Finding common decency
December 1, 2021
When I get the time, I like to listen to podcasts.
In years prior, when I had a longer commute to work, it was something I did on a regular basis in my car. Now, I try to do it when I’m driving to pick up my son from my mother-in-law’s house after school or when I’m driving somewhere for the newspaper. The podcasts range from daily news updates to Wyoming missing person and murders cases (“Dead and Gone in Wyoming”, seriously check it out) to sleep podcasts I listen to at night.
One of the podcasts I subscribe to is “The Daily” from The New York Times, though I don’t listen to every episode. Recently, they had a two-parter which drew me in and had me listening to the very end. Called “The School Board Wars”, it covered the increasingly polarizing politics of school board meetings in the age of the coronavirus by focusing on one school board in particular; Central Bucks, Pennsylvania.
What started as a simple goal—keep the children in schools—spiraled into a multipronged political nightmare. Masks versus no masks, vaccines versus no vaccines. As the parents and the community start to split on the subject, so does the school board. On a nine person school board, it boils down to four versus four with one person, John Gamble, acting as the swing vote who will nearly always have to break a tie. That, eventually, results in him getting a death threat for voting for a mask-optional reopening of the school district during a special meeting.
This wasn’t the first death threat, but it was the most credible and resulted in his wife, a teacher, needing a guard outside her classroom. It resulted in him needing a police escort to even attend the regular meeting a week later. He resigned that night, after voting for a mask-only reopening, but something he said has continued to stick with me.
“Covid has broken you people, and it’s disgusting,” said Gamble. “I watch how you treat each other in here. It’s disgusting. Common decency. You all need to find it real fast.”
In my time working for this paper, and covering school board meetings, I have never seen anything even come close to what can be seen throughout the country right now. Honestly, I hope I never do. That doesn’t mean, however, Wyoming is immune to this kind of rhetoric and political warfare. With 24/7 news channels and social media, we have access to more information than anyone could have ever dreamed of when the very first computer was built.
Because of that, it doesn’t take long for a video of a United States Representative from Colorado making racist remarks about a Muslim colleague to make the rounds. Nor for a video of that same representative, at that same campaign stop, to make crude remarks about the Secretary of Transportation. It’s not exactly like this is new. For eight years, images of Barack Obama photoshopped as Adolf Hitler circulated online. For eight years before that, similar images of George W. Bush were circulated. It really does seem to have become more local, more personal in recent years, though.
During the 2021 special session of the Wyoming Legislature, Representative Steve Harshman was caught on a hot mic making disparaging remarks about Representative Chuck Gray. Then, of course, there was the email sent to Senator Tara Nethercott from a Park County GOP precinct committeeman in which he, among other things, stated she should take her own life. In the latter incident, the Park County committeeman apologized and, apparently, exonerated himself from a resolution in which he would have been censured.
It gets even more local than that. For the past several months, Campbell County has been embroiled in a fight surrounding the county library system and the programs and books within the system. What began as a program involving a magician, who was transgender, being canceled due to safety concerns has led to calls for the resignation of the library system director and multiple accusations that the library system is peddling elicit materials. Reading the articles which came from the Gillette News Record, many of the library board meetings and county commissioner meetings echo the school board meetings seen elsewhere in the country.
What happened to us?
Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but it seems, anymore, people only listen to respond instead of listening to understand. It also seems that much of how we as a society have acted on the internet has made its way offline. Nothing seems to be about good governance anymore, but about trolling the other side.
Recently, I’ve thought a lot not just about the quote from John Gamble, but about the late Senator Mike Enzi and the late James Baldwin.
Enzi, as most anybody familiar with his history knows, had an 80/20 rule. Granted, it was used more often in budget talks, but the rule went like this; agree on 80 percent of the issues and try to work within that area rather than arguing over the 20 percent on which you don’t agree. This tactic earned him respect in the U.S. Senate, especially working with the likes of Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy.
James Baldwin, on the other hand, was a Civil Rights era author. He was close with both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and debated with the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr. The debate, which took place in 1965, is still available to watch online and is worth an hour of your time.
Baldwin once said “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Simply put, we can certainly disagree, but not when your disagreement is centered around whether or not I’m able to exist. I realize I’m taking Baldwin’s quote out of context, but it seems like when political rhetoric boils down to threats on someone’s life it’s time to re-examine where we are.
What’s more, it seems like we should be examining if there is even a path forward.