»  National Review Online

June 11th, 2002

  Civic Guilt

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Psychologically, I'm in pretty good shape. Sure, there are aspects of my personality I could do without. I have my little flaws and foibles, like the rest of you. On balance, though, I am fairly … well balanced. I am, at any rate, free of two of the commonest forms of mental unease: regret about the past, and worry about the future. I am neither a regretter nor a worrier. The past is cold ash, which mainly exists to be mined for anecdotes; and I have always felt confident that the future will take care of itself.

This blithe attitude to any region of my life much beyond the present instant has its downside, of course. Having never given a moment's thought to my old age, I shall have to work till I drop. However, that's fine too. I'm lousy at being unemployed. I would just get up late and watch low-grade TV all day. I can't play golf, know nothing about gardening, hate Florida, and would be bored stiff on a cruise. If I have a hobby, it's making a living. As my dear old mother used to remind us: "Men must work and women must weep, and the sooner it's over, the sooner to sleep." If Social Security doesn't keep the wolf from the door, I'll go work for Home Depot.

There is one psychological affliction that I am rather susceptible to, though: guilt. I suffer chronically, though very mildly, from a feeling that I have left undone those things which I ought to have done, and done those things I ought not to have done. Part of this is just being a parent. Parenthood is, as every parent knows, pretty much wall-to-wall guilt. (I recall Bea Arthur in some sitcom, putting down the phone after talking her middle-aged daughter through a minor life crisis: "I knew I should have breast-fed her …") Another part is being a homeowner, surrounded by neighbors who, though terrific people, the salt of the earth and so on, have a way of … looking at you when you've let the front lawn go for three weeks.

Now, since becoming a U.S. citizen, I have tasted a whole new flavor of guilt: civic guilt. Let me explain this.

My e-mail is chronically backed up. (Yes, I suffer guilt pangs about that, too. I am sorry, sorry, sorry.) Among the items that have been sitting there for, oh, a month or so are are three from a local community action group. The reason they are there is that I went to one of their meetings. That was not a bold initiative on my part; a large proportion of my school district's adult population went to that meeting. Flyers came to every house in the street, and there was a buzz in the neighborhood. Meeting at the High School Tuesday! Make sure you come!

The subject of the meeting was a "revitalization plan" for the area round the railroad station in our town. There is not much around the station at present — empty lots, mainly, used for station parking. The town has been mulling over a plan to allow some development of the area — houses, stores. Word had got out that a lot of low-cost apartment buildings were included in the plan. Our town is in the outermost commuting zone of New York City, a quiet spacious suburb inhabited mainly by working- and lower-middle-class types like me, living in single-family homes like mine. When we heard "low-cost apartment buildings" we naturally carried out the appropriate mental translation from urban-planner-speak to plain English: SLUMS FOR LOWLIFES. Hence the public excitement: hence the meeting.

It was some meeting. Technically it was a school board meeting, an event that normally draws less than 100 people. This one drew 1,500, and had to be held in the high school auditorium. Because of all the agitation, the Town Board of Supervisors showed up, too: the Supervisor himself, three of the Councilpersons, and some folk from the consulting firm that had drawn up the draft plan. They knew what was going down, of course, and were in high defensive mode. The first hour of the show was an attempt to tranquillize us, an excruciatingly detailed presentation of the planning process.

People got restless. Nobody wanted to hear about the damn stupid process. These were working people, commuters a lot of them, people who get up at six in the morning to catch a train. They didn't want to spend an evening watching some fool architect showing his watercolor sketches of tree-shaded plazas and airy shopping malls. They were angry, and they wanted the people who spend their property taxes to know they were angry. We have all the lowlifes we can handle right now in this town. We don't need to bus in more, just so that some property developer can get rich.

The restlessness bubbled over. The architect was shouted down. He retreated. The Town Supervisor made a soothing little speech. No plan would be passed without voter approval. No low-cost apartments had been committed to. Nothing would happen without a full public airing and a vote. It was interesting to see how scared our representatives were. There is something very satisfying about that, about knowing how scared politicians are of the electorate.

The agenda advanced to questions from the floor. Various people stood up and vented. There were a couple of lunatics, but most of those who spoke were cogent and well-prepared. They didn't want more children in the school district because the schools are already bursting. Not to worry, ventured one of the planning people, any apartments built would be strictly for singles. Hoots of derision: "Whaddya gonna do — sterilize 'em?" People especially didn't want more children brought in by people who weren't paying a house-sized piece of property tax, as the rest of us are. They didn't want to lose station parking, either. There were a number of things they didn't want, and the Town Board got to hear all of them.

More general complaints were floated, too. Illegal apartments (that is, apartments in one-family houses, not specifically approved by the town) are deeply unpopular. Houses with illegal apartments don't pay their share of property tax. They create parking problems. They depress the values of neighboring houses. Another complaint was about "day laborers," which is the local euphemism for the i-i words, the words themselves of course being too vile to be uttered in polite company. The Town Board got an earful. A "day laborer" who had stood up and revealed himself at this point, and confessed to living in an illegal apartment, would likely have been lynched.

