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Herb Rothschild: A year of conversation

This column marks the first anniversary of Relocations. I’m grateful to Bob Hunter, editor of the Mail Tribune, and Bert Etling, editor of the Daily Tidings, for inviting me to share my thoughts with you on a regular basis. And I’m especially grateful to those of you whose appreciative words have convinced me that the endeavor is worthwhile.

Over coffee last summer, when Bob floated the possibility of my writing a regular column, he did so in the context of a plan to transform the Tidings into a more community-focused newspaper. I was pleased to learn of it. Friends who lived in Ashland when the Tidings was an independent paper had spoken to me nostalgically of its former distinctiveness.

Deborah and I believe that our home, on a rural road off Highway 99 between Talent and Phoenix, straddles that virtual but meaningful boundary between Ashland/Talent and the rest of the Rogue Valley. We aren’t happy that such a divide exists and that it is often reinforced by an unwarranted mutual scorn. Valley residents share common ground — quite literally — and when we focus on it, as we did in the ballot measure to ban GMO crops, we affirm our commonality.

Nonetheless, like people, cities have distinctive identities, and there are healthy ways to act out of a conscious ownership of them. A primary task is to acknowledge all facets of our identities and to decide which ones should be cultivated and which ones transcended.

Regarding the latter, Ashland was once infected by the racism that was a salient feature of the identity of the “State of Jefferson.” It’s been many years since the Klan stored its robes in the basement of the Historic Armory, and it’s wonderful that the annual MLK Day observance is held at that very site. But more self-scrutiny may be needed to become a truly welcoming community. For example, it might lead Ashland residents to decide that building more lower-income housing will be an indisputable declaration of a commitment to end exclusion.

On the other hand, there is much in Ashland’s identity to treasure and to cultivate. What I prize most is our shared understanding that a vital public life is essential to the good life. We should be proud that the ballot measure assuring permanent funding for the Jackson County Library Services system passed thanks to the Ashland vote. We kept the lamp of learning alight, not only in Ashland, but also in those cities where a majority of residents value eight pizzas over a public library.

Quality of public life is inseparable from quality of public discourse. The thoughtfulness and mutual respect that characterize the discourse in Ashland are markedly higher than what prevail in the U.S. generally. One analogy is between the PBS News Hour and Fox News. It’s not that the former is liberal and the other conservative. It’s that the former is adult and the latter childish.

Getting close to home, the difference between the Medford and the Ashland papers is not nearly that pronounced. I like the Mail Tribune. Its editorials are well reasoned and its representation of opinions evenhanded. But my column probably wouldn’t succeed in the Trib, much as I’d like to speak regularly with folks up-valley of our virtual divide. I don’t think they’d have the patience to follow me. In Ashland, people don’t follow me. Together we sustain a conversation about what can make our world worth inhabiting. Such a conversation is the heartbeat of civic life.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.