I don’t report on the world beyond Ashland so much as I think hard about it
By Herbert Rothschild
Shortly before year’s end, a reader of Ashland.news sent a note to our executive editor saying that she was pleased with the publication but not so pleased with my columns. She wants to see stories about the good things that are happening in Ashland. She copied me on the email. Responding to her gave me a chance to think about how Relocations fits into the publication.
As I said to this correspondent in a pleasant exchange, I also think it important to include heartwarming stories. There are many here. When a few of us created the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission in 2015, we defined such a culture as one in which mutual care and respect characterize the relations among its residents and between them and the environment upon which they depend. To a large extent, such relationships already obtain in Ashland, and it’s appropriate to view their manifestations. Ashland.news frequently does that in its reporting.
But the focus of Relocations is different. Here’s what I wrote to my correspondent: When we began Ashland.news, we made the decision to report exclusively on Ashland and the immediately surrounding areas. That’s because coverage of the wider world is readily available to our readers from other reliable sources. But people in Ashland tend to be cosmopolitan and interested in events well beyond their city limits. Only in my column — and in Chris Honore’s monthly column — is that wider world present in Ashland.news. In Relocations I don’t report on that wider world so much as I think hard about it and hope that my thinking spurs others to think hard about it.
To a much greater degree than in a small city like Ashland, what shapes events in that wider world are agglomerations of power. There’s nothing heartwarming, for example, about our military-industrial complex, but its enormous impact abroad and at home makes it one of my recurring subjects. I consider it noteworthy, for example, that the fiscal year 2023 federal budget, which Congress passed just before it left D.C. for the holidays, for the first time in my adult lifetime contained more money for the military than for discretionary spending on all our domestic needs combined ($858 billion vs. $772.5 billion).
Why is that noteworthy? One answer I can give returns us to the initial focus of this column. Lots of heartwarming stories emerge from feeding Ashland’s hungry and sheltering Ashland’s unhoused. But why, in the richest nation in human history, are there so many hungry and unhoused people? That’s a disturbing question. As Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, famously said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
I find it rewarding to chair Empty Bowls, which raises money for feeding programs here. It’s a celebration of Ashland’s caring spirit. Many of our elected officials and other community leaders don aprons and toques to ladle the donated soups into the donated bowls. But I know that if SNAP and WIC were properly funded, they would feed more hungry people than a thousand Empty Bowls fundraisers. And if Housing and Urban Development were funded as well now as it was in Jimmy Carter’s last budget, it would create 10 times as many affordable housing units as Habitat for Humanity can build in a year. As an iconic poster of the 1960s said, “It’ll be a great day when our day care centers have all the money they need and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to buy battleships.”
I was born in 1939. By the time I began to be aware of a wider world, two events had occurred that should have affected forever the way we humans think of ourselves: the Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After them, even Americans — rendered perpetually myopic by a belief in our national innocence — could no longer profess faith in the inevitable moral progress of humankind. If we are to see light in this world, it will have to be coordinate with acknowledging its darkness. And if we are to do good in this world, it will have to be done without any assurance that it will matter in the long run.
There’s an alternative to both Pollyanna and Diogenes. I like to think I convey that alternative in Relocations. Partly it’s an engagement with human experience in all its variety — its beauty and ugliness, intelligence and folly, kindness and cruelty, joy and suffering. Partly it’s a habit of dutifulness — to do what you’re called upon to do in your time and place. And then, to hold your life lightly even as you seek to be a gift to others.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.