So who’s really informed?

One problem most of us face is that we are uninformed. Sometimes that is our fault. Other times, the insiders want to keep the outsiders out.

I wonder how many people have gone to a selectman’s meeting and stayed until the end. How about a school board meeting? Sometimes these events are not far removed from Dante’s Inferno. You could die from boredom. It is a sign of the times that most of these meetings are now easily accessible on public service TV channels. I am drawn like a moth to flame and as I watch, I ask myself several questions.

I would love to know why anyone would really do this stuff. I did it as a young man, in Alford, and at the end of my stint I knew I would never do it again. It is truly thankless. You sit there. Inevitably, there are audience members who are there simply for “blood sport.” Some of their characters demand confrontation and what better place for these unhappy folks to work out their issues than at a selectmen’s or city council meeting.

Some of them are quite angry and these gatherings provide a great opportunity for them to release their angst. Like Madam Defarge of A Tale of Two Cities, they appear to be knitting people’s names into sweaters, perhaps for political execution. But, of course, there are good citizens who may have some time to spare or who really just understand the basic principles of citizenship. It has been suggested that those who keep out of town or city politics really have no right to complain.

The corollary is, “We deserve what we get.” Unfortunately, that is not always true. We don’t deserve it, we just get it. I never knew that there would be new sidewalks of the Cadillac variety on Great Barrington’s hill. We needed them like a hole in the head and when we got them, the town fathers in their infinite wisdom put them in the places where people generally didn’t go. By the time people figured it out, it was too late. So even if I had been watching the selectmen on TV and even if I had been paying attention, I might have missed the details of the project.

Do you think that I have the right to complain about it after the fact? Well, this may be self-serving but I think I do. We elect people who say they can do the job. We figure that they are our surrogates in charge of creating good pubic policy.

Right now, the Town of Great Barrington is embarking on a project to repave the town’s main street and to take down the beautiful pear trees that have graced our town for so long. Like many others, I don’t want them to. The town bureaucrats and elected officials say we have to because the trees have bad root systems and will die sooner or later (like the rest of us will die sooner or later.) Like a child of 2, I yell to the wind “Don’t take down the pear trees!” But, the question remains: Do I know enough?

I was once at a carnival in Maryland, campaigning with my banjo for a Congressional candidate. I was distracted by a carnival guy running a game which was later declared to be corrupted. The guy was good and told me that I couldn’t lose. Just put a dollar down.

“You win” he yelled.

“Okay, give me my dollar.” “Not so fast. First you have to cover the dollar you put down and the dollar you won.” Well, you can guess what happened. I lost a lot of money.

So what does this have to do with anything? In order for the town to get grant money for the paving, we have to put money down. The implication is that it is a slam dunk. Put down the money, get more money. Maybe. But how do I know? They told me that we had to put a lot of money into our Mason Library. I held up my hand. I wrote in favor.

Nevertheless, the library still isn’t open when it should be open.

I’m a professor. I study this stuff. Even if I pay attention and even if the meetings are on TV and even if good people win their offices, how do I really know what’s happening? I end where I began. We are uninformed.

Originally Published in The Berkshire Eagle, 10-24-09

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