Leaving this column like losing a good friend


March 15, 1998|By NORRIS WEST

THIS HAS BEEN the most difficult column I've written in nearly two years of filling this space each week.

I have gone through dozens of false starts. I've written different leads in my mind, on the computer, in longhand.

This is the last of my regular columns in the Howard County section of The Sun on Sundays.

Tomorrow, I will move to another assignment in the editorial department, writing occasionally, but also editing letters to the editor. Leaving this column is not easy. It is like saying goodbye to a dependable friend.

Although my journalism career is 18 years old, I began this job as a relative newcomer to opinion writing. A weekly sports column early in my career had been my only exposure.

The task was daunting. While writing a sports column was a breeze -- I had truckloads of opinions about athletes, teams and sports controversies -- I wondered whether there would be enough issues and ideas in Howard County to discuss and debate. The job requires as many as six reasoned opinions each week about this suburb of 231,000 residents. Though I am one of those 231,000, I wasn't certain that I had that many views about this community in a year.

I came to this assignment as an observer, with the intention of chronicling and commenting sharply on the institutions and the people who run them. Although I have lived in Howard County for six years and therefore have a personal as well as professional interest in this community, I've tried to keep in mind Alexis de Tocqueville's outsider's perspective and Martin Luther King Jr.'s attitudes on social justice.

My purpose was not to write a populist column, but to convey my honest, heartfelt perceptions of Howard County. In my more haughty moments, I have thought of myself as a mirror that reflects the community's beauty and its warts.

Have I been biased, subjective? Unquestionably. That is a perk of the job. Opinion-writing, I rediscovered, is a liberating experience that allows one to shed the objective hat of a news reporter. But fundamental fairness has to remain an important goal. I've sought to understand both sides of each controversy before arriving at a point of view.

I also have intended, at times, to comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable, and challenge old ideas while scrutinizing new ones.

This is necessary in Howard County, which has many reasons to be proud but absolutely no reason to be self-satisfied. Residents enjoy a high quality of life, good schools and low crime rates, but often exclusionary, separatist tendencies are found.

Rouse's dream

Jim Rouse's dream is in critical condition, perhaps even on life support, even in Columbia. Many county leaders strive for their own version of utopia: a homogeneous community free of anything remotely resembling urban life.

Too often, families run to Howard County for cover from the rest of the world and lock the doors behind them.

I remain disappointed about regressive racial attitudes, which became evident in the county judges' campaign of 1996 and appears daily in other facets of life. Racism and socioeconomic prejudice exist in neighborhoods, the work force, schools and business. I fear that indifference toward this scourge is the biggest threat to the civil rights gains made here and elsewhere.

Born on third base

No one admits to prejudice; everyone here believes in equality. When communities object to diversity, it has nothing to do with race. It is just that affirmative action is giving advantages to people who don't deserve them, the thinking goes.

"We've worked hard for what we have" is a common refrain. Some of these sentiments come from folks who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. Then, they work hard to ensure that disadvantaged people never get into the ballpark.

I had intended for this column to be more upbeat. I would be remiss, however, were I to pass on this chance to hit some points that I neglected or failed to make strongly enough. Perhaps leaders will emerge who can bring together diverse members of the community to discuss these issues openly and honestly.

Having said this, I must acknowledge the many good things here. Ellicott City's Main Street and Columbia's lakes -- for different reasons -- are treasures. The arts community has grown, particularly with the addition of the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts. Some retailers are struggling, but the choices for shoppers and diners border on staggering. The megaplex movie theater may trouble traditionalists because of its size, but the stadium seats are terrific.

Good people are here, too. I ended each of the past two years with columns that highlighted some of the folks and their deeds that make me less cynical and more optimistic about this community.

It is the knowledge that we have people whose concern goes beyond their property lines that has inspired me every day.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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