Guest Column: A breakdown of the social order

My father was a lifelong Republican and my mother a lifelong Democrat. Yet in their 50-plus-year marriage, there was never a discussion, heated or otherwise, on candidates or political issues. I married the grandson of our local Republican representative to Congress but my husband was a true blue Democrat. Those preferences were treated like choosing to drive a Ford over a Chevy — nothing to get in a tizzy about, least of all a confrontation. We worried about getting nuked by the Soviet Union — the idea that our neighbors posed a danger would have been seen as absurd.

Like my mother, I’m a Democrat and now, in my early dotage, I have more time and inclination to follow the issues that concern us all. Following that, I put up a Biden lawn sign early this summer. It quickly disappeared. I put up another and then another — all disappeared within days. I decided to get creative and, admittedly, express my exasperation. Following a tip on the internet, my next sign said:

Every time you steal our sign

You help donate to Biden’s campaign 

Thanks for the SUPPORT!

Gone within 24 hours! OK, maybe this was bait so I decided to change tactics. I climbed a ladder and installed my new Biden sign six feet up, at the top of the hedge that separates my lawn from the street. For good measure, I left a hefty pile of broken branches directly in front of it. One evening, not long after, my daughters saw a truck slowly pass by, stop and back up. Then I got scared. This was not normal. They eventually drove away but the feelings stayed with me. During a pandemic that has claimed over 200,000 lives, and forced us all to live in a constant state of uncertainty, this breaking of the bonds of community has rattled me. 

One of the pleasures of small-town life is a friendly neighborhood, a backbone actually. At last year’s holiday party, my neighbor Joe told me that although we have different political beliefs, he was glad to have me as a neighbor. I feel the same way about him. When my stepdaughter’s car was making strange noises before a long road trip home, I called Joe to ask if he knew a good mechanic. Within five minutes, Joe appeared to check out the engine and offer advice. That act of kindness is the very heart and soul of a neighborhood — the very reason why small-town life is so appealing and valued.

When a local developer applied for a special exemption permit to build a large and unsightly hotel nearby, our neighborhood quickly organized an effort to oppose it, sponsoring a petition, writing letters and picketing. The civic-mindedness of my neighbors cut across political lines. We were united in the belief that this project would harm our town and it was our responsibility to do something about it. This is what makes America great — neighbors working together for the benefit of the community.

So the idea that one of my neighbors was not only trespassing on my property but stealing has been beyond disheartening. It feels like a breakdown of the social order. Where does the concept of law and order begin if not right here where we live? This act is classified as petty larceny and fifth-degree criminal possession of stolen property (Fair Campaign Code, Section 3-106.) But the really frightening part of this situation is that logic no longer prevails — we are in the midst of tribal warfare, where emotions dictate behavior. I doubt my neighbor considers himself a petty criminal and, more likely, feels patriotic. 

How do we go back to normalcy? Or has this splintering become a permanent state of affairs? Here in our small town, will we be defined by our differences or choose to treat others as we would like to be treated? Facing the onslaught of challenges, from the pandemic to struggling local businesses to rising sea water, don’t we need to work together now, more than ever?

The author, of Southold, is retired from a career in magazine publishing. She was creative director at Women’s Wear Daily and a longtime art director for the New York Observer.