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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Protect your local government from conservative insanity

Published: October 8, 2010
Section: Opinions

Each year, thousands of American homes catch fire. Last week, Gene Cranick’s home in Obion County, Tenn. became one of them.

The Cranick family was lucky—they all managed to escape the house unharmed. So, like anyone else who found themselves in that situation would do, they waited at a safe distance for local firefighters to arrive.

Eventually, they did. But instead of rushing inside to put out the blaze and save the Cranick family’s four pets, the fully equipped firefighters stood off to the side and watched as the house burned.

Why? It turns out that Cranick forgot to pay for the service.

Obion County operates under a policy of “subscription-only firefighting.” Unlike most American fire departments, which are supported by tax dollars and protect all homes in their areas, the South Fulton Fire Department only responds to calls from Obion homeowners who pay an annual $75 fee—which Cranick had not done.

Even when Cranick offered to pay the firefighters on the spot, they refused. They continued to watch the flames passively until neighbors of the Cranicks—who had paid their fee—complained of fire spreading to their property. The firefighters dealt with the spread, but still left the Cranick house to burn.

It gives a whole new meaning to the term “fire insurance.” Or rather, an old meaning, since this kind of practice is what passed for fire protection in the 19th century.

Perhaps, though, it’s a sign of the times. Faced with falling revenues—courtesy of the economic downturn—state and local officials have scrambled to come up with ways of cutting government expenditures. Privatization, always a favorite word among conservatives, is increasingly being put on the table, as many municipalities have no other choice.

Obion County’s all-Republican County Commission enacted the subscription-based firefighting policy in 1990 and it has remained popular ever since. Two years ago, the South Fulton Fire Department and the County Commission considered a replacement policy that would have covered all residents in exchange for a small increase in property taxes. After what I imagine were several days of serious discussion, the Commission rejected the proposal and decided to continue the subscription policy.

The amount taxes would have been increased? 0.13 percent. Thank you, Republicans, for protecting your constituents from the evils of big government.

Unsurprisingly, the County Commission and the South Fulton Fire Department have many allies among the national conservative movement. Soon after the fire, Kevin Williamson of the National Review wrote: “The world is full of jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates—and the problems they create for themselves are their own. These free-riders have no more right to South Fulton’s firefighting services than people in Muleshoe, Texas, have to those of NYPD detectives.”

Brian Fischer of The American Family Association wrote on his blog: “The fire department did the right and Christian thing. The right thing, by the way, is also the Christian thing, because there can be no difference between the two […] In this case, critics of the fire department are confused both about right and wrong and about Christianity. And it is because they have fallen prey to a weakened, feminized version of Christianity that is only about softer virtues such as compassion and not in any part about the muscular Christian virtues of individual responsibility and accountability.”

Even a superstar like Glenn Beck took some time out of his busy schedule to comment on the story. While on the radio with producer Pat Gray, Beck said that the debate about the firefighters “goes nowhere if you go into compassion, compassion, compassion, compassion.

“If you don’t pay the $75, then it hurts the fire department,” he continued. “They can’t use those resources and you end up sponging off your neighbor’s resources.”

There was a time when conservatives pretended to care about other people. Former President George W. Bush ran for office in 2000 on a platform of “compassionate conservatism”—i.e., a belief that free-market principals are the best ways to improve the lives of all. This sort of thinking appealed to Americans who wanted the government to keep its hands off their Medicare, but to everyone else it was simply a ruse designed to shift more money to the private market, consequences be damned.

These days, conservatives are less interested in hiding their true intentions behind clever campaign slogans. Government spending and tax increases are no longer viewed by the far right as inconveniences; they are the monetary incarnates of the Antichrist.

I imagine that many of you reading this are politically active students; and since this is Brandeis, most of you are probably liberals. So, there’s a good chance that you are already getting involved in Democratic campaigns for the upcoming Congressional midterm elections. That’s a good thing. But while national politics is exciting, it’s important for us to remember that some of the worst politicians are often elected at the local level, where they are able to quietly enact ludicrous policies while dealing with minimal press coverage. Do yourselves a favor: Next time you go home, take some time to learn about your local races. With the same energy you would invest in a Congressional race, you could help ensure that your local government remains sane.