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Heavy Meddle

Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics – April 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S ME AGAIN, Martha. Usually Ed and I alternate on writing this letter, but we make exceptions if one of us has a major project, or just no time. Last month, I wrote the letter because Ed was finishing his story on RS-2477. And this time I’m writing because last month I inadvertently introduced a topic that inspired Ed.

In regard to whether there should be elected members on water conservancy boards, he said, “We should do more about that; it’s a natural for us. It’s a pretty complex topic — much too research-intensive and time-consuming for a local newspaper to cover without slighting their regular reporting — and you can bet the Wall Street Journal isn’t going to do it. Somebody needs to go back to the basics — to explain water conservancy and water conservation districts, what they are, what they do, when they started, how they fit into Colorado law, you know, all that stuff…

Actually, I don’t know. Just the idea of copy-editing a story involving Colorado water law makes me want to move. When it comes to Colorado’s history, natural history or geography, I know what books to use to check questionable facts, and I have a fair idea about whether facts are questionable.

But when it comes to water conservancy boards, well… When Ed said “we should do something,” he actually meant he’d write something — thank goodness. In this case, all I have to do is read for grammar and clarity, and to mark unclear passages with “I don’t get this” or “huh?.”

That should be easy. But on the other hand, I really should understand water politics better. In the past few years, however, I’ve actually learned quite a bit about water. But that brings me to my bigger problem.

Today, just being a responsible citizen seems to be an almost impossible aspiration. National, state, town, and county governments, special districts, water districts, school districts, judicial districts, public utilities, proposed laws, ordinances, referendums, and amendments, it’s a lot to keep track of. And recently I heard on a nightly news show that Americans now work more hours than anyone else in the first world — including the Japanese.

Perhaps if Colorado’s conservatives were really serious about saving marriages — instead of contemplating a mandatory year of counseling for parents who want a divorce — they might consider legislating mandatory weekends off, or month-long vacations, or after-school activity-free days so that kids and parents could occasionally spend time together getting to know one another.

As things are, despite all of the rhetoric, modern marriages probably don’t succumb to poor values or low morality as often as they perish from neglect. And well they should — for there is nothing particularly valuable nor moral about total strangers staying married.

THERE IS, HOWEVER, something audaciously autocratic and distasteful about state-mandated marriage counseling, especially when the mandate seems to be coming directly from good old Doctor Laura, a cranky, has-been, know-it-all, talk show host who’s pretty much in the same league as Howard Stern, in that she also makes her living by being rude and abrasive.

Now that Laura’s stepped out of the world of talk radio where snide, biting-edge bullying is all the rage, and revamped her act to play in the slightly more genteel world of talk TV, her ratings are down, down, down. Doctor Laura’s audience likes her mean.

(Such shows rely on highschool-style insults for entertainment: hear the cool, glib people put down the dorks and losers. This probably plays even better because today’s losers were often yesterday’s prom queens. But there is an enduring mystery about why so many people eagerly consent to be reviled, heckled and thoroughly humiliated on radio and television. (In the near future, as shows like “Survivor” gain popularity, we’ll no doubt find out if people are just as willing to be physically tortured for far less than a million dollars or even the chance at a million dollars — perhaps they’ll willingly endure anything just for the sheer thrill of being on TV.)

But has all this modern faultfinding, meddling and scolding done much good?

Well, you can see how a decade of it has saved marriages, improved education, and given us safer schools and better adjusted children, can’t you?

Let’s face it. The very best thing about Doctor Laura is that she’s merely an entertainer; she has no authority. Now if only Colorado and America could reduce some of Doctor Laura’s fellow busybodies to that status during the next election….

THIS TIME AROUND, Colorado had the good grace to reject Dr. Laura’s proposals, but you can be sure that we haven’t heard the last of this issue. And that’s enough to make me want to run right out and file for divorce. At least that way, I might feel as if there were a reason to bombard me with all of this unsolicited counsel.

