In May, two authors from the University of Maine published an essay in the Sun Journal about the decline of public discourse. The writers, Michael Hastings and John Mahon, said the gradual disappearance of civics from the classroom was the culprit.
"The ability to approach a difficult policy issue with data, reasoned arguments and logic is not an ingrained skill," they wrote. "For example, all of us need to understand that while personal attacks against opponents may have a place in character debates, they do not have a place in serious policy discussions."
Few truer words have been written. Yet while Mahon's and Hastings' desired audience was citizens — to encourage them to pay greater attention to their dialogue — they easily could have also addressed elected officials, whose discourse is a very public model of right and wrong. If discussion among those responsible for setting policy devolves into sniping, improving debate in the public becomes even harder.
This is a roundabout way of saying that displays such as what occurred in Auburn earlier this week shouldn't happen again. Two city councilors, Ron Potvin and Dan Herrick, had a significant disagreement about a policy matter — the funding of the city's rescue vehicles.
Potvin supported expansion. Herrick supported cuts. Herrick's opinion carried the council, which should have ended things. Instead, this decided matter boiled into allegations of collusion, police reports, angry recorded telephone calls and, this week, a very public model of a venting session.
And for what? Rescue funding was decided in May, so hanging this dirty laundry in public had little practical effect. The policy debate had ended. This was more like an illustration of the state of diplomatic relations between certain councilors. (Neither warm nor fuzzy.)
What's worst, though, is this situation illustrated what Mahon and Hastings asserted — the apparent inability to separate the personal from the professional in policy debates. These intermittent flare-ups — which happen in every community, eventually — is a failing of civics.
And, in their opinion, this is because civics is no longer taught from an early age. Maybe so. There are likely many causes for its decline, with education being only one. The effect, however, is clear.
It is what happened in Auburn this week.