EDITORIAL: What blunts hate speech?

POSTCARD FROM MASSACHUSETTS: Great weather for our visit last weekend with eldest daughter S., grandson G. and son-in-law P. House is charming. Sorry to learn that a couple of days earlier, just after election, a stranger drove by and yelled, “F–k you, spic!” at P. Bumper sticker on the driver’s car read “Trump.”

My son-in-law is a U.S. citizen, a Ph.D. mathematician, a college professor and a published poet. Hard to know whether the guy who took the time to roll down his passenger-side window before spewing that venom knew anything about Pedro Poitevin. Or cared. And it’s just as hard to believe that the driver didn’t see that Pedro was holding the hand of a seven-year-old child.

This incident did not happen here but it’s a big enough concern that Governor Cuomo launched a bias incident hotline this week: 1-888-392-3644. I’m glad Senator Bernie Sanders warned his supporters that that voters who chose Trump must not be dismissed as all racists or sexists. Still, as a parent and grandparent, the tone of the Trump campaign and now some appointees of the new administration have become personal in a way they weren’t before.

What to do? It’s gratifying to hear pundits and comedians urge audiences to buy local newspapers and become better informed. The advice applies regardless of which candidate you voted for. It’s not about the editorial positions taken by newspapers–at least those newspapers that publicly state their political preferences. The theory is that people who become better informed from news accounts of how government works at the local level will make better political choices and might get directly involved in the democratic process.

That’s a tall order. There are few celebrities and seldom any drama at routine sessions of local government. No wonder the public prefers reality TV, which, like professional wrestling, is not really what the name suggests. Government can’t compete with entertainment. Interest in local government occasionally does spike upward when our money, property or freedom are on a board’s agenda. But all too often boards resolve big issues with no citizens bothering to comment or complain.

A better way to stay current is to become a participant rather than a spectator. Right now around the county town boards are looking for people to serve on committees, commissions and regulatory boards that handle planning, zoning appeals and other matters. New Lebanon and Copake are advertising openings in the Public Notices section of this issue. These positions take a few hours each month. Are we all too busy making ends meet to carve out that much time away from family, sleep and digital devices?

Need more motivation? Check your thermometer. Scientists predict 2016 will be the warmest year on record. Several towns around the county have already joined the state’s Climate Smart Community program, which offers voluntary ways to plan for the impacts of global climate change and to reduce the release of greenhouse gasses. Is your town in the program? If your town doesn’t participate, grab a neighbor or two, attend the next board meeting and ask why not.

We’ve had leadership in recent years from Congressman Chris Gibson (R), who tried to convince his Republican colleagues in the House that climate change needs to be addressed. He leaves Congress at the end of the year. And don’t expect help from the new administration. Mr. Trump has said he considers climate change a hoax and has chosen someone who shares that view to line up appointees to run the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mr. Gibson’s successor, Rep.-elect John Faso (R), acknowledges climate change but has not yet outlined how he will work to address it. Write to him. Find ways to educate him and his staff about the issue. He lives in Kinderhook. He’s a neighbor.

The hate speech and worse emboldened by Mr. Trump’s own biases and his choice of Steve Bannon as a top advisor despite Mr. Bannon’s silence on his past support for racist groups on the web–all that has a life of its own now. Pushing it back into its cave on the fringe of politics starts where the political is personal. There are lots of peaceful ways to push back. Engaging in the smallest units of government is just one and it won’t alter national priorities easily or fast. But working at the community level is among the best tools we have if we have any chance at all to knit a civil society together.

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