[My editor wrote the headline! "From the Whitehouse back to the outhouse."]
The gripping national drama of this year’s election is finally beginning to loosen its hold on us and our political attention can finally shift from the faraway spectacle of Washington, D.C., to the local, and more immediate, concerns of Washington County.
The election was a thrill ride, wonderful for some and frightening for others. Mr. Obama’s promise of participatory democracy is, apparently, even more frightening to neoconservatives than Mr. Reagan’s voodoo-economics-driven plutocratic-Christian-fundamentalist-fascism was to those of us on the progressive side of the aisle.
But now, after all that tumult and excitement, after the grand sweep of Grand Ideals, we have to get back to figuring whether we want bike trails, who to assign to West Bend’s Parking Advisory Committee and, of course, sewers.
I have a funny story about sewers. Eleven years ago this autumn I was sitting in the visitors gallery overlooking the Estonian Riigikogu, their parliament. Below us the members were engaged in a fierce debate.
Beside us our hostess, the minister of the environment, was giving us goose-bumps by recounting the story of how, on Aug. 20, 1991, as a column of Soviet tanks drew down on Tallinn, the Estonian parliament defiantly passed a final resolution declaring full Estonian independence. Volunteers set up perimeters to defend key government buildings from the Soviet Interior Ministry’s OMON shock troops.
There was, surprisingly, no bloodshed. Even when the Soviet troops finally pulled out of Estonia everyone assumed, we were told, that the Russians were merely leaving to see who would emerge as leaders afterward. Once those people were known, everyone assumed, the Russians would return and slaughter them. Those who lived in the Baltics following World War II understood the Soviets perfectly well.
There didn’t seem to be any point in delaying the inevitable, she told us. People poured down to the border crossings to block the returning Russian tanks with their bodies. They waited. The Soviets did not return. Eventually everyone decided they might as well head back to Tallinn and start work on the new government. That’s what they did.
The members of parliament on the floor below us had been among those Estonians who, jaws set and singing patriotic songs, waited for Russian tanks that never came.
The voices from the floor below grew louder. What were those courageous people, now transformed into representatives of a parliamentary democracy, discussing with so much fire?
Our hostess leaned over the railing to listen and, eyes widening, finally said, Ah yes. A very important debate is taking place. The members are discussing the best way to extend a new sewer line.
This was, admittedly, something of a letdown, but it was also a brilliant lesson in the aphorism that all politics is local.
Here in Washington County we haven’t even had to worry about Soviet shock troops, but there is a lot to do.
The West Bend Common Council still has to think about the northwest interceptor sewer line in one form or another. The main water tower was just repainted blue. There have been sanitary sewer repairs along Salisbury Road and Barton Avenue and city council has considered whether to allow a new tattoo parlor shop to set up on Barton Avenue and whether to initiate some rezoning for (another ?) new Walgreen's at Paradise Drive and South Main Street. They’re preparing the 2009 Water Utility budget.
(Sitting in the visitors gallery in Tallinn, I remembered something my grandfather the pastor liked to say: You can climb the mountain to behold the glory of God, but always remember, the fruit grows in the valley.)
I thought about what it must have been like for human beings who had risked their lives on the mountain tops of patriotic dedication – and the lives of their families – to suddenly find themselves arguing about sewer lines, or to realize that their greatest contribution to the future of their country might well be a set of smart zoning regulations. I thought about this again last week while recovering from the adrenalin rush of three months campaigning against the neoconservative culture warriors.
I realized that, if on a less dramatic scale, we too should take a deep breath and get back to the urgent needs of local government because, grand political events notwithstanding, we live in the valley.