Monday, November 08, 2004

Game Over? The Times and (Lack of) Controversy

The Times which has been strangely absent on reporting fiber optics, aside from the odd ramblings of the new general manager, has decided to run a cover story on the issue. Continuing its off-key approach the author is the Times sports and movie writer: Don Allen. He of the He said; She said column.

Beyond that the story focuses on 1) cost, 2) remarks from council members, and 3) amazement at how little controversy has been generated. The article tries to cast the lack of controversy as lack of interest but that is only the predisposition of a reporter who sees everything in terms of conflict—who habitually analyzes even movies in terms of "He said; She said." But lack of noise is not the same as lack of interest and lack of conflict is what we see here. People are interested, I think but no real controversy has emerged

The unasked question is worth asking: Why has there been so little controversy? Unfortunately, the article doesn't try and explain it. What the incumbent corporations have done here in Lafayette has worked in most places. It's a simple story and one that has a long and dishonorable history: Make the people fearful of the future, uncertain of the path, and doubtful of their own abilities. FUD, the incumbent strategy in Lafayette, is only the most local recent example of an ancient strategy for keeping privilege in place.

We've been told that we don't really know our own desires. That, in fact, the incumbents are already supplying us with all that we really want—or at least all that we are willing to pay for. They've inferred that our leadership is, well, to put it gently: grandiose and deceptive. That the local engineers at LUS are incapable. And that we are all too stupid to know what we are getting into. The paternalism is incredible... And in most places incredibly successful.

The same pattern mixed with the same outright lies, casual deception, fake experts, and threats succeeds in stirring controversy in other places. It worked just a week ago in Illinois where a fiber referendum was defeated after a disenfranchise campaign that dwarfs even our own experience. It is a significant part of our success that our leadership didn't allow a referendum to happen here and a short review of the experience of the Tri-Cities will confirm that judgment.

It hasn't worked here.

I am far from sure why. But I can speculate a bit, based both on what is unique about Lafayette and what other cities that have resisted the onslaught look like.

Lafayette is unique in that it is a Creole city—not in the racial/cultural sense that we usually mean it here, though that is part of it. But in the anthropological sense: we are a community of communities; very different cultures and peoples have learned to live together; if not always in harmony then at least effectively and almost easily. French, Americain, Creoles...the mix is strong, the flavor distinct and the accomplishment something for which we do not give ourselves enough credit. Part of getting along has been learning to trust your leadership and to be willing to not fight out in the open too much. As long as the interest leaders are agreed the public has learned to sit back with some trust. In such a system outsiders are likely to blunder into a system the don't understand and the habitual reaction to outsider interference is to just ignore them and find some accommodation with folks that you actually have to live with. That pattern is not always a good thing but those habits may be working in our favor right now. The effect is to quietly close ranks behind those we trust and shut out outsiders.

Another city has successfully resisted a viscous incumbent attack is Provo--we heard from its Mayor not long ago. Provo is not a Creole city at all...but it shares with Lafayette the quality of being, for want of a better word, insular. Provo is a Mormon city and I have to suspect that it is similarly used to assuming that outsiders aren't much to be trusted for fairly valid historical reasons. Even if those reasons are different from ours.

So internal coherence and a suspicion of outsider intentions could be a key. I suspect that cities without a strong sense of their own uniqueness and identity—suburban communities or sprawling cities, or small towns overrun by urban expatriates would find it much harder to resist the drumbeat of the incumbents.

Speculation, as I said. But interesting—and not nearly as surprising as the Times would have us believe.

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