Where Are the Strong? 

When it comes to Mayor Wharton and the Memphis City Council, what's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Maybe the impasse between Mayor A C Wharton and the Memphis City Council will have begun to heal by the time this gets read, and maybe it won't have. The issue of whether the city should buy AutoZone Park may have been resolved one way or the other, too, but — how to say it? — as crucial as that issue has seemed to become in recent weeks, that issue is not the issue.

Yes, there's no disputing that whether or not Memphis will ultimately succeed in keeping its Triple-A Redbirds, its affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals, or its use of that dandy little AutoZone Park are all significant matters. And playing chicken with the issue, as at times contending players in the drama seem to have done, is nerve-wracking at best, and reckless at worst.

click to enlarge Elvis Costello
  • Elvis Costello

But the divide that has opened up between mayor and council (and between factions on the council) speaks to something more than personal ambitions, undesirable negotiating tactics, willful attitudes, or even the matter of what we can or can't afford. And, again, the ball park is not the issue. Memphis survived the horrific loss by fire of Russwood Park in 1960 — an event that took place only hours after an exciting major-league exhibition game between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox that surely had whetted the appetite of local fans for more baseball. In the aftermath of that disaster, the city would try to hold on to but would ultimately lose — at least for a space of many years — its Double-A Memphis Chicks. But the city survived.

Memphis will survive the outcome of the ballpark issue, whichever way the ball eventually bounces, just as it will survive the eventual resolution of the now raging debates over pension reform or this or that TDZ or TIF or the question of whether the city can bootstrap itself into a new convention center.

What it won't survive, at least in any kind of healthy condition, is the continuation of the current aversion to compromise, without which agreement on issues and the very sense of holding a community in common are impossible.

It was encouraging to hear so many of our key political figures concur on the need for "unity" and "civility" on the occasion of the annual New Year's Day prayer breakfast, hosted by city councilman Myron Lowery. "I'm through with whose fault it is," was the apt phrase used by Wharton to indicate a willingness to back away from recriminations and fault-finding. The task, though, is not merely to enunciate such sentiments or to employ them like nostrums but to commit to them as real and effective mantra for a unified and forward-looking community.

As Elvis Costello, the British musician whose stage name paid homage to our city's favorite son, once asked in song: "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?" But the follow-up questions posed by Costello in that song are still the real ones: "So where are the strong? And who are the trusted? And where is the harmony?"

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