EDITOR’S NOTE | By Bret Bradigan

Power & Populism in Ojai

There’s a lot to be said for America’s disdain for authority. It has smashed hierarchies and unleashed entrepreneurial energies the likes of which has been seldom seen. It has created what Thomas Jefferson so eloquently called “a meritocracy of achievement in a democracy of opportunity.”

But it can go too far. Today’s casual disregard for “elites” and “experts” and our preoccupation with celebrity over competency has led us down some dark paths. When I was young (which tells you that I am becoming a cranky old man) our heroes were Albert Einstein and Neil Armstrong. In their place, we now have the Kardashians and Caitlyns and Kanyes (and others whom will not be named).

In 1775, it was America’s “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington and Concord that made despots fear for their heads and led the way toward freeing the animal spirits of our greatness. Perversely, though, these same anti-elite tendencies can devolve into mob rule and authoritarianism. Mike Judge’s film “Idiocracy” has already stopped being funny and started being prophetic.

There’s a story, almost certainly apocryphal, that used to circulate around publisher gatherings when I was in the newspaper game. There’s probably some version for every industry. The way I heard it, a large metropolitan newspaper had installed a state-of-the-art offset press, dozens of units all bolted together into one iron beast capable of thundering out tens of thousands of copies per hour. After much ceremony, the publisher threw the power switch and it started up smoothly enough. But after a moment, the units started vibrating, intensifying until they threatened to yank themselves free of the concrete floor.

The manufacturer sent a representative, who spent days tinkering and trying to figure out what was wrong. No success. Another highly paid expert then came in, also to no avail. It was an expensive fiasco with no solution in sight.

Then, a pressman mentioned that his dad, who had retired after years on the old press line, was a master at fixing things. Desperate, the publisher agreed to bring him in. The old man came in, started up the press, and listened intently to the thundering for a moment. He went back to the very first unit, pulled out a screwdriver, and turned a screw. Instantly, the vibrations stopped and the huge press line purred like a kitten. He was the hero of the hour.

The publisher received the retired pressman’s invoice. “Ten thousand dollars! He was here for ten minutes, that’s absurd!” Thinking to shame him for his extravagant invoice, he wrote back, “Please send me an itemized invoice.”

So a week later, he received in the mail an itemized bill: “Turning screw – $.10. Knowing where to turn — $9,999.90.”

I think of that every time I heard the contempt in which “experts” are held, and the notion that everyone’s opinion has the same value, that we are measured by our Instagram followers and “likes,” as though we would trust our opinionated neighbor or drunk uncle to diagnose a medical illness, or repair our car, or build our house.

Why does that same theory not apply to politics, or journalism or the law? Why do we trust experts in some areas and not others? Why do so many people feel they could do these jobs so much better than the people who have been doing them, as though experience is a dirty word? My guess is that there is a cosmic balance to things – we devolve toward mob rule, to anarchy, then fight our way back to a state of general order. Whether it happens with ease, or with great tragedy, is the canvas on which history is written.

Ojai is largely immune to these oscillations — our economy is driven by two factors that go hand-in-hand, tourism and real estate. We suffer the economic valleys like everyone else – especially in the housing market — yet compared to nearby Montecito or Santa Barbara or even Westlake Village, Ojai remains a bargain, especially when you factor in our superior quality of life. Plus we are within four hours’ drive of about 20 million people, and so tourism is also relatively stable compared to, for example, the resort towns in the Sierras that are entirely dependent on snowpack and rainfall.

Plus, we have been so far lucky in our elected leaders at the city and county levels – public servants and community stalwarts. I just hope the general malaise around politics and public policy in general doesn’t infect the local culture, because in those situations, the worst among us have a head start. What gives me cause for hope is that it’s harder to fool the people you see every day in person.

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