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Getting Behind The Mule

February 11, 2011

I’m developing a love/hate/hate relationship with some local political figures. At this point, what butter I bring home for my wife’s bread depends upon writing about local politics, happenings, and the various innuendos that occur in the life of local – especially county – politics. Town politics – referred to locally as “city” politics more for the municipal form than the size of said “city” – is surprisingly clear-cut. There are those who want to accomplish things and those whose entire purpose is to keep everything exactly the way it is until they die. Among those who want to accomplish things – there are various levels of disagreement as to what EXACTLY ought to be done. This is normal, and for the town, it mostly comes down (like most things to most everyone else) to money.

On the county level, the stakes are a bit higher and more personal… and every bit as contentious as politics can be and still claim a vestige of civility. What it comes down to is this: the world is changing and there are those who understand this and those who see themselves as being the only thing standing between the world they know and love and a world they can’t wrap their minds around.

The county I live in is primarily agricultural, and the town is basically here because once upon a time, farmers needed someplace close to grind corn and flour and buy supplies. Seriously. The reason this town is the county seat has something to do with the fact that once upon a time it was easier to put the corn mill here than it was to put it 10 miles down the road in a larger town that sits right on the Mississippi River. And although the main north to south artery through the state, IL-78, runs right through the middle of town, it takes some driving to get to the interstate. As a result, except for corn and corn related industries, there’s little else here. This is attractive to some people, and over the years people have trickled out from other parts – Chicago and it’s suburbs are the most commonly cited culprit – to retire or to escape what they thought was the “insanity” of “city living.” For many years there was a small liberal arts college here, the campus of which sits nearly empty and decaying like an abandoned archeological dig. There are empty houses sitting around and empty buildings, some owned by out-of-state “investors” and holding companies that keep them empty in order to write off the property taxes and shuffle around money. Sometimes people swoop in, buy the historical structures, gut them of all the copper and metal and wood fixtures so they can sell them somewhere else at an exorbitant profit, only to let the husk sit and rot and become a public nuisance.

As you might imagine, this creates some negative feelings among the natives here. It is a negative feeling I understand. This is one of the corners of the country from which people take a lot and give little back.

I get it. I do. But it’s this negative feeling, along with a lack of local investment and vision, that makes it next to impossible to get anything done around here. The farmers, justifiably, want to make sure they can get their crops to market, get a fair price, and be able to maintain a vital part of American life… and if you don’t think it’s vital, think about where the food you buy comes from. But to be a farmer means doing things the way they have always been done. If it worked last season, it should work this season.

But that’s not the way things are going. And the level of myopia is staggering. Rather than find creative and useful ways of making sure we can call live together, there’s continued resistance, even as good things are happening all around. Culture evolves in the same way that people have evolved. It’s a long, slow ride, and we are a culture that doesn’t understand what that actually means. We’ve become accustomed to the myth of decade packaging sold to us by Madison Avenue marketeers and academic historians more interested in getting tenured than they are in teaching; we ignore the cause and effect nature of things in favor of an instant gratification version given to us by a long line of political leaders who took their lead from McDonald’s. We want our Big Mac and we want it NOW, god dammit!

I never expected to enjoy writing about politics; as a matter of fact, I expected to hate it, because on many levels, government is tedious. Most of what happens does so behind the scenes and percolates to the surface to become public knowledge. Everyone thinks they’re misrepresented in the press. Everyone thinks it’s a journalist’s job to be their PR copy writer. Everyone seeks to use the media like a tool, not ever considering that it’s not the media’s function to be used. At least, it’s not supposed to be. Although I’ve forgotten (on purpose) most of what I learned in those journalism classes I took as a college undergrad, my one lingering hold over is the idea that journalism in all it’s forms is The Fourth Estate. (For the historically confused, I suggest Google.) So I tend towards the junk yard dog approach – in journalism and in art. This means, of course, that I’ll probably never be liked by the people in position of power. I don’t lose a lot of sleep over this. But it also means that they have no choice but to acknowledge my existence… which, if I can’t be liked, I’ll take as a ready substitute.

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