When my nephew was a toddler, he was a bright child but afflicted with an odd habit of covering his eyes with both hands whenever something frightened him.
Regardless of circumstance – be it perceived physical danger or a scary movie – the boy would calmly block it all out by firmly clasping his fingers over his face.
He didn’t have a normal fight-or-flight response.
It was some weird, atavistic self-protective instinct that said, “If I can’t see it, it can’t hurt me.”
Fortunately, he’s older now and has outgrown the peculiar practice.
I wish others would.
For many years, what passes for political leadership in Volusia County has suffered from a debilitating form of what psychiatrists call the “Pollyanna Syndrome” – a tendency for people in power to focus on pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant ones.
They take the worry out of serious problems – make them softer and rounder – by simply refusing to admit that they exist at all.
In doing so, politicians develop a subconscious bias for unchecked optimism that sooths their fragile egos through constant self-reinforcement and ostentatious displays – such as the gaudy “State of the County” address.
With repetition, it blunts their logical instincts to recognize difficult problems and seek solutions.
Trust me. Messengers bearing bad news tend to have short life spans in most government organizations. They are shunned like a Jonah – and if your views don’t comport with the “everything is beautiful, in its own way” groupthink – you’d better keep them to yourself.
It also helps when the local media stops pointing out our collective warts and blemishes.
Anyone looking for a crystal example of this most vexing local problem of our time need look no further than a telling letter to the editor in Sunday’s Daytona Beach News-Journal entitled, “Accentuate Positive in Daily News.”
The piece was submitted by a Mr. Morgan Gilreath of Deland, Florida.
Now, I don’t know for certain if the author is our former Volusia County Property Appraiser – but I suspect he is.
And I don’t come to that conclusion by name recognition alone.
It is because the idea of intentionally ignoring uncomfortable realities – and deliberately trying to curtain off the malignant issues that are destroying our quality of life and systematically churning large segments of the Halifax area into a mosaic of dystopian badlands – is textbook Volusia County government.
In Mr. Gilreath’s view, “Appearances do matter. So does the way our community is presented to people visiting or looking for a home.”
He went on to list several newsworthy headlines that appeared in the News-Journal’s “Local” section on June 1.
These reports include a mother who viciously scalded her child, a woman convicted of drowning a puppy admitting to a probation violation, and the leader of a Palm Coast street gang appealing his life sentence.
In other words – a small, but vivid, cross-sample of “real life” here on the Fun Coast.
According to Gilreath, “Gotta tell ya, these don’t describe where I live. We have great communities throughout Volusia County with lots of wonderful people involved in fun and life-enriching events day in and day out. I didn’t see much of that in the Local section June 1.”
Hey, Morgan – wake up and smell the coffee.
Those stories, and hundreds like them, empirically describe where the rest of us live.
In my view, the idea of intentionally concealing the myriad issues that face us is the height of dishonesty – and self-deception.
And it disrespects our intelligence.
The fact is, many areas of Volusia County are quickly reaching rock bottom – and to simply ignore – or worse, purposely conceal by omission – the cancerous effects of blight, violent crime, homelessness, dilapidation and the resulting despair as a means of building a false narrative for potential visitors and home buyers borders on criminal fraud.
Despite the deeply ingrained instincts of certain current and former Volusia County politicians – ignorance of the problem is not the answer.
In my view, the very idea of encouraging the Daytona Beach News-Journal to only report on a make-believe world of “wonderful people engaged in fun and life-enriching events” as a means of creating a faux-appearance speaks volumes.
It is this same shameless mindset that drove local tourism officials to abandon any semblance of ethical boundaries when they openly encouraged some 10,000 members of Shriners International to descend on Daytona Beach for their 2017 Imperial Session next month – knowing full-well what the poor rubes will discover once they arrive.
Don’t take my word for it.
In an enlightening April 2017 piece by the News-Journal’s Elieen Zaffiro-Kean, our main gateway to Daytona’s infamous beachside – East International Speedway Boulevard – was aptly described as, “…an apocalyptic version of its former self.”
“Empty buildings held up by cracked bricks sit like ghosts along the busy thoroughfare between the Halifax River and Atlantic Ocean. Buildings with broken windows and missing roof shingles seamlessly blend in with the other beaten-down structures. Underground, fuel from old gas stations is seeping between properties.”
Need more? I encourage everyone to pretend you’re a Shriner and take a stroll through the ruins of the Boardwalk – then make your own assessment of whether you would return to the “Daytona Beach Resort Area.”
Look, I’m not a marketing expert – but I do know the exponential impact of negative word-of-mouth from 10,000 victims of a bait-and-switch scheme on future tourism. And, when the backlash hits, our various and redundant convention and visitors’ bureaus will ultimately have no one to blame but themselves. (Our red-faced politicians will make certain of that.)
They say the first step in resolving a problem is admitting you have one – and the truth hurts.
But giving in to the feel-good strategy of ignoring the obvious in hopes it will go away is a slippery slope.
I realize that I can be chronically negative and hyper-critical – and I suspect things look different from the posh riverfront homes of the rich and powerful – or an idyllic West Volusia neighborhood.
But pretending our area is not suffering mightily – or attempting to camouflage the evils – is not conducive to positive change.
The blind optimism of Mr. Gilreath aside, the Halifax area continues to endure the catastrophic effects of concentrated poverty, widespread crime and victimization, a dearth of political leadership and vision, abject greed, corrosive neglect, and a crippling oligarchical system of governance that protects and enriches a few powerful barons while completely ignoring the needs of average citizens who are expected to pay the bills and remain silent.
I’m not making this up to hurt someone’s feelings. Look around.
Mr. Gilreath believes that “…accentuating the positive helps lead those reading to positive thoughts and actions.”
Do we really solve these entrenched issues by resorting to the hollow vanity of painting ourselves in a positive light?
In my view, it is high-time that our elected and appointed officials at all levels of government awake to the sobering realization that we no longer have the luxury of ignoring this devastating cycle.
Now is the time for blunt honesty – and bold, decisive action.
We must face our demons head-on, with eyes wide open, and anything less represents the nadir of political cowardice and dooms us all to more of the same.
I believe we do ourselves a terrible disservice when we attempt to create a Utopian concept of life that simply does not exist, while ignoring the ugly realities we communally face.