Priorities: Fighting Bigotry Over Babbittry

local sceneCommon men and women can learn from the examples of great men and women. In this way, one can learn how to prioritize between concurrent challenges, applying lessons from a prior and intense conflict even to present but lesser conflicts. Some threats are worse than others, and so our it’s reasonable that one places more effort there.

It makes sense to me that the most intense focus should be on the most intense challenges, and that those challenges are national ones first, local ones embodying national ones second, and purely local ones third.

The national challenges of Trumpism (viz., authoritarianism, bigotry, nativism, mendacity, conflicts of interest, ignorance, and subservience and dependency on Putin’s dictatorship) are a greater threat to communities than purely local buffoonery and grandiosity.

In this way, one would, so to speak, prioritize the fight against bigotry over babbittry. (One sees well, to be sure, that years of local babbittry erode the standards of a community, making it more susceptible of national illnesses. Only scorn is owed to those who wasted a generation glad-handing through town.)

Three confident assumptions undergird my thinking —

First, Trumpism should go, consigned to a political outer darkness, and the ruin of that way will be a thorough good. The next generation will ask: What did you do to oppose Trump? Those who supported him will then be silent; those who were silent will then be ashamed. Those who openly defended centuries of liberty and constitutionalism on this continent, however small their own efforts, will enjoy settled consciences and the thanks of a free people.

Second, there will still be time, during this national conflict, to combat local embodiments of the national challenges that face us. There are, for example, lumpen nativists, local show-us-your-papers men,  who deserve more criticism than they’ve yet received. That’s a fight worthy fighting, and one happily joined.

Third, most of those responsible for our local challenges have no future in any event — they were irreversibly in decline in Whitewater even before Trump came to power. If the pharaohs, with all their wealth poured into the pyramids, could not thereby prevent the decline of their way of life, then one can be sure that today’s local grandiosity and boosterism will not do the trick.

Fight and prevail through collective, nationwide efforts in the greater challenge, and the local challenge will be even more easily won.

Margaret Sullivan on Great Local Reporting

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist observes that Great local reporting stands between you and wrongdoing. (Sullivan was formerly The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of her hometown paper, The Buffalo News.)

Sullivan explains what great local reporting means:

“In only 15 years, American newspaper companies slashed their workforces by more than half — from 412,000 employees in 2001 to 174,000 last year.

But that troubling trend wasn’t on the minds of journalists at the Charleston Gazette-Mail last year as they dug deep into the prescription-drug epidemic that was inflicting mortal wounds on their community.

No, what motivated them was the West Virginia paper’s unofficial motto: “Sustained outrage.”

That phrase, coined by former publisher Ned Chilton, “means a lot to people here,” executive editor Robert Byers told me last week, shortly after the 37,000-circulation paper won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The family-owned paper (Chilton’s daughter is the publisher now) has a newsroom staff of about 50.

“You can do a hundred stories” on the opioid crisis, Byers said, “but we wanted to know where all these drugs were coming from, and how could so many pills be diverted onto the street.”

Needless to say, not all communities have newspapers like this. On the contrary, in the Whitewater area, we have papers so weak that they’d never come close to a serious journalistic nomination, let alone a real award. Many of them give each other prizes at local press gatherings, for third-tier work, on a participation-trophy theory of life. Indeed, the local climate is so weak that a small-town politician can brand his own website a news source, cover for years the political projects in which he’s been directly involved, and expect to be taken seriously for it.

If  one can say of the admirable Charleston Gazette-Mail that its unofficial motto is sustained outrage, one can say as easily of the Gazette, Daily Union, Register, and Banner that they might as well have a common, unofficial motto of sustained boosterism.

This local problem has been part of That Which Paved the Way to the weaker economic, fiscal, and social conditions that plague nearby communities. The way out will not come neither from more of the same ideas nor the same people pushing the same ideas.

How Foreign Powers Could Try to Buy Trump

Donald Trump is an unprecedentedly wealthy president, who owns or licenses his name to buildings, casinos, and luxury hotels around the world. An ethics watchdog group has already brought a lawsuit against him for violating the Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause,” which prohibits government officials from receiving gifts from foreign states. Trump has taken few steps to distance himself from his organization, and foreign governments could use the President’s business interests as bargaining chips to influence his policymaking. Atlantic writer Jeremy Venook has been monitoring the President’s growing list of conflicts of interests since November 2016, and breaks down some of the most alarming ones in this video.

There’s a local angle in all this: Whitewater is rife with possible conflicts of interest (although not of the same magnitude or kind as Trump’s, of course): from news sites that publishers claim have not simply advertisers but ‘sponsors’, dual roles as politicians and news people, and a general insider’s desire to boost well-positioned friends (even if the policy in question is, to use the technical term, a dog-crap policy).

Funnier still is the self-exonerating way that some try to avoid these conflict-of-interest problems (1) by insisting that they are immune from the psychological biases that would naturally beset billions of others on this planet or (2) by finding their way onto an ethics committee. (This latter way is not unique to Whitewater. After all, Saudia Arabia found her way onto the United Nations Human Rights Council.)

This is a way in which longstanding local mediocrity and the new national mediocrity present challenges in their respective venues. See, along these lines, The National-Local Mix (Part 2).

Conflicts of Interest Don’t Explode, They Corrode

local Akin to fake news at the local level are myriad conflicts of interest tolerated in struggling communities. Like fake news, they often take their toll slowly.

Conflicts of interest, in small towns as elsewhere, seldom lead to sudden fiscal or economic changes. Neither government (fiscal) nor a community (economic) is immediately touched. Local conflicts of interest, for example, don’t cause explosions; they cause a slow corrosion of quality, leading to an equally slow decline in fiscal policy and of a community’s economy.

A house fire, a flood, or a violent crime is sudden, with immediately obvious and tragic results. That’s not true for conflicts of interest – they degrade slowly, as rust relentlessly eats through even the strongest iron.

Consider the following example, from Whitewater’s local school district. The district administration wanted a referendum, and in support of that referendum, placed links on its website to local sources of information where one might learn about the proposal. One of those links was to a self-described local news site (whitewaterbanner.com) whose publisher is a very member of the school board that voted unanimously for the referendum:

referendum-2016-whitewater-unified-school-district
Via http://www.wwusd.org/page/3039.

The district might as well have simply linked to its own referendum materials, over which its school board member had responsibility, rather than to his publication.

There is this difference, though: had the district used its own site, it would have presented these materials honestly, at the institutional site that created them.  Using additionally a school board member’s site gains nothing in original content, and offers only a false pretense of independent, conflict-free publication. (Other, nearby publications are little better, but at least their ‘correspondents’ are not simultaneously officeholders.)

I’m sometimes asked if this sort of conflict concerns me. When I am so asked, I’ll answer that it does concern me, but not in its immediacy. The damage from conflicts is like corrosion, leading to a stagnating economy, and to a relative decline.

That’s where Whitewater now is, and the acceptance of lesser standards is one reason for it.