A conversation recently reminded me of how really, wonderfully, American people are in tune with representative government and how deep-rooted is their respect for the grassroots process – at least in Montana.
An issue came up at a public board meeting regarding a possible public hearing which could very well be contentious. Jokingly, board members said maybe they should ask for a deputy to be present. The conversation reminded me of something I have marveled at before – and that is how, throughout all my many years (we won’t say how many) of attending all kinds of public meetings regarding every kind of issue imaginable, at no time did citizens break into any kind of fist-a-cuffs. They always – even the most hot-headed – showed a restraint that comes from a respect for the right of others to speak and to hold views contrary to theirs.
And, we are talking here about some really, really contentious issues and heated meetings. Loud voices and arguments? Yes. The necessity of gaveling people to order? Yes. Wild gesticulations and some table pounding? Yes. But never anything even approaching violence. Again, an attitude born of respect for others.
Truth be told, I can’t recall anytime that there was even any name calling – accusations, maybe, about suspected misconduct or misdeeds, but seldom ever have people succumbed to senseless name calling.
And, while the board members, the other evening, joked about asking a deputy to be on hand, it was a joke. They were not serious. There was only one time in all the public meetings I have ever attended – that any public official showed so little respect for the people they serve as to arrange for the presence of law enforcement. That happened about ten years ago, and while I don’t know what the citizens in the room thought about the disdain shown by that public official, I was fully incensed on their behalf.
That was the first time I really thought about what a remarkable phenomenon my life’s experience really was. It was the first time I realized how cool our citizens really are.
When I pondered upon what was the most contentious meeting I ever attended, it came immediately to mind and there was no doubt about. It was held at the small Opheim School in Gallatin Canyon, shortly after Chrysler Corporation’s announcement that they wanted to build Big Sky.
I remember seeing the really, really big shots of the corporation arriving at Gallatin Field. They were indeed an impressive looking group, dressed in the finest clothes and posturing, every bit, as the VIPs they believed themselves to be. Also making it a memorable moment was that was the first time I ever saw a woman in such a cortege – one of the first bits of evidence of the emerging women’s movement – a woman on the board of a big corporation.
They traveled up the canyon for the meeting they had arranged with the locals – a meeting where they were to explain in detail the wonderful vision they were bringing to the farmers and canyon residents.
The six or seven Chrysler hierarchy sat in a line at the front the room, which filled to standing -room -only of people dressed in cowboy boots, Stetsons, Levi jackets and work clothes that evidenced that many had come directly from the fields.
It was a clash of cultures, stylized in the most extreme and worst way possible.
As the conversation unfolded, it didn’t matter much what was said, the locals were frightened and furious, as they looked upon those who were threatening their way of life, while the Chrysler dignitaries were stunned and dumbfounded that what they expected to be wonderful news to save the people from themselves, was not being greeted with enthusiasm.
The tension in the room rose quickly and it wasn’t long before a couple of cowboys stood to invite the President of Chrysler to meet them outside. The situation surprised everyone. Fortunately, a couple of other, more-level-headed locals interceded to bring tensions and threats down, but it was surely a visit that none of the Chrysler executives ever forgot, and probably engendered the advent of marketing companies to be hired by Chrysler and others in the future.
But even then there was no actual physical violence. As I look back I am amazed at how civil people have consistently been. Given the state of things today of attacks on college campuses and demonstrators on street corners who taunt and goad others into physical confrontations, one must wonder if what I have experienced will continue in the future. But, there’s little doubt there is good reason to be proud of Montanans in general and marvel at their respect for each other and at a political system that places so much value on civil communication.