July 21st, 2010 11:14 EST
Bad Government is Contagious: It Starts Locally, Not Washington
When it comes to bungling, nepotism and corruption, local government is getting a free pass across the land.
The mainstream press has reneged on its commitment to keep watch on town hall. It has substituted titillation for news, because flirtation is cheap and often passes for something more than it is.
It is self-destructive to subscribe to a bunch of secondhand notions and gripes held out by the political parties, whether Republican, Democrat or Tea. They represent tired slogans. For example, Spiro Agnew`s famous lie that the press is overwhelmingly liberal has become a kind of consensus.
Why fuss about political parties when you can actually do something about your lives and the way your taxes are spent? All government is local. Bad government starts at home, in your hometown. Party rhetoric, no matter which part of the spectrum it comes from, is a distraction designed to encourage you to believe the parties will do something about the ills you yourself can and should address. Surrogate government has become a national excuse for whining while doing nothing "and electing people we know will do nothing except perpetuate themselves in office.
It`s as useless as party rhetoric to complain about county, state and federal government while local government gets a pass, because bad government starts at home. Main Street is not a Currier & Ives postcard, it is not a nostalgic platitude "it is in fact often full of back-room deals and corrupt practices. And in the absence of a vigilant local press it is up to the rest of us to give the corrupters the jitters by breathing down their necks.
There is a simple remedy and from it a second revolution could arise: we must relieve the defunct and compromised press from the duties the press has already abdicated and start poking into local government ourselves. We must regard ourselves as watch officers who have found sentries sleeping at their posts.
From the ranks of the retired all manner of skills and disciplines can be recruited to expose the inner workings of government. No town hall with its records, no school administration, no tax assessor`s office, no building or zoning office, no planning office should be left untouched. They belong to us. We pay for them. And it is absurd to think that only the press can explain them to us. Absurd and dangerous. We should be the Fourth Estate. The remnant of that estate, with all its constitutional obligations, its historic credentials, is failing us. We must constitute a new press, a new estate. To do that, we must stop blinking at local government.
Any good accountant can understand a town or school budget. And if he or she is a forensic accountant, so much the better. Any good lawyer can interpret the town ordinances. Any good retired cop can look into whatever is being swept under the carpet. And if we put these skills together with a writer or an editor we have a news organization. Then all we need is email or a webmaster to reach the public.
If we wait for the press to do the job we may as well hand government at all levels over to the special interests who corrupt it. If we wait for the press to do the job it won`t matter which party we belong to because it will be a day late and dollar short. There is no use complaining about something we can change without institutional help. We don`t need a party or a platform or a financial backer or a license. What we need is curiosity and the guts to stand up to the inevitable bozos in government who will try to convince us that our affairs are none of our business.
Oh yes, that will happen, be sure of it. And when it happens you will say to yourselves, Aha, this must be the spot. How so? Well, haven`t all these politicians been deploring the public`s lack of interest in public affairs? So how come they get huffy when you start asking questions and ask to see a few documents? And believe me, they will get huffy. You will run into all kinds of stalls. Come back tomorrow. I have to get permission from my supervisor. The documents are stored somewhere and you`ll have to fill out these forms. Blah, blah, blah. Well, those documents do not belong to those gatekeepers, and they have no right whatsoever to close the gate on you. But if they do, and to the extent they do, you will know they have something to hide.
Local government offices are stuffed with documents generated at our expense and vitally affecting our lives. There is nothing classified about those documents. Unless we`re willing to read them and find answers to the questions they raise we are as culpable for bad government as the politicians who anger us. For example, what do you know about how your property is assessed? Where are the measures that were applied? Where are the comparables? Who did the assessing?
Any local newspaper in the United States could have predicted the housing bust. The signs were all there. Too many homes being built. Shaky lending practices. Nothing added up. It didn`t make sense. So why wasn`t it reported? Why weren`t the questions asked? How many new homes does America need? How will Americans pay for them when they keep losing jobs, when their salaries are stagnant, when their benefits are diminished? Why weren`t those questions asked in every town in America? The answer is that all those newspapers and television and radio outlets were raking in advertising revenue from predators. Deal after deal was made to endanger to water supplies and overload existing services because developers swore up and down they were bringing jobs and prosperity to the towns whose taxes they were about to increase. And town after town swallowed it because the press didn`t raise the alarm.
