Sidewalks, Snow, and Democracy

by | Jan 31, 2017 | Al's Observations | 30 comments

You can learn a lot about people and communities by how they clear their sidewalks. And I think there may be a lesson in there for those of us trying to understand the political strife that’s tearing apart the nation.

I should pause to explain for readers who live in more temperate climes that for those of us who deal with northern winters, the subject of clearing snow from streets and sidewalks is a major preoccupation. It gives us something to chat about during the six or seven hours of daylight we enjoy in the depths of winter.

When it comes to streets, roads, and highways, snow clearing is, strictly speaking, a spectator sport. We’re dependent on crews from state and local government to take care of us. That doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions – we certainly do! The road crews inevitably use too much salt, too little salt, or not enough sand; they get their trucks out too late, pay too much overtime, stubbornly avoid paying overtime, save certain neighborhoods for last, or are careless (even malicious) in blocking in parked cars. Yes, our plow crews and road agents get criticized for everything short of the snow storm itself. But at least we know enough to leave the street clearing to the professionals.

It’s different for clearing sidewalks. There, it’s up to us. And different people approach the responsibility in very different ways, sometimes because of attitude, and sometimes because of capacity.

One approach is to clear just enough of the sidewalk to meet one’s own needs. These folks only clear a path to their cars, and they don’t shovel the rest of the sidewalk. Occasionally, that’s because they’re selfish and don’t think about the school kids and letter carriers who will be trudging by their house on icy sidewalks later that morning. But more often, these folks are harried, or elderly, or sick, or otherwise not up to the task. If you’re taking care of a baby or an elderly parent, or if you’re terrified of slipping on the ice and breaking a hip – well, you’re less inclined to spend an extra half hour manicuring the sidewalk in 10-degree weather. You just do the minimum.

Other people clear their entire sidewalk, from one property line to the other.

Then there are the folks who keep going and shovel out their entire block. They know that their eighty-year-old neighbor can used a hand, or that other people are out of town or have to get to work early. These shoveling overachievers don’t seek credit or make a big deal of it. They just quietly clear the path. (Or less quietly, if they’re doing it with a snowblower.) And, not that they do it for this reason, they realize that if some day when they’re old, or they break a leg, or are away on business, their neighbors in turn will pitch in help them out. This is what builds a nice community. Everyone pitches in. Nobody keeps score.

So what’s this have to do with the condition of the world? Well, we’re living in extremely difficult and divisive political times. It strikes me that more and more people, including many in the new administration, are focused very narrowly on their own self-interests. They’re essentially shoveling only enough to get to their own car, and it’s not because they’re not capable of doing more. It’s because they honestly don’t care about others. In fact, some of these people disdain the very notion of generosity to others as some kind of socialism or weakness of character.

If they don’t have kids in the public school system, then they don’t want to pay taxes for education. If they’re not black or Latino or LGBT or Muslim, they don’t care about equal rights and dignity for those populations. If they’re wealthy, they dismiss people struggling with poverty. If they have good health insurance, they don’t care about those who have no coverage. And if they are native-born American citizens, they ignore humanitarian crises outside our borders and support shutting the door on immigration.

These folks talk extensively about America and “community,” but theirs is an impoverished and painfully narrow definition. The people who are only shoveling a path for themselves live a lonely life. They don’t help others, and others, in turn, are less likely to help them. When that attitude dominates public policy, people with fewer resources and poorer health slip ever further behind. Meanwhile, we all have to deal with real and metaphorical icy sidewalks – and a community with a lot of icy sidewalks isn’t such a nice place to live, for anyone.

How do we compensate for this new regime? How do we show that we care for people more vulnerable than ourselves? Well, certainly through political activism, and in the wake of the election there’s plenty of opportunity to speak out and to hold elected officials responsible. We need to remind politicians (and ourselves) that the United States is built upon principles of liberty and justice. My take is that there’s been a tilt in recent years toward focusing on the liberty part – interpreted narrowly as individuals’ right to do what they want – without giving equal weight toward justice, which is about supporting the rights of the more vulnerable to have a fair shot at a decent standard of living, good health care and education, shared political power, equal justice under the law, a sense of dignity, and an environment free of toxins and violence. That’s what we should be aiming for: liberty and justice for all.

And, of course, returning to the usual subject of my blog, charitable organizations are a superb means for helping others. Many of you reading this are nonprofit staff members. Every day when you go to work, you’re essentially shoveling sidewalks for your neighbors. The rest of us can help by donating, volunteering, and serving on boards. The best nonprofits help make the larger community, not just your own bit of sidewalk, a healthier, more beautiful, and more welcoming place to live.

So as we go through a wrenching time in our history, let’s commit to thinking about the welfare of everyone in the community – and let’s define community broadly to include people of different races, nationalities, and religions. Meanwhile, we’d better get used to shoveling. It looks as though we have a lot of stormy weather ahead.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2017. All rights reserved.

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