On February 25, President Barack Obama met with congressional Democrats and Republicans for his bipartisan health care summit. For almost a year, both political parties sparred in seemingly countless, heated debates. Increasingly, the debates became more personal and polarizing due in part to the rise of the Tea Party and health insurance lobbyists funding conservative grassroots movements across the country. At one point, it became certain that the discussion became so complicated that it would take a widely broadcasted, public meeting of Democrats and Republicans to seek a consensus — or at least make the effort to show how divisive the debate has become. By the end of the summit, Obama thought the effort was worthwhile even though the majority of Republicans in attendance were in favor of completely scrapping the current health care bill.
In Los Osos, the lines are drawn as clearly as the partisan lines that we see in Washington D.C.
When you approach the podium at the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesdays, you are an “obstructionist” who goes against the grain of the majority. By speaking at meetings on the subject of Los Osos, you are touted as the “vocal minority” who will stop at nothing to delay the project to kingdom come and cost taxpayers millions of dollars — at least according to County supporters. These supporters have created an impression that their opposition is self-indulgent, clueless and classless. When Bob Cuddy wrote his recent Tribune article about Los Osos sewer critics being deprived of “special speaking time,” the floodgates opened to lambaste the critics in a very self-indulgent, clueless and classless way such as comparing speakers to Nazis who wallow in their own filth. Character triumphs over issue and Cuddy — who facilitates that sort of criticism — shows how easy it is to alienate the critics from the issue.
Los Osos residents who have spoken in opposition to the wastewater project (in its current form) have spent no time at all angrily chiding their opposition. Instead, their grievances were solely directed to the County — and some of the critics expressed interest in establishing consensus and compromises, which would guarantee affordability and sustainability of all affected homeowners. However, each specific issue of contention was swiftly ignored by the County. Despite the verbally expressed concerns — notwithstanding repetitious talking points — and thoroughly constructed, layered appeals, the County would snap back at the critics. “We’ve tested this project for every assertion and our project plan is completely sound,” but when the California Coastal Commission disagreed with the County’s own assertion on January 14, anger from County supporters was immediately redirected to the appellants. According to supporters, the appellants were completely responsible for project delay, which jeopardized efforts to receive $80 million in stimulus funds.
I find the rationale behind the supporters’ criticism of County opposition to be tiresome and weak, but the problem I personally have with their criticism is their presentation. When you take away the yelling, screaming, trash-talking and mud-slinging, all that’s left is pure, unfiltered hate. County supporters are purely driven on hate that — maybe at one time — was derived from completely legitimate fears and concerns about the project. Now, their hated is profoundly absolute, yet extremely primitive in tone.
For example, the very same critics — who have aimed their crosshairs at the opposition — have also criticized me without ever specifying the context behind the criticism. My exchanges with supporters have been well-documented here, but my name is often brought into debates that I’m not a part of. According to County supporters, I’m an “obstructionist” blogger who completely “loses it” when people disagree. This opinion, which is a completely disingenuous caricature, is expressed by critics who assume the form of anonymous monikers. They proudly claim the majority of the community stands behind their every word. Sadly, this behavior is commonplace on web communities and blogs, but it doesn’t have to be, especially when the conversation is limited to about 15,000 people in a small, coastal California town. The community of Los Osos is so tightly knit that hate-fueled discourse — from either side — would disrupt progress and fuel frustrations more than what anyone could say at the podium during public comment.
Like President Obama’s methodology for creating bipartisan debates, I’ve repeatedly asked for an honest, civil discussion between parties as a means of reframing the discourse — and I’ve provided the medium to make it all happen — but if the discourse is going to include Nazi comparisons, obscene remarks and behavior, consider the discussion over.
– Aaron Ochs