REWIND: Bile, loathing and a civil society.


The following, the first of two going out to Daniel in the “small government” exurb, was originally published in April, 2006 under the title: Goodbye, Main Street Grind … maybe in another 12 years, your view might have improved. Or not. The part of current interest to me is the mention of a “civil society.” I’ve omitted the photos that originally were attached.

See also: REWIND … From Norquist to Torquemada to Brambleberry: Pathologies of tax “reform.”

I learned over the weekend that New Albany’s Main Street Grind coffee shop plans to wind down operations at the beginning of April after 12 years in business.

That’s quite a run, and it’s a shame for it to end. The way you feel when you read an obituary — that’s the way a small business owner reacts to word that a fellow operator is folding up his tent. I look into the mirror, and say to myself: I’m still standing – at least for now … but tomorrow may be very different.

Although we have mutual friends, I’m not well acquainted with the owners, who’ve always been hospitable and friendly during my infrequent visits.

Especially since moving into downtown in 2003, D and I have eagerly sought a “third place” to pass time near our home, but since our working hours are during the day and Main Street Grind’s hours were geared to lunchtime, it wasn’t possible to go as often as we’d have liked.

Yesterday I was corresponding with a friend and discussing the impending departure of the Main Street Grind, and she wrote:

I’ve been going to the Grind for 12 long years, and I’ve watched those buildings across the street from it decay for 12 long years and then some.

I’ve watched other businesses open in other parts of town, struggle and finally close because of the lack of leadership, vision and management in this city. It’s sad, it’s disgusting and who the hell do you blame when there are so many people responsible for the mess? City planners? Mayors? Develop New Albany? Building Commissioners?

Is there anybody in there?

Lamentable, but very true, although she omitted a key player: We the people – the residents of New Albany. “We” have just the sort of town “we” want, because if we didn’t, would it be like this?

The inescapable conclusion is that “we’ve met the enemy … “

You know the rest of Pogo’s Axiom.

In the end, leadership is meaningless unless one consents to being led, and vision optional in the absence of a desire to clearly see.

Management? That’s merely an impediment to the profits to be accrued in the preferred vacuum of non-enforcement and apathy.

At the conclusion of the Communist era in Czechoslovakia, the dissident writer and playwright Vaclav Havel was elected president of the country that less than a year before had imprisoned him. Havel’s government faced an exceedingly difficult necessity of finding ways to reverse four decades of economic stagnation brought about by the outmoded, state-owned economy, and doing so without societal chaos.

After all that time, the intrinsic absurdities of the command economy were evident, but people were accustomed to them. Suddenly, things had to change.

President Havel offered few concrete ideas as to how the government might retool his country’s uncompetitive economy. Instead, and significantly, he focused on what he perceived was necessary at a more fundamental and human level, something without which the economic reform program would have little chance of succeeding.

Havel theorized that the chief legacy of Communism was a degradation of the core of Czechoslovak society itself, and consequently, before economic rationalization could succeed, a “civil society” would have to be defined and rebuilt from the ground up.


As events of the past week have amply illustrated, Havel’s analysis applies foursquare to New Albany, and this is why events like the forthcoming neighborhoods forum are so important. Without a firm perimeter established in the places where we live, it is unlikely that citywide redemption can succeed.

Currently there are pockets of worthwhile activism scattered throughout the city, but owing to longstanding patterns of mistrust and a general lack of communication, there is no cooperation between them.

Unfortunately, there is an attitude of persecution and secrecy on the part of many who fear that communication and cooperation might somehow provide succor to the political enemy of this moment or the next – and this is profoundly shortsighted, although understandable in the present context of bile and loathing.

To be truthful, the beneficiaries of non-cooperation aren’t so much political in nature as they are social. Non-cooperation nurtures the same deleterious conditions of incivility and inertia within the same vacuum of unaccountability that we all claim to abhor and seek to terminate.

As my friend noted above, whom do you blame when there are so many to blame?

Vaclav Havel provides the answer: We must remove ourselves from the cycle of blame and get on with the process of building a civil society with a firm foundation that prefaces future progress.

New Albany is profoundly dysfunctional. We’ve all acquiesced in various and sundry ways in permitting the city to become dysfunctional. The only hope of reversing this dysfunction is to join together in a workable coalition that suspends partisan wrangling, concedes the immensity of the task, formulates sustainable strategies, and gets to work.

Money would help, too, but unity is far more important.

So, who among us wishes to abandon his or her laboriously crafted straw man first, and get on with the task of reconstituting New Albany’s lost civility?

Did I just hear another pin drop?