How much home development can we possibly need when we have two million empty homes and the middle class is disappearing? But the press keeps on saying, like a mantra, things will improve when housing starts increase, when more jobs are created. What jobs? Burger-flipping jobs, Wal-Mart jobs? Corporate America has no intention of rebuilding the middle class when it can find cheap labor overseas. Why isn`t the press raising this issue? Because the press belongs to Corporate America.
Over and over we hear the same chestnuts in the press: more home construction, more buying, more consumerism. Consume with what? Hot air? The press is acting as if it understands all this and more, so why does it offend common sense? Why would we build more homes when two million are empty? To help the banks prey on more buyers? To subsidize the developers? And how will we buy more while being paid less? It doesn`t take genius to demand answers to these no-brainers.
The public seems to be clamoring for action, but the action should be taken by the public. The public is passing the buck to the Tea Party and the other vague complainers. We need nationwide cadres of citizen journalists sticking their noses into every aspect of local government and demanding answers for whatever they don`t understand. What we don`t need is more titillation journalism " good-looking anchors playing footsie with each other and acting as if everything is funny. But it isn`t easy. When you`re talking about hometowns you`re talking about people you know, people you have to live with. That is one reason local journalism takes grit. Another is that local office-holders are often advertisers and have the power to punish the media. Democracy is hard work, but if we intend to preserve it we must stop passing the buck on to Washington and face up to the fact that corruption starts at home and is then exported to Washington.
The media are covering up for corrupters. They are distracting us from the causes of our discontent. Take the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We`re getting a halcyon picture of a Gulf coast that supported all manner of businesses and industries, but what would actual statistics show? They would probably show that oil has been king all along and that everything else has been sacrificed at the altar of Big Oil, just as our entire way of life has been shaped by fossil fuel. We ruined Main Street and glorified malls, we built unsustainable suburbs with their high taxes, and we neglected public transportation "all in the name of Big Oil. Where was the press? The answer is those full-page oil advertisements.
If the cadres of citizen journalists I`ve described ask one simple question as they familiarize themselves with local government the nation will get on the road to better government. The question is this: who profits? Why did you do this and who profits?
Other questions will follow. How can this be done better? Why do we need this service, this truck, this many policemen, this many inspectors? Why, in fact, do we need to grow when we don`t have the tax base to sustain the growth? Because the developers promise that we will have the tax revenue and jobs? How has that worked out? Why can`t towns collaborate to provide certain services? Why so much duplication, so much patronage and overlap?
What we don`t understand comes back to bite us. The lobbyists claim their job is to inform, not influence decisions. Their job is to propagandize and influence. They operate at every level of government, not just Washington. If we leave government up to them and the politicians in their pockets we deserve everything we get, and no protest and no election will change that.
We won`t change anything at the polls if we don`t first grasp local government. Once we do, our eyes will begin to open and we will see that things are quite different from the slogans, whatever the slogans are, left, right or center. The truth is not in political parties, it is not even in ideas. The truth is what we will find when we dig. Everything that happens in Washington or your state capital is staring right in your face every day when you pass your town or city hall. Clean up your local act and state and federal government will follow, not the other way around.
This being the case, the first horrible truth may well be that we no longer have a digging press because the corrupters don`t want us to have one. For example, if we stopped putting corn syrup and other additives into foods we could reverse our headlong progress towards becoming Fat America. And we could cut 21% of our total health care costs. But that would mean inquiring into the lobbies for syrup and other additives, and those industries advertise in the media.
If we consistently asked who profits from war we might cast our war-making in another light. Why haven`t we done so? Why is it left to a film like The International to tell us that bankers are principal beneficiaries of war?
The mainstream press will do just about anything to tease us or give us the jitters, but what it won`t do is cover local government where American democracy actually lives "and is betrayed. Our nostalgic idea of everything being hunky-dory in our hometowns is blinding us to the truth that the political parties could have improved our lives all along but have chosen to stage a mock yak-yak show to distract us. Left ,right, center, green, or tea "the parties have been able to give us better government but have preferred dumb show to take care of themselves first. And the press has been in the game.
Those politicians who work voters up about taxes and big government to get elected "how about asking them to pare down local government, fire a few of their cousins and their political buddies? They`re big on talk, but they have known all along they could do something about the cost of government, its waste, duplication and nepotism.
Americans must learn to follow the paper trail. The paper trail is also the money trail. And there is no one better suited in the land to do this than our growing population of retirees. They have the experience and the maturity to comprehend the issues they`re inquiring into. And "at least until the corporations pocket it "they have the Internet to air their questions and their findings.
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.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
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.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com