Friday, May 23, 2014

Guest post: Obama's non-visit to Cooperstown

President Obama was in our neighborhood yesterday, promoting tourism with a speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

A big local issue is hydraualic fracturing—or “fracking”—of shale to extract natural gas. Supporters see it as economic salvation for beleaguered farmers and upstate communities that have been stagnating or losing population for years. Opponents see it as an existential threat, likely or certain to have a drastic impact on the local environment and the health of the area’s residents; a few people will make some money, and everyone else will lose a lot, including many livelihoods.

The modern version of fracking hasn’t come to New York state yet: the last two governors have held off on finalizing the necessary regulations, thus creating a de facto moratorium. Many local groups and invidividuals have been working for years to get that de facto moratorium turned into an explicit one, or a ban.

Fracking opponents seized the opportunity of Obama’s visit to try to make him aware of sentiment in the area (Obama supports fracking). They managed to get something like 200 people there, the basic message being that fracking and tourism are incompatible. Well, you can read below to what extent people managed to get“there” ...

One of those local groups working to keep fracking out is Sustainable Otsego. Adrian Kuzminski, the moderator of that group, was at yesterday's gathering, and this morning he sent out a reflection. I thought it was worth sharing, and with his permission I’m posting it here.


Obama's non-visit to Cooperstown
Adrian Kuzminski, Moderator of Sustainable Otsego

The most fascinating thing to me about Obama's visit to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame was the weird emptiness of it all, which I think says a lot about our current public political culture, or the lack thereof. The organizers of the anti-fracking rally I was part of anticipated (hoped for) large crowds, and worried in advance about off-street parking and other relevant contingencies.

If you picked up the special editions that day of the local papers celebrating Obama's visit, and read them at face value, you would anticipate a festive, popular occasion, with lots of local pride on display, supported by the testimony of copious open letters and commentary welcoming the president, seasoned with respectful criticism regarding fracking and other national issues. We are all in this together with you, was the story line; we live in a common community, was the presumption.

The reality was nothing like that, and a lot more bizarre.

I had arranged to park at a friend's house on the other side of the village, but it was apparent early in the morning that there would be spaces on the street, in fact, plenty of them. The village was practically deserted, like one of those movies where the aliens have landed. Everybody was clearly staying away from town. I walked across an empty village and found my way to the rally, where a couple hundred protestors were virtually the only sign of life. We were the only ones, it seemed, interested in being there.

The object of the president's visit, the Baseball Hall of Fame, was cordoned off in a kind of splendid isolation. We knew that a select few had their invitations to shake the great man's hand inside the sealed-off zone. We protestors on the other side of the barriers set up to keep us at a distance went through with our kabuki dance of chants and speeches, addressing a man who couldn't hear us. The omni-present media technology loomed in the background, sucking up and reducing our presence to sound bites and pixels to be processed for someone else's consumption, the big satellite dishes on TV trucks reenforcing the sense of an alien invasion.

The desultory rally went on for hours. I left before the president actually arrived, my back aching, and slowly walked back to my car across the still deserted village, pondering the meaning of it all. The belief in the ritual in which I had just participated remains deeply rooted among my band of activists, at least. We are supposed to be making a difference, we tell ourselves, or at least doing our duty as we see it. The image of a community welcoming its president, however, and of some kind of genuine dialogue with him, existed today only in some fantasy space.

Our message, we knew, was from the grassroots. We wanted Obama to know that the first bans passed by local municipalities to prevent fracking for natural gas and protect communities from its noxious consequences were passed in and around Cooperstown. We wanted him to know that his national energy policy including natural gas as a bridge fuel would exacerbate global warming, not reduce it. We wanted him to adopt a new energy policy transitioning to renewable energy sources as quickly as possible.

But he couldn't hear us. The president may think he visited Cooperstown, but in fact he came and went in a bubble and saw nothing of our community. It's a tragedy of our time, I suppose, and of the exigencies of the national security state, that it all comes down to this. The disconnect is almost total. Our leadership lives in a kind of political gated community, insulated from any kind of spontaneous contact with the real world.

The father of one of my nephews is a US congressman, and he tells a story of being with Obama at a photo-op somewhere, where they had to wait for some technical glitch to be cleared up. Standing around, Obama commented to the congressman, holding up his fingers to make a small frame, saying: "You know, they keep me in a box this size."

But we played the game and got out our message, if not to Obama, then at least to a few corners of cyberspace:

But will we ever get to Obama? What will it take? US energy policy will not change anytime soon, and it's far from clear what will compel the change that is desperately needed.


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