The Public Sector Versus the Private Sector: The New Civil War

More than 150 years ago our nation was ravaged by the battle between the North and the South. Ceremonies commemorating the American Civil War are being planned in many parts of our nation. This is good and proper. We need to look back, pause, and ponder the reasons for the bloodshed which in many cases tore families apart and set brother against brother.

Long time friendships evaporated in a flash and these good feelings were replaced by hatred and anger. How could this be? What is it that could make people turn on other people they had known and loved? My friends, these questions have long troubled historians. Even as these solemn memorial ceremonies continue to make headlines in many different parts of America, something new is afoot in our nation. There is the faint musketry of yet another civil war. There is another chance that people will turn on their neighbors and once again friend will battle friend.

Recently it was my honor and privilege to serve as a key-note speaker and pre-conference seminar facilitator for the Wisconsin Fire Chief's Association. I have been to Wisconsin on a number of occasions and have always been well received. During my time there I got to meet some really neat people. As is my way, I worked to listen to their ideas and theories. I then shared my experiences with them and they were kind enough to share theirs with me. Let me suggest that these fine folks are in the running with the gang from Nebraska for the title of best group I have worked with in a long time.

As many of you make know, the state of Wisconsin has been at the heart of some very serious governmental issues recently. Their Governor recently beat back a recall effort and won the special election to remain in office. Public employees have been pounded and people are being urged by the media to turn on them. According to the discussions I had with a number of fire chiefs, the situation has become quite tense and disturbing.

On my first evening in Wisconsin Dells, I was treated to a fabulous meal at a lovely local steak house. While a couple of the chiefs and I were conversing at the bar the topic of conversation moved to the current state of affairs in our nation, in Wisconsin, and in the Garden State of New Jersey. Owing to his many visits to Wisconsin, Governor Christie from New Jersey became the topic of our discussions. You might say that I was called upon to justify my governor.

While it was not what I wanted to say, the reality of our circumstances forced me to speak of his animosity toward public employees, his dislike school teachers, and his personally-crafted pride and joy, the plan which froze my pension payments at their current level until the year 2030. As you might imagine, my comments were not laudatory. It is not easy to tell people that a man for who you voted screwed you.

The gang at the bar spoke of how police and fire people had backed the governor during the election and were spared some of the pain. However, like in New Jersey, money remains tight and programs remain in danger. I was forced to speak of the adversarial relationship between our governor and anything even remotely associated with the public sector.

At some point early in the discussion, one of the chiefs began to share a story with us. He mentioned how he and his family had been to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on a number of occasions in order to study lessons of that faraway conflict. He stated that at the time he was there he could not envision how such a conflict could ever happen. He told me that he could not imagine the circumstances under which one brother could turn against another: or one friend against another.

He then looked wistfully out the window of the restaurant. He then mentioned that he had recently begun to feel a subtle change in his relationship with certain of the people with whom he was friendly in his community. He could not point to anything specific however he suggested that some people seemed to be beginning to shun him. It was his perception that this was happening because he was perceived by them to be swilling from the public trough. I could tell that it really was bothering him. I then suggested that it was not too difficult to understand.

I suggested to him that that the media was relentlessly beating the drums of the "us versus them" nonsense. They were also hard at work peddling the old "rich versus the not rich" malarkey. I then suggested that it might also be called the issue of the "have and have not" segments of modern society. We agreed that forces seemed to be hard at work driving wedges between the various parts of society. Can you really say that this is not what is happening?

We in the fire service are caught up in the midst of this by virtue of the fact that we are a public (or de facto public) entity. We will be crammed into the middle of this battle regard of which way it will be played out. The problem with battles like this is that there are no hard and fast rules. Too much of our individual feelings and opinions are left to be colored by our individual perspective. What you see and what I see is based upon our personal list of life experiences. I am what I am (much like Popeye the Sailor Man), and you are who you are. That's just the way it is and always will be.

Let's face facts my friends, jealously is alive and well in 21st Century America. I have worked for what I have. The chief with whom I was conversing worked for what he has. However for those who have labored valiantly and not achieved what we have, well, the 'green-eyed monster" of jealousy is hard at work. Folks only look at what we have and not how we worked to earn it.

Maybe I am an odd duck after all. I don't care how much the rich have. I do not care whether they earned it or inherited it. That is none of my business. My life has been fairly simple. I wanted to marry my high school sweetheart and was fortunate enough to have been allowed that joyous privilege. I wanted to be a fireman and so it has been for the better part of the last five decades. One of my childhood dreams was to be a U.S. Army officer like my dad. Through a very strange and convoluted set of circumstances, this too became a reality. Like my buddies in the Newark Fire Department are so fond of saying, "…who has it better than you?"

Ladies and gentlemen, I do not care what you have. I can only worry about things which I can control. When I think charity is called for I contribute my time, my talents, and my treasures. Unfortunately, forces are at work in society whose ultimate aim seems to be the disruption of our society. These folks want to rend horribly asunder the delicate fabric which is our society and which is what separates us from other nations and their diverse, dangerous, and divisive problems.

As one of the 48 percent of the population who actually pays taxes to our government, I am sick and tired of being told how I need to work a little harder so that I can share with those who
are less fortunate. Folks, I just want you to know one important fact. I donate to a wide variety of charities and give food to my local food bank. I am supporting two great young ladies from my church who are serving as missionaries in foreign lands. My wife and I do what we can. But we do have limits.

Perhaps we, as a nation, need to worry less about what the next person has and more about what we can do to strengthen our community. As we watch the arrayed forces of the political world battle the macro-level forces which are attacking our nation and its economy we need to focus inwardly to the micro level. We need to determine what we can do for ourselves, our families, and our communities, and then do it.

Would I like to have more money and a nicer house? Who wouldn't? But I am going to take up arms and storm the castle in search of the king, so that I can cut off his head and plunder his treasury? No my friends, not in this lifetime. I will always be an obedient citizen, peaceful within the laws of the land.

So how do we approach the next civil war which seems to be brewing on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC? We must decide what we cannot do and refuse to waste time and resources tilting at windmills (see also Don Quixote). We must decide what we can do and then devote our best resources to doing it. Sometimes it is hard to avoid being sucked into the mob mentality. But we must avoid being sucked into the vortex of a dangerous and destructive maelstrom of improperly thought out actions. We must speak forcefully in support of our beliefs.

Let me suggest to you an approach to your part in the coming, new civil war. Keep your head down, your powder dry, and your eyes on the prize which seems best to suit your family, your community, your fire department and you. Do what you can within the areas over which you have some little bit of control. Oh, and let me suggest that each of us utter a prayer for a shower of compromise to begin raining down on our elected leaders at every level. Take care and stay safe.