Thursday, September 1, 2016


September 1, 2016: ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL

          I've always liked Tip O'Neill's famous dictum--all politics is local--because of the paradox inherent in it. Who doesn't like paradox? No, all politics is clearly not local. World wars are not local, vast global struggles for power and influence are not local, statewide Senate races are not local, and so on. And yet something like the opposite prevails as well. The global so often emerges from the particular, the struggle for power is pretty much the same no matter what level it takes place at, global is local on a grand scale--and so on once more. I remember Graham Robb writing in his wonderful book THE DISCOVERY OF FRANCE about a village on one side of a river in rural France that had been at odds for generations with a village on the other side of the river, and how they would periodically gather, each on its own side of the river, and shout oaths and imprecations at each other. In different languages. The universal use of French in France, it turns out, is a recent phenomenon, imposed by French kings in the 17th century. Or there was the rebellion in the Vendee at the time of the French revolution, where this relatively remote province conducted a revolution against the Revolution, based on its loyalty to the Catholic Church and its hatred of government officials imposed from above conscripting local men for the national army. Thousands of people died in this conflict. People were tied to rafts and the rafts were then deliberately sunk. The local definitely went global in that case.

          And now here I am, immersed in local politics. I have not run for office since I was asked to run for president of my high school class by various teachers, because they needed somebody to run against a boy they didn't approve of, who was majoring in shop. I lost big time. But I have been appointed, twice now in thirty years, to chair a regulatory board in Sag Harbor, and it's a hot seat right now: the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review. Sag Harbor is a beautiful old village dating from Colonial days, it is full of historic houses in all kinds of architectural styles, and it relies on its appeal to the tourist industry, to retirees, and to second home owners for its economic health. And that appeal is so great that it has attracted way too many overly wealthy people. The average house size in Sag Harbor is about 1500 sq. ft. It's all very charming, and the wealthy people want to own a piece of it. But they're wealthy, wealthy people don't live in small houses, so they want to take these little houses and double or triple their size, thereby destroying the historical value of the house, and, if that happens often enough, ultimately the village. We have a fairly strict zoning code, and it's our job as a regulatory Board to enforce it. And nothing, it would seem, makes a hedge fund manager worth hundreds of millions of dollars angrier than being told he can't do, or get, what he wants.

          And the conflict inherent in this situation and makes this job so challenging has gone, if not global, then national. The New York Times has reported on it. Vanity Fair wrote a piece about it just recently in which I'm quoted and my picture appears. Wow. Famous for fifteen seconds. I've been in all the local papers. But what's interesting about it is the degree of local involvement. Letters to the editor. Phone calls from supporters. Stand firm. Hold fast. And we're trying. And I think, this is a classic case--public interest against private property; and the whole village is involved, so are people who live nearby but not in the village. This is democracy at work. And it's clean. Nobody has offered me a bribe, or any of the other four members of my Board. We do our very best to decide cases on their merits alone. This is democracy the way it's supposed to be, don't you think?

          But then shit happens. Some people, usually but not always the wealthy, ignore the code and overbuild anyway, willing to pay the paltry fines we're allowed to impose to get what they want. Repeatedly applicants appear before our Board, and no doubt other Boards, and lie to us. "I need an extra bedroom, or two or three, for my grandchildren," they tell us, when in fact they're developers hoping to maximize their profits. One man made that argument before a board at the same time his proposed large house (on a small lot) was listed for sale on a real estate web site. This becomes routine, and as a board member you come to the point where you really don't believe anyone who wants something from you. You turn cynical. 

          The parallel between the local and the national should be obvious. What other wealthy person presents his case to the public and lies, regularly, repeatedly, and demonstrably? Who else goes ahead and does what the law, the rules, disallow, and figures he can get away with it? Who else is indifferent to public policy, to public values; who only wants to game the system to his own ends?  These are rhetorical questions. We all know the answer. And I ask myself two related questions, here in my little upstairs office, crowded with books--can Sag Harbor survive this onslaught of wealth? And can the nation survive Donald Trump?