I`m not a computer geek by any means, but I have learned a few useful gambits, such as training my e-mail program to identify certain mail as junk. I thought I would be merely protecting myself from sales pitches, but it turns out that, although there is no vituperation button in my program, I find myself junking mail from people who don`t know how to behave and have abandoned the ordinary rules of courtesy and respect.
For example, I recently sent out a notice announcing an audiobook CD of my book of poems, Far FromAlgiers, pointing out that all proceeds will help the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University find and publish new voices. An Internet acquaintance responded by accusing " me of having voted for the president, whom he referred to as a jackass. I used to regard this kind of behavior as beyond the pale, but I have come to conclude that it`s deranged, and I notice that such behavior becomes more abusive over time.
Society simply can`t function when people behave so vituperatively towards each other, especially not a democratic republic that depends on consensus, depends indeed on everyone being heard and respected. Social scientists are able to study this sort of thing, but it seems to me that the advent of the Internet and a distinct uptick in incivility and abusive language have coincided to poison discourse.
My political and social views "no surprise to readers of my articles "are generally but not invariably liberal. I`ve been known to vote for fiscal conservatives and sometimes even social conservatives. While my country has given me the great privilege of expressing myself and elsewhere without fear of retaliation, I believe that a civil society depends on our civility towards one another. I wouldn`t think of sending angry, hateful political and social diatribes to my conservative friends. I know their views. I respect them. I expect the same from them. I wouldn`t send liberal diatribes to them by e-mail or any other means because I don`t wish to hurt them or offend them. Sometimes I`m persuaded by their views, but first I have to listen to them respectfully.
Usually strangers who write in response to something I`ve written here are favorably disposed, but occasionally there are dissenters, and they`re sometimes intemperate. When they are reasonable and polite, I`m happy to air their views, and every so often I find that they`ve persuaded me to moderate or reexamine my own. This is, I believe, the way a republic should work. The alternative is a polarization that gets nothing done and rends the fabric of society.
When I was a young reporter I was more conservative than I am now. I covered local politics in Rhode Island for The Providence Journal. One of my fondest memories was trying to understand the views of politicians and others so that I could explain them accurately to readers. I have pleasant memories of the respect that often characterized these local differences. And I wonder now where this civility of the 1950s and 1960s has gone. These were men and women who met each other on the street every day, whose children went to school together. If they had indulged in the kind of vehemence I often see in today`s e-mails their society would have broken down. They would have found it difficult to earn a living, to attend church with people of different minds, to make decisions for their communities. Their lives would have been too embittered to uphold the values we esteem in our polity.
The Journal represented a genteel kind of Republicanism that stood for fiscal restraint, transparency in government and social justice. The kind of Republican party it represented was temperate, respectful of its opposition, and determined to govern, when in office, in a commonsensical way. The party had not yet hitched its political wagon to Southern family values issues and the kind of covert racism that undergirded the Southern Strategy of the 1960s. I remember with considerable nostalgia the time taken by many local Republican office holders to explain the intricacies of such matters as ad valorem taxes to me. I especially remember the kindness of Dennis Sheehan, who in the late 1950s was North Kingstown`s exceedingly savvy tax assessor. Were it not for these courtly Republicans I would never have become a decent reporter. I had to listen to them with respect, and they in turn had a vested interest in my getting it right.
I`m sure there are many such men and women in both parties today. I think I know a few. But you couldn`t prove it by my e-mail. Perhaps the armor of distance emboldens those who hold rabid views to become thuggish on the Internet. But the pity of it is that the Internet holds out the possibility of a profoundly interactive democracy that really is conducting a day-to-day symposium on the state of the nation and its future. I think that in fact is happening, but I also observe that poisoners are at work, demeaning the quality of our discourse and trying to kick others around and bully them.
I live in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York State, in the 20th Congressional District, which recently elected the Democrat Scott Murphy by a mere 399 votes, not counting absentee ballots "some of which were cantankerously challenged by his opponent, James N. Tedisco, including mine and my wife`s. The comically gerrymandered 20th district has 75,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, but for the second time in recent history has sent a Democrat to Washington.
