What I learned about America; in China

Dear Islanders,

What I learned about America; in China  

Some of you know that I had a chance to study in China. This was just before the Beijing Olympics, when China was getting ready for its big reintroduction to the world. It was an exciting time. My favorite professor—ever—taught a course on Chinese history and law. Now before I go any further, let me stop because I know what you might be thinking, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. What is this I’m reading? Is our Supervisor writing a love letter to Red China?” The answer to that is, “No. Certainly not.” But just stick with me for a minute. To make my point I want to tell you more about this professor and a darker period in Chinese history. 

The professor had lived through the “Cultural Revolution” and the almost as terrible “Great Leap Forward.”  There was a time in China when just a handful of people controlled everything (Mao foremost among them).  This small group made decisions by themselves, behind closed doors. And one of their terribly bad ideas was to tear down China and rebuild it from scratch--literally. Everything came down, including temples, libraries full of historical texts, and even the old way of writing. The idea was that Chinese culture had failed, and it was time to replace it with something better: Chinese-style communism. 

Attack on the sparrows

During that time, Mao got it into his head to suddenly declare war on sparrows. Yes, sparrows. It’s crazy, but he thought they were pests. Masses of people were mobilized to kill the little birds. Crowds took to banging pots and pans, lighting firecrackers, and beating drums to force them to fly until they fell from the sky. 

The professor I mentioned above told me a story about when he was a little boy witnessing this madness. He had his hands on his ears to block the sound of the sparrow hunters as one of the brown tufts of feathers fluttered above him. He prayed for its escape, but it finally fell from exhaustion. He walked over and picked the little creature up, but it was dead. As my wizened, old professor spoke of that moment he did so almost with the voice of the scared little child he had once been. “How could they have made us do such a thing?” he whispered. 

Grand Island is abuzz

Why do I bring this all up? Well, I want to make a point about the greatness of the American political process. We hear so much about how bad politics are and about political apathy and “gridlock.” And sure, we have some issues. But I still think our system (even with all of its flaws) is something truly special.

America is a place where no one person controls everything. There are checks and balances.  And ultimately we, the people, have control because we can complain and vote the bad leaders out. Well, that’s how it works if we are all involved.  The good news is that right now on Grand Island, people are getting involved.  

At the last Town Workshop we again had so many people attend that we had to move the meeting upstairs to the Court Room. According to the Town Clerk, this has only happened a few times in the last decade, two of which have been in the month since I started as Supervisor. And when we put advertisements out for openings on the various Advisory Boards, we were hit with a flood of resumes and responses—thank you!

In America, we value debate and compromise  

Last week, as one of the Town Board members and I engaged in some vigorous, but respectful banter, I looked out at the crowd and noticed that people were sitting on the edge of their seats with interest. And I don’t think they were as eager to see the “show” so much as they were eager to hear both sides of the debate. They were getting informed and seeing whose argument was more persuasive. It was a live demonstration of the “marketplace of ideas” that our founding fathers had hoped for. As I realized the change, my heart swelled with great pride. Win or lose that debate or the many more before me, I feel confident that Grand Island is now “open to the public”. 

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be some bumps along the way. As I do not have executive authority to unilaterally make changes or force my will on the Town Board there will be times that my ideas and plans are deferred and rejected. Having come from a private sector background, this is admittedly frustrating. But I know that’s how America is meant to work. Further, I may be made to look foolish now and then, or get taken to task. But that’s what I signed up for. And I'm guessing I'll have my fair share of victories too. Bottom line is that I’ll take thoughtful deliberation and the balance of competing interests over the brutal and graceless decisiveness of a strongman any day. 

On March 7, come join us for another open meeting!

Come see Grand Island democracy in action March 7th.  There will be interesting topics on the agenda and not one, but two, public hearings that night.  You can tell us how you feel. Get involved. Be heard. And see if you like what you hear from us.  (FYI – the agendas are usually posted on the website a few days before the meetings.)  I certainly am proud to be American, proud of Grand Island and proud of you for getting involved.  Thank you!