COLUMBIA, Mo 8/1/13 (Op Ed) -- Why is Columbia police chief Ken Burton arguing with Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey about crime?
Why have we heard for years that Columbia's leaders refuse to acknowledge a growing "gang problem?"
Why could a Mayoral committee to solve the crime problem fail?
After endless head scratching, I found the answers in Babbitt
, a novel by America's first Nobel Prize-winning writer, Sinclair Lewis.
Set in a fictional Midwestern city called Zenith, Babbitt
shows the light and dark sides of Boosterism
, a governing philosophy that has dominated the Midwestern business and political landscape for over a hundred years
The story's main character, George Babbitt is a well-known community booster who slowly realizes the harm blind optimism has done, to his community, and more importantly, to his soul.
In Lewis' world, civic life is all about a conflict between "boosters" like Babbitt and their philosophical opposites, "knockers," or critics of the status quo.
Herein lie the perils of unchecked Boosterism, which will sink Mayor McDavid's
"violence task force" should he stock it with the usual majority of Columbia boosters.
The boosters -- who usually hold leadership positions -- often ignore or ostracize the knockers, as illustrated in a chilling scene toward the end of the book. Three of Zenith's most powerful boosters, including a big developer and the newspaper editor
, want Babbitt to join yet another booster club, the ironically-named Good Citizens League.
Babbitt does the unthinkable and turns them away.
A Minnesota native, Lewis won the Nobel (and earlier, the Pulitzer Prize) for eloquently revealing how the booster vs. knocker conflict moves communities.
Booster vs. Knocker is, in fact, the central conflict in Midwestern civics, more central than town vs. gown (itself a variation on booster v. knocker), black vs. white, poor vs. rich, business vs. labor.
In Columbia, the violent crime discussion is easily
cast as a boosters v. knockers battle.
Boosterism started as a way to persuade Midwesterners not to move west shortly after the Civil War. With California and Oregon beckoning, war-decimated states like Kansas and Missouri barely stood a chance. The lure of "Go West, young man," even claimed the country's most famous Midwesterner, Hannibal, Missouri native Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain.
Immigrants meanwhile stopped -- and stayed -- in coastal cities like New York.
Faced with ruin, city and business leaders rallied, pushing the virtues of their Midwest burgs. Visitors Bureaus, Chambers of Commerce, and non-profit aid societies to boost the fortunes of the poor and dispossessed sprang up. World War I cemented the "booster as leader, leader as booster" philosophy, as communities struggled to rebuild after losing young men overseas.
In their ongoing argument, the city manager, police chief, and Mayor McDavid are
boosters, while Sheriff Dwayne Carey is the knocker.
In time, Midwestern business and government leaders came to rely on constant self-promotion, even if it meant exaggerating community virtues or ignoring problems like violent crime.
That's why knockers are important, Sinclair Lewis insisted.
They serve as a necessary check on the boosters' unbridled optimism, which can encourage ignorance and even cruelty when it becomes blind to reality.
In Columbia, the violent crime discussion is easy to cast as another boosters v. knockers battle. In their ongoing argument
, the CoMo city manager, police chief, and Mayor are boosters, while BoCo Sheriff Dwayne Carey
is a knocker.
Chief Burton -- as chief booster -- dismisses rising crime as "public perception."
The boosters don't want to acknowledge a gang problem, so Nauser's plan sits on a shelf.
Herein lie the perils of unchecked Boosterism, which will surely sink Mayor Bob McDavid's proposed "crime task force" should he stock it with the usual majority of local boosters.
"Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil," is no way to govern when there's evil all around.
"The booster's enthusiasm is the motive force which builds up our American cities," Lewis wrote in a 1908 editorial. "But the hated knocker's jibes are the check necessary to guide that force. In summary then, we do not wish to knock the booster, but we certainly do wish to boost the knocker."