NEIGHBORHOODS AND POLITICAL POWERlessness

A friend living in Orange county was recently forced by government enforcers to give away his pets – ten chickens.  A “crazy neighbor” (as he put it) had complained about another neighbor’s chickens, and when the enforcers acted on the complaint, they happened to notice the chickens in my friend’s backyard, and gave him the option to lose the chickens or lose his money AND his chickens if he didn’t comply.  Chickens and organic gardens go very well together, and my friend has a large organic garden.  He suspects that the law against chicken keeping in the county was put on the books in order to protect the monopoly of food production by the poultry industry.  Of course he feels powerless to do anything about the absurd law (it is legal to keep a dog in the backyard which can disturb a neighbor’s peace by barking and might be a danger to small children – my friend’s chickens have neither bark nor bite).  Gaining the liberty to keep his chickens by appealing to the “crazy neighbor” was not an option.  Experience teaches many of us that resistance is futile.  

I was thinking about my friend’s experience and the very recent calls to get people involved in civil  religion through the ritual of voting.  In talking to my neighbors about a decision being made by city commissioners here in North Port – a decision that is opposed by most of my neighbors – I find the same sense of powerlessness.  Their vote in the last election was the only form of participation in democracy available, and they recognized the almost total insignificance of the act.  The difference of power between individuals and those who govern seems unbridgeable.  And yet, it shouldn’t be and doesn’t have to be.  As I wrote my friend in Orange County, “Too little control exists at the neighborhood level.  When neighbors don’t interact with neighbors, they lose their collective freedom.”  In other words, residents of a place should have a voice, a collective voice, in decisions that affect that place.  A law restricting the ownership of chickens should not cover an entire county.  Ideally, neighbors should have decision-making power to decide issues that affect them, and not those outside the neighborhood.  The decisions (again ideally) should exist in the form of agreements based on relational conditions (covenants) rather than laws.  Covenant agreements are made between subjects; under law neighbors become objects . That layer of decision-making might exist in a few neighborhood associations but even there, few neighbors get involved.  Many of the reasons are revealed in a book by Matt Leighninger, The Next Form of Democracy.
He says,

At the local and neighborhood level, most communities don’t provide the kind of meaningful political opportunities that will compel and sustain long-term development.  ( p. 25)



And one reason?

In most places, local democracy is like a boring college lecture course with a tedious professor: most of the students skip every class until the final exam, when they troop into the room, chewing their pencils with fear, anger, and determination. (p. 26)



A major advantage of decision making at a neighborhood level (or a neighborhood block level) is that a consensus can be achieved through dialog rather than a divisive vote-taking which results in the formation of two camps – winners and losers.  Dialog takes place where there is face-to-face horizontal relationship between persons in small groups. There is no dialog in a college lecture, and dialog is purposely inhibited by Robert’s Rules of Order.  Only through dialog can we create a “communion of intuition”, a shared understanding of the issues we care about. Dialog is also necessary for the development of critical thinking skills, something which is desperately needed today in order to solve complex social issues.


One story in Leighninger’s book seems especially relevant to my friend’s chicken problem:

Giordano’s interest in protecting her property led her into relationships she hadn’t expected; in order to maintain her good fence, she became a good neighbor. (p. 28)

The story is also relevant to my motivation to create a network of small groups of neighbors within walking distance.  I listed some of the benefits that could be realized by the creation of such groups here , including political power.  However, as I explained on the page, if the purpose of the group becomes an effort to create political power, most of the other values listed would not be realized.

Although people come together because they have similar concerns, building relationships is the first priority, the foundation for defining and acting on public issues that represent an accumulation of personal and local concerns. (Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein: Better Together, Kindle Ed., loc. 349-52) (My emphasis)


In a country that is becoming increasingly polarized, and where citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated by the failures of “expert rule”, the kind of participatory democracy that is made possible by Neighbors Gatherings is not only desirable, but critically important. 
If we wait til the chickens get kicked out, it will be too late.

8 thoughts on “NEIGHBORHOODS AND POLITICAL POWERlessness”

  1. This gave me the idea that instead of the county being motibated to ONLY respond to complaints, perhaps they should insist that neighbors first work out their differences by TALKING with one another and only contact the county when at an impasse. I'm sure much fewer complaints would be made if people couldn't simply call in annoymimously!

    As far as Mary goes, I think having a mate was the best ending for her and perhaps all that baah-baahing was simply saying I'm lonely out here!

    FionaRhea, CampOma

  2. How wonderful to have different venues where different perspectives can be discussed and viewed through the lens of local empowerment and the "greater good" of the community. Your neighborhood gatherings and this blog are inspirational examples of getting to know "who's your neighbor." Admiration from a fan in Sarasota.

  3. Cluck, cluck-a-doodle-doo!
    (BTW: This is a subject I would rather discuss in group format than just sit and read…)

    Hope you will get some more comments, Don.

    Happy Neighborliness!

    from Penny

  4. this blog seems to be more negative than positive. I get no warm fuzzies from it.
    It does seem to be anti gov. which is not a bad thing, unless you are gov.
    It gives us the need to become involved now rather than waiting for a need.
    Well written.

  5. THE MORAL OF THE STORY?

    There could be various morals extracted from this true story. Feel free to add your own.

    Mary did not know she was a sheep and was not exactly happy, not knowing why she did not quite fit in. One day, things fell into place and she went on to "live happily ever after".

    Does this means that sheep are at the mercy of others who determine their fate?

    (Feel free to translate "sheep" to read as the masses of people who find it more comfortable to follow-the-leader than to break from the pack…..)

  6. The continuing story of Mary the sheep, who did not know she was a sheep…..

    A friend of ours told us he had a friend with acreage out in Alachua/High Springs and would love to give Mary a good home, so I tearfully (sheepishly?) bade farewell to my sheep as they drove her off in a trailer.

    Some time later, I was able to get an update on Mary.

    It seems that she went to live with another sheep named Joseph. They quickly bonded and gave birth to a lamb, which their owners named "Hay-sooss". Actually, the baby's name was spelled J-e-s-u-s, which is pronounced Hay-sooss. This is a true story.

    I would like to think that they lived happily ever after.

  7. When I lived in Gainesville, FL, a friend had to get rid of her sheep named Mary. Mary did not know she was a sheep, and perhaps assumed she was a human. I told my friend I would take Mary and keep her in my back yard, which was one block outside of the city limits and therefore allowed as long as there were no complaints from neighbors.

    Mary was a better watchdog than any dog with her aggressive loud baa-baa whenever anyone passed by the house. What they didn't know was that she was calling out to them to come and visit with her.

    Mary was quite indignant that she was required to remain in the back yard and would stand with her nose against the sliding glass door to the living room, beseeching us with her yearning eyes to let us into the house.

    My father, who lived with us, would go out into the yard to tend to his container garden, and every time he bent over, he would get "goosed" by Mary, who was just trying to be friendly.

    Soon our backyard was a sea of black pebbles that could no longer be avoided. These were her excretions. My dad gave me an ultimatum. Either Mary went, or he would.

    What was Mary's fate?

  8. Don, perhaps you have forgotten that roosters can and will cock-a-doodle-doo a lot and it does annoy a lot of people. Personally, I like chickens, but that might be one deterrent for regulating in close neighborhoods.
    (contributed by Penny)

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