When I read the letter most of us received from Mayor Calderone a week or so ago, my first reaction was, “This is just like the politics in my condo association.”
Last fall one of our board members “leaked” to the rest of the building something that was said in a closed-door meeting of the board and, as they say, it went viral. The aftermath included a great deal of drama and finger-pointing, resulting in a lot of emotional damage which had to be cleaned up after the storm before we could move on with our normal business.
Needless to say, I got discouraged. But then I watched the inauguration of President Obama on Jan. 21, and I began to put things in perspective. What screwed my head back on straight was hearing one commentator after another marvel at how our democracy has survived for over 200 years — that the notion of government of, by and for the people has lasted in concrete form so long.
What makes the achievement remarkable is that “we the people” can behave in such screwy ways. When the five of us on my condo board ran for the position, we all assured the other owners that our only goal was the welfare of the whole building. But as time passed, egos got in the way, thin skins led to taking comments personally, and ambition sometimes replaced the desire to serve. The result was a lot of time and energy being spent cleaning up emotional messes instead of working toward constructive goals. Government of and by the people often forgets that it is for the people.
Yet if I read history correctly, all the other alternatives to government of and by the people are even worse. As many of you know, I’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand. One poll taken last year revealed that 60 percent of Thailand’s citizens would consider selling their vote. In other words, getting the equivalent of $15 seemed better than wasting their votes on an institution that did not seem to be for the people.
We are nowhere near that level of cynicism. Most of us still believe our votes make a difference. We see Mayor Calderone and the four commissioners trying to do pretty much what they said they were going to do when they were in campaign mode. Potholes get filled, the police respond to calls, and on most days we take the quality of the water coming out of our taps for granted.
One of the reasons it all works is that we have a weekly newspaper watching our elected officials and making public what they say and do. Perhaps the most important mission of journalism is to speak truth to power, to hold the people who spend our tax dollars accountable.
It’s a two way street of course. Newspapers are put out by fallible humans. We journalists begin with the best of intentions but as time passes, egos can get in the way and for that reason, I think, Mayor Calderone was perfectly justified in using taxpayer funds to respond to articles printed in this newspaper on Dec. 27 and Jan. 15. Journalists need to be held accountable just like politicians.
My point is not to argue about who is right or wrong in this situation but rather to celebrate that in our village we have a healthy, if not always affectionate, relationship between the Review and village hall. On most days, information flows back and forth between the two. On the best of days, journalists and politicians recognize that we really do need each other.
The historian Richard Norton Smith made the following comment on the evening of Inauguration Day: “You know, the idea, radical still in much of the world, that seemingly ordinary people can govern themselves — if we can’t all agree on that and celebrate that at least once every four years, then there’s something wrong with our culture.”
That we ordinary, fallible humans can make this village work is a radical idea. Can we all do better? Of course. From time to time, however, it’s important to step back and all say together, “We’ve got a pretty good thing going here!”