Personally, I’m sick of all the preaching we have to endure from total strangers who don’t know anything whatsoever about our families or our values, and who — I might add — don’t seem to value freedom, or privacy, or tolerance.

What’s the point of all this carping? Are there actually politicians out there who believe that they can henpeck us into voting for them?

Or is this a cost-cutting measure?

Given our reluctance to fund social programs, maybe the government’s trying to nag addicts into reform, drunkards into sobriety, adulterers into marriage counseling, and psychotics into recovery. It does sound rather inexpensive. But although it sounds cheap, recent studies have concluded that the government’s been spending a fortune on drug awareness with appallingly bad results.

WHEN MY KIDS were in school, “just say no” was the theme, and that’s about all the drug awareness program did. My kids didn’t seem to know anything whatsoever about drugs. A sedative? A barbiturate? A depressant? The consequences of mixing them with alcohol? Long-term side effects? A drug’s LD 50? I figure the absolute truth — unvarnished by exaggeration — can reduce drug use. But in the United States the facts have been so confused and distorted — and in consequence discounted — that ALAR scares people more than cocaine.

As any parent knows, lecturing has its place but it tends to be an unreliable tool. And sometimes it’s downright inappropriate.

As far as I’m concerned, when President Bush came on the television after the school shooting in Santee, California and implied that the killings were due to a lack of values, he was not being kind, nor conservative, nor even — as some would have it — Christian. Criticizing people who are already shell-shocked and grieving, is hardly doing onto others as you would have them do unto you; it’s merely tactless and insensitive.

In the early aftermath of a tragedy, the President of the United States is not supposed to be America’s judge and jury, he’s supposed to be our spokesman. His job is to offer our condolences, not to deliver some damned political sound bite. So what happened to the traditional speech? You know the one: “Our hearts go out to the people of Santee, today … The first lady and I would like to extend our deepest sympathies…”

But hey, maybe Bush is right. Maybe we should just forget all the niceties and get on with the arguments about family values and gun control.

As I see it, though, most of those arguments are pointless anyway. Although I can often hear the anger behind the words — and sometimes I even feel that kind of anger in response — I can’t really figure out what most of the fuss is about.

Certainly school shootings are appalling, but the resulting discussion tends to morph into a show of horror about modern parents, marriages, divorces, video games, music, tattoos, piercings, trench coats, you name it … until it becomes an excuse to condemn anything the commentator dislikes.

Yes, some of these young criminals have come from broken homes — and some have come from intact homes. Some have come from homes where guns were kept in the household and some have not. Some have come from religious families and some have not.

Perhaps more to the point, however, despite the sensationalistic and brutal nature of school shootings, crime is down — way down. The rate on reported crime dropped 3% in 1992; 2% in ’93; 1% in ’94 and ’95; 3% in ’96; 2% in ’97; 5% in ’98; and the violent crime rate alone decreased by 6.7% in 1999 (the last year I have statistics for). Some things are worse, but many are better. We are actually doing all right. And yet for some reason we’re too upset and angry to appreciate it.

LAST MONTH, I wrote about partisan politics and reflected on how bitter some recent campaigns have been, and Clint Driscoll responded with a letter that’s in this issue. Among other things, Driscoll theorizes that there may be a cultural war building in our valley. You’ll have to read the rest of Clint’s letter, but I especially liked his terminology.

— Because a “culture war” strikes me as what our nation has been drifting toward for several decades.

Back in 1996, I was all ready to embrace Bob Dole as a candidate — because back then I figured Clinton had delivered as much of the Republican platform as anyone could manage, including NAFTA, welfare reform, free trade, reducing the deficit, giving us more cops, more jails, and more inmates. So I thought maybe Dole could implement some of the Democratic Party’s priorities (you remember them don’t you — better health care, national health insurance, civil liberties).

