Opinion: Burning Compassion | Poli Psy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Poli Psy


Opinion: Burning Compassion

Poli Psy


Published December 7, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

The response last week to a fire in my town, Hardwick, exemplified everything that's good about small-town life -- in fact, everything that's good about people in general.

Before the fire trucks had left Main Street, townspeople were raising money, donating everything from furniture to new underwear, and making up the beds in their spare rooms for the disabled and elderly tenants driven into the cold in their nightclothes. The Village Restaurant served free coffee and cocoa. Bond Auto opened its bathrooms to the firefighters. Grand Union sent boxes of food. A rescue crewman commented, "Sandwiches and coffee kept appearing all day." An arts organizer and the owner of the old general store in East Hardwick offered the food co-op temporary space. Somebody saved a cat from the flames.

Beyond the impromptu rescue and relief, some usually unnoted features of smallness also came to light. Action was unhampered by bureaucracy. As soon as he learned of the fire, janitor Joe Martineau unlocked the elementary school doors to give shelter to the tenants. The relatively rich and the relatively poor -- the real-estate agent who has benefited from the recent rise in property values and the low-income residents who are its victims -- were displaced side by side. Hippie and hairdresser, antiques dealer and Chinese restaurateur, pagan and evangelical Christian saw their businesses drowned in sludge. And farmer, lawyer, carpenter, office worker, homemaker and blacksmith were there to help, side by side.

"The community rallied in a remarkable way," commented Rob Levine of the American Red Cross.

Charlie Volk, an electrician who serves on the Hardwick Select Board, found light in the billowing black smoke. "It was endearing to watch," he said of the town's efforts. "I think it's going to overcome the political divisions in town."

I hope Charlie is right. But even if he's not, he made me think about compassion and politics, their relationship and differences.

One of the pleasures of life in a small town is the opportunity to express your good will directly -- to cook for the community dinner, mentor a sixth-grader, or drive the ambulance. You also get to feel gratitude directly, if you happen to be the recipient of your neighbor's largesse. Of course, the opposite is also true. Enmities and feuds are up front and personal, and they tend to be passed down, like heritable diseases, from generation to generation.

It's hard to sort feelings from politics in a place like Hardwick. For if all politics is local, all local politics is personal; the smaller the town, the more personal it is. Last summer, a cell tower proposed for construction in a pasture on Bridgman Hill tore the town in two. Each faction accused the other of selfishness; each claimed to be acting for the public good. The dispute turned especially nasty when a few tower supporters started running ads in the Gazette making unsubstantiated ad hominem attacks on Zoning Board members. And it isn't over. Both sides are appealing the board's compromise decision.

But compassion and anger are not the same as politics, and it would be a mistake to say that good policy is simply righteous feeling codified. Policymaking may start with emotion, but it must step away from emotion toward principles and practicality -- the vision of a good society, plus the logical consideration of a law's consequences, intended or not.

For example: Just about everyone feels rage toward murderers and sympathy for their victims. But do those feelings justify the state execution of murderers? Opponents must overcome their revulsion to the crime itself and sometimes ignore the wishes of the victim's loved ones. Proponents must ask if death sentences can be justly handed down. Both need to think about what policies best protect the public. Feelings -- even ethics -- of forgiveness or vengeance, no matter how justified or widespread, are not enough to make good law.

Another difference between personal acts and politics is the question of control. Many generous philanthropists feel obligated to help the less fortunate. Yet they oppose taxes that might alleviate the poverty of the very institutions or families to whom they give their money. Why? They'd rather write their own checks than be required by the government to do so or allow their money to be distributed by elected officials.

Paul Cillo, Hardwick's former State Representative and my significant other, invokes the Vermont state motto, "Freedom and Unity," to talk about these questions. Most people want to promote personal freedom and responsibility, he says; they also want the government to serve the public good, which may mean curtailing freedom and helping some people who aren't particularly responsible. It's not a choice between private charity and welfare, private freedom and public unity, though: "The political fight is always over where you draw the line between the two."

Perhaps because loss is a universal experience, compassion is a near-universal virtue. I'd surmise it is distributed equally between conservatives and progressives, religionists and atheists. Compassion is not sufficient to pay the firefighters or house the homeless, however, and in politics, we rarely even agree on what acts comprise it. Still, as Charlie Volk suggests, an outpouring of simple good acts warms a public spirit badly in need of warming -- like coffee for a suddenly homeless woman standing in her nightgown in a school gym.