It is the ultimate fallback argument on all matters concerning change or development in Charleston. When faced with persuasive evidence on why a proposed building, development, or zoning change will be beneficial for area residents, the following statement is inevitably made: “Well, I’ve been on the island for 20 years, and I think (insert argument here).” Or “My family goes back in Charleston three generations, and I believe