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Brown/My Turn: Civil talk continued

Chris Collins deserves credit for his recent column about the “mission to civilize” the discourse in Greenfield, especially for hot button topics like the big box store. Over the past year, I’ve become friends with Chris via Facebook and we’ve had some interesting and enlightening conversations. I’ve always admired that he can make sense of the incomprehensible Byzantine maze that is Greenfield town politics, a task I wouldn’t know where to start.

I became interested in Chris when I was a told by a mutual friend that there were many local activists who judged him unfairly because he was a (gasp) “conservative.” This struck me as unjust although I wasn’t too surprised. I know from my own experience that the progressive Left in Greenfield can be just as narrow-minded, brittle and orthodox as the Right at times. Several years ago, a local peace activist demanded a meeting with me where he accused me of being a “warmonger” for defending Obama’s policies and then demanded an apology for my labeling participants in the Saturday vigils on the town common as “peaceniks” (I refused).

A conservative Chris might be but his version is thoughtful, intelligent and based on his core values as opposed to the deceitful fear-mongering one finds on Fox News or Limbaugh. And it is a bitter truism that when you present a public face, someone is going to take a potshot at you. Ironically, if you take the middle ground to find common cause, you’ll get shot at from the extremes of both sides. I’ve seen this dynamic play out in spiritual and peacenik (oops) circles as well. However, anyone who allows themselves to be defined by innuendo or foolish accusations should meekly hide under the covers. The best recourse is to stand one’s ground while being open to real change and the evolution of one’s own attitudes. This, Chris has done over the years and it is to the man’s credit.

In terms of the big box controversy, for me the question is less about who is in favor or opposed than who cares about the future of Greenfield. More importantly, it comes down to caring about creating community. There are many who don’t. We live in a transient society where fewer Americans are sinking down roots and owe little, if any, allegiance to the place they temporarily find themselves in. They feel no responsibility to contribute or any remorse if the town they eventually depart declines and deteriorates. Others are struggling; so caught up in survival mode that the concept of community is nothing but an abstract luxury. There is no fault in this.

For me, community is of the utmost importance. You don’t need a crystal ball to know that we are all facing an uncertain future, whatever our politics. Climate change, peak oil and a tenuous worldwide economy are crisises with little hope for a rosy ending. They are on track to affect our lives whether we like it or not. The only thing that will help us cope will be forging communal bonds together. The opposite tack, being a lone survivalist huddling in a bunker, is a death sentence, no matter how many guns and ammo you’ve stockpiled.

So the question remains; will a Walmart (assuming that is the store in question) enhance or destroy our community ethic.

The accusation that Walmart destroys small-town America is no fantasy. I’ve traveled extensively and was horrified to go into the downtown areas of many once thriving Midwestern communities and discover a wasteland. Of several blocks of storefronts, nearly all were boarded up except for a coffee shop, a nail salon and a loan office. From the few people viewed walking the streets, it was if some plague had carried everybody off. Of course, at the outskirts of each of these burgs was a Walmart with a parking lot filled with cars.

Proponents will argue that downtown Brattleboro and Northampton are doing just fine and they are correct. The question is: Does Greenfield enjoy the same opportunities and resources as these other places? Is our downtown dynamic enough to withstand shoppers flocking elsewhere? Do local residents want to wake up one day to find Foster’s SuperMarket or Wilson’s an empty shell?

These are questions that demand dialogue and perhaps compromise.

Greenfield doesn’t need a 135,000-square-foot megastore or one that sells groceries when we have thriving markets here. We can find another big department store that doesn’t have the same moral murkiness as Walmart with its union busting, mistreatment of women employees and other unethical practices that run counter to the values we respect here in the valley. Our town shouldn’t welcome a conglomerate that offers low wages and poor benefits more suited for serfdom than the American Dream.

Greenfield deserves better. If we need an alternative shopping option, let’s find a common solution. Although it won’t be easy, it is still possible and beneficial in the end.

Daniel A. Brown has lived in Franklin County since 1970 as a writer, artist, amateur historian and photographer. He is a frequent contributor to The Recorder and welcomes feedback at dbrown1793@gmail.com.

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