The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Dance

Of Valley Politics

I've been to a lot of public meetings over the years. Many of them were quite dull, while others were more interesting. Many were a waste of time in terms of what was accomplished. Yet believe it or not, occasionally I attended a public meeting that I recall as having been informative and productive!

In the early days, I used to sneak around these public gatherings as an anonymous presence, positioning myself here and there, wherever I might overhear or observe something enlightening. But all that changed after I began appearing on the now defunct Dan Yorke TV Show on WGGB-TV Channel 40, first as a reoccurring guest and then later as a member of Yorke's stable of fill-in hosts. I soon became aware of the subtle transformations brought about in my life by appearing regularly on television.

No longer could I just blend into the background at public meetings, an intrepid spy in the midsts of the politicos. It wasn't long before politicians I had never met before were greeting me by my first name and talking to me as if we had always been friends. Some of them seemed nervous to have me around. Whenever I tried to inject myself into groups of people whom I suspected were having an interesting political discussion, I often discovered that I was mistaken. In fact it seemed that wherever I went, no one was discussing anything besides sports or the weather.

So with my cover blown, there didn't seem to be much point in my going to public meetings as much. Besides, in all immodesty, I probably have one of the best networks of informed whisperers and anonymous sources in the Valley. It's rare that I can't find out what I need to know if I'm really determined to know it, even if the information comes to me in forms that libel laws don't allow me to print. That may be just as well. If I told you everything that goes on around here, you'd burst into tears.

One thing that I have always found intriguing about public meetings is observing the complicated and unique rules of interaction among the governing class. A sociologist looking to study exotic manners, customs and rituals needn't go searching for a lost tribe in the jungles of Borneo. They need only pop in on a typical public meeting in Springfield.

For example, if you or I were going to a public event, we would simply arrive, open the door, and walk inside. Few politicians, however, would dare be so casual about their entrance. There's a hierarchy to it, with the least important people (the wanna-bees) always arriving first (they want all the time they can to shmooze before the meeting begins) while the most powerful dignitaries (who the wanna-bees wanna shmooze) arrive last.

The ultimate display of status is to arrive at the last possible moment, thereby guaranteeing that your arrival will be seen by everyone present while at the same time showing your contempt for the frustrated wanna-bees who were hoping you would arrive early enough to be approachable. The master of this technique is Congressman Richard Neal, whose impeccable timing always insures that the audience is already seated and thereby can't help but watch him march up the center aisle to his reserved front row seat. He does this while smiling and scanning the room with a look that somehow manages to acknowledge the audience in general but ignore any specific individual. He really has it down to an artform. I've sometimes thought they should give awards for such things.

Once the meeting is underway, the proceedings are ignored except by the cynical media and the clueless public. After all, the purpose of the meeting is usually simply to ratify in public a decision that was already made behind closed doors - and every true insider is already aware of what that decision is. Everything else is just play-acting for the public and the media. In the meantime, what you see are heads turning, necks straining and eyes darting in every direction, as everybody tries to size up just who is present and to place each attendee into a category reflecting their relative importance. Those categories and the way politicians respond to them are as follows:

Me at City Hall in 1992

The General Public - Easily recognizable because they are usually slightly nervous, confused and much too respectful toward the dignitaries at hand. The common taxpayer is the least important category and the most easily dismissed. If forced into an encounter with an everyday citizen, politicians usually adopt the "Big Ears" approach. That means letting the citizen do all the talking, while the politician appears to be listening intently, making it appear that they are sympathetic to what the taxpayer is saying while never actually committing themselves to a thing. Then the member of the public walks away thinking that the politician is a good listener and responsive to their point of view, nevermind that the politician's real views were never revealed. Springfield City Councilor Bill Foley has a special talent for employing this technique.

The Lords - If the public are the least important people present, then at the other extreme are what you might call The Lords. They are anyone in the room that you absolutely must see (or be seen by) in order for the meeting to be considered a success. Depending on your needs they might be anyone, but in general a Lord is any person who can a) get yourself or a supporter a job, b) get yourself or a supporter a government contract, or c) someone whom you are already politically indebted to where it might be dangerous if you didn't kiss their rear end everytime you meet.

The Snubbed - These are the people present that you are having disagreements with and want to show your displeasure towards by pointedly ignoring them. You or I, if we were having a disagreement with someone, would simply make our views known to whomever we disagreed with. In Valley politics however, such an honest and frank confrontation would be considered unforgivably bad form. Instead, you must treat those with whom you disagree as if they were invisible, no matter how often they come within your range of view. It is said that no one can snub you into quite so complete a feeling of non-existence as Springfield Newspapers president David Starr.

