If you truly admire me, care for me and want what’s best for me, you wouldn’t want to destroy me. My sense of right and wrong, the things that I believe in with such force—the rights of the people to transparent government, equal access to information and the political process, the responsibility of the government to safeguard the well-being of the people and to act wisely on their behalf especially when spending their money—are the things that make me who I am. My beliefs are me, they are not a wardrobe that I can change at a whim to suit a script revision in a movie. This is no movie. This is my life and yours at a time in our nation’s history when we are deciding everyday on a local basis what the fate of our country will be.
I am out of a job, 44 years old and single, with a son in high school; no one knows better than I the precarious and frankly frightening position I am in. Perhaps I am too stubborn and too proud—I know I am stubborn and proud, I cannot help but be, we Scots-Irish are like that—but I respect myself, and that is so much more than most people ever gain for all of their social-climbing and striving. I know what a treasure it is to be able to look myself in the mirror and say “Give ‘em, hell, Steph. Do not go gently into that good night.”
I say all this because lately some supposedly well-meaning individuals have counseled me to “lighten up on the mayor,” “be more positive,” “bevel your edges,” and “try not to rock the boat so much.” Last night, the latest warned “you either have to reinvent yourself or be a greeter at WalMart, the choice is yours.”
Let me be crystal clear on this point: I am what I am. If I land as a greeter at WalMart, I can assure you that I will have the right perspective on the thing. It is not the greeters who are goofball losers, it is the sheep-like droids who file by them pretending not to see them who clearly have a problem. The greeters have a grasp on reality; those who ignore them, thinking superstitiously that by doing so they can protect themselves from their fate, are in denial.
And yet, such fools would have me join them in their delusion, give Mayor Kasim Reed a pass and churn out the positive pablum that is taking up so many resources in local media that so-called “journalists” and mysteriously opinion-less “opinion columnists” cannot bestir themselves to take a critical, analytical view of the local government. Because let’s be frank: There is no shortage of that fluff. The local media from Creative Loafing to PeachPundit to TV stations have all sent up a chorus of praise for Reed, the facts be damned. If I am to fall in line, then who do you propose will offer some kind of balancing view?
It interesting that throughout the history of human language, truth and knowledge have been associated with light—hence our terms “shed some light on it” or “brought to light”—but today many people want to be kept in the dark because it is more comfortable, more “positive,” and perversely “lighter.” They call darkness light and want everyone to “lighten up.”
My criticisms of Reed and of Mayor Shirley Franklin before him have not been baseless rants. They have been and will continue to be heavily fact-dependent, shedding light on City Hall. We should not fall down and worship because some columnist in New York has been well-shmoozed by the mayor’s office. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s spool of lies, “Cut Here to Invest There,” was clearly a propaganda piece designed to promote Reed on the Democratic Party’s national platform. Among the many falsehoods Friedman put forth at the instruction of Reed’s office was one stating that Reed has cut spending to pay for more cops. Those additional cops were paid for through federal grants and increased fees and fines. Reed didn’t “cut here to invest there.” Surely Scott Henry at Creative Loafing is smart enough to figure that out, but he and others continue to trumpet Friedman’s puff piece as if it is indisputable evidence of Reed’s wisdom and skill. One would think that it might occur to such sycophants that Friedman doesn’t live in Atlanta or anywhere near it, so his assessment of the City of Atlanta’s policies is based on second-hand information received at a distance and wholly reliant upon the agenda of those who have access to such high-powered columnists.
Of course I am critical of Atlanta’s mayors. And every other journalist in the city should be, too. That is our job. And that job is most important in a city that legislatively abolished its vice mayoral position two decades ago and reorganized to give the mayor more power. Now we are saddled with a system that ensures the City Council can be easily divided and its power diluted, tilting the balance of influence dangerously in favor of the mayor. Atlanta’s mayors are so powerful that the only hope of balance lies in the voice of the people and that voice’s only real outlet is through the media. And yet, most of our local media have abandoned that job in favor of the much easier one of being cheerleaders for Reed.
Everywhere we look the cry goes up “I think he’s doing a good job.” Based on what? The man hasn’t even seen his first budget cycle through. He has pinned the fate of the city finances on a divesting of pensions that is flatly illegal. His police department is a shambles of inexperienced and untrained officers on one side and veterans who are constantly interviewing for jobs elsewhere or paddling toward retirement as fast as they can on the other. His Centers of Hope are folding tables outfitted with sign-up sheets at revamped recreation centers without staff. He has piled on fees—and is currently seeking to add excise taxes through the legislature—that threaten to sink the city’s small businesses, and this is on top of his predecessor’s outrageous water rates, PARKAtlanta’s sloppy money grabs, and a 42 percent tax increase for property owners. And still they simper “He’s doing a good job”?
There are those who say that it is too soon for my criticisms of Reed, after all he’s only been in office a year and I began criticizing last spring during the police chief selection process and raised the volume of my critique during the budget hearings. But, if it is too soon for my criticism, it is equally true that it is too soon for their praise.
The legislature that has purposefully kept Atlanta under its heel for decades—even before we had our first black mayor, mind you, so this isn’t about race, it’s about country versus city—embraces him and Atlanta’s media, with few exceptions, slap their flippers together like trained seals at a blubber buffet.
And some of you want me to do the same?
I have always kept a postcard from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center on my desk. It is emblazoned with the following quote from Dr. King: “Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody.”
My dad, a U.S. Marine who fought in World War II and suffered the deprivations of Guadalcanal at the tender age of 18, used to say two things to me all the time; the first was “Honey, your mouth is going to get you in so much trouble,” and the second was “God gave each of us a brain so we could think for ourselves.” Both are true, and clearly I cottoned to the second one much more than the first, but he also said “If you know the truth and you don’t say it, then you’re helping a lie.”
We are at a watershed moment in American history. That history is not made in some far marble hall in Washington. We still live in a democracy and we make our history here and now. With every passed up opportunity to question the prevalent view, we are abnegating our responsibility as citizens and journalists.
I appreciate, whole heartedly, tips on how to make my website better, how to apply effectively for jobs or look nice on TV. I cannot adequately thank those of you who have given your time and expertise and encouragement. I am grateful, too, to those who may not ever contact me directly but who read my blog. These sentiments of humble gratitude may not often swim to the surface of the things I write about, but rest assured that they are in my heart and that I thank God for you every single day. I would like to especially thank, and I say this with a lump in my throat, those who tell me “Just do your thing, Steph, be who you are, you’ll be ok.” That confidence in me is worth a king’s ransom right now.
But to those whose ill-disguised purpose is to intimidate me into silence or discourage me into accommodation, I will say this: I went through hell long before you ever knew my name and what it taught me was that in the end all I have is myself, however imperfect I may be. If I sellout who I am, then I will have nothing no matter how big a price I bring. And what would be my worth to anyone then? SR