, Newburyport, MA

May 8, 2013

What does 'compromise' really mean?

Tom Lochhaas

---- — Well, it’s official now: “Compromise” is the new buzzword for resolving the Newburyport’s central waterfront.

The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority presented its plan for private development in this public space, then the Committee for an Open Waterfront presented its concept plan for all park and no development, and now everyone is talking about a compromise between the two visions.

Talk began immediately after COW’s presentation, when the NRA treasurer was quoted mentioning the possibility of compromise. A Daily News editorial a couple days later tried to present a balanced view of both sides and called for compromise. And today as I write, Mayor Holaday announces she is running for a third term and says about the waterfront, well, you guessed it — she’s hoping everyone works together for “some kind of compromise.”

“Compromise” is to politics what “the flag, Mom and apple pie” are to patriotism. You can’t argue against the idea of compromise any more than you can question the flag — but you have to look behind it. Plenty of hate groups have wrapped themselves in the flag, for example, and plenty of sly politicos have tried to hide behind “compromise.”

So, what’s wrong with compromise?

First, compromise does work well when two parties agree on something but differ in some important way. Should we give a cost-of-living raise of 3 percent to Social Security recipients, or should it be 5 percent? After careful analysis and reasoning, a 4 percent compromise may result, and even if that disappoints one side, it might be fair if all information were openly considered.

On the other hand, consider truly opposing views: One side wants to end Social Security entirely, and the other side wants to preserve it. Hey, let’s compromise! Senior citizens living west of the Mississippi get Social Security, and those living east don’t. Compromise! Apple pie for half of us!

Fortunately, the people spoke out on that one — and the politicos trying to end Social Security lost the battle. To many citizens of Newburyport, that’s what our waterfront’s “open space” is like — it’s open or not. Maybe you can have a half-open door, but if you can’t walk through it, it’s not much of a door.

Others will argue development is not like that: that true compromise is possible. A crafty politician or developer could in fact anticipate long in advance that opposition will build and compromise will be needed. Say I wanted to build a big building on the waterfront and the other side wanted none. Would compromise mean a smaller building? But then I don’t get what I want. So how about I propose two large buildings instead? Then when we go along with what everyone will call a “spirit of compromise,” we agree to do just one big building instead — a perfect compromise between two and none. (And ha! I got exactly what I wanted from the start!)

Could that be happening in Newburyport? Stay tuned! Watch every time the word “compromise” gets used in this battle, and carefully watch the frustrations of the side that argues “No compromise!” as they get painted anti-flag and anti-apple pie.


Tom Lochhaas lives in Newburyport. For anyone who doubts that people deliberately or unconsciously manipulate reality through language, he suggests George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”