Pining for the Past? Vote in the Present

COMMENT

September 11, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

For some reason, a substantial number of Carroll County residents think the best of life is behind them.

In dozens of conversations I had this summer, many county residents expressed their concerns about the future. Their perceptions are that the problems of crime, poorly performing schools, congestion and degradation of the environment will only worsen.

This pessimism spills over into their feelings about elected officials. While a substantial number are unhappy with the county's current political leadership, many seem to believe that putting new people in elective office won't make much of a difference.

Instead of looking to the future with hope and a determination to change things, many residents seem much happier to look to the past and recall how wonderful things were three, four, five decades ago.

A good friend of mine in his 60s loves to talk about how everything was better when he was a young man. He feels that society worked better. There was more order. People had more respect for each other.

In many ways, it is a false nostalgia. Life may have been simpler, but it was fraught with problems too. For many people living in Carroll there was little economic or social mobility. Power was concentrated among a few people who determined public policy for the rest of the population. Many old people did not have sufficient incomes to support themselves and could not afford medical care.

In the '50s, the supposed golden years, blacks were treated as second-class citizens in Carroll as in so many other places across this county. They attended segregated schools, were refused service at restaurants and were excluded from some movie theaters.

Equality for women also has come a long way since then.

If we were to return to those days, I am sure that most of us would pine away for a return to the present.

There is nothing inherently wrong with remembering the past with fondness. But humans have this wonderful capacity to be very selective in their memories. Over time, we shed the painful and unpleasant memories from our consciousness. What's left is the rosy glow of mostly pleasant recollections.

There is no doubt that Carroll has problems. But instead of rising to this challenge, voters appear to be overwhelmed.

Electoral apathy is democracy's worst enemy. When people stay away from the polls, a minority select our leaders. While in office, these elected leaders have to contend with an strong undercurrent of resentment from the people who voted for their opponents and from the many who didn't vote at all.

Under these circumstances, government officials have trouble tackling pressing problems. Since a majority of the population did not elect them, these leaders don't have a strong mandate and have to expend a great deal of energy to build support for their proposals. In addition, people who don't have a stake feel free to pick apart every adventurous initiative or oppose it outright.

The result is political cynicism -- the belief that we don't have the capability to make meaningful and positive changes in our society and that all government institutions are suspect and tainted.

There are elements of the population that are happy with these circumstances. However, for most of us change would improve our quality of life as it did for our parents and their parents. The dynamism of our society has always been its strength.

In recent years, however, change has been something to be discouraged. Politicians have taken note of this change in sentiment.

Instead of talking about bold initiatives, most politicians find themselves talking about returning to the way things used to be.

Politicians who want to be elected to run the government campaign on platforms to tear it down. Once they are elected, they not only attack the institutions that are not working -- as they should -- but they are unwilling to defend the public institutions that are working.

Take, for example, the seemingly growing disenchantment with public education. At virtually every candidate forum, there are questions about why the county government spends so much on education.

These critics have the impression that the county schools are producing students lacking in skills to enter the work force or attend college. Yet, statistics show Carroll's graduates post the best standardized scores of the state and that more Carroll graduates are attending college than before.

It's as though we have lost all perspective. Sure, a system of 25,000 students has its problems. Some schools score consistently lower in achievement than others. There are discipline problems. But a reasonable-minded person has to come to the conclusion that county schools are working and producing admirable results.

Retreating to the past won't solve today's problems, and people who stay away from the polls Tuesday will just be compounding them rather than solving them.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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