"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Wrong Attitude

I actively solicit—and truly welcome—reader comments on my blog posts.  I make it a point to focus on controversial subjects, and the subjects themselves originate from what I learn from you.  A reader of this blog has responded to my question “When were the Good Old Days?” with an opinion that I consider significant, although I do not agree with it.  This gives me the opportunity to make a point long planned, except for its time of insertion in this blog.  That time is now.
 
The writer begins his reply to my question with an observation about the closing of Norristown State Hospital.  He is on solid ground with this, on a subject I shall discuss in the future.  He next shifts to national politics, and to his main point.  His phraseology makes him an extreme example of a type whose numbers give every appearance of being substantial.  People may not be comfortable with the totality of his claim, but what he says strikes a responsive and sympathetic emotional chord among many.

I reprint the fundamental point of his letter here in full:

“We must remember it’s not about Dems vs. Reps.  It’s about We the people vs. the Government.  It’s about an illegitimate government, and that is Federal and LOCAL.  It’s about government that has lost it’s rightful purpose, to serve and protect, and now is the enemy of free spirit.”

To hear such rhetoric about the Federal government is rather common these days, and that aspect of it shall not concern us here.  The writer did, however, go out of his way to capitalize LOCAL, so he clearly meant our municipal and township governments, both the elected and those who occupy the many boards, authorities and committees at the local and county level.  I can at least agree with the writer that in our municipalities it’s not “Dems. vs. Reps.”, or at least it shouldn’t be.  From that point on, however, we part ways. 

While it is unlikely that too many people would agree totally with his opinion (I hope), his blanket condemnation of those in government resonates with many.  I have attended a considerable number of local government public meetings over the decades, and the sight of residents angrily asking why the council/authority/board/committee is not working “for the people” has been commonplace. 

This blanket assumption that government is inherently oppressive, and that those in it are engaged in a behind-the-scenes plot to enrich themselves and fritter away everyone’s hard-earned tax money fatally skews the viewpoint of those who allow it to dominate.  Such an assumption processes life’s experiences through a very dark lens, one that predisposes far too many toward easy, soul-satisfying judgments about people and issues that deserve a more nuanced and balanced examination.  Those afflicted with this syndrome tend to be grouped among a community’s “apathetic” citizens, but they deserve a category all their own, for they exert an influence that is quite different from that of true apathy.  It is, in fact, much worse, because whereas a characteristic of the apathetic is that they don’t care enough to comment, let alone act, nihilists of this persuasion care too much to realize the negative effect of either.

I term this “The Wrong Attitude” for two reasons:
.     It’s not true.
.     It’s counterproductive.

I shouldn’t have to produce facts to substantiate my first point (remember, we are talking about LOCAL government here).  These people really are your neighbors; they are much more like you than any at the state or federal level.  Why would they join in this alleged massive conspiracy in our boroughs and townships?  What’s in it for them?  It certainly isn’t money.  We are after all, talking about governments caught between the rising costs of providing the services you all expect and the political death that results from raising taxes.  Where is the opportunity for self-enrichment?  Not all that many years ago the combination of better economic times, a more trusting public and a much less intrusive press did allow such activities, but those conditions have virtually disappeared.

Not only is it ridiculous to assume that local officials are both venal and incompetent, it is counterproductive to let them know you think along those lines.  Once you develop such a reputation, they will smile and politely give you your say, but they are not actually listening.  That can be unfortunate when you really do have a solid point to make. 

Please do not read the above as a blanket endorsement of any, let alone all, local elected or appointed government officials, but only as a denial of any claim that they are ipso facto venal and/or oppressive.  They may be lazy, they may have the wrong vision for your community, and they may actually be incompetent.  Each one deserves careful scrutiny on a regular basis, and should be called to account if the facts so warrant.  Distrust can be healthy, but beware of reflexive disbelief.  Blanket condemnation of and disassociation from your local governments can only lead to them being allowed to operate without the necessary scrutiny.  That, in turn, will only help those assumptions about lack of accountability and purpose become self-fulfilling.

While you are exercising the due diligence that today’s laws governing lawmakers give to you, you should begin by giving them the benefit of the doubt about why they sought election or appointment.  Then, as you examine their actions, recognize that they are very liable to see a situation in different terms than you do, often because of the requirements of their office or position.  They may be wrong, but they didn’t just suddenly go over to the dark side.  It is your right as a citizen to judge, but do so according the facts, as unfiltered as possible by some underlying assumption.

As a final point, let me further distance myself from those with “the wrong attitude” by encouraging any of you across the region that are dissatisfied with local conditions to actually run for office, or volunteer to serve on a board.  You, and your attitude of working toward community improvement are greatly needed.  Just don’t be surprised if, having achieved your goal, some people begin to view you in a different way, perhaps even those who know you well.  It’s part of the price you pay, and part of why that so-common attitude is wrong:  those who serve in local government are not takers, they are givers.