David Rodeback's Blog

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Poison in the Water Debate

Discussion of the current skirmish over future water rates in American Fork begins with, among other things, a snake, a rowboat, and a gun; seven habits for civil, opinionated, self-governing people; a dinner table; some links to recent news articles; and a felicitous, partially self-inflicted phrase, "sanctimonious claptrap."

[I intended to post this a week ago, but I decided to think about it some more. I wonder if it helped. -- DR]

Poison in Our Politics

All else being equal, American Fork residents and business owners speaking their minds on issues of the day, among themselves and to their local government, is a good thing. In fact, it is an important and necessary thing. Yet there is always the potential for poison in our politics. That potential is realized in small measure in public discussion of many local issues. In ordinary amounts the poison can be irritating but is not toxic, and we may reasonably expect our fellow citizens and especially our leaders to develop and demonstrate some resistance to it.

By contrast, we are accustomed these days to finding near-toxic levels of the poison in our national politics. More than a few national players inject large doses of the poison frequently and quite shamelessly in their despicable pursuit of political power at all costs. We are less accustomed to such high levels in our local politics, in part because the stakes are not so high. Still, we do see the occasional cowardly, anonymous attack ad in the newspaper the week before an election, and sometimes an issue will inspire some residents to forget their manners.

The level of poison angrily injected into the current discussion of new water rates in American Fork is far too high for our own good. Whatever its effects may be on individuals who are exposed, such as current or potential elected officials or hotheaded or panic-stricken folks whose blood pressure is already a tad high, and however the vitriol may finally impact the water rates themselves, the greatest danger is to good representative government itself.

The Serpent in the Rowboat

I have an old friend who was sitting in his rowboat one hot, sticky day on the bayou, fishing for something or other. Not too many yards away was another fisherman in a similar boat. The other fisherman was a particularly large man, and his boat sat low in the water. As the story goes, my friend watched a sizable water moccasin skim across the water and jump into the other man's boat. The man didn't hesitate. He drew a handgun and shot the water mocassin repeatedly, even though he holed his boat rather badly in the process, causing it to sink. My friend says that the fellow definitely had his priorities straight, since the results of being in a confined space with a live water mocassin tend to be more catastrophic than having one's rowboat sink.

Obviously, the man would have responded differently to the arrival of a large mosquito; at least we hope he would have. However, I will concede that -- if only metaphorically -- to a mind sufficiently distorted by anger and ignorance, there may be some angle from which a mosquito at close range might resemble some part of a water mocassin, the killing of which might seem to justify holing the boat. But to the rest of us in the boat, at least the calmer and more seasoned among us, it looks like a ridiculous and gratuitously destructive overreaction.

Hard-Won Experience

I have been been expressing my opinions in one public way or another off and on for more than 25 years, but my training goes back further than that in at least one important sense. I have been told that there are two taboo topics among polite company, especially at the dinner table: religion and politics. But as I was growing up, these were the most frequent and most interesting topics of mealtime conversation among my parents and my siblings. We often disagreed, and sometimes we did so badly, but eventually we learned both to disagree and to be disagreed with gracefully. Whatever our differences of opinion, we learned to enjoy the debate and the meal, and to leave the table on good terms with each other. Perhaps all this seems barbaric to you, but we learned at the dinner table that someone with a different opinion isn't necessarily evil or stupid, and that it is not necessary to hate, fear, disrespect, or mock someone who disagrees even on fundamental principles.

In my quarter-century of commenting publicly and privately, I have said and written some things I wish I hadn't. Back in another decade and time zone, a political opponent once publicly called an op/ed article I had written for a local newspaper by a name that has delighted me to this day: "sanctimonious claptrap." I don't think it accurately described that particular article, but I have from time to time engaged in sanctimony, and I have at least occasionally produced claptrap, and too often the twain have met. I almost named this blog Sanctimonious Claptrap when I started it, but "www.sanctimoniousclaptrap.com" is too difficult to type.

My readers are too civil and too well informed to be among those who are pitching particularly nasty fits over the impending water rates, I think, but in case you happen to have the ear of one of the hot-headed and/or panic-stricken, here are a few things I have learned by long experience commenting on affairs of the day.

  1. Remember that there may be valid viewpoints which differ from my own. Moreover, mine may often be improved and may sometimes be flat-out wrong.
  2. Check my facts before reporting, and check them especially carefully before complaining or accusing.
  3. Check my reasoning. Is it clear, sound, and, ahem, reasonable?
  4. Consider: Is my criticism unnecessarily personal? (The necessarily personal is a difficult and delicate thing.)
  5. Take time to cool off before and after writing, and especially before revising and publishing.
  6. Where any of the above poses particular difficulty, seek a second or even a third opinion from a well-informed friend with sound judgment.
  7. Repeat any or all of the above as needed.

Perhaps you can't always tell, but I try to do these things every time I blog.

Sevenfold Pain

All of that said, residents and businesses in American Fork are seeing their water rates go up rather dramatically, as rate changes take effect which are designed to pay for a pressurized irrigation system that is scheduled for completion next year. A few businesses are seeing a 600 percent rate increase. (That means that future bills will be seven times what past bills have been.) To borrow a phrase, that's gotta hurt.

Those businesses' owners' concern for the impact of the higher bills is understandable. Their stubborn resistance -- in some cases -- to the facts of the situation is less so. And the poison some are spreading in the process is inexcusable and unworthy of people who should have embraced the art and habits of self-government ages ago.

Significantly, it is not just people who are harmed by this poison; good government itself is at risk.

This blog post is long enough already, so I will address the issue itself and the vitriol in more detail in a subsequent post or two. Meanwhile, you may want to take a look at some news articles on the subject. Conveniently, before, during, and after a recent meeting with City officials, angry business people have been venting to City officials, print and broadcast media, and anyone else who will listen. This Daily Herald article came before the meeting; these Herald (Citizen?),  Deseret News , and KSL reports came after the meeting.

Stay tuned.

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