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Notes From the Edge 

The choices are dark and dreary, but the only candidate for governor is (be still, pounding heart) Gray Davis

Wednesday, Oct 23 2002

Page 2 of 3

People afraid to send their kids to school? It's easy to see why. Residents of the city's family-rich western neighborhoods should be natural advocates for improved schools -- but in brutish San Francisco, they've become advocates of segregating schools into elite, flush academies for some, and dilapidated charnel houses (where the hell did you find that word, by the way?) for the rest. Hispanics, another seemingly natural ally of education, have treated the S.F. school system as a political fiefdom, rather than the sinking lifeboat it is. And in this city's identity-politics world, it's quite natural for young, white, childless progressives -- the people who control the Board of Supervisors -- to ignore children's issues.

As bread and circuses for those poor souls who must put their children in these frightful schools, the November ballot includes this palliative: Measure I, which extends paid parental leave for new parents.

You say it's more difficult to get around? Could there be a greater testament to the death of S.F. civic culture than this city's ever more chaotic streets and increasingly ineffective transit system? A bike-lane network could remove thousands of cars from the streets -- yet motorists consider cyclists enemies, and the network's completion is eternally delayed. An effective system of taxi management would make transit twice as usable, but permit-holding taxicab owners bitterly fight reform, without the public seeming to mind. Strictly enforced bus lanes would put drivers into energy-saving and pollution-reducing transit, but the likelihood of motorist opposition to bus-only lanes means they are a political third rail.

Gray Davis and his political party may be a convenient symbol of Northern California's long-term problems. But the terrible reality cannot be blamed on the supposed abuses of a political party that, actually, has only a tenuous grip on power.

San Francisco is a bellwether announcing the death of civic culture in California. Decrepit schools, out-of-reach housing, worthless transit, expanding poverty, and incompetent law enforcement are driving the city to ruin. Our local politicians don't wish to go on the record addressing city problems, so they put mind-bendingly complex issues to voters. San Franciscans, who expect nothing but the worst from their politicians, fail to express outrage -- or even to take active interest in the billions of dollars of initiatives on their ballots. In the end, few expect more than a fifth of registered voters to make it to the polls.

These are the dark times about which I must continue writing.

Your loyal correspondent,

Matt Smith

I had spoken fluently, buoyed by great insight. Yet "Mr. Mecklin" continued his unsavory rant.

Dear Mr. Smith

In your usual, "engaging" way, you have dodged the question of whether you actually will advocate, in print and in violation of the "no endorsement" clause of your contract, a vote for Gray "Dollar" Davis for governor, opting, as a diversionary tactic, to argue that the blizzard of city initiatives on the November ballot indicates a breakdown of civic culture. We, too, have read the book Bowling Alone, but are not sure that this election's astonishing initiative list threatens American civilization.

All the same, there must be something worth voting for besides Mr. Davis. The shrinking leftist pamphlet that fancies itself our competition has bludgeoned its few readers senseless about Prop. D, the public power cure-all for every problem afflicting San Franciscans, and the related Prop. A. Surely, any take on either one or both of these measures would make more interesting reading than a strained attempt to justify support for the insupportable Mr. Davis.

Do you not agree?


SF Weekly Enterprises

Did they have no eyes with which to see? Had the heat of the desert sun so wrinkled their minds that truth became lost in the crevices? It seemed time to go for broke: I would enlist dead German philosophers.

Dear Chief Mecklin,

Bowling Alone? Posh. Robert Putnam's book on the vanishing accouterments of public life is far too mild; I had something more serious in mind. In "On Humanity in Dark Times," from her 1968 collection of essays, Men in Dark Times, political philosopher Hannah Arendt describes historical moments when people don't merely abandon bowling leagues, but cease all meaningful engagement in the public sphere. "History knows many periods of dark times in which the public realm has been obscured and the world becomes so dubious that people have ceased to ask any more of politics than that it show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty," she writes.

During times like these, free-thinking public discussion is replaced by meaningless cant characterized by "exhortations, moral and otherwise, that under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality."

San Francisco's fat fall 2002 election guidebook represents a far graver ill than the timidity of a few supervisors; it's the official chronicle of San Franciscans' lack of interest in San Francisco. And as history has shown, as goes San Francisco, so goes the world.

A teaser to this saga of civic death: The November ballot contains a manifesto of open misanthropy in the form of Proposition N, known unironically to its supporters as "Care Not Cash." The measure would rescind cash payments to the poorest, offering instead an endless trek to remote shelters-for-the-poor that the measure vaguely promises to someday build.

And I'm glad you mentioned Prop. A, the $2.5 billion-plus-interest initiative to repair the Hetch Hetchy water system. It's the purest possible example of political venality joined with public indifference, the defining characteristic of our dark times.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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