In Memory of MLK: A Call for Freedom and Recognition at home

By: Bill Whaley
18 January, 2016

In Isaiah Berlin “Four Essays on Liberty,” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), the philosopher and historian of ideas, writes about “negative freedom,” “positive freedom,” and a third order of freedom or “lack of freedom” which amounts to “the lack of proper recognition.”

Berlin’s notion of “hankering after status and recognition” addresses much that seems culturally relevant or did about local politics. Regardless of the “negatives” in a politico’s record, native citizens and residents tend to vote for the “one from here.” In the past if you were not from here, it was a death knell for elective office. Folks always voted for someone they knew.

But today locals have lost interest in self-government. They seem discouraged as much by local vendido politicos as by the “rigged system“ like the one at the Coop, wherein nothing changes. The improved economic status of many locals and the aging population is a contributing factor to apathy. And one can’t deny that Brown flight and the incoming Anglo juggernaut have also contributed to abandonment of the ballot box to the Gringos.

Another factor, which affects the electorate (and throughout the country) is popular culture. Televised and face-booked discourse surrounding music, sports, socio-cultural life and gossip have replaced religion as the opiate of the people. Folks don’t want to get out of their living rooms and go to meetings or vote. Apathy reigns.

So if your local government holds a pro forma meeting on plans for the landscape culture of the historic district in mid-January, the only folks who show are ones with a vested financial interest: elected and appointed town officials, a few business or do-gooder types, and one or two eccentric natives. Folks go to meetings who like to go to meetings.

Historically, the Hispanic individuals and Native Americans want what Berlin calls “recognition (of their class or nation, or color or race) as an independent source of human activity, as an entity with a will of its own, intending to act in accordance with it (whether it is good or legitimate, or not), and not to be ruled, educated, guided, with however light a hand, as being not quite fully human, and therefore not quite fully free.”

What previously existed in Taos, according to custom, has been increasingly replaced by objective and reasonable forms of government, officiated over by outsiders or what Wendell Berry, the master essayists of village and farm, calls “the itinerant professionals”: i.e. planners, managers, researchers, the so-called experts who drop in to tell you what to do with your streets.

At the poorly attended planning meeting in the Historic County Courthouse, I asked the mayor when he was going to take down the ugly Christmas tree lights. He told me I was the only one who didn’t like them. The garish imported lights inspired by the Walmart shopper have “decorated” Taos Plaza since Christmas. In turn the lights obliterate the soft contours of the adobe architecture, the farolitos, and the feeling of serenity that rises from the historic era of cold winter nights, while competing for the viewer’s attention with the stars themselves. (Technology and bad taste frequently run amok together. See all the signs and KCEC wires.)

I don’t mind being the only person who “speaks up” but representative Taosenos speak to me about the poorly designed light parade and incidentally mention how the “Gringos are taking over.”

When I mentioned to the Mayor that he ought to clean up the corruption at town hall and try to run an honest government, he got red-faced and said that you guys (?) and that guy up on the hill (Gene Sanchez?) cost the town a lot of money for an audit and it had been forwarded to Hector (AG?) and would be clean. I think he meant we members of the Chicano Chamber of Commerce had asked two years ago for a “forensic audit,” which was never done. All of us are used to being ignored.

Meanwhile, NM State Auditor Tim Keller’s office has reportedly done an audit (maybe?). But there are audits and audits. There’s what we call a Kit Carson Electric Audit and a “real audit” or a forensic audit when you match line items to checks and receipts, a painstaking procedure wherein you set an accountant to catch a thief. The Mayor didn’t say why the Town paid the whistle blower some $50,000 after the Town fired him or acknowledge that the whistle blower as well as Barrone’s staff said the previous administration had dumped files in the trash and wiped hard drives. How can you audit the trash and the blank hard drives?

