The golden door will stay open if we hold to our expectations

Illustration by Forest Byrd

A short year ago, we, as Americans, had great expectations. We had just elected Barack Obama as our president and were caught up in his audacity of hope. Many of us believed America would end a misguided war, would revamp its failing health-care system, would right a faltering economy.

Not so fast. The reality a year later: The war in Iraq is still being fought while the war in Afghanistan is being escalated; health-care reform likely won’t include a public option; and the economy is still faltering.

This led me to ponder the meaning of expectation. It is different than hope.

I remember being part of an experiment in the early 1970s when I was a student at Wellesley College. I sat with other young women — a counterpart to the Ivy League that still largely didn’t admit females — in a darkened lecture hall and was asked to react to projected pictures, to come up with a story, about, among other things, a woman in a white coat. What we women largely saw was a technician and not a doctor. Men looking at the same picture of a man in a white coat saw a doctor.

This was an era, just four decades ago, when only 1 percent of federal judges were women, only 1 percent of engineers, 3 percent of lawyers, 7 percent of doctors, and 9 percent of scientists were women.

The lecture-hall pictures were part of research being done by Matina Horner who wondered why so few American women — with the number of educated women at an all-time high — pursued traditionally male professions. She concluded that American women feared success.

Being among the highly educated women who didn’t see a doctor in the picture, I believe it was a lack of expectation. We didn’t see ourselves as doctors, or lawyers, or editors, so we didn’t become them.

You need a vision, a clear vision, to form an expectation that may one day become a reality.

When Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian, traveled to America in the early 18th Century, he wrote about the unique brand of American democracy, and contrasted the views on work with those held in Europe: “Among a democratic people, where there is no hereditary wealth, every man works to earn a living…,” he wrote. “Labor is held in honor; the prejudice is not against but in its favor.”

Charles Dickens’s mid-19th-Century novel, Great Expectations, is rooted in the divisions caused by different, inherited social classes. The orphan, Pip, who tells the tale, believes a wealthy eccentric has lifted him from the laboring class; when he discovers his gentleman’s life is instead provided by a convict he had helped as a child, he is devastated.

Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is an American ideal. Democracy in America, as Tocqueville pointed out nearly two centuries ago, balanced liberty and equality; the common man enjoyed unprecedented dignity.

But ability and hard work don’t matter if you don’t have expectations.

Another truth about American democracy that Tocqueville documented was how local liberties and local self-government are more highly regarded than associations with states or the nation at large. Unlike in France, he wrote, each town forms its own sort of Republic, used to governing itself.

While today, with Internet and television and radio, the nation is connected in ways never imagined by Tocqueville, we believe citizens still feel most effective in and most connected to their local governments. So let us take heart, right here and right now, as we begin a new year and a new decade, with the difference we can make in our hometowns.

We should not, of course, stop expressing our views on national issues. But let us act where we can make a difference. Liberty needs to be well grounded in the book of expectations.

As we look back in this week’s edition at the issues we’ve covered in detail over the last year, we can see some concrete expectations for the year ahead.

The most obvious may be in the town of New Scotland. The electorate in that once rural town had been riled for more than a year over the fate of the old Bender melon farm after an out-of-town developer planned a 750,000-square-foot retail mall, anchored by a Target.  November’s election was a landslide victory for the candidates who favored a size cap on commercial development.

A 1994 comprehensive plan for New Scotland declares that, outside of its hamlets, the town is rural. New Scotland has not yet fallen victim to suburban sprawl.

A 2003 town-wide survey found that 92 percent of respondents said preserving open space was important, and 85 percent said encouraging working farms was important. The best way to preserve open space, satisfying the vast majority or residents, is to have working farms. Niche farming is growing in peri-urban areas, near cities, which keeps taxes down, provides jobs, and preserves open space.

With careful local planning, a study by the United States Department of Agriculture and Cornell University found, “population growth can be channeled in ways that buffer farmland and create additional economic opportunities.” New Scotland has that chance now.

Several of the towns we cover — Rensselaerville, Berne, Knox, and New Scotland — are working on zoning for wind turbines. Last year, Shell WindEneregy approached landowners on the crest of the Helderbergs with offers to lease land to build large commercial turbines, but backed off after we broke the story on the covert plans. Other companies are still interested. Towns without thoughtful zoning could end up with towers where residents don’t want them, and profits that go only to large out-of-town corporations rather than benefiting the community.

A better way is exemplified by Helderberg Community Energy, which spent months making measurements and calculations from a tower in Knox. The group of committed volunteers now plans to place three 1.5-megawatt wind turbines along Middle Road, back from streets and away from houses. The project has proceeded slowly and carefully to amass technical information and keep the public informed on its progress.

We’ve written before of how we, as a nation, need to develop renewable energy sources. It will increase America’s economic security by reducing dependence on foreign oil. Wind power is created every day by the heating and cooling of the earth. A clean and renewable energy source, it is not affected by fuel price increases or supply disruptions.

Wind power will also reduce global warming, which is essential for the preservation of our Earth.  Per capita, the United States is the leading contributor to global warming at 30.3 percent — nearly a third. We need to change our ways.

While our towns work through concerns about wind turbines, we urge them to look to solar power as well. In July, we urged on this page that schools lead the way by example, and in November we learned that the Guilderland School District received a $334,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority that will put a photovoltaic system on the roof of the high-school gym, saving an estimated $9,000 a year in electricity costs. We believe this is a model students will learn from, and other schools and municipalities should emulate. It’s a perfect example of acting locally to solve national and global problems.

Liberty for all of us will be curtailed if we don’t care for our environment.  Each of us, as individuals, working in a community can make a difference.

Over the past year, we’ve highlighted on this page the positive difference even small communities can make — from an elderly Hilltown woman who has given her farm over to raise food for the poor and to which others now contribute, to the Farnsworth Middle School students who raised enough funds for a much-needed well in Malawi.

Emma Lazarus, in her famous sonnet inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, contrasts that statue with Colossus, “the brazen giant of Greek fame, with conquering limbs astride from land to land.” The Mother of Exiles is not interested in “storied pomp”; rather, she lights the way for the tired and poor, the homeless, the tempest-tost, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

If we define our expectations, hold to them, and act upon them, the golden door will remain open for future generations.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

More Editorials

  • For decades, at the start of a new year, we’ve always gotten a thrill covering what many may consider routine — the swearing in of new leaders for the towns we cover and the appointments that follow, an annual and reassuring ritual in a democracy.

  • While we wait for our government to help bridge the growing chasm between the rich and poor, we, as individuals, can make a difference. If you have enough food to eat, donate to your local food pantry. 

  • While we wait for our government to help bridge the growing chasm between the rich and poor, we, as individuals, can make a difference. If you have enough food to eat, donate to your local food pantry. 

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