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Edgework

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In “The Darkest Hour,” the profile of Winston Churchill now in theaters, there’s a scene where one Parliament member holds a handkerchief to his forehead to signal to others whether they should support the Prime Minister to continue the war against Adolph Hitler or opt for negotiation.

Churchill got his way, of course.

Maybe the Woodbine City Council should adopt such a signal system.

The special meeting called for Jan. 5 to consider a base plan for a community center was so dysfunctional that two councilmen got the proposal tabled, and one of them—Merne Hammitt—said he supports building a swimming pool.

The problem was the five-member council couldn’t agree to disagree. Since no plan is etched in stone yet—outdoor or indoor pool? What sort of wellness center?—any proposal is simply that. A suggestion as a path to get started. Again.

What we do know is that 33 acres of land, already paid for at $15,000 an acre, is sitting alone on the west side of Woodbine, all dressed up and nowhere to go, and  the city didn’t pay for it.

But the council didn’t even get this base plan kicked down the road—a joint meeting with the school board and Woodbine Foundation group, which was subsequently cancelled—because they couldn’t play nice with one another.

Individual agendas were already set before the meeting began, and they played out in ineffective public discourse.  The noise of miscommunication was so loud it wasn’t clear who wanted what.

That wasn’t the case at Chuck Grassley’s town meeting in Logan on Friday.

From the outset, Grassley supporters and critics derided one another while Grassley, as the Des Moines Register reported, remained above the fray.

As Grassley kicked off his 38th straight year of meetings in all of Iowa’s 99 counties, I expected to hear questions about low commodity prices for farmers or something similarly local. Silly me. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of several ongoing investigations into Russian collusion, he has been regularly spotlighted in the national media.

 “Iowa nice” Grassley was peppered with the vitriol that surrounds town meetings these days.

He was asked later if the level of civility had changed recently at these meetings. “It’s about the same,” he said.

What has changed is that the level of civility—on both ends of the polarized public—is so low that earnest questions seem like spears flying across the room. Everyone seems like an extremist, and even the most sincere inquiry is treated as coming from one.

Some Trump supporters complained that his critics were outside agitators who regularly appear at town meetings. T.J. Nelson, who drilled Grassley with several questions, does live in Des Moines, and this was his third town meeting.

Sheila Ryan lives in Underwood. “You’re sliding on Russia,” she told Grassley. “If it weren’t for a free press, we wouldn’t know anything.” 

And Mary Mikels of Portsmouth questioned Trump’s fitness to be president.

“We’ve all got to come together and don’t hate so much,” said Heather Nejedly from Pisgah.

“We’re not hating,” said Pat Crosley of  Kimballton. Earlier, she had told Grassley that he formerly represented Iowa values.

“With Trump, you’re sliding to his values, which are bullying and narcissism,” said Crosley,” who home schools her two children, both in attendance. “Our president should be setting an example.”

 Underwood and Portsmouth and Kimballton. Hardly hotbeds for outside agitators. All served by Senator Grassley.

The level of civility at city council and town meetings now reflects the larger political culture. That’s a shame, because the noise prevents the shared information we all need to hear.

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