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Caroline Arnold: An increasing tendency to impose the past on the future

By Caroline Arnold Published: December 2, 2012 4:00 AM

The Kent community has been divided as downtown commercial redevelopment orphaned an 1858 Greek Revival house, the Wells-Sherman House. Plans were made to move it to a vacant lot on North Water Street, with large trees and improvised gardens and play areas, that has been used for 20 years by Standing Rock Cultural Arts (artists and people committed to building community through the arts) as a venue for performances, gardens, and displays.

Personally, I believe this little informal park serves several endangered species in our increasingly consumerized and politicized society: poets, players, musicians, artists, and children of all ages -- a little oasis of freedom where weeds can grow and kids can swing from a big old tree. It's equally accessible to the homeless and the affluent, the ignorant and the learned; it's indefinitely sustainable and infinitely resourceful. I hope a more suitable site may be found. I think we need to balance our ties to the past against our responsibility to keep all options open for the future.

I'm more concerned about our increasing tendency -- locally, nationally and globally -- to try to impose the past on the future. It seems that we are trying to write in advance all the scripts for the next five years, the next 20 years, the next 100 years, not only for our nation, but for the entire world.

Grover Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," asks legislators to commit themselves in writing to opposing all tax increases. This takes away the power of lawmakers to write laws and make budgets in response to constituents' expressed needs as well as whatever national or global contingencies may arise.

I am alarmed by the attitude that we can and should nail down tax rates, spending, medical costs, funding for infrastructure, priorities for education, and policies to deal with global warming in order to save future taxpayers' money.

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Pat Buchanan (buchanan.org/blog, Nov. 23, 2012) notes that in the present crisis between Israel and Gaza, our Secretary of State can't even talk to Hamas because we have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization: "We tie our own hands and wonder why we cannot succeed," Buchanan observed.

Even more frightening is President Obama's attempt to secure his power to use extrajudicial killings as a president's prerogative, safe from legislative or judicial review. Immediately the question arises: "What's to stop a president from using the program to slay his own political rivals?" (Sioux Rose comment at www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/11/25-0 )

Indeed, if a president can decide who should die, why not ordinary citizens? As weapons grow deadlier, cheaper and more user-friendly, and we persuade ourselves that killing bad guys is right, good, and necessary, it is only a matter of time until our right to bear arms will be construed to include drone ownership, and the right of anyone to kill anyone perceived to be a threat. (comment by Cunudiun: "... Soon the technology will get cheaper ... and you'll be able to defend yourself with your own Personal Drones. Remember: Drones don't kill people. People kill people. Fight for your Right to Bear Drones."

Despite the efforts of prophets, saviors and saints, throughout history we have tried to control violence with greater violence. It always works, short term, until technology devises bigger, better, cheaper and more precise weapons. But we now have technologies to kill anyone, anything, anywhere, anytime, and to destroy anything and everything -- right up to the ecosystems on which life on this planet depends.

Finally, I'm most concerned by the effort to set policies in concrete and deprive those who come after us of the power and ability to develop their own solutions to the challenges they face.

We skimp on spending for education, then blame teachers for failing and our youth for being ignorant. We saddle our college students with debt to secure profits for banks.

We should be giving our young people the skills, tools and freedoms they will need to manage the challenges they face, according to their visions, values and principles.

Instead, we have allowed predatory capitalism to shape our youth into the tools and slaves of old men of wealth and power, programming them with videos and First-Person-Shooter games of unspeakable violence.

I believe that placing Wells Sherman House on an open, "unprogrammed" plot of land on North Water Street will reduce the degrees of freedom of future generations for that space and tend to establish just a small number of past-oriented scripts to play out there. But I know that the Kent community will find a way to balance our ties to the past with our shared responsibilities for the future. We'll resolve the issue civilly and remain friends.

I am not hopeful about the national, international and global scenes. Are we so rigidly committed to killing "terrorists" that we will let our president launch killer drones? Can we pursue restorative justice instead of punishment? Can we develop a sense of collective responsibility to replace blaming and punishing others? Have we already given too much power to private corporations and taken too many decisions out of the hands of coming generations?

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anonymous Dec 7, 2012 5:27 PM

It appears to me that Ms. Arnold finds it impossible to write on any topic without bringing in Israel, Drones, and predatory capitialism regardless of how irrelevant these are to the issue. The legal system has declared that it is legal to move the house, but apparently Ms. Arnold finds this so disturbing that she compares this with not speaking with Hamas, drones, and allowing citizens to kill anyone they want to. This seems a bit hysterical in both drawing conclusions and in constructing analogies. How strange to read that she opposes setting policies that constrain future activities and yet would like to see laws constraining the presidential use of drones, she has supported energy laws that would constrain energy extraction etc. etc. It is not really that she is opposed to the past constraining the future-it is just that she wants her conception of the future to not be interfered with by the past, but if the past would be useful in producing that future then she seems to be all for it. She writes that building a house there will constrain future possibilties. Yes, having national parks, or dams, or buildings, or doing anything really constrains the future. Does she really want to jettison the legal system that allows the house to be moved. Would she prefer a system of philosopher kings and queens who have the right morals, who can see into the future and always choose the "proper thing to do"?

anonymous Dec 2, 2012 10:29 PM

Thank you, Caroline, for your insightful comments.