Live with Pride

Town Hall Cooperstown, NY
I’ve just come back from Cooperstown, New York, filled with hope. Not for my favorite baseball team—there isn’t much hope for them—but for the possibility that Americans can literally clean up their act. Cooperstown still has tree-lined streets where people walk, front porches on which they sit, and cafes in which they converse. You don't see self-important lap-topped hipsters ignoring the world; in Cooperstown you have to pay for you own damn WiFi. It's small, but it has a heartbeat–unlike American commuter 'burbs whose cookie-cutter sameness would flat-line an EEG.

I anticipate your scorn. You wonder, “Did he drink a vat of Norman Rockwell-laced Kool-aid?” You’d probably protest that Cooperstown isn’t a real place— merely the domiciled analog to the Abner Doubleday myth, a baseball theme park fueled by tourist dollars and fattened by property taxes from fancy summer homes lining the head of Lake Otsego. Maybe you lump it with other unreal places: Hershey, Pennsylvania; Boulder, Colorado; or Orlando, Florida. You’re right, but only partially. Cooperstown’s main drag is a weird place, a hardball shrine with sacred offerings of balls, bats, and gloves. But beyond the surface luster is a small community whose per capita income is actually lower than the New York State average, and it’s surrounded by numerous other neat-as-a-pin farming communities that are not growing money trees on the back 40. There might be something even cornier at work: civic pride.

Did you ever contemplate why American travelers to places such as Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, and Sweden come home stunned by the relative orderliness and cleanliness of those lands? It’s not that they’ve somehow solved social problems that plague the United States: poverty, institutionalized discrimination, addiction, untreated mental illnesses…. I could tick off distressing problems in each of those places. But one thing that is different is that each has a much more highly developed civic ideal, one that sees things in a we rather than a me perspective. You can see that in the streets, the lawns, the parks, and sidewalks. You can see it in how people dress—even the poor.

I’m lucky. When I return from a place such as New Zealand or Cooperstown, I get to live in a town that’s the envy of many—a vibrant downtown, colleges, galleries, lots to do, climbing property values…. Yet the signs of civic indifference are all around me. I can show you the rusting grocery carts dumped into gullies by those enterprising enough to walk off with them but too damn lazy to return them, the decaying rental properties owned by modern-day robber barons, the perpetually drunk panhandlers, and the cafes with lines of sweat-panted laptop louts monopolizing tables designed for four by making a cup of herbal tea last all morning. I can take you past a home near me whose owner thinks that a collapsing fence, eye-high weeds, mildewed siding, broken windows, and junked cars are expressions of freedom.  

I’m not on a turn-back-the-clock Leave it to Beaver rant. I was born in the 1950s and it's only on television that all the lawns and towns were immaculate. There's a reason why Lady Bird Johnson was active in the Keep America Beautiful campaign in the mid-1960s, and there's really a reason why the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Environmental Protection Agency came into existence. My 50s/60s childhood was one in which people littered indiscriminately, factories dumped toxins into streams, cars belched exhaust into the air, and zoning laws were practically nonexistent. Americans have been pigs for a long time.

But don’t tell me that poverty excuses our lack of personal or civic pride—that’s bleeding heart liberalism at its very worst. I wouldn’t deny for a second that our national priorities are seriously skewed—there’s always money for military toys and foreign adventurism, but not for infrastructure or the South Bronx. Nor am I suggesting that if we just tidied up a bit, our national problems would disappear. I’m saying it would be a good place to start. More pride in self and community might help Americans rediscover the “us” in USA—maybe enough to express their preferences politically. 

It's a lifestyle choice. Most of the residents of Cooperstown have opted out of squalor, even though the majority of them get by with a bit less money than other New Yorkers. And maybe that’s also a wake-up call for those of us fortunate enough to have assets, a reminder that without pride, materialism is as soul-deadening as poverty.

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