March 11, 2005
THE RUSSIANS CAME, THE RUSSIANS CAME:
Some votes and some visitors (JOELLE FARRELL, 3/09/05, Concord Monitor)
Drifting snow, hazardous road conditions, and a pared-down warrant that included no costs beyond the operating budget may have discouraged residents from attending last night's town meeting. But the 80 residents who did show up - about half the usual attendance - will likely remember their brief and cordial meeting as the year the Russians came.
Ten Russian government officials attended the meeting as part of a program called Partners for Peace, a joint undertaking by the University of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire National Guard and the U.S. Department of Defense. The program aims to introduce civil and military leaders from foreign nations to displays of American democracy and examples of emergency preparedness. Program officials wanted the Russians to observe a town meeting, an old-fashioned display of democracy in action, and they chose Dunbarton because the town was very welcoming and is close to the Manchester hotel where the delegates were staying, said George Bruno, managing director of the program and a former U.S. ambassador.
Before the delegation arrived, voters approved the $1.59 million operating budget. The cost of the budget will be offset by $76,961 from surplus, and town officials estimate the tax rate will decrease from $4.14 to $2.94 per $1,000 of assessed value.
The remaining warrant articles, which included the fire department's purchasing of a thermal imaging camera and new breathing apparatus, will be paid for through grants, surplus funds or money from funds designated for the purpose addressed in the article.
The Russian delegation, which included a two-star general, arrived just before 7:30 p.m. They listened to a discussion about control of milfoil at Gorham Pond, which will cost $11,625.
We've an interesting relationship with the Russians through town meeting. Mark Steyn points out this one, Sweet land of liberty: Britain and Europe have free governments, but only in the US are the people truly free (Mark Steyn, Jewish World Review, May 2002)
Exactly 50 years ago, the Voice of America sent along a team to my small town's annual town meeting to record the event for broadcast behind the Iron Curtain. Asked why they'd chosen us, the VOA said that our town meeting was considered 'one of the best in the country' and it would help show millions of East Europeans trapped in totalitarian states how democracy worked. My neighbours gave a non-committal Yankee shrug and then got down to business. Among the highlights: they voted to re-elect Herbert Perkins and Harry Franklin as our two-man police department; to approve the playing of beano - i.e., bingo - in town; to raise $1,200 to repair a bridge and $150 for 'gravel on Rachel Miller's road, Miss Miller to give a like amount'.
What the Bolsheviks made of all this we never found out. But we have a pretty good idea what the Europeans make of it: they think it's bunk. If you want to know how the EU operates in any particular area, the quickest way is to figure out how America does it and then work out the opposite. The death penalty? In America, states decide: Louise Woodward is lucky she killed that baby in Massachusetts rather than Texas. In Europe, the EU decides: you can't even join the thing unless you've abolished capital punishment. 'America is ineligible for EU membership,' a Eurograndee told me triumphantly in Paris last month, as if this news would somehow depress me.
The last Frenchman to get the United States was Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America (1840) he wrote, 'Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within people's reach, they teach men how to use and to enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty.' That's exactly the phrase: 'the spirit of liberty'. In the hours and days after 11 September, British friends kept asking me why it was Mayor Giuliani who was taking charge on the streets of Lower Manhattan rather than President Bush. The implication seemed to be that the mayor is some kind of understudy, that the system isn't working unless the top guy's there. But that's to get it exactly backwards. It's in the mayor and the police and fire departments and other municipal institutions that you measure the health of a society.
and one of the most famous meeting was this one, Traducing Solzhenitsyn (Daniel J. Mahoney, August/September 2004, First Things)
The third and final volume of The Gulag Archipelago...ends with a stirring denunciation of the absence of the rule of law in Soviet Russia, and all of Solzhenitsyn’s recent political writings invoke the crucial importance of local self-government for the consolidation of political liberty and civic virtue in post-Communist Russia. Solzhenitsyn does not slight what Russians can learn from the Western and American experiences of democratic self-government. Addressing the town meeting of Cavendish, Vermont (his home from 1976 until 1994), shortly before returning to his native Russia, he spoke thoughtfully about how in Cavendish and its neighboring communities he had “observed the sensible and sure process of grassroots democracy, in which the local population solves most of its problems on its own, not waiting for the decisions of higher authorities. Unfortunately, we do not have this in Russia, and that is still our greatest shortcoming.”
Posted by Orrin Judd at March 11, 2005 2:27 PM