Sidewalks, Snow, and Democracy

You can learn a lot about people and communities by how they clear their sidewalks. And I think there may be a lesson in there for those of us trying to understand the political strife that’s tearing apart the nation.

I should pause to explain for readers who live in more temperate climes that for those of us who deal with northern winters, the subject of clearing snow from streets and sidewalks is a major preoccupation. It gives us something to chat about during the six or seven hours of daylight we enjoy in the depths of winter.

When it comes to streets, roads, and highways, snow clearing is, strictly speaking, a spectator sport. We’re dependent on crews from state and local government to take care of us. That doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions – we certainly do! The road crews inevitably use too much salt, too little salt, or not enough sand; they get their trucks out too late, pay too much overtime, stubbornly avoid paying overtime, save certain neighborhoods for last, or are careless (even malicious) in blocking in parked cars. Yes, our plow crews and road agents get criticized for everything short of the snow storm itself. But at least we know enough to leave the street clearing to the professionals.

It’s different for clearing sidewalks. There, it’s up to us. And different people approach the responsibility in very different ways, sometimes because of attitude, and sometimes because of capacity.

One approach is to clear just enough of the sidewalk to meet one’s own needs. These folks only clear a path to their cars, and they don’t shovel the rest of the sidewalk. Occasionally, that’s because they’re selfish and don’t think about the school kids and letter carriers who will be trudging by their house on icy sidewalks later that morning. But more often, these folks are harried, or elderly, or sick, or otherwise not up to the task. If you’re taking care of a baby or an elderly parent, or if you’re terrified of slipping on the ice and breaking a hip – well, you’re less inclined to spend an extra half hour manicuring the sidewalk in 10-degree weather. You just do the minimum.

Other people clear their entire sidewalk, from one property line to the other.

Then there are the folks who keep going and shovel out their entire block. They know that their eighty-year-old neighbor can used a hand, or that other people are out of town or have to get to work early. These shoveling overachievers don’t seek credit or make a big deal of it. They just quietly clear the path. (Or less quietly, if they’re doing it with a snowblower.) And, not that they do it for this reason, they realize that if some day when they’re old, or they break a leg, or are away on business, their neighbors in turn will pitch in help them out. This is what builds a nice community. Everyone pitches in. Nobody keeps score.

So what’s this have to do with the condition of the world? Well, we’re living in extremely difficult and divisive political times. It strikes me that more and more people, including many in the new administration, are focused very narrowly on their own self-interests. They’re essentially shoveling only enough to get to their own car, and it’s not because they’re not capable of doing more. It’s because they honestly don’t care about others. In fact, some of these people disdain the very notion of generosity to others as some kind of socialism or weakness of character.

If they don’t have kids in the public school system, then they don’t want to pay taxes for education. If they’re not black or Latino or LGBT or Muslim, they don’t care about equal rights and dignity for those populations. If they’re wealthy, they dismiss people struggling with poverty. If they have good health insurance, they don’t care about those who have no coverage. And if they are native-born American citizens, they ignore humanitarian crises outside our borders and support shutting the door on immigration.

These folks talk extensively about America and “community,” but theirs is an impoverished and painfully narrow definition. The people who are only shoveling a path for themselves live a lonely life. They don’t help others, and others, in turn, are less likely to help them. When that attitude dominates public policy, people with fewer resources and poorer health slip ever further behind. Meanwhile, we all have to deal with real and metaphorical icy sidewalks – and a community with a lot of icy sidewalks isn’t such a nice place to live, for anyone.

How do we compensate for this new regime? How do we show that we care for people more vulnerable than ourselves? Well, certainly through political activism, and in the wake of the election there’s plenty of opportunity to speak out and to hold elected officials responsible. We need to remind politicians (and ourselves) that the United States is built upon principles of liberty and justice. My take is that there’s been a tilt in recent years toward focusing on the liberty part – interpreted narrowly as individuals’ right to do what they want – without giving equal weight toward justice, which is about supporting the rights of the more vulnerable to have a fair shot at a decent standard of living, good health care and education, shared political power, equal justice under the law, a sense of dignity, and an environment free of toxins and violence. That’s what we should be aiming for: liberty and justice for all.

And, of course, returning to the usual subject of my blog, charitable organizations are a superb means for helping others. Many of you reading this are nonprofit staff members. Every day when you go to work, you’re essentially shoveling sidewalks for your neighbors. The rest of us can help by donating, volunteering, and serving on boards. The best nonprofits help make the larger community, not just your own bit of sidewalk, a healthier, more beautiful, and more welcoming place to live.

So as we go through a wrenching time in our history, let’s commit to thinking about the welfare of everyone in the community – and let’s define community broadly to include people of different races, nationalities, and religions. Meanwhile, we’d better get used to shoveling. It looks as though we have a lot of stormy weather ahead.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2017. All rights reserved.

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30 Comments. Leave new

  • Deborah Schachter
    January 31, 2017 12:14 pm

    A beautiful post.

  • I love it.

  • Alan, thank you for an elegant metaphor that sums up our perilous times. Let’s see in one week we have nearly closed our borders, nearly authorized a wall, fired an attorney general, obliterated the First Amendment, fired up millions of people to protest and have a new president who thinks he’s doing the right things. Not sure even charity will help us this time but will look to you, Al, to help provide moral clarity.

  • Chaille Cohen
    January 31, 2017 2:29 pm

    “And a great cheer erupts in Dublin!” You have beautifully articulated what I’ve been struggling to say.

    Thank you, Al!

  • Paul VanDeCarr
    January 31, 2017 2:39 pm

    Thanks for a lovely column, Al!

