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Liddick: Poisoning public discourse

Morgan Liddick

In a second-century BCE treatise on virtue, the Roman poet Lucilius remarked that

“… in addition, manly virtue is putting the country’s interest first, then our parents’, with our own interests third and last.”

I suppose this sort of virtue would work for women, too, but Lucilius was a Roman of his time, so he probably gave that matter little thought.

No, this is not an essay about virtue; so if one is a sybarite fear not, and read on. Nor is it about self-abnegation in the interest of country and family. This is about passion’s power to poison a community’s ability to govern itself, when Lucilius’ virtue fails to guide us.

Let’s begin with an example near and familiar to us. Today we discover if the Silverthorne town charter will be amended to require a popular vote to exercise eminent domain, or not. And whether landowners resisting the enlargement of a 1963-vintage easement to allow a paved recreational path over property they own will get their way.

Both aspects are important and deserve consideration; balancing between the two goods of public use and private property is never easy, as this newspaper has pointed out. But there is another question, with implications equally problematic and abiding. After a campaign as acrimonious as this has been, how are private citizens and officials alike to return to a status quo ante, resolving other issues that may arise in a calm and deliberate manner?

The debate over the merits of Silverthorne’s Ballot Question 1 has been, to say the least of it, intemperate. Calling one’s neighbors greedy, grasping child-endangering sociopaths because they are disinclined to surrender their property rights simply because a bunch of people think they should do so, is a vicious tactic – the more so when local officials are involved.

Equating Silverthorne’s eminent domain action in the Blue River Trail case with that of governments elsewhere seizing private property to transfer to other private parties is similarly dishonest. And insinuating that officials have illegally used public monies in the campaign is a charge similar to that which once prompted a well-known state governor to beat a Congressman almost to death. These sorts of attacks leave a bitter taste that will linger long after the issue is resolved.

Our own little teapot tempest illustrates a much larger problem, statewide and nationally. As many of our Founders feared, “faction” – their word for partisan politics – has the potential to poison public discourse, making self-government much more difficult. One has seen this on several occasions in the past, most notably in the presidential elections of 1800 and 1828, when actions entirely in the national interest were denounced by candidates as betrayals and corruptions – in terms that cast aspersions on the parentage, personal habits and even the physical appearance of their rivals; also in the election of 1884, so vile that it has been termed the “scurrilous campaign.” The wounds from that one didn’t completely heal until the 1920s.

It appears we are now embarked on another such contest. And since civility, accuracy and probity are usually the first casualties in this situation, here are a few guidelines to consider when sifting through the sludge:

1. Who is attacking what? The side emphasizing policies and their results – “when the Corps of Engineers nixed the plan, the town went after a larger easement” – deserves more consideration than those who attack the character of their opponent – “they’re just a bunch of greedy McMansion richie riches …” the latter also creates problems for reconciliation after the crisis has passed.

2. How plausible is the accusation? “The town paid for the ‘vote no’ campaign” might be provable, given receipts. But if the accusation is murder by indifference, there better be proof of all elements of the crime, instead of mere accusation. Especially if the accuser’s motives and narrative are suspect.

3. What are the fundamental principles involved? The Town of Silverthorne is proposing to ignore the right of private property, in service of what it posits as a higher good. What are the implications of approval? Are there limits, or are officials saying, in effect “trust me?” And if so, have they provided ample enough proofs we should do so? Which brings us to the last point:

4. What is the track record? Do partisans of one side pose implausible scenarios, given what has happened previously? Do they lay off blame on others? Has the town of Silverthorne exercised eminent domain in the past 18 years? How, and for what? Nationally, is unemployment below 8 percent? Who’s been in charge, again?

Things to consider, for those voting today and in future…

Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at mcliddick@hotmail.com.


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