When the Spokesman-Review got a new editor six months ago, I was confident it would mean the end of the paper's phobia about dissent. The old editors of the Review regarded civic disagreement as a malignancy. Editor Chris Peck departed Spokane convinced there must be something deeply wrong with any community in which so many people didn't agree with him.
This is not a realistic view of modern civic life. A certain amount of consternation is built into the American system. There are too many people who see the world in different ways to think consensus can be a starting point. Consensus and agreement are outcomes that come late in the game, and only if we play the game correctly.
To me this is obvious from even the most cursory reading of American history -- or the most cursory reading of the stories about national politics on the front page of the Spokesman-Review, for that matter. The Review needed a more philosophical attitude toward controversy, and I assumed a new editor would bring one.
Then I read the Spokesman-Review's New Years Day editorials, in which editor Steve Smith diagnosed Spokane's problem thus:
"Cynicism and distrust seem to smother good ideas. We should spend more time figuring out how to build a science center, finish the Convention Center and renovate the Fox Theater and far less time worrying about self-aggrandizing naysayers and conspiracy theorists whose view of the future seems anchored in past grudges."
This is the old Review creed, recited perfectly. Certain projects -- those listed by the Spokesman-Review -- are self-evident goals. Anyone who speaks against them must be an egotistical nut and ought to be ignored. (Which sounds better when the example is the Fox Theater, but remember that a few years ago that list of not-to-be-challenged projects included putting a new bridge across the crest of the Spokane Falls).
I think of this as the Crabby People Interpretation of History. Everything would be fine in my world if certain people would just shut up. The most obvious problem with the Crabby People Interpretation is that it is of much practical use only to monarchs or near-monarchs with the ability to ignore other voices.
But there is another, more subtle problem created from this way of thinking. The French peasants of 1789 were certainly consumed by "cynicism and mistrust," and Louis XVI's courtiers no doubt got great satisfaction explaining this to each other. But their explanation did not save the king's neck. Sam Adams and Patrick Henry were "self-aggrandizing naysayers," for sure, but what did knowing that do for the British in their efforts to save the colonies?
The Crabby People Interpretation does not work because what sounds like analysis of the problem is really only a form of wishful thinking: The world would be nicer if we didn't have to deal with other people. In the middle of controversy, such thoughts deliver a certain dumb comfort, like sticking fingers in ears and humming. But it doesn't move us any closer to a solution. That requires dealing with the naysayers one way or another -- either by convincing or accommodating them.
The useful way to see dissent is not as a problem but as a symptom. Why are these people like that? Unless it is something in the water, it must involve a cultural development somewhere in the community's history. The fact is, Spokane's future is anchored in the past. Declaring that we should not wallow in Watergate, for example, will not alter the fact that politics is a continuum.
We know that Spokane has a problem with cynicism. Nothing more can be accomplished by editorials pointing that out. Now we need to figure out what causes it. That would be a worthy subject of some Review editorials.
The first one might answer this question: Since the Spokesman-Review has been the loudest voice in Spokane for more than a century, did the paper itself have anything to do with this community problem? A sincere editorial trying to analyze that problem would by itself, no matter what the conclusions, start nudging this community in the right direction.
William Stimson is a professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University.