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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Perhaps Town Meeting Can Ease World's Ills - by Howard Frank Mosher

Most of the town halls in my part of New England -- Vermont's Northeast Kingdom -- are a little rundown at the heels. Many of them are just large enough to accommodate the entire adult population of the township. Even so, I'd like to extend an open invitation to anyone connected with the current administration in Washington, the United States, Congress, NATO, the United Nations, and, especially, Middle Eastern governments and political and religious organizations to visit a New England town meeting.

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Not, as you'll see, that I believe we have any monopoly on grass-roots democracy, except perhaps at its loudest and most contentious. But having tried every other conceivable way to bring peace to an area where people have been fighting for several thousand years, we may as well try the town meeting model and see what happens. Certainly there's not much to lose.

Guests should dress warmly. Many town meetings are held in March. Come early to see folks drifting into the hall to greet old friends, eyeball enemies across the room, stash covered dishes in the kitchen for the big noon meal. About 9 a.m. the donnybrook begins. For the next three hours, neighbors who would never dream of not pulling one another's car out of ditches or cheering on one another's kids at Friday night basketball games will argue fiercely over paving roads, paying schoolteachers, zoning main streets, donating a few hundred bucks to the local senior center. Tempers flare. Fistfights are not unheard of. Many of the debaters -- and on this special day everyone is an orator -- detest each other. Yet no one is excluded, even the clan from Hatfield Hill or their blood enemies for five generations from McCoy Hollow.

At lunch, a temporary cease-fire is declared. Everyone seems ready for it. After all, it's hard to be too angry at someone who's enjoying your wife's baked beans laced with this year's maple syrup. Then the battle is rejoined until late afternoon when everyone goes home mad and grimly satisfied.

OK, it's one matter to hash over whether to pave a road, even a Vermont back road, and something else again to straighten out a regionwide conflict dating back a millennium and a half and getting worse by the day. Yet some of the principles for resolving the conflict may be the same. Recently, it's become clear to nearly everyone that the trouble in the Middle East extends far beyond Iraq. It goes beyond Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and even -- though you might not think so to hear the nightly talk shows -- Republicans and Democrats in America. Pretty obviously, then, any resolution, or partial resolution to these conflicts, some of which are almost as virulent as those in a small town in Maine or Rhode Island, also needs to be regionwide, with global involvement and support.

Two questions remain. Whom should we New Englanders send to this worldwide town meeting? At first I thought about David Ortiz, designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox, because it's impossible to imagine anyone not respecting and listening to Big Papi. Can't be done, though. The Sox are going to need him too much over the next month or so. Therefore, I'd recommend George Mitchell, George Bush Senior, and Phillis Mosher, my wife of 42 years. Mitchell has family ties to the Middle East and helped persuade Britain and Ireland to stop squabbling. Bush Senior stopped Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in his tracks, sent him packing back to Baghdad, and brought our soldiers straight home where they belonged. As for Phillis, besides raising our two kids through adolescence to adulthood and putting up with a clueless writer for a husband, she's successfully taught junior high students for the past four decades and more. What better credentials than those could any negotiator possibly have?

Second, will the model I'm proposing really work? Probably not very well. Town meetings don't. Most roads go unpaved another year, schoolteachers are still underpaid, and everyone comes away aggrieved about something. Still, while I don't necessarily agree that an unjust peace is always better than a just war, an imperfect peace in which everyone involved has a say seems to me infinitely preferable to an imperfect war with no end in sight.

Howard Frank Mosher's new novel, ``On Kingdom Mountain," will be published next spring.

© Copyright 2006 Boston Globe
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Perhaps Town Meeting Can Ease World's Ills

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