multi-tool) is a device of great potential utility. It is no substitute for a kit full of heavy-duty, professional-grade tools. But a professional toolkit is carried by professionals when their specialty help is called upon.
■ A pocketknife, by contrast, is carried not for defined purpose, but for preparedness in the face of the unexpected. Americans sometimes take "rugged individualism" to an unhealthy extreme, but we really shouldn't under-appreciate the value of having a country full of pocketknife-carriers -- at least in the metaphorical sense, if not the literal one: People ready, willing, and able to do things for themselves and to help others when needed.