Page Two: When Does 'Open' Mean 'Closed'?
SOS, Proposition 2, and populist anti-democratic populism
1) You decide to ask your boss for a raise and better benefits. It's been a number of years and you figure you're due. At home you work it all out. Your current salary and benefits, those of people in similar positions at the company (information that is legal to have but which your employer might not realize you've obtained), what you'll be asking and what you will settle for. The next day you walk into your boss' office and hand over all this paperwork to him before sitting down to negotiate.
Imagine the same scenario for buying a car or renting an apartment or buying a house. In any such negotiation, you do not want to lay all your cards, or even most of them, on the table, but to play them carefully. Keep in mind, that in this case, whereas you need to detail your considerations, assumptions, and terms, those who sit across from you have to do no such thing. Such a process, only "open" on one side, would at least cripple if not outright destroy most companies' ability to negotiate.
Currently the citizens of Austin are being asked to vote for a proposed charter amendment aka Prop. 2 that doesn't actually describe any of those situations just discussed, but wants to lock the city into that position every time it considers any kind of economic-development proposal. The so-called "Open Government" proposition is not, as some have claimed, a well-intentioned but sloppy piece of legislation, in which intention, enforcement, actual implementation, and focus are way too vague.
Ironically, at the beginning of the 21st century, public discourse is dominated by an ideology best described as the truly odd coupling of Humpty Dumpty's and George Orwell's futuristic, semantically based visions.
Not only is it no longer important what you say, the words meaning exactly and only what the speaker intends, but the ongoing political struggle is rendered in one-dimensional, black-and-white terms, the good guys against the bad guys. Neither these meanings nor politics are based on precedent, historically resonant, or in any way permanent. Instead meanings and ideas can and do change often, swiftly, and without warning.
Nowhere is this bastardized, arbitrary imposition of authority more starkly evident and out of control as in the ongoing political dialogue. Almost counterintuitively, it is bred, nurtured, encouraged, and celebrated swirling around the governmental workings of our constitutional republic, based on the democratic principle of universal suffrage. Therefore a "reform" party is by definition "better" than any existing political organization because those are all, consequently, "anti-reform." There are no details as to a specific platform instead the refrain becomes "Well, it's reform you know, doing things better."
In the current case, if a proposition is labeled "Open Government," then an elected leader better pay it lip service, at least in principle. Otherwise, "What? Are you for closed government in favor of secret backroom deals, corruption, and fraud?" Prop. 2 is far more concerned with crippling Austin's government, regardless of the political and economic consequences, than with opening it up. But who would vote for that bill, accurately labeled?!?
This is part of an aggressive campaign on the part of one of the city's most established, monomaniacally focused special-interest groups, which routinely insists it represents a near-holy, incorruptible, non-negotiable vision. Allies are righteously pure and those in disagreement morally, politically, and ethically dishonest. In this equation representative government and basic constitutional rights, rather than inherent guarantees of the individual's social contract, are instead intruding roadblocks that must be overcome.
Sadly, I'm talking about Save Our Springs Alliance and the increasingly fringe, overly ambitious environmental community.
2) In June of 1990 Austin citizens came together to insist that environmental concerns must be a city priority. Hundreds and hundreds showed up at the City Council chambers. Many thousands and thousands more became involved. It was truly a broad-based community effort, not an uprising but a fierce insistence on representative government. Eventually, the SOS ordinance passed and SOS was organized (later dividing into two separate organizations for legal reasons having to do with money and lobbying).
3) I will always remember, during one election endorsement interview, years back, we asked each of the candidates to clearly state his or her reasons for running. Robert Singleton finished by saying he hoped to discover exactly what the parasitical monster was that entered and permanently altered newly elected officials so that regardless of their campaign promises, they become another compromised and compromising politician.
Perhaps tragically, perhaps not, the monster is this country's core constitutional conceit that all citizens have a say in their government, so that elected officials are obligated to all their constituents and not just the ideas of the special interests that initially drove them. Furthermore, existing laws and established legal precedents restrict unilateral and unprecedented actions.
