Look to the left. Look to the right.

4 min read

A little over three years ago, I found out what was really important to my neighbors. After almost 50 years on the planet, I finally understood what it was that would get them out in the streets, mad as hell, carrying, literally, torches and pitchforks and placards, shutting down traffic as they marched toward the Governor’s Mansion.

It was not the sorry state of our public schools. It was not a recent escalation in crime that was creeping into the city’s tonier neighborhoods. It was not the rising levels of poverty and homelessness and hunger, the growing problem of childhood obesity, or the fact that Forbes had ranked Indiana 49th of 50 states in environmental quality. It was not an ill-considered war that was killing our young men and women and costing the nation billions of dollars.

It was property taxes.

Our property taxes had shot up shockingly, all at once, and my neighbors were stunned. My own property taxes rose by 100 percent. Our house payment was going to increase by more than $300 a month. That hurt.

Some neighbors announced their intentions to move, which wasn’t going to be easy in a real estate market that was already circling the drain. I’m not sure how they expected to find buyers willing to take on the tax burdens they were fleeing.

No matter: most of them were blowing smoke. The comments I overheard as I milled about an impromptu gathering of angry neighbors were telling. “I guess we’re going to have to cut our trip to Italy by a week.” “I’m gonna have to buy my son a gun and send him to public school.” “Forget the new car this year.”

Horrors! A shorter trip to Europe! Public school for Fauntleroy! I can only imagine the terrible prospect of driving a smaller BMW.

I’m not saying that higher property taxes didn’t hurt. They certainly hurt my family. We’re not wealthy, nor are the rest of the people who live on our street. We live at the edge of one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods–and the other side of the edge is one of the city’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. We’re in a transitional area.

What I’m saying is that I still find it a little disheartening that the one thing, the only thing, that sent the people who live just north of me into a wave of panic was a hit to their own pocketbooks. The fact is, the people who were screaming the loudest were the ones who could most afford the increases. They weren’t going to have to go without dinner. The threat was that they might have to live marginally less-privileged lives.

I know that my surprise and chagrin over this situation makes me naive. It’s the economy, stupid.

But I’m also saying this: perhaps selfishness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And that, here on the eve of another election day, we should all open our eyes, look to the left, and look to the right.

I mean that figuratively. Consider what the political left has to say about the need for safety nets that protect people when times get tough–because times are tough, and lots of people who never thought they’d need social services need them right now. Consider what the political right has to say about fiscal and personal responsibility. Don’t get sucked in by the crap on either side. Remember that we’re still fighting two wars. Try not to be a single-issue voter. Don’t buy into the ridiculous rhetoric about “taking our country back.” That’s racist code. Nobody’s taken away our country. Don’t buy the idea of “Obamacare.” The government didn’t take over health care. That’s a lie the insurance companies would like for you to believe.

And don’t buy into the idea that President Obama is some kind of superior being who just needs to communicate better. Yes, he’s accomplished more than most people realize. But–it’s the economy, stupid. Lots of time was wasted on health care and other distractions while millions of Americans suffered and the fat cats who got us into this mess kept counting their money.

I also mean it literally: look at the neighbors on your left and on your right. Consider people other than yourself. If it helps, think about whether helping your neighbors get through tough times might actually be better for you in the long run. Remember that poverty didn’t happen to most people just yesterday. Remember that the parents who aren’t paying attention to their kids’ education, were, just a few years ago, kids whose parents didn’t pay attention to their education. Think about what your neighbors need–and think about broadening your definition of “neighbors.”

And please remember, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “We must hang together…else, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Don’t let the powersuckers create false enemies. Let’s believe in common decency and compassion and justice, no matter which way we cast our votes. For all our disagreements, the promise of America still shines brightly.