When you have a history like mine, no one believes you when you say you’re avoiding controversy.
My friend and colleague Joel Howell introduced me this week to his History of Human Experimentation class at the University of Michigan as someone who, when things heat up and other people duck out, sticks her head in. A couple of days later, another colleague, working with me by phone on deciding on what I’ll talk about in the keynote from an upcoming conference he’s organizing, sounded skeptical when I said I’m trying to avoid polemics these days.
The system certainly rewards opinion right now. I find myself writing think pieces, and editors don’t know what to make of them.
“What’s the argument?”
My choice is either to formulate one—a dek will travel so much farther on social media when it plays into debate—or to say, “Oh, never mind.” Rare is the editor who lets me just wander. These days, no one follows the author who wanders.
Two prongs—two pitchforks?—have pushed me away from polemic.
For one, I’ve grown weary of simplistic debate, pretending to be about evidence, so often about ideology, tribe, loyalty, personal gain. It all just makes me want only to describe, to avoid the normative.
For another, I’m tired of leaving home for speaking gigs wondering if I’ll be coming home, wondering whether I’ll be leaving my son without a mother. The armed guards are always really nice guys. They are usually off-duty cops. They always listen to my talks and catch me afterwards to ask me questions no academic ever would. I like getting questions from non-academics about my work.
But I fantasize about giving papers—giving papers—full of obscure history and gentle philosophy, to tiny little groups of historians and philosophers.
They try to call me a bioethicist. I say I’m an historian and philosopher of anatomy.
Which I am.
For over two years—almost three now—I’ve been hiding in plain sight, trying to stay away from polemics, trying to be descriptive. I’ve been running one of a handful of successful nonprofit (501c3) citizen-journalist local news sites. With my Managing Editor, my neighbor and fellow professional writer Ann Nichols, I’ve been providing East Lansing, Michigan, with actual news. Nonpartisan, nonprofit, focused on facts. Trying like hell not to tell people what to think, but trying to feed them with information in case they are ready to think.
How serious are we about the nonpartisan mission? This morning an elderly woman who writes for us about the public library confessed she couldn’t figure out a way to write about a $50,000 national prize for which our library is aiming, because it requires people here to go online and vote for our library, and she—like we—takes seriously our mission of not telling people what they should vote for. She said she’d be writing about something else instead.
The purity of nonpartisan local reporting . . . well, I kind of get off on it. Sure, we have thoughts, opinions, preferences. But Ann and I try like hell to make sure we all leave those at the door, to try to get into the mindset of the people with whom we are not naturally inclined to agree, to be excruciating in our factual offering. To be about the process of democracy, and the place of reporting in it, and not about who wins.
I spent an insane amount of time at City Hall this week. Our City is currently dealing with two gigantic development proposals for our fragile downtown. Our City Council is trying to figure out how to manage our crushing debt—approaching $200 million, or over $30,000 per household. We have a contentious school bond vote coming up in May, with another sure-to-be-crazy City Council election coming up in November.
I don’t do a lot of history and philosophy of anatomy at the moment. I do a lot of learning about and reporting on tax increment financing and rezoning and election campaign law. I spend a lot of my time talking with business people, developers, economists, union leaders, activists, police officers, representatives of our two power companies, activists lawyers, community organizers, FOIA clerks, Michigan State University PR reps, and school district administrators.
We’ve had over 80 people now be reporters for us. People who used to not like us now thank us and donate, because they’ve come to realize how much better democracy functions with a functional free press. The people working on Boards and Commissions now know we’re watching, and they work harder and smarter as a result. More people here go to the polls for local elections. More people articulate questions that need answering. More use FOIA. More say to neighbors on social media, “I hear your opinion, but what do we really know?”
Sometimes I stick my head up and look around at academia, at national dialogues about things I’ve worked on—intersex, transgender, drug regulation, academic freedom. Sometimes I even participate.
But a lot of the time, I’m at City Hall at a meeting.
This week, on Tuesday evening, it was four hours of Council meetings, including two hours of gruesome budgetary talks, as we discuss closing down our second firehouse, laying off police officers, wondering if we can keep the aquatic center open for the kids. On Wednesday, it was six hours of Planning Commission. By 1 a.m. on Thursday, when they wrapped up the meeting, the only people left were the Commissioners (volunteers, all), the City staff, the cable access broadcast video team, and me. On Thursday, starting at noon, it was four hours of Downtown Development Authority and Brownfield Development Authority and follow-up meetings to those.
I come home from City Hall, biking or walking the four blocks, and pause in the front garden to pull weeds, to take a photo of the daffodils, the Lenten rose, the windflowers. Porker the squirrel comes to take a peanut from my hand. A neighbor walks by and asks me what is going on with the redevelopment plan that promises to end the blight and give us a new sewer, but comes with the cost of a thirteen-story building in a town where the tallest is eight.
And I think of Voltaire.
I described the journey that went into Galileo’s Middle Finger as a trip—and it was just that. A very long trip around the world. What did I learn? It is not the best of all possible worlds. It is so broken, so full of people mistaking self for principle.
The Chief of Police, a lovely fellow named Jeff, sometimes sits next to me at Council. He overlooks that I’ve brought a mason jar of red wine to go with my warmed-up dinner of leftover pasta. He’s packing, but he’s not packing because of anything I have said or written (or been said to have said or written). He’s working with a team of officers smaller than he needs, and trying like hell to deal with reality of police-community relations in a diverse, superficially liberal town. He’s honest, and real.
The City Clerk, she lets me write FOIA requests on email that begin, “Dear Marie.” She doesn’t make me wait if what I’m asking for can be easily pulled. She asks after my mother, and tells me of hers (who she recently lost). She recruited my kid to be an election poll worker, and she tries to set him up at a polling location where people will treat him well even though he’s only sixteen.
Yesterday, Friday at 4:30, after this killer week, I was working on getting out the weekly email news digest, feeding the people too busy to read us every day the whole week’s work of our remarkable team. The online City agenda system suddenly showed a Brownfield Redevelopment Authority meeting at 5 p.m. It made no sense; Good Friday at 5 pm? Too short a notice according to the Open Meetings Act? And on the putative agenda, a Brownfield tax subsidy proposal for a project whose lawyer had just been talking to me about it earlier in the day—and he had said nothing about there being an emergency meeting?
You never know what nice people will pull in the name of the good.
I biked down to City Hall, and tried to figure out what was going on. Almost everyone was gone for the weekend. The Director of Parks & Rec came upon me, and when I told him what was up, he tried to help me figure it out. Probably a glitch, we realized, in the computer system. But I sat down to use the City’s wifi to finish the weekly mailer, so that when I got home, I’d be done….
The Director of Planning came out of his office down the hall, and saw me there, helmet on, typing. “It’s Friday after 5, Alice!” he called down to me. “You can go home now!” I laughed. His kid and my kid are in band together….
There’s very little glamor in what I’m doing right now. There’s no pay for me. (I raise $50,000 a year for the team in individual donations from local folk, but I don’t pay myself from it.) But when I use all my skills—as an historian, as a writer, as an editor, as an interviewer, as a democrat almost-religiously-dedicated to transparency and fair process—to write up another report for my neighbors, it feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now.
The world is full of earthquakes and syphilis and pirates and war, lying politicians and ideological fanatics. And so, here I am, after twenty years of using this place as a crash pad, finally fully rooted, tending one small garden.
There are days when it feels like the best of all possible worlds. More days than you might think.