So the entire evening there are all these bizarre, yet finely tuned exchanges going on at the public meeting, as people angle and maneuver to engage their Lords or blank out those to be snubbed. It is a symbolic dance whose many subtleties would require a book in order to properly describe every nuance. Yet to an outsider observing the scene it might appear that nothing very remarkable was taking place.

But nearly everyone present is involved in a complex social waltz, whose ultimate effect is to prevent any possibility of an open, honest, spontaneous or sincere gesture of any kind. Still, at rare but key moments it is suddenly not like a waltz at all, but becomes a funky boogie where you can pick up points for style, with a deftly executed knife in the back separating the men from the boys.

It's a scene you can get sick of pretty quick, and a lesson in democracy no schoolboy's textbook can teach you.


If the preceeding article seems sorta familiar to some of you longtime regular readers, it's because it first appeared in the print version of The Baystate Objectivist around 1993. It's interesting, and sad, how well it still holds up after all this time. Since 1998, it has existed online at a Geocities website that was a predecessor to this one. But now Geocities is going out of business, as reported in TechCrunch:

Not with a bang, but with a whimper. Yahoo! is unceremoniously closing GeoCities, one of the original web-hosting services acquired by Yahoo! in 1999 for $2.87 billion. (Fun venture fact: Fred Wilson’s Flatiron Partners was an investor). In a message on Yahoo!’s help site, the company said that it would be shuttering Geocities, a free web-hosting service, later this year and will not be accepting any new customers....

There are plenty of other Website creation and hosting services out there, including blog platforms such as Wordpress, Blogger, and Typepad, as well as Website creation and hosting services such as Ning, Webs, Jimdo, Snapages, Weebly, and countless more. GeoCities never really kept up with the times, but always remained a decent pageview generator.

One of the pioneers of web-hosting sites, GeoCities gave users personal publishing tools and created “neighborhoods” within its web platform for users to be able to create pages, add a picture, text, a guest book and a website counter. Long before MySpace, Geocities was known as a place where teenagers, college students, and eventually others could impose their own garish taste upon the rest of the world.

So with Geocities headed into cyber-oblivion, I'm going to have to transfer all of my old stuff that's worth preserving from the Geocities site to this one. Some of it I might expand or update, if warranted. Others I may let slip with Geocities itself into the void. But in any case, if some blasts from the past start showing up here in the coming days and weeks, you'll know the reason why. Hey, I'll bet you'll find it fun to read some of them again.

Another 100 Day Verdict

In 1927 the great Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, wrote: “Whoever does not deliberately close his eyes to the facts must recognize the signs of an approaching catastrophe in the world economy.” He did not base his prediction of the Great Depression on specific economic policies, such as federal deficits, or improper money policy. It was based on the rise of philosophies antithetical to market capitalism and limited government, including fascism, socialism, and progressivism. The first 100 days of the Obama administration have been marked by a similar movement away from belief in the market system and individual liberty and towards belief in a centrally planned state....

The Economist, in its most recent issue, warned against calling Obama a socialist or a fascist. Yet if we accept a common definition of fascism as a system of private ownership of the means of production with government control, certainly the administration’s policies exhibit movement towards such a system. At the same time, if we define socialism as a system of government ownership of the means of production, then the Obama administration has moved us in that direction as well.

In The Road to Serfdom, Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek explained that socialism and fascism are really a common system based on the belief that central planning is superior to individual liberty and market capitalism. So it matters little whether the Obama administration is moving us towards socialism or fascism. It certainly is moving us away from market capitalism and limited government and towards central planning.

- Gary Wolfram

Down by the River

As little as a week ago there were no leaves on the trees. But spring has sprung, as you can see from this pic I took today of my woodland way into downtown Northampton.

The other day I was in Deerfield under the bridge over the mighty Connecticut. This was the view.

A woman was sitting under the bridge writing while watching the river flow.

There is lots of graffiti under the bridge, some of it of unusually high quality. For example, dig this abstract done in gold paint.

Do these sayings make any sense?

Some of the images are beautiful yet haunting.


Mary E.Carey said...

Great post. I like the picture of the woman by the river and the graffiti and especially your piece about meetings. I enjoy them as theater too, although sometimes they can go on so long you feel like crying.

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