The letters to the editor in our local paper are a gold mine of firmly held opinions well anchored in anxiety, fear and ignorance. In the past few days we have been informed that:
- Windmills produce no electricity. It’s all an elaborate con job.
- The Chinese are planning to build an industrial city populated by Chinese in Boise.
- There is a Muslim plan to take over America and impose Islamic law on everyone.
- The Federal government is trying to abolish Christianity.
- The economy has never been worse and it’s getting even more worse.
These are the kinds of things we used to see only in checkout counter rags such as The National Enquirer. My guess is that people like the writers of these letters have always been around, but have only recently felt empowered to speak out in the public forum with confidence that there are many others who share their fears and beliefs.
There is another group not far behind. Our community has defeated three successive bond proposals to rebuild the high school. Each time there has been a select committee of knowledgable persons who have studied the need for a new school from every possible angle and made their findings public. Each time the school board has held dozens of public hearings and published the proposals in every available way. Each time the required super majority of 60% has fallen short by a relatively small margin. The opposition has successfully claimed that:
- No one asked us our opinion.
- Our opinion is that we don’t need a new school.
- No one has proved that we do need a new school.
- No one has done a decent study of real needs.
- We were (I was) not included in the needs study, and we (I) know more than the people on the committee.
- The school board does not listen to the public.
- We cannot afford to bear higher taxes now (or ever).
- Frivolous luxuries such as all this technology stuff and new teachers lounges are unnecessary.
In like manner we have defeated several proposals for a community aquatic center. Each study has demonstrated that a simple pool would cost more to operate than it could generate in income, but a water park type facility could pay, or almost pay, for itself. That has not convinced enough voters. There are enough who are convinced by no evidence whatsoever that such a fancy water park is a waste of tax payer money when an old fashioned plain pool is what will satisfy the kids, and if they really want a water park we should not be duped into catering to that kind of excessive foolishness.
Walla Walla has frequently been listed as one of the best small cities in the country. Our revitalized downtown has won multiple awards. Our wine industry is booming, and tourist traffic exceeds expectations. Each of our three colleges is rated at the top in its field. They attract intellectual talent of all kinds who like it here and stay. Although the population is not increasing much, those who do move here tend to be higher income professionals and retirees. Hispanics are no longer migrant farm workers, but a growing proportion of the permanent population working in agriculture, contracting and small business. It has changed the dynamics of power and position around here, and I suspect that has something to do with the failure of school and pool bond issues.
Those who were born and raised here no longer control community decision making, and the old families of wealth have competition for the title of rich and powerful. Sons and daughters who did not move away but stayed to take jobs, raise their families, and take their place in society, have become the worker bees with history and roots but no power, and no one cares very much that they are related to half the other old families in the county. Those who moved away and came back, came back with new ideas, stories of adventures in life and business, and relationships extending into far away places.
All of that plays, I suspect, into a feeling of alienation that gets translated into bizarre letters to the editor and votes against most everything new. I wonder how it will play out?