Saturday, June 24, 2006

Fighting City Hall

When largely Republican Kanab, Utah passed an official resolution supporting the "natural family," political turmoil erupted in the town. Some residents responded with concerns that the proclamation slighted childless couples and single mothers, and others were worried about the fiscal impact of offending gays and lesbians who provided tourist dollars to local businesses. According to an article in today's Los Angeles Times, "Natural Family Resolution Divides Utah City," the city's statement of values actually wasn't written by city fathers; the real author was the conservative Sutherland Institute. See above for their take on "persuasion at work."

As someone interested in public access to information, I have to point out how difficult it was to find the controversial text on the city's website. One can find an announcement for "Support the Family" Day on June 1 that comes with no other information about the nature of the event. The city government search engine wasn't helpful either. Of course, I observed that the city's website was designed by a company called Evangelista, which is not exactly a moniker indicative of separation of church and state.

I had more luck finding information about the dispute from the City Council minutes, although the Kanab meetings weren't ordered reverse chronologically, as is the Internet norm. As the LA Times pointed out, the city records were certainly idiosyncratic in spelling and grammatical usage; they were also often too brief for rhetorical analysis.

The most contentious debate in the public record was the February 10th City Council meeting, where opponents of the resolution were only given ten minutes total to speak by the mayor. Although city fathers claim to civic balance by giving each side the same paltry number of minutes, a comparison of the total number of words in the public record in favor of each side speaks to a disparity in the public debate: opponents were limited to a measley 800 words, while supporters enjoyed an expansive 1,846 words, which included assertions like the following statement:

Many have moved to Kanab to enjoy the climate that has resulted from the values promoted in the resolution. Some come to our community with a history of traceable activism from their previous communities. They look for causes withwhich to promote their own personal agendas, and through manipulation and sophistry they seek to meet their own ends.

It seems that "activist" has become the new code word for "liberal." Furthermore, local officials are criticizing those who use "manipulation and sophistry" in Platonic fashion while simultaneously using the language from a thinktank that emphasizes precisely those means of persuasion.

Of course, one of the council's central claims is that they are offering a discourse without tropes or turns of phrase, a kind of "natural language" to go along with the "natural family." During the January 10 meeting at which the resolution was approved, Mayor Kim T. Lawson defended the importance of strictly denotative speech: "On the fifth anniversary of the Sutherland Institute it was said that 'words matter.' They have to be followed by deeds, and you have to be prepared to communicate them clearly, vividly, simply, and with repetition that is unending."

At a more recent City Council Meeting, a local animal control group was allowed to complain about the impact of the Natural Family Resolution on their organization, "Best Friends." It's ironic, given that Kanab mayor Lawson has received a warning letter from the ACLU, not about the Natural Family Resolution, but about search and seizure procedures related to their municipal animal control ordinance.



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