  • Ann McPherson
    January 31, 2017 3:03 pm

    What a great way to start the day. An apropos metaphor for what’s going on in America today and one that I will share with others. Thank you.

  • Al
    eloquent and a terrific analogy for the socio-political ‘upheavals’ we are witnessing at the moment.

  • Well spoken! Thank you for putting these ideas to words!

  • Fantastic metaphor, Al. Eloquent and on-point – and absolutely relate-able. Thank you so much.

  • Al. Bravo my good friend. This is a most apt analogy and is Fundamentally why our forefathers named MA and VA commonwealths. I am so very weary of those who benefited. From the hand up they received when they had nothing, not even a pot, but now that they “have theirs” want to shut the door. Time to go back and study what Franklin, Adams, Jefferson and others had in mind and intended back in 1776.

  • Bethany Tarbell
    January 31, 2017 7:36 pm

    Liberty and justice for All. Well said, Al.

  • Great comment-with particular resonance in upstate New York

  • A thoughtful, clear and well written metaphor. Thank you for sharing!

  • Philip J Cistulli
    February 3, 2017 2:00 pm

    I know many conservative people who volunteer through organizations, schools, churches,etc. Let’s lower taxes for all, get government out of the way and allow people to volunteer more with their time and their $$$.
    Regarding your attack on folks towards the populations you mention, if you stop playing identity politics, most people will help their “fellow man”, especially if they came here legally like yours and my ancestors.
    Give this administration a chance before you bring out the sharp knives or try to beat them over the head with a snow shovel!

    • Thank you for weighing in, Philip.

      I am struck by your sharp reaction to my piece. This is not a political blog, and as a consultant to nonprofits I can attest that charitable organizations benefit from the time, leadership, and contributions of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. I did not intend to wield any sharp knives or “play identity politics.”

      But I must take issue with a some of your assertions.

      You imply that if taxes go down and if we “get government out of the way” then charitable giving would go up. That’s a sentiment I often hear, but I have not seen evidence to support that assertion.

      First, you may not be aware that overall in recent years charitable organizations have received a third of their operating income from government grants and contracts. Essentially, local, state, and federal governments have sub-contracted the delivery of services to nonprofits. If taxes go down, and government expenditures go down, there will be less money for charities to use for delivering their services.

      Second, you imply that if taxes go down then charitable giving will go up. That’s a good theory, but the record shows otherwise. The best research on charitable giving is carried out by “Giving USA” out of Indiana University. Giving USA reports that for the last 40 years charitable giving has hovered at 2% of disposable personal income. That percentage has not wavered in good times or bad, nor has it changed when there have been dramatic adjustments to the tax rates. (The period studied includes the Reagan years, when the top tax rates dropped so dramatically, and the George W. Bush administration, when, again, tax rates dropped. But giving did not rise.)

      Meanwhile, there are several tax proposals moving forward in Washington that could hurt charitable giving by removing or reducing incentives to give. One is the elimination of the estate tax. Given that 7% of all charitable giving comes in the form of bequests, and assuming that at least some of the motivation for a charitable bequest is tax-driven, this will almost certainly reduce end-of-life giving to nonprofits. Second, there is an effort to cap deductions for high-income taxpayers, which would limit the incentives for large charitable gifts. That will certainly reduce the incentive for the wealthiest donors to make large contributions. Third, there is a proposal to greatly increase the standard deduction. Though this would simplify tax calculations, it would significantly reduce the number of taxpayers who itemize their deductions (currently about 30%). Only itemizers can deduct charitable gifts, so if there were fewer itemizers, fewer people would have tax incentives to contribute to charity.

      As for immigration, yes, my grandparents immigrated legally to this country, in or around 1910. They were fiercely patriotic and appreciative of what America offered them, and our family has prospered. Meanwhile, I am keenly aware that virtually all of our family members who remained behind in Russia and Poland were killed during the Holocaust. That makes me a bit more sensitive, I admit, to the plight of refugees fleeing war and terror. And it also makes me aware of when the new administration is not only insensitive to humanitarian crises, but also mischaracterizes the Holocaust by refusing to identify the victims as Jewish. (See Deborah Lipstadt’s excellent analysis here.)

      Again, thank you, Philip, and let’s hope for the best for our country!

  • Nice job Alan. Eloquent and accurate as always. It’s amazing to me how common sense and common decency are so utterly uncommon now. We live in a world where dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars on a Superbowl party is perfectly acceptable but donating $50 to a food bank so others could just have a meal is outrageous. It’s so easy for people to condemn the vetting process for refugees as too easy when the only government document they’ve ever filled out is for a driver’s license. Ignorance and a willingness to either be blind to or justify what is actually going on is just so pervasive now – people are fiercely protecting their own tiny bubble and forget what it’s like to have compassion. I agree with you – I think the only thing we can do is keep digging like hell. I’m going to need a bigger shovel.

  • Excellent read Al, I’m sharing this timely article. The idea of helping others is often seen as a weakness by those who have the most to give when in actuality it is a sign of strength and confidence when you wish to bolster your neighbor’s situation and ultimately strengthening our “neighborhood”. We are part of a global community and shutting the doors on our neighbors in need only serves to make us a more insular society and no good can come of it. As an immigrant myself (1968), I find myself flummoxed by the current sentiment towards immigration in which there is no distinction by many between legal and illegal immigration,. This entire country was created and founded by immigrants. The USA is not a nightclub in which you can say, no, you can’t go in, you’re not the right type for our club based on an arbitrary system of screening, yet our current administration/regime is trying to promote that exclusionary climate via fear mongering. Stormy weather indeed.


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