"Bullies and lemmings," the man said. "That's all Knoxville is. As much as I hate to say it." I heard that from a veteran merchant who's been involved in lots of public projects over the years. He's seems resigned to that perception, as if it were a demographic reality you can check by the census. "It's true," he said. "You have to admit that."
I didn't admit it right away. I know some exceptions, more than a few: people who have ideals and whose motive is only to improve their city. We're lucky they're here. But I understood what he meant. I've been hearing the same from several quarters, and never more so than in 2013.
Maybe it's a factor, as some have suggested, of America's income gap, which by some credible reckonings is greater than it's been since before the Great Depression. There are people who make so much they're no longer obliged to spend much time here, and who never have to explain or defend their impulses. They're powerful, and regardless of what made them powerful, they've arrived at a place where they're acknowledged by acclamation as the most important determiners of the future of our city.
And there's a much larger number of people for whom loyalty is the highest and most important quality in a human being. I'd hate to call them lemmings. They're good folks, many of them, and they have honorable goals in life, for themselves and their families. But they learned early on, probably in high school, that the main thing in this life is to make alliances, and honor them indefinitely. For their families' sakes, for their kids' college hopes, or their health insurance, or their retirement dreams, they're obliged to go along.
I've been reporting for about 30 years, but have never gotten as many off-the-record comments as I have in 2013.
I've gotten them mostly about historical-preservation issues. It was, hands down, this century's worst year for tearing down historic buildings. But there's more to it than that. It's a multidisciplinary syndrome.
Often these leaders mean well. We've been lucky in that regard. I hear rumors of aspiring Henry F. Potters here, greedy, sadistic jerks in it for the power. I've never met one.
Most of our powerful do some sort of generous good. There's a pervasive feeling, especially among established interests, that when people are basically good, if they're important to the community, support good things, we should let them cause a little harm now and then. They giveth and they can taketh away. It's their right.
A lot of folks understand that, as if it were the simplest sort of math. These people are so good that when they do something bad, our job is to take it like a man. Not all philanthropists or corporate executives or institutional administrators are expert in everything, like urban design, architecture, American history, or transportation. But our job is to respect them as if they are.
They don't need to explain, or have any tin-pot reporters cross-examining them or their motives or solutions.
Anybody that complains about their unnecessary damage, it's assumed, must be ungrateful, or out to get somebody.
A while back I was chatting with the wife of a businessman who'd been involved in a minor tussle over a small piece of property. "He doesn't even care how it comes out," she said. "To him, it's just a game." She wasn't complaining about her husband, but describing him with cheerful pride. The Game was important to him, the Game was what kept her husband healthy and vital and interested in life.
But I recognized, probably too suddenly, considering how many times I'd heard other remarks about other men throughout my life, something that's long been obvious to people smarter than me.
The Game is played at all levels. You try to win it for the win, not for the common good.
We like to tout win-win solutions. But hardcore gamers are unlikely to countenance their opponent winning, too. To them, a win-win is always a loss.
It's "like kissing your sister," as they used to say in college football, back when ties were legal. At some point, the big shots in charge of the NCAA decided that ties sucked. Since 1996, ties have been strictly illegal. That day, college football came to more closely reflect the way big shots do business.
We like to reward good work with money. The only problem with that is that as people make more money, they get rich. And Knoxville is not a place where rich people hang out.
Money's like helium, with most people. Pump it into them, and they tend to drift away. Their vacations get longer, they consider second homes, third homes, and ultimately a permanent move to the Cape, or Montana, or Florida. Usually their kids go away, too. A few years ago, I attended a formal dance with my daughter, and found myself in a social circle I wasn't acquainted with. A wealthy woman mentioned to me as a matter of fact, as if it were something I would agree with, that it certainly would be embarrassing if her children stayed in Knoxville. "They can do so much more," she said.
But often, no matter where they aspire to go, or aspire for their children to go, the wealthy somehow maintain their power here, in ways that impress and intimidate their minions. The town that was the source of their wealth seems less and less relevant to their lives, and Knoxville begins to seem like a simple thing. Heck, knock this down, and we can do that. Problem solved. We'll call before we leave Saint-Tropez.
To the people who stay here all year every year, Knoxville remains a more complex thing, and a very important one.
Maybe sometimes the big shots are right. I wouldn't know. They don't often answer reporters' calls. And when they don't, we may conclude that they're shifty, cowardly, sinister. Maybe they're not. But good ideas should be able to stand the light of day.