Just consider the foregoing paragraph as background. The lower and mid-Hudson Valley in the 1920s and 1930s was a Republican fiefdom. But as people from New York City and Long Island began to move in or buy second homes, the Democratic Party gained strength and even won a few elections. Today the Republicans` grip on the area is loosening. But during all this time the often-strained relationship between landed and deeply rooted Republicans and Democratic newcomers has to a large extent defined the quality of life in the valley.
The Republicans were often professionals, tradesmen, shopkeepers and farmers. They typically welcomed the influx of business but not always the people who brought it. The newcomers were more racially diverse than the landed families, and that sometimes stirred nativist sentiment. The newcomers brought many things: new ideas, skills, talents and sometimes money, which translated into jobs, but also ignorance of local mores and even contempt for them. In some instances, in places like Woodstock, their bohemian lifestyle was seen as decadence. The new arrivals often saw the traditionalist society into which they had moved as bigoted.
What was required, and what was for the most part found, was a kind of comity that is now in the process of forming a new polity. The landed people, who were often of English, Dutch and German descent, had to grin and bear it. Sometimes they didn`t, but usually they did, and still do. The newcomers, if they had delicacy and respect, tried not to make exhibitionists of themselves. They tried to understand that they had to pay their fair share of taxes, that they couldn`t just drum people who had given their hearts and souls to the region out of office and out of sight. And the natives " had to refrain from running numbers on the newcomers, such as unfairly inflated property taxation.
It wasn`t easy. It still isn`t. And the balance of sensibilities often broke down. But on the whole, compromises were struck that could well be a political and social model for much of the country. It took a great deal of listening. For example, redundancies in local and county government increased taxes, but the newcomers had to understand that the intricate system of patronage underlying this situation kept food on the table for people who would otherwise be out of work. In other words, the best system wasn`t always the most humane or even the most sensible. Republicans, for their part, have had to confess to a certain degree of gamesmanship, knowing as they do that their repeated calls for holding the tax line don`t always agree with the demands of local patronage and duplication of services.
Many of the valley`s towns have changed dramatically, none more so than Woodstock in Ulster County, famous for the 1969 rock festival, which was actually held forty miles away because the town at the eleventh hour feared it couldn`t handle it. When I was a boy in the 1940s and 50s the town was firmly in the hands of local Republicans. Today it teeters back and forth but in general is so progressive that local wags have been known to remark that the town seemingly never saw an ordinance it didn`t want to pass. Indeed some of the newcomers, coming up against the town`s model codes, are nostalgic for the days when the Republicans held sway.
Woodstock is a town I`ve known since I was a boy in the 1940s. The tradespeople and professionals who cut newcomers some slack prospered. Nativists fared less well. Today some of the more progressive ideas promoted by those newcomers, such as land and water use monitoring and building codes, are often vigorously implemented by office holders with pre-Revolutionary roots in the area. This is not the case throughout the valley, but it suggests the political and social accommodations possible when extremism is held at bay.
The Republicans of the Hudson Valley in many ways reflect the world view I encountered in New England in the 1950s. Their Republicanism isn`t truculent or contemptuous. It`s more social and fiscal than ideological. It reflects their intimate knowledge of place, their sense of history and belonging, their wariness about change for the sake of change. It`s a cautious, careful approach based on handed-down wisdom and, in their view, a superior understanding of the way things work and ought to work. It`s also based on an intimate knowledge of people and property. Newcomers who run roughshod over this sensibility are as much to blame as nativists for the friction that sometimes leaves problems unaddressed.
Elections are like statistics or history: you can bend the facts to suit your purposes. To me, Scott Murphy`s victory is not, as the Democrats claim, an endorsement of their agenda but rather a triumph of the political climate change in New York`s Hudson Valley as a result of decades of interaction between inheritors of the region and newcomers. It`s a triumph of the consensus that is possible when opposing views and histories stir their differences into an elixir of respect and mutual adjustment rather than the poison of implacable resentment and contempt. All isn`t perfect in our grand valley, not by a long shot, but people made room for each other, gave a little to get a little, and decided that at the end of the day what they want most of all is government that works.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller`s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
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