But then Dole kept griping about hippies — as if he didn’t know that the hippies were gone. They weren’t out there smoking pot and clamoring for free love; they’d grown up, gotten old, and started worrying about social security. By 1996, some of the most famous of the hippies were over sixty, and in all probability if they still wanted love they’d have to rely on Viagra at several dollars a shot. And surely Dole had nothing against Viagra…

So what was he ranting about?

Well, I can’t be sure, but I suspect he was ranting about the same thing I’m ranting about right here. He felt pushed around by the hippies, maligned and unappreciated, with his morals questioned and his beliefs ridiculed.

OUR ANGER, however, seems to have very little to do with the national situation — which for Americans has been remarkably peaceful, stable and prosperous in recent years. Our divorce rate has been dropping slightly, and our murder rate has plummeted.

There has, however, been a rather passionate approach to politics since the sixties whether those politics be liberal, conservative, local or national. And there also seems to be a rather substantial backlash against:

The excesses of the sixties, when brash young radicals railed about sexual repression and embraced free love (when they weren’t too wasted on hallucinatory drugs).

And the excesses of the seventies, when belligerent, self-righteous liberals lectured everyone about being racist, sexist, patriarchal bigots, and instituted a repressive political correctness that routinely labeled words, phrases and thoughts unacceptable. (And thus terms like “waitress,” “Mrs.” and “mailman” were replaced with awkward substitutes like “wait person” that implied that even noticing a person’s gender was sexist.)

And the excesses of the seventies and eighties, when smug environmentalists blamed ranchers, loggers and miners for everything from auto exhaust to the hole in the ozone.

And the excesses of the nineties when Clinton dallied in the seat of government until Newt shut it down. Then Starr came along and turned the whole thing into a televised soap opera.

But now the scandals are behind us, and most of the really rabid, revolutionary zeal of the ’60s has calmed. From Bay Watch to Wonder Bras to rap, we seem to be slipping back into our old sexist traditions. And today’s more moderate environmental movement encourages improving and reclaiming habitat, changing grazing patterns, reformulating fuels, and replanting mine sites — rather than just blaming someone else for everything.

It would seem, however, that in politics each and every outrageous, overbearing assembly of insults must be answered with an equal and opposite disparagement. Once upon a time accusing people of racism, sexism, and chauvinism became so standard that it was done without specific cause, knowledge or evidence, and now rebuking Americans for their poor values and immorality has become just as standard.

Although this trend toward intemperate rhetoric can be extremely irritating, maybe that’s just how we balance things out in American politics. Or on the other hand, maybe our penchant for taunting, baiting, and accusing one another is what really lies behind school shootings.

EITHER WAY, however, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we’ve accomplished a lot in the last forty years. We took on integration, and struggled, and fought, and shouted it out until almost all of us — Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Socialist, Communist, and Independent — agreed that we should live in an integrated society where everyone has equal rights. And we’ve also taken huge steps toward preventing environmental calamities like DDT, Love Canal, kudzu, and species extinction.

And I do mean “we.” Reform did not always come from the expected sector. Lyndon Johnson, a southerner, initiated radical legislation that sped the civil rights movement along. Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican, launched a bevy of environmental acts that established government oversight to ensure that we have clean air, clean water, and environmental protection. To come as far as we have takes some multi-party, cross-cultural agreement.

It remains to be seen whether we’ll agree on enough in the future to go any further.

–Martha Quillen

Post Script: Last month I misspelled Frank McMurry’s name, which is doubly embarrassing because I actually knew I didn’t know how to spell McMurry so I typed MM throughout my manuscript, and then checked it later and plugged in the incorrect spelling. The problem, I suspect, is that I was using a file of old newspapers and campaign flyers and such for research, and I checked one of them for the spelling, but apparently I checked the wrong one.

This was particularly regrettable due to my topic, “partisanship.” How much more forgivable it would have seemed if I had only misspelled the name of the candidate I supported.

But even so, my apologies to one and all.