I’ve never had much patience with those who pillory government as a matter of general principle. More specifically, I object to those who protest paying taxes while enjoying a scandalous standard of living in one of the best-served nations on the planet. Maybe that’s why I’ve always enjoyed small towns and small-town conversation in “liberal” as well as “conservative” states.

We’re now finished with driving mile after mile after mile across the Midwest on well-paved, well-marked roads that are not the interstate highways. The roads, even the unpaved county roads we’ve been driving are the sort of highways that our Dominican friends can only dream of having. This is government at its best.

While we’ve admittedly found fewer parks in the Midwest, the ones we’ve seen are as well-maintained as any that we used in the mid-Atlantic region. For instance, water comes out of the taps we turn. Generally, you can drink that water. Sewage predictably disappears in even the most remote location. In addition, fresh and nutritious food is readily available nearby and trash seems to be picked up regularly (even if recycling is something of a challenge in the mid-West.)

Wi-Fi Internet access is available in the most unlikely places.

We’re reminded of the number of excellent little Post Office buildings in even the smallest of the towns we’ve visited. The mail seems to be regularly delivered, probably on time. In the most remote prairie we see signs cautioning us to call before we dig, lest we disturb buried communications cable. This is frequently fiber-optic cable; I’ve checked.

We’ve got some swell infrastructure in this country, that’s for sure.

Now that I think of it, those tax objectors and malcontents I’ve known personally have mostly come from the larger cities in which I’ve lived–or they’ve owned very large farms in the West. This is probably a function of where I’ve lived, more than anything. I’m pretty sure they must live in these small towns as well.

Wherever they reside, it is somehow possible for them to sustain an illusion of independence from the larger social fabric and to successfully confuse their idea of independence with their feeling of estrangement from the workings and personnel of government.

It seems that maybe such an illusion would be more difficult to sustain in small towns. It’s a simple matter of scale, for one thing. Everyone personally knows old Sam who maintains the parks and city grounds; the policeman is Denny (Jim’s boy, back from the service), and Avery and Dan are paving the county road two sections over. Probably next year they’ll be grading the county roads in this section.

You get the picture: the connection between citizen and government is direct, and the reminders appear to be constant.

I don’t know how we get so isolated in the city, where for some the most significant aspect of government is the quarterly tax bill and we lose sight of all the rest. In both town and country this must, to some degree, be a simple failure to communicate the connections.

Maybe Civics isn’t taught in the middle schools any longer. Perhaps our subjective civic experience is mostly one of government prohibitions or requirements to which we are subject.

Certainly the desperate 24 hour news shouters drown out any information about government other than the sensational. It’s difficult to find a positive story about our government presented in anything like an objective way, isn’t it? As a consequence lots and lots of people don’t have a clue what the “common weal”  is, or how it might underpin the very structure of our system of representative government.

This unfortunate circumstance characterizes a number of things that are good for Americans and which we nevertheless despise: single-payer health care and the labor movement, to name two.

This sort of social information void was recognized by Howard Dean and Barrack Obama struggles to fill it every day, even as the news shouters line up like some sensationalist bucket brigade to douse his light with the latest in scandalous trivia.

At best, it’s the same kind of information vacuum that exists between regular folks and the unions that would represent their interests. Of course it’s much worse than a mere vacuum—ask any American about the labor movement and chances are you’ll hear a one dimensional story about Jimmy Hoffa; they will certainly mention the mob and violence on the picket line. As a nation we’ve forgotten, or never learned, how unions have helped America and Americans.

While we may realize that Avery and Dan are working on our behalf this season by paving the road in the next jurisdiction, we as a nation just don’t have a clue how the Autoworkers vaulted millions of Americans into the middle class, how unions were compelled to successfully bargain for health insurance during the second world war, or how lives change for union members who enjoy the benefit of a pension. Trust me; I see this, especially the last point.

In many way we’ve become–all of us–a nation of whiners. We have been trained to expect constant evidence that we individually are what it’s all about. Of course this is an impossibility, and so we are never satisfied. As a country, we have developed an unattractive trait of expecting constant attention and service and plaintively complaining when it is not forthcoming. Even so, we’re not bad people–at least I’m not.

We come by this failing honestly. We’ve become a country filled with people who functionally cannot pay attention to anything more complicated that a single 42 minute television episode. The news of the day is thrust upon us in a pre-digested form and in even smaller increments. Corporate media makes no attempt to integrate the small increments we receive into a larger view of the world we live in, except in the service of the sensational news story of the week.

By design or happenstance, we’re too busy or too self-involved to examine the bits and pieces that make up our world, and often too insecure to examine with others how those bits and pieces can be arranged to best serve the common interest.

Maybe I’m delusional here, but the mutual examination and discussion of a shared set of circumstances seems to be more common in small towns than anonymous cities. Mutual examination and discussion are what’s missing, I think, from the shouting that passes for persuasion and from the vested opinion that often passes for news.

(Mounting soapbox)

I am of the opinion that striving to moderate the tenor and shift the focus of our national conversation to the common interests of citizens is what the American Labor Movement should be about. This is an opinion I first formed as a business agent in Seattle; it’s one expressed to responsible leaders of the national labor movement, both officers and staff in Washington, DC. It a belief that nags at me still.

This is a topic to which I will perhaps return in more detail in future, but now and for the time being I’ll return to chronicling our journey across the United States. There’s much to catch up on in the past couple of weeks: prairie storms and salt mines and city parks in Kansas, small town parades and firefighter’s hose contests in Nebraska, fiddle and picking contests in Kansas, and pie, oh the pie in Colorado!

Everywhere we see plenty of evidence of the common weal; as a nation we just no longer recognize it for what it is. This is a correctable situation.

Bill

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