We left while this was going on. I had things to do the next day. On the way out I put my name and e-address on a contact list for people who wanted to stay involved. That's why I have those e-mails in my inbox.

Driving home I reflected uneasily on the principle P.J. O'Rourke laid down in Parliament of Whores: the people who get what they want are the ones that stay to the end of the meeting. Then I reflected on the few politicians I have known, and on how very thick-skinned they all were. Our Town Supervisor might have been scared there in the auditorium, with 1,500 angry voters yelling Cut to the chase! and Custom-built slums! and Where are we supposed to park? He'd get a good night's sleep, though, I felt sure; and next day he'd go about his customary work — thinking up ingenious new ways to spend my money — with his motivation undimmed. Having been in local politics for some years, he is probably cynical enough to think that having vented, most of the people in that auditorium would go home feeling much better, and would not bother to show up to any more meetings.

If that's what he thinks, he is of course right. Those e-mails tell me there are more meetings planned, more involvement to get involved in. Er, thanks, but I don't have the time. Checking around, I find that my neighbors feel the same. It was interesting to see democracy in action, but we have kids to raise, houses to fix, taxes to pay, livings to earn. Of course, I don't want to e-mail that back to the community action group; and so the damn e-mails just sit there in my inbox, sniggering at me. "What kind of citizen are you, Derb?" they say in between sniggers. "Democracy too much trouble for you, is it?" I feel a bit like my nephew, who came home from his first day at school declaring he quite enjoyed it, but who, on being woken the next morning, said to his mother in bafflement and horror: "What, you mean I have to go to school every day?"

A few weeks ago Mark Steyn did one of his fine pieces for the London Spectator 's special issue on democracy. In it he lauded the uniqueness of the U.S. system, in which "power is vested in 'We, the People' and leased upwards through town, county, state and federal government, in ever more limited doses." In support of his case, Mark gave a sketch of political life where he lives, in a small New Hampshire town. He knows all the town officials: the road agent, the school district treasurer, the town clerk, the library trustees, and so on. Everybody knows everybody. They decide their own affairs — not like the spiritless peons of England, groaning under the iron heel of some remote bureaucracy. "The weight of the trucks on our roads is the responsibility of an elected official right here in town; in Milton-under-Wychwood, the weight of the juggernauts rumbling through the village is decided by Brussels."

Well, that may be how they do things up in the woods of New Hampshire (though I'd like to be in Mark's town meeting a week after the Trial Lawyers' Association finds asbestos insulation round the library heating pipes) but in cities, towns and suburbs across America you can walk a long mile before you meet anyone able to tell you the name of the school district treasurer or the road agent. For most Americans, as for me, a little political participation goes a long way. That, of course, is bad, bad. It yields up the political process to cranks, crooks, activists, hucksters and monomaniacs. But what am I supposed to do? I don't have the time.

And the issues are complex. At that meeting, for example, our town security chief came forward to respond to demands that something be done about those illegal apartments. Calmly he spelled out the problems. How do you know an apartment's illegal? You can't just go in and look — the Constitution doesn't allow that, and you wouldn't want it to. It's not an easy thing to establish. Courts want waterproof evidence. And when you do establish it and get an offender in court, chances are the judge is one of these graduates of some lefty law school, brain addled with gibberish about "social justice," with zero sympathy for the concerns of the suburban bourgeoisie — probably, in fact, believing that hostility to illegal apartments is a form of "racism." (The security chief didn't say it like that. An experienced public official, he dressed it up in PC code. We all got the point, though.) Listening, I realized there are two sides to all these issues. At least two sides.

So there's not just time to be given up here, there's work to be done, research to be undertaken. I guess I'm going to depend on someone else to do it. I know I should stay involved, but I don't feel inclined, and I don't have the time. You see why I feel guilty.

Not that I have retreated from the political sphere altogether. A few days later I went and voted, for the first time ever in the U.S.A. It was just a vote on the local school budget. All I knew about the school budget was that the district wanted more money. I couldn't see why they should have any more of my money than they currently have. One-third of my state taxes and 70 per cent of my local taxes are spent on education. That is quite enough, in fact it's far too much. Education isn't that important. It's mainly an interest-group racket, actually. Check out the headquarters of the teacher's union in your state. Chances are it looks like the Palace of Versailles — and is right across the street from the State Capitol. I voted the thing down. I'm pleased to have deprived the NEA of a few gold-plated faucets, and also a bit smug that 73 per cent of my town electorate didn't even bother to show up at the polling place. Still, it was only a vote, not real participation.

Here is a character in a recent novel, sitting in a school board meeting.

She did not feel like a good citizen these days. She lacked the energy, the time, the patience; ultimately, she supposed, she lacked the will. It was a shameful thing to admit at this stage in global culture, but she'd about had it with participatory democracy. She'd have been happier writing out a check every month and letting paid professionals make all the decisions. Or better, to give herself over, just for a while, to some stern and commanding fascist dictator. To have at least a few of the trains in her life running on time.
               —Inspired Sleep, by Robert Cohen

I hear you, lady. I just wish I didn't feel so darned guilty about it.