Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Bad Guy

Spy Vs. Spy
As a young reader of MAD magazine, I must admit I am pleased to see that it
still has some appeal for the current generation.

One of the standards of MAD, then and now, was Spy Vs. Spy.

In fact, it hit such a core note with my son and his best bud, that they used it as their Halloween costume one year.

As a proud papa, I would post photos but they're teenagers now and therefore, anything I do to single them out among the broader population marks me for death.

And then, who would bring you "This Saturday in Science?"

So you'll have to be satisfied with the familiar images, as show above.

Anyway, according to traditional archetypes, the spy in white should be the good guy and the guy in black, well, vice-versa of course.

But, as anyone familiar with this genre knows, neither is good and neither is bad.

And in many ways, it reminds me of how Pottstown operates on several levels.

Allow me to explain.
Were there ever more clearly
defined roles than
Snidley Whiplash and
Dudley Do-Right?

As a journalist, I look on my job in most ways as being an educator.

I educate Mercury readers about things people have done, things the government has done or may be about to do, and who died.

To make that information more digestible, more attractive (we are a business/public service operation after all), we have found that its best to present this information in the form of a story.

And, as we all know, every good story needs a villain.

Truthfully, how interesting is Jean Valjean without Inspector Javert?

Sherlock Holmes without Professor Moriarty?

Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader?

And so when we tell a good story, if you don't have a good bad guy, chances are people may just yawn and turn to the sports page.

But as good as black and white may be for storytelling -- and make no mistake, it is an old, old tradition going back further than The Mercury, further even than print itself -- it is a sham.

The world is grey. Hell, even Darth Vader's story line turns out to be kind of complicated.

People do bad things. Sometimes, the same people do good things.

Sometimes, people do mostly bad things making them, on balance, mostly bad people.

But most people, are both.

The problem, for us here in Pottstown, is the tied old bugaboo we've pointed to so many times -- policy by personality.

As a result, when you disagree with a position someone takes -- or occupies -- if you disagree with them the are, immediately, bad.

One look at the salacious anonymous blog Save Pottstown can tell you this.

There is always a bad guy, whether its Tom Hylton or, these days, Mark Flanders.

So anything you (or they) don't like, well it's always someone's fault.

If only it were that simple.

Does this mean we're not supposed to judge people? Of course, not. We all do it all the time and it serves a purpose.

But policies, or circumstances, or conditions, are usually not the fault of a single person and all to often, they take cooperative action to implement or, as the case may be, overcome.

For example, I knew when I wrote the April 1 story about Royal Medical Supply being forced out of downtown Pottstown because of changes in health care regulations, that it would be controversial.

I knew that if we put 'Obamacare' in the headline, it would draw a line in the sand for a lot of people.

Nevertheless, I also knew, that if we ran a headline that read "Medicare/Medicaid rule changes force business from downtown," that no one would read it.

Still, the sides people took based, as far as I could tell, on that headline, were striking.

I received e-mail from a man who thanked me for "telling the truth about Obama" and suggesting I should next write up how he is trying to take all our (well,
YOUR) guns.

"Did he even read the story?" I wondered.

Another man, who lived in California no less, said on The Mercury's Facebook page, that it was obvious I was just a Republican stooge and hated Obama.

"Boy does this guy not know who I am" I thought.

Even a former colleague, sent me an e-mail and asked me if I was mad because obviously the newsroom resident conservative had obviously tried to put a spin on my story with the headline.

He was wrong. I wrote that headline myself because, that was, I felt, the story.

And, the truth of the matter is -- it's complicated.

As Roy Repko, who helped found the Royal Medical, helped me understand, it was not so much the goal of the regulations affecting his business -- drive down the cost of medical equipment -- which was causing the problem, but the method.

I don''t know Mr. Repko's politics and I didn't ask. Primarily, it seemed to me, he wanted to get the word out about a petition, hoping to get enough people to sign it not to reverse the policy, but the procedure.

Me? I just wanted to show how everything we do has unintended effects and here was one right in our town.

Was this President Obama sitting in the Oval Office dictating methodologies that would force Roy Repko into making a decision he didn't want to make?
It's complicated


This is a complicated situation which well-meaning people are all trying to
navigate which has consequences some might not have foreseen.

Is medical care too expensive? Yes.

Are lots of people unable to access it? Yes.

Does something need to be done? Yes.

Was 'Obamacare' the right way to handle it? Time will tell.

In the meantime, its impacts will ripple through our economy and people we know in unforeseen ways. This was one of them.

Another example occurred this week when we ran yesterday's story about state Rep. Mark Painter's district chief of staff, Michael Lavanga, owning a property in the 400 block of Walnut Street that had been declared "blighted."

I only found out about it because it ran as a legal notice, apparently the result of the borough's inability to update its property records. Mr. Lavanga felt he was being singled out and we should not run the story.

Needless to say, we disagreed.
The house at 409 Walnut St. owned by
Michael Lavanga.

But when he sent me his statement, it was immediately evident to me that the circumstances under which he was struggling are not uncommon.

He bought a property before the real estate bubble burst, thought he could make a few bucks, and soon found out that -- well -- it was more complicated than that.

The property had been trashed by tenants and vandals and he didn't have the money to fix it up and, quite frankly, given the decreased value of the property and the likelihood it would happen again, as a business decision, restoring it was a questionable investment.

I understood that.

I would like to fix up my property, but I can't afford it.

I imagine many landlords face this situation, and I have heard them say so.

But immediately, there was a rush to paint Lavanga as a villain. "He's the problem," some might have said.

Do I know if he's a bad or good person? Not based on one story about one circumstance.

And really, is that the point?

The point, it seems to me, is that we have a problem with low-income housing.  property maintenance. quality of life and tax base in this town.

It is a problem, or rather set of problems, with many mothers.

Selecting one person, or one group of people -- be they landlords, tenants, borough managers, school board members, immigrants, poor people, Scandanavians, people who love dogs, civil engineers, whatever -- as the cause of it all, suggests, simplistically, that neutralizing them or demonizing them will solve the problem.

This is childish.

I think it's fair to say our straits are dire enough that all should matter is the idea.

Will it work? Will it make things better? Is there evidence it will work?  Has it worked elsewhere?

The world is a complicated place. The problems we face are complex. The solutions, sometimes a mystery.

The challenges we face here in Pottstown are not unique to Pottstown.

Towns like our all over Pennsylvania are struggling. Look at Reading. Do we really want to be chasing our own tail while our problems multiply until we find ourselves in that predicament?

The only thing unique about Pottstown is going to be how we face those challenges.

Dividing ourselves into problem and victim or hero and villain will only
perpetuate the conditions we are all trying to overcome.

That will only make us unique in being stupid by fighting amongst ourselves in a hopeless, endless and pointless search for a villain

Wouldn't it be nice if we rose above our pettiness, as a town and as a nation, and tried to address the problems we face instead of the people we want to blame them on?


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