News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

September 26, 2010

Stephanie Salter: Just because you’re a volunteer doesn’t mean we should trust you

Right about the time a woman in the meeting audience said she didn’t believe any of the assurances her neighbors were giving her about the effectiveness of a planned group project, I realized I was looking at a snapshot of the contemporary United States.

The details of this particular meeting aren’t important. The group dynamics could have occurred at any number of association gatherings, church board assemblies or regular planning sessions of various affinity clubs. (I had no dog in the fight, I’d simply agreed to show up and help take notes for a friend.)

The few dozen people present had much more in common with one another than not. They were Hoosiers who share a finite number of developed acres of earth, pretty much the same skin color and Northern European ancestry, a concern for their property values, their pocketbooks and their personal space.

Although some among them are rich, no one at the gathering is close to poor by any official or unofficial standard.

So much for homogenity ensuring harmony.

Sitting near the back of the group, I could hear most of the grumbling asides and quiet predictions of doom as a committee of fellow land dwellers at the front of the group presented information and recommendations on the project. When the meeting was opened for questions, the group energy kicked up a few notches.

I watched as a few people who obviously had taken the time to read the volume of data and information available about the project rose to ask questions — and as those who had read little but were “just going with my gut” also rose to query or, more often, comment.

What struck me most was the level of mistrust and hostility directed by many audience members toward the handful of folks who — after months of research and work — were presenting their official recommendations.

Keep in mind, the presenters at this meeting are like people in the previously mentioned neighborhood, church or affinity associations — strictly volunteer. They didn’t drive in from another state in limos with an entourage, they live among the people in the audience, using the same roads and street lights everyone else uses. The consequences, good or ill, of what they recommend for their association will be shared by each of them as well as their neighbors.

But to hear the challenges, impatient questions and occasional insults, you would think the committee members had wandered in from Goldman Sachs, AIG or Congress.

I see enough from tea partiers to know that great segments of America are angry at just about anything that walks and smells vaguely of established authority. The angry ones are determined to “restore America’s honor” and “take her back” from ruthless or clueless powers that somehow managed to wrest control from “real people.”

Many folks who are angry are so angry, they’ve developed a kind of visual impairment that can cloud their ability to distinguish between what is good for them and what is actually a threat.

How else to explain a recent Associated Press-GfK Poll in which 43 percent of people who said they earn less than $50,000 a year are strongly opposed to raising $700 billion over the next 10 years by restoring pre-Bush II income tax levies on individual Americans earning more than $200,000 a year, and couples earning more than a quarter of a million?

Except … the tax idea is coming from Washington, and if an idea comes from Washington, it’s a bad idea, no matter to what it pertains. Senate and House veterans who have delivered billions to their constituents over the years — what angry people in other states call “pork” — are condemned because they are “Washington insiders,” as if you could be anything else and deliver billions to your constituents.

When the congressional veterans are condemned by former Washington insiders, be they ex-politcians or very recent ex-lobbyists, the contradiction conjures up “1984” visions of Winston Smith busily revising history at the Ministry of Truth.

Affordable health care for all — not long ago the goal of a huge majority of Americans — is now proof of a socialist takeover of government. At the same time, a financial sector bailout crafted by a Republican administration in a time of extraordinary crisis is proof of a Democratic administration’s capitulation to Wall Street and an enmity for “the working man.” 

Meanwhile, real working people with stagnant or falling wages read calls to arms issued by groups such as “Americans for Job Security.” The working people visit the organization’s website and see on its home page two men in dress shirts, ties and hard hats poring over a builder’s blueprints. The real working people combine the organization’s no-nonsense name with the hard hats and the condemnation of the congressional majority’s “job-killing agenda,” and they believe they have found an advocate for the little guy.

What they have found instead is another shadowy nonprofit that smugly keeps the identity of its members (and funders) secret but, in the case of Americans for Job Security, has collected enough cash — from about 1,000 members — to finance $60 million in “grassroots lobbying” and “issue advocacy” that includes 90 different television commercials, 75 radio spots and more than 7 million mailings that attack candidates as well as issues.

Still, that’s Washington stuff, political stuff. How did that brand of anger bust the dam of elected politics and trickle all the way down to a neighborhood association meeting in Indiana? How did So-and-So, four lots to the west with the friendly Irish Setter, become as suspect and deserving of scorn as the Speaker of the House of Representatives or the Senate Minority Leader?

Listening to the veiled, and not so veiled, criticisms being aimed at the neighborhood association committee members and their recommendations, I wondered why anybody would volunteer for such an experience. Break your butt gathering information, crunch numbers, run spreadsheets, consult experts, comb the Internet, come to a group consensus, offer the best options as you know them, then listen — repeatedly — to many of the people for whom you did it question everything from your intelligence to your integrity.

At least Congress gets franking privileges.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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