Stay Cool: A Call For New Dialogue
There’s an unwritten rule to political life, especially
concerning those elected to representative office. You don’t
use physical violence, no matter what arises. You don’t
hit. You don’t try and sue your constituents. You honor
the trust of both those who elected you, and the institution
you have been elected to serve by representing all interests,
by maintaining a sense of decorum fitting of the office.
When someone steps beyond this line, these unwritten laws, there
is no room for excuses. There are no parents or judges to run
to, saying one did such and such because such and such happened.
Or he hit first. Or the words we are hearing these days…
“I was set up.” Our governance is beyond that.
Look at the rare cases when politics has gotten violent. When
arguments used to devolve into duels, both parties would end
up losers. Aaron Burr could never escape the fate of having
killed Alexander Hamilton. Just as Hamilton, endless attempts
to the contrary, will never be able to escape the petty way
in which he let his promise slip away for ignoble reasons.
To this day, the U.S. Congress still regrets that moment in
1854 when a member of the House came onto the Senate floor and
beat a colleague unconscious. It will be hard, henceforth, for
Cynthia McKinney to outlive her reputation as a slapper. Or
for Vice President Cheney to get beyond his use of the F-word
in a verbal tussle with a Democrat senator he disagreed with.
Or think of the mess that French soccer star got in last week
when he head-butted an opponent for supposedly making a slur.
It looked petty, no matter what might have been said.
Once elected to office, you do not hit. You are held to higher
standards. It’s part of the job.
Similarly, the field I have been in for a quarter century, 19
years of them covering the happenings of this valley, also carries
certain rules with it. You do not attack private citizens, unless
they have done something to engage the public. You strive for
a fairness in reporting based on the summoning of as many pertinent
facts as one can muster, as well as a rigid adherence to stating
one’s personal agendas, one’s biases, when recognized…
working always to counter, if not bury them. Lastly, you hold
those in office to greater standards than those out, as part
of the concept of the “Fourth Estate,” a long-held
term referring to the press, both in its explicit capacity of
advocacy and in its implicit ability to frame political issues,
that originated with the same thinkers who founded the ideals
on which our modern governing form of a Democratic Republic
What has happened to such principles locally, as well as on
a national basis? Something has slipped… and it’s
not just because of the heat.
A few weeks back I met with a group of readers in Olive, reported
at length in that community’s newspaper, as well as The
Woodstock Times (for which I also write), about a variety of
complaints they had with our reporting of local issues…
in particular, Large Parcel. They asked me how I made decisions;
I described the rigors of putting newspapers together on deadline.
I asked them what I could do better, realizing that there is
always an emotional side to a community’s life that is
hard to render in our pages. And in the issues since I have
worked at changing what we do to reflect what was requested
Years ago, I won a statewide award for doing similar things.
They called it Community Newspapering, and my experiments with
it involved the holding of a long series of regional roundtable
discussions to which I invited leading players from governmental,
business, educational, arts, tourism, and second home sectors,
as well as anyone who cared to attend. The results were often
cumbersome, because everyone had an equal voice and the discussions
had a tendency to ramble. But they allowed everyone to share
concerns and see that there is as much shared between our distinct
Us and Them constituencies up here as is divided.
Eventually, however, I found myself forced to end the meetings
when one local businessman, still in the news as the region’s
most controversial developer, started seeking revenge in various
ways against anyone who had differed with him in our public
sessions. He had muddied the waters of public discourse, as
it were, on enough occasions that it was no longer viable to
dialogue, as we all wanted. And to have disinvited him would
have been undemocratic, a watering down of the ideals that had
started our roundtables in the first place. We let them pass,
feeling the time was no longer right for their continuation.
Now, we may have reached a time, however, when such events need
to start happening again. With invitations to all to join the
discussions. Even those who have, in recent years, declined
to join Meet The Candidate events or other forums for open discussion,
with excuses that they’re “set-ups.”
What can be set up when dialogue happens honestly, sincerely?
You get asked questions, you answer them honestly. If someone
gets childish, the rest of the group tells them they’re
out of line. But then you move on. We all have problems with
maturity at times.
How will such an event be reported? As fairly as we can…
allowing for letters and further meetings to chastise us if
we get things wrong. As has been the way for well over 200 years
of our system to date.
When will we have it? Following the summer heat, for certain,
when tempers have settled. And where? We’ll try for the
local central schoolcampus, it being the strongest regionalizing
entity we have at the moment
Who will we invite? Educators and elected town, county and state
officials. The business community. Environmentalists and artists,
social workers and everyone who lives here. Even those who don’t.
From all our local communities, Why so many? Because we all
need to start talking again. and not just within towns or lik-minded
groups. Because our concerns are larger than any of us can handle.
And because we never need to let another punch fly in these
parts, no ifs ands or buts.
We’ll let you know when we’ve got the details down.
In the interim… Stay cool.