Sam Smith – Trying to figure out why the last few months have not been worse for me, I’ve come to realize that living in a Maine rural town has been much closer to what used to be normal for humans than the urban life I lived so long. The most annoying change has been the low contact with others and having to remember not to try to shake hands when you do meet again.
Now more folks are dropping by and our pandemic patio with its six well separated chairs, grill and table are being used more frequently. Furthermore, unlike my historic forebears in these parts, we have fine internet and TV service. I even love Zoom, especially when someone is being boring and I can just sneak off to another site. Couldn’t do that back in real life.
But the other thing this crisis has reminded me of is that I have lived much of my life moving between the local and the national. This has been because, unlike many liberals, I often found the latter choices – especially in Washington – to have become tedious, presumptuous, pompous and ineffective. One of the reasons I moved to Maine eleven years ago from my native city of DC was that I had wearied of verbal abstractions constantly replacing real matter. Over time DC had lost its colorful politicians and now it seemed everyone in power (relentlessly reported by a similarly dull media) just said things that sounded good for a few minutes and then left you back wondering what the hell to do about it. Now I live next to a farm where the only approved BS is that found on the fields.
There had been a lot of local things that kept me busy in DC – like the 1968 riots four blocks from our house, another story for the neighborhood newspaper I had started there with the help of a donation from a local church. And the efforts to do something about it all – such as a neighborhood legal service, local credit union, and places like Friendship House where the middle class would help low income neighbors. We even had a cop in the ‘hood who would go on to be one of the first black police chiefs ink the country.
Later, I became one of the first bunch of elected advisory neighborhood commissioners – a new idea that provided communities with a louder voice – raising the standing of the ‘hood albeit weak in actual power.
But there was in those days as now a strong assumption by liberals that meaningful change was a federal matter.. As I wrote a couple of years ago:
One of the great myths about American politics is that change comes from the top. The truth of the matter is that change typically starts at the bottom and slowly works its way up to the top… As late as 1992, the one hundred largest localities in America pursued an estimated 1,700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government in the previous decade. As Washington was vainly struggling to get a handle on the tobacco industry, 750 communities passed indoor no-smoking laws. And, more recently, we have had the local drives towards relaxing anti-marijuana laws, permitting gay marriage and the major local and state outcry against the Real ID act.
To take just one current example, improving police behavior and service requires in no small part a change in the relationship between our communities and those patrolling them.
Moving to Maine increased my appreciation of the power of the local. Despite nearly half that time having been under the rule of Donald Trump, my town and state remain sane and decent places and remind me of the Maine official who had grown up in Hungary and once told me that even during the Cold War her town was run democratically.
This isn’t a bad thing to keep in mind as we contemplate the hazard of four more years of Trump terror and tantrums.
I, for example, feel better about the future by reflecting periodically on what the New York state attorney general might have in her files. Or when I see a strong response from governors to some madness at the top. The media, to be sure, does a poor job of reporting non-Washington stories but perhaps if governors and mayors would meet together periodically, the press might notice them more.
In any case if you’re feeling frustrated, angry and frightened because of what is happening nationally it may help to remember, as Fred Rogers might have put it, there’s another way in the neighborhood. The national story is only one part of our lives.