Community Forum: Society becoming ‘me,’ not ‘us’
This week’s writer is Bill Schubart, a Vermont entrepreneur, author and commentator on VPR. He writes about Vermont and the nation in fiction, humor and opinion pieces.
Vermont and America have always been inspired and governed by a political spectrum spanning conservative and liberal values. Party names have changed — Whigs, Bull Moose, Tea Party — and who’d recognize Lincoln’s Republican Party today? Power shifts and labels change but the dynamic tension between conservative and liberal philosophies persists and that continuum is good for the nation. Nations and communities are all in a perpetual process of becoming and political work is never done — either at the leadership level or at the citizenship level.
There’s another civic spectrum, however, bearing no correlation to the conservative-liberal one. It, too, must be balanced for the nation to function. It’s defined at one end by “me and mine” and at the other end by “us and ours.”
I worry that we are becoming a nation of narcissists, arrogant in our belief that our personal well-being or the well-being of our family outweighs the benefits of community that were so intrinsic to the understanding of the Founding Fathers. All of the personal freedoms they enumerated are tempered with an understanding that, absent the strength of community and nation, the individual freedoms amount to little more than anarchy.
I’ve attended too many public meetings recently where the comments and questions raised rarely rise above the speaker’s personal interests — my taxes, my property, my guns, my view … my, my, my. It all begins to sound like the terrible twos, before toddlers pass beyond the narcissistic state of being the center of the universe, as they have been since birth, and begin to understand for the first time that they are but one in a family.
In the political arena, I believe the great mass of voting independents who commit to understanding issues and judging the character and wisdom of our would-be leaders, whether liberal or conservative, make up the great strength of our country. Those on either extreme seem more like ice-bound dinosaurs, loud but useless.
In the civic arena, I have come to appreciate those who understand the balance between the rights and concerns of individuals and the obligations and value of community. They aren’t always the same. The catchphrase is “not in my backyard,” which raises the question, “then, in whose?”
Having grown up in Vermont, my metaphor for this growing imbalance is posted land and “no trespassing” signs. When I was young, in the middle of the last century, no one posted their land unless they were from away or doing something illegal on it. The respectful use of one another’s property was understood to be a valuable community benefit.
Today where I live in Hinesburg, I believe our property is one of the few remaining tracts of open land on which people are welcome to visit, recreate and hunt.
As the political pendulum swings from left to right and back again, it’s more important than ever that we also find the right balance between our own interests and those of a strong community.