The Mayor’s team of historic landscape planners on Thursday night gave a brief history of the Plaza that had a few innocent mistakes but the professionals were totally flummoxed when they got to the mishmash of the 70s Plaza re-design. The re-design consisted of an impromptu brick and mortar gang bang because, when word got out that the Town planned to close and cobble the Plaza,  the merchants and citizens rebelled and stopped the project. Since the Town had already purchased the sand and bricks, they used them all up by turning the Central Park into a series of juxtaposed elevations and mixed risers. Along the sidewalks in front of the shops, the workers put up barricades and elevated curbs.You could no longer sweep or shovel snow off the sidewalks. Though partially redone later, the central park still suffers from these decisions.

I learned a lesson about local government: it is always better for local government to do less, lest they screw it up if they try to do what’s beyond them.  Witness the Christmas tree lights and the Coop’s attempt to complete the $60 million Broadband deal.

Your itinerant professionals believe you “have to kill the village to save it.”

In the last two years there have been exhibits of historic WPA photo exhibits that capture the Hispanic culture both on the Plaza and in the villages, the landscape and the activities of the people at work and in their social life. The Mayor, a former County Commissioner sat among these photos in the commission chambers.

Yet, he has turned the future of the culture community over to out-of-towners. His Manager is slowly squeezing the lifeblood out of the Plaza Merchants by arbitrarily and capriciously closing the Plaza: it’s death by a thousand cuts. Whether in the name of “safety” or in an effort to mask the “social engineering,” the Mayor and Manager are attempting to turn Taos into a milquetoast tourist destination.

But Funk will out. Historically, according to the literature, the tourists and travelers have come here for the local culture, the ambience, the soft nights and starlit heavens, the undulating adobe architecture, the unusual and eccentric character of the people, the fabulous four-hundred years of recorded history and the umpteen thousands of years of pre-recorded history. Taos Pueblo, according to he archeologists, has been engaged in making ceramic jars, pots, etc. for more than a thousand years; their ancestors engaged similarly in making “pre-historic artifacts.” The four-hundred year old Hispanic culture of cultivating Biblical images as Santos, Retablos, Bultos, and altar screens represents the Trans-European history, derived from the Mideast,  ancient Greece and Rome, the Judeo-Christian Culture, not to mention Moorish Spain.

Those who are drawn by today’s allure of El Norte like the funky feeling of Poco tiempo and this exotic bit of isolated Americana with its Native and Hispanic cultural enclaves, not to mention the enclaves of eccentrics as well as the joys of a beauteous landscape. You can choose to be a sixties era hippie or a hipster drinking craft beer and all the characters in between and before that.

Folks don’t come to Taos for the Walmart lights or the culture of corruption at the Coop or to check out the Mayor’s experiment in compassion. The Mayor inherited the corruption but decided to take up at least one custom: the custom of the cover-up. The local political culture used to help out one’s primos or vecinos but now, like the Coop bigwigs, the politicos and bureaucrats focus on helping themselves to the public purse: See EPWSD.

Fifty Thousand dollars for lights but nothing to fix the stove at the de-tox center?  Somebody asked an observer of the Mayor’s pig roast if locals or out-of-towners, attended the New Year’s Eve event. He said, “How could you tell the difference?” As Flavio says, “we’re invisible.”

As a born trouble maker and sentimentalist, I always hope for a reversal of fortune. Berlin’s statement about the culture of local government fits Taos to a T. “The only persons who can so recognize me, and thereby give me the sense of being someone, are the members of the society to which, historically, morally, economically, and perhaps ethnically, I feel that I belong. My individual self is not something which I can detach from my relationship with others, or from those attributes of myself which consist in their attitude towards me…And what is true of the individual is true of groups, social, political, economic, religious, that is, of men conscious of needs and purposes which they have as members of such groups. “

In other words folks want to be governed by those who are from here at least in “spirit.” That used to explain the culture of governing. But given the line-up for this year’s town election, the lack of local names, and experienced politicos, we’re in for a whole new ride toward what appears to be a “museum culture.” You’re to be seen but not heard, just like some black-sheep Gringo.

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