Obviously, the current Republicans' uncompromising, narrow-focused, lockstep politics are the completely reversed mirror image of these ideals. But this is almost just an accident of their current hold on power; that kind of arrogance is not limited to one party. Currently, regardless of political persuasion, any politician who considers the views of as broad a base of the community as possible, compromising for the communal good rather than adhering to strict ideological tenets, is quickly labeled a sellout and a typically corrupt politician. Reasonable discourse is disdained by nearly the entire ideological spectrum of American political beliefs.
4) Always there and waiting to devour any newly elected council member, the "monster" is in fact rational and reasonable core governing responsibilities: to serve the whole community; to represent but not rubber-stamp their desires; to always consider the health and best interests of the city and its citizens; to respect and follow the law; to be impartial, fair, and consistent.
Pursuing ideological speech and ideas is always a lot easier than actual governing. Criticizing the government is to actually administering it as thinking about masturbating is to a sexually active, human relationship. Some of the images may be similar, but the actual experiences have near nothing in common.
In Austin, most civic governing activities are handicapped by the power and possible punitive intervention by the state of Texas. Rather than broad democratic obligations, the state pursues a much narrower agenda, responding to a much smaller constituency. The governor's office is seemingly near-legally partnered with certain special interest lobbyists who have little use for Austin. The Legislature's biases, coupled with an overly active dislike of our city, result in it regularly not just threatening Austin's political independence, but often retaliating against it.
If local politicians acknowledge this obvious problem overshadowing Austin's legislative actions, they are accused of whorishly selling out, lacking moral courage, and/or being too overly concerned about state backlash.
5) The electoral process, as well as political, legal, and practical realities, should be a crucial part of the discussion and execution of environmental policy. Except the environment is not an ideology, but a scientific reality. Which is why compromise can be so deadly even when it seems a victory for the green forces.
This kind of devotion to principle over popular government, the law, and civic procedural precedence can seem noble. However, such an attitude, no matter how pure, contains the contaminated seeds of an anti-democratic fascism.
6) Name-calling, character assassination, and casting aspersions of corruption on a council member's concerns are, in practice, the order of the day. Disagreeing with SOS and its allies is regarded by them as attacking the truth and not just the truth, but the holy truth.
There is no principled disagreement, only saints and whores in this scenario.
As one who loves language and ideological argument, it is with somewhat delirious anticipation that I look forward to Bill Bunch's letter on this editorial. Nakedly self-righteous in his self-interest, Bunch will nonchalantly attack other single-issue special-interest lobbyists as being involved in backroom negotiations without ever acknowledging that he is doing exactly the same.
Not only that, but whenever the Chronicle writes almost anything this environmental community disagrees with, someone will write in to correct us. There is factual reporting (pretty much paralleling their view) and inaccurate and/or lazy and/or corrupted misinformation presented as accurate (anything that doesn't parrot their line).
7) SOS was initially driven by a broad-based, widely popular public response. At the time and over the years the environmental community has been attacked from any numbers of differing points of views. Some Austinites were in favor of development, and others were opposed to almost any environmental restrictions. Leftists and minorities argued it was just a rich Anglo movement privileging plants and rocks over social and economic justice. Others insisted the issue had come to dominate local politics at the expense of many other issues, including crucial city infrastructure and activity.
This paper and I have always spoken up in favor of a broad populist view in which social, economic, racial, and political justice were as crucial to the tapestry as environmental and developmental concerns. We have argued against the above anti-environmental points of view as being disingenuous and/or missing the bigger picture.
As I write this I am still proud of this city's political history, and I still champion those same centrist progressive positions. But the most militant leadership of the environmental community's inability to compromise the obsessive consistent call-out-the-troops hysteria brought to every single environmentally tinged issue and the casual indictment of community leaders, elected officials, media reporters, and city personnel whenever they don't toe the party line has begun to sicken me. Having won so many battles, we are losing the war.
Make no mistake about it, this open-government proposal is designed to fatally cripple the city's ability to function, which is just what it will do.