An experiment is under way in Twin Falls to see if a community can, in this most noisy of times, create a new way to calmly talk, listen and find common ground.
This community has been to hell and back. Its members could be excused for wanting to turn inward, or tune out. But when I visited Thursday, I found people optimistic and ready to engage, not retreat.
Just this week, we learned that part of the 2016 anti-immigrant tumult in the Magic Valley was ginned up by a Russian front group that posted Facebook messages that demeaned immigrants and called for a rally to protest Muslim refugees. And the Russian meddling was in addition to agitation by Breitbart News, which sent a representative to the valley to stir up angst against immigrants, including exploiting a tragedy — a child sexual assault — and falsely painting it as a knifepoint rape by Syrian youth.
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This week, 150 people gathered at the Turf Club in Twin Falls for a Constitution Day lunch that also served as the first meeting of what organizers hope will be a nonprofit, nonpartisan Twin Falls City Club. Organizer Russ Tremayne, a history professor at the College of Southern Idaho, said a core of 50 or so people are ready to sign on and support a city club, which would host four or six forums a year. Those forums would be modeled on clubs in Boise and Idaho Falls, which host monthly public policy discussions and Q&A sessions with experts, leaders and newsmakers.
I’m not a disinterested party in this conversation. I’m a former president of Boise City Club and was involved in early efforts to encourage a city club in Twin Falls, under the leadership of the Idaho Humanities Council and with the help of the Idaho Falls City Club. “A seed well planted,” said organizer Curtis Eaton, a special assistant to CSI President Jeff Fox.
Five Idaho Falls members — lawyers, ranchers, retired teachers — drove two and half hours to the Thursday event in Twin Falls. “We just wanted to lend our congratulations,” said Tim Hopkins, a lawyer.
In addition to heavy lifting by Tremayne, Eaton, Fox and others at CSI, the Times-News newspaper has demonstrated a powerful commitment to advancing community dialogue. When refugee/immigration tensions were at their peak, the newspaper hosted a public forum that drew 700 people. That success is one motivation for Publisher Travis Quast to lend his newspaper’s support to a city club in Twin.
“There was really a need and a desire for people to understand what was going on in their community,” said Quast. “That kind of renewed the effort around a city club, and started those talks again … because there is more than just the refugee issue facing our community.”
Another advocate for creating opportunities for civil discourse around the state is the Humanities Council, and its patient, persistent Director Rick Ardinger, who offered Idaho Falls leaders seed money and other help to start the city club there more than a decade ago.
“Civility doesn’t happen by accident. You’ve got to attend to it,” said Jenny Emery Davidson, the chairman of the Humanities Council board.
“In two corners of the state, we have these really vibrant city clubs, and I think we have witnessed the difference they makes to citizen engagement in those areas,” Davidson said. “But in a state that covers as much geography as we do, it’s important that those dialogues can happen in other corners of the state.”
The effort in Twin has the backing of folks as diverse as Twin Falls Republican Rep. Steve Hartgen and constitutional scholar David Adler. Adler was on the Constitution Day panel Thursday. “The mission of a city club,” he said, “runs completely in harness with the ‘grand experiment’ undertaken by the framers of the Constitution,” who asked “if it is possible for people to govern themselves within the context of reasoned discussion and debate.”
Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robyn Brody talked about the need for jurists and journalists to better explain the complicated workings of the courts to a busy, confused populace.
Don Burnett, the former University of Idaho Law School dean, got my attention when he talked about the little-appreciated value of an impartial judiciary. I’d never thought in terms of the crucial fact-finding that courts have to do before rendering judgments — the slow, methodical, dispassionate determination of knowable truth. It’s a concept that is almost passé in a world dominated by 140-character snap judgments and online experts ready to pounce and pronounce, whether they know anything or not.
Burnett retold the story of Ben Franklin, emerging from helping to draft the Constitution in 1787, being asked: “What have you given us?”
“A republic,” Franklin famously challenged, “if you can keep it.”
Keeping our country functioning is the work of our time. It sometimes feels as if we are no longer up to the task. We no longer trust our institutions — churches, courts, cops, corporations, Congress, correspondents — to help us work through our disputes and differences. It would be easy to decide that it’s less work and less risk just to hunker down and disengage.
Just the opposite is happening in Twin Falls. Creating a place where people can join calm, collegial conversations about our republic is a heartening response to Ben Franklin’s challenge.