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What Are We Missing?

By Martha Quillen

Due to drought and potential fire hazards, Salida celebrated the 4th of July twice this year, in July and August, and the August fireworks were dazzling. But something is missing in modern holiday celebrations. That’s certainly not due to any lack of attractions, music and activities – at least not in Salida. Therefore we can’t blame our mayor, city government or political opponents.

Today, pretty much everyone seems to agree on one thing: Something is wrong with American politics. Citizens even tend to agree on what’s wrong: the opposition. But maybe we would do better to think about what’s missing instead of what’s wrong.

Take those modern holidays, for example. Be it Independence Day, Labor Day or Memorial Day, the celebrations are entertaining, but minimize the day’s original significance. There’s nothing wrong with revelry, but in our public lives, we Americans seem to lack sincerity, solemnity, sentiment, direction, connection and any real sense of common cause, meaning and purpose. As a people we’re low on empathy, understanding and trust (to the point that we’re suspicious of everything from governments to the safety of foods, drugs, merchandise and other people’s motives (with good reason).

In Salida, political matters incite a considerable amount of anger, but that’s not because most of the things we wrangle over are momentous or strategic. On the contrary, very few of the things we battle about (paving, buildings, neighborhood disputes) actually represent a cohesive political position. Instead, our discussions tend to devolve into disputes about who should get to speak, who’s more important and who’s at fault.


All in all, too many political feuds – both local and national – are more about who should be in charge than about what we should be doing. And far too much of our political process is devoted to prodding, insulting and inflaming the opposition, which is a travesty that has already endangered one of Salida’s best qualities.

There is a reason Salida is full of old hippies. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Salida tolerated young long-hairs more than most small mountain communities. That’s probably not because the people were more progressive than their rural neighbors. It’s more likely because Salida was a trade and retail center serving nearby towns and ranching, railroading and mining populations, which made strangers more common.

Don’t get me wrong. The place wasn’t some warm, fuzzy fictional village. After I wrote my first editorial for the local paper, the Chamber of Commerce took a vote and decided I should leave town – and they seemed surprised to find out they couldn’t make me. But Salida was reasonably friendly, incredibly scenic, and mostly indifferent about the outside world and outsiders, which made it a comparatively easy town to assimilate into.

But that’s no longer the case, which may have more to do with the age and class of recent arrivals than with differences in their political views. The young people arriving decades ago just wanted jobs and to live in the mountains. The older white collar professionals moving in today want to change the place, which generates political conflict. Unfortunately, our way of dealing with conflict is entirely modern and involves fights, lawsuits, protests, political action committees, having meetings, packing meetings, adapting slogans and challenging the competition.


here used to be more effective ways to promote consensus. Adam Smith’s ideas about the basic superiority of capitalism and laissez-faire economics changed the world after The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, likely because his views on banking were curiously idealistic and moving. Smith believed capitalism could foster liberty and equality and eliminate despotism, notions Bernie Sanders probably wouldn’t view as compatible.

But Smith’s ideals were inspirational and pretty darn successful – even though plenty of plutocrats and tyrants have muddied his vision over the years. Smith talked about the “invisible hand” supplied by self-interest that would safeguard capitalist nations from excess and corruption. According to Smith, “To feel much for others and little for ourselves, to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.”

Clearly it’s not wise nor prudent to assume that an invisible hand can or will pull a people away from economic collapse or disaster. Yet Smith’s 18th century ideals propelled us into a richer and healthier 21st century. And that isn’t because markets are magically self-regulating as some economists pretend, but because idealism can infuse self-serving bankers and businessmen with humane goals such as promoting prosperity, equality, self-sufficiency, full employment and better living standards.

That’s how capitalism and democratic systems were propagated, and why they were adopted by people world-wide – because they were promoted with idealism, enthusiasm and optimism. But sadly, many democracies founded by revolution (as was ours) fell into chronic rebellion.

Oh, sure, change can be imposed with ferocity and force. But that often results in a temporary victory because it doesn’t change hearts or minds. People rally to a cause because it offers them hope, and they reject it if it strips them of pride, purpose and position. But all too often modern activists sink their own causes by castigating those they need to reach, and thereby inspire resistance and retaliation.

I recently watched the September 5th interview with Duane Cozart and Jim LiVecchi on YouTube. Cozart, a developer, wants to build an apartment building on U.S. Hwy. 50 and LiVecchi, a former mayor, objects. To me, Cozart’s plans seem reasonable, and he appeared to be adequately funded and capable.

But LiVecchi says many Salidans have approached him with worries about “what Salida is and what it’s becoming.” And I think the concerns of those Salidans need to be taken more seriously. However, in terms of addressing what Salidans have lost in recent years, I don’t view the Salida Crossings project as a significant factor, or curbing development on U.S. Hwy. 50 as a solution.

As I see it, the worst impacts of local growth aren’t due to new buildings or businesses. They’re due to the loss of people’s old parks and pastimes as tourism reshapes our commercial district, and to rising prices in an economy in which service workers live on low wages. But more significantly, our problems are exacerbated by the divisiveness, disrespect and mounting anger citizens aim at one another; and to councils that only want to serve certain portions of the population; and residents who want to repress their fellow citizens; and growing disdain, name-calling and snobbery.

Today, too many people seem to think unfriending and disappearing those who don’t agree with them should be as easy in real life as it is on Facebook. But it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. Democratic governance relies on open discussion, broad participation, zealous debate and earnest cooperation.

Surely after spending the last fifty years combating racism, sexism, ethnic and class discrimination, homophobia, bullying and belittling, Americans can’t want to live in gated enclaves where everyone has to agree on where every blessed building and blade of grass belongs – or be detested and denounced.

Recently Kirby Perschbacher emailed me a copy of a letter he’d sent to the Mountain Mail in response to a woman who’d lampooned him for being a “logger,” caveman and anachronism. In it, Perschbacher indicated he was proud of his local parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. That strikes me as the saddest facet of modern politics. Whether the commentary is on FOX, MSNBC, Facebook posts or from locals, President Trump or Jane Doe, citizens attack their opponents more vociferously than they address issues.

But as the late Aretha Franklin kept reminding us, we need R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We also need ideals, principles, manners, consideration, sympathy, sentiment, enthusiasm and hope. And the best thing about that? They’re free! 

Inspired by local mountain vistas and glorious sunsets, Quillen hopes resurrecting some of our old-fashioned ideals may help us find balance and recall our common interests after the ballots are cast.