, Newburyport, MA

July 15, 2013

In Newburyport as it is in Heaven

As I See It
Jack Garvey

---- — Arrived at work to hear that a woman dropped in looking for me. Wish I left it at that, but I made the mistake of asking why.

“She thanks you for all you’ve written about the waterfront.”

My co-worker likely confused waterfront Newburyport, which I have religiously avoided, with waterbottom Newbury, which I’ve repeatedly attacked. To paraphrase Reagan: See one hose job, you’ve seen them all.

“Religiously” is the operative word here. There’s no point debating those who adhere to a creed regardless of evidence.

In every party, pub and coffee shop conversation, every newspaper report, I am reminded of the Vatican in the 15th century clinging to the fallacy of a Flat Earth despite evidence presented by astronomers — including several of their own monks — all over Europe.

Evidence ignored today? Here’s a list — or what Mayor Donna “Where-Will-the-Children-Play?” Holaday might call “a Google search”:

Last several years, most New England waterways, including the Merrimack, have flooded.

Two years ago, a spring thaw nearly surrounded the Black Cow with water in its parking lot.

Last year, Hurricane Sandy surged New York’s East River 15 feet, flooding neighborhoods 10 times the inland distance that separates Newburyport’s waterfront from the jetties.

This year, meteorologists predict more left turns by hurricanes reaching further north in coming years.

Each year, satellite photos show rapidly melting polar ice caps — so too Greenland, our global neighbor along the relentless Labrador Current.

Does the name Plum Island ring a bell?

On the surface, the main thrust for development is both commercial and civic. Beneath the surface — literally as well as figuratively — it’s neither.

It’s religious. The religion is privatization. The creed is that business justifies itself.

None of this is unique to Newburyport. Nationally it became glaring in 1992 when presidential candidate Ross Perot criticized the Bush (Sr.) Administration for not caring whether America made computer chips or potato chips.

That wisecrack cut far deeper than Perot intended. College teachers at the time heard it from freshmen whenever we asked what they sought for careers.

The answer was always self-assured, unhesitating and often a single word: “Business.”

Like most teachers, I’d ask what business and marvel at the response. Or should I say non-response? Usually, some form of “It doesn’t matter” with a cloud of confusion furrowing on a previously bold and confident brow.

Why should we care whether they make computer chips or potato chips, handguns or handbags? Whether they sell — or “market” — swords or ploughshares, video games or vaccines?

Call it a 70-year echo of Calvin Coolidge’s doctrinaire assurance to American financiers and international investors: “The business of America is business.”

A 90-year echo aired primetime last summer when VP candidate Paul Ryan treated the Republican National Convention to a personal story. After his father died, his mother returned to school, gained a degree and “started a business.” Applause and cheers.

“A successful business.” Louder applause, louder cheers.

Whenever mentioning this, I am always asked what her business was — a response that sharpens the point by missing it.

Like my students, Ryan didn’t even think it relevant to specify. Business justifies itself. Success justifies any means. Questions are impositions to be dismissed, ignored, avoided. Complaint is heresy.

Case in point: Mitt Romney ran for president as a businessman. Confronted with details of Bain Capital’s outsourcing, he sounded more like a preacher condemning mortal sin: “My opponents attack success.”

Ditto Gabriel Gomez except that, rather than scowl, he could smile with unassailable patriotism: “I’m a Navy guy!”

So it is locally. Questions to would-be developers about environmental impact are met with glazed-over eyes and rote prayers of “consultants” who will “take care of that.”

Memo to the opposition: You merely play into their hands by engaging the economic and aesthetic talking points of their Bottom Line Catechism. Want a river park? Testify for the river, and the park will tend to itself.

If nothing else, you’d sure, um, dampen that pet dogma of the Chamber of Commerce: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Why break my silence? Though unlikely, that woman may have been chiding me for the sin of not bearing witness.

Deliver us from that evil.



Jack Garvey of Plum Island answers to