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August 23, 2012

Community

RICHARD deROSA
UP ON HAWTHORN HILL

COOPERSTOWN — We often make reference to the value of community. Unfortunately, of late it appears that what is perhaps our most important source of social and cultural cohesion is circling down the drain at a fast clip.

It is often said that politics is local. Sadly, that is not the case anymore. It used to be that residents of communities decided the outcomes of their elections.

Looking backward in time to New England, town meetings were the venue of choice for decision-making and the selection of individuals to serve in community designated leadership roles.

Granted, there are still places where such local control exists, but given recent Supreme Court decisions and the troubling degree to which obscenely wealthy ideologues can affect elections well beyond their own communities, it appears that, well, politics is not that local anymore. That is both a shame and a pity. As news reports have indicated, a handful of wealthy individuals has insinuated itself into local community life throughout the nation.

For instance, millions of outside dollars poured into Wisconsin prior to the recent recall election. The same outside groups unsuccessfully tried to alter the course of an election in Buffalo. The fact that they did not succeed is less significant that the fact that they were able to exert any influence at all. Now that the Supreme Court has determined that money is speech, an absolutely ludicrous view of the speech act itself, moneyspeak is wending its ugly tendrils through the very fabric of American community life.

One can never know for sure just how much all that dough has altered individuals’ thinking. Frankly, it does not matter. That it can happen seems to me a national tragedy rife with disturbing consequences. Underlying much of our current discourse these days is a passionate defense of individual liberty. Not the sort that allows one to pursue happiness. No one would argue against such a noble aim. No, it is a sense of individuality rooted in greed, selfishness and, a very distorted sense of what it means to be a member of a civil society, whether local, regional, or national. In most cases it translates into a notion that the individual should be free to do whatever he chooses, no matter the consequences to others. No one, for instance, would argue against the right of an individual to own property.

But is an individual free to then do whatever he wishes to that land, even if his actions adversely affect the community’s air, water, infrastructure, and environment? For instance, if I do something on my land that pollutes the air, possibly pollutes my neighbors’ wells and, at the very least, damages community infrastructure, what are the consequences to the common weal of the community? Seems to me the answer is obvious. There has always been tension between the individual and the community. Rousseau and others have written quite insightfully about that.

Like it or not, as another writer has put it, individual action and community action are inextricably linked. A community, after all, is a collection of individuals. We should not only look after one another (without being nosy or infringing on necessary privacies), but we should be stewards of the community we share.

That is why I find recent statements to the effect that, specifically with respect to hydrofracking, local communities are not capable of making informed decisions about its effects or permissibility patently offensive. It exhibits a troubling mix of ignorance and condescension - a toxic mix!

Life is, and always has been, local. Politics does not have a corner on the market. I would love to see legislation passed that prohibits foreign money from invading local elections. And I hope I am around when sanity regains its buoyancy and speech is restored to its rightful place in the conduct of national discourse. Speech is language. Money may facilitate speech, but it is not itself speech. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of these mega-billionaires so worried about their freedom to fill more barrels with cash would instead start a fund to provide scholarships for needy students or house the homeless. Do not hold your breath!