Cole Sonafrank's

Guest Opinion for the Fairbanks Daily News Miner

(Printed prior to the Assembly's budget action, Thursday May 20th, 1999)

"Fundamental Choices"

We share many things as individuals in our community. There's some part of government we each dislike. This part commonly symbolizes all "Government" and all "Politicians." These have become foul words in our vocabulary. God help us, for we don't remember what evil is or how subtle and insidious it can be.

Times have changed since the founding of our great nation. We had Founding Fathers who must have been men of great wisdom with a positive and beautiful vision of America's potential. They carefully crafted a practical and vital government, a representative democracy, enabling all American's active participation in realizing that potential. Theirs was a relatively homogenous culture. Technology was simpler. People's lives were similar. The full range of occupations was accessible and understandable by most everyone. The blacksmith knew fairly well how hard the cobbler worked and the value of what the haberdasher and miller produced. This fostered mutual need and trust.

Today, the average computer programmer has only the vaguest notion of the genetic engineer's real work and is likely to fear the worst. It's not a matter of intelligence. Society and government have grown beyond what even the most brilliant individuals can conceive, or truly appreciate. We commonly mistrust what we don't understand. Worse, we have lost faith; faith in divine guidance, faith in our fellow man, faith in our democracy.

Democratic management requires informed voters. People are amazingly bright and can understand what's necessary. We have a problem getting enough information to base our understanding upon.

It's a sound bite problem. Honorable politicians loath them, but they get us elected. People jump to conclusions. Every politician's utterance may be distorted and manipulated - a reason legislators site to justify closed caucuses. That's going too far. However, a half-hour conversation with a reporter typically ends up as one sentence quoted in a brief inadequate article. It's not the reporter's fault.

That leads us to fundamental choices. They're not new. They're still bad. Should your representatives cut high priority functions that they know will upset people, to get folks to understand that we've got to stop wholesale cutting? Or, should we cut away other necessary functions, like deferring maintenance, and commit political suicide talking about taxes, responsible investment and sustainable growth that we know will be lost to sound bites?

This is a main reason why state revenue to municipalities and programs like restaurant inspections are being cut. Locally, this is a main reason why cuts to the school district, pools, libraries, busses and parks are being proposed. This is old school politics as usual. People have seen through it for years. I grew up listening to my father, may he rest in peace, explain it to me with great disgust. We will never rebuild people's trust in government this way. "Politicians" will remain a dirty word and representative democracy will continue to decline with cuts and divided factions decimating our community's future. Statesmanship is dying. Our Founding Fathers are mythical.

Behind closed doors you'd be amazed at what even your most conservative legislators will explain to you. Many understand the harm they're doing. Cutting isn't always prudently conservative, efficient management.

Moderates are siding with radicals who want to dismantle as much of government as they can. Our community has let them frame the whole debate. We are being diverted away from any positive vision of what we should be striving to achieve. At a recent public hearing a courageous woman had the audacity to suggest that perhaps our community needed a new, larger pool instead of closing any down. Even she suggested that this might not be a good time to ask. People laughed. That was sad. There's rarely a bad time for a good idea.

We allow ourselves to be led by those who dare not admit to a positive vision for our future or appreciating how truly beautiful a form of cooperation our representative democracy has been and should still be. Justice to those won't fit into sound bites. With selfish, simplistic and short-sighted ease we vilify our government, which we don't bother to acknowledge as our own, while we wonder at how other people around the world let themselves get into such an awful mess. Some leaders are manipulators of sound bites who can't clearly imagine positive futures. They aren't good at envisioning what leads to the most horrible futures either. They're great at fostering the illusion that nothing truly terrible could ever happen here.

Only individuals can take the time required to reach beyond the sound bites and learn which of your potential representatives you trust to do the best they can, necessarily leaving the fullest explanations to unfold slowly. Make an effort to observe and talk to your representatives outside of the election season. Demand more than sound bites. Involve yourself.

Cole Sonafrank is a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly and can be reached at 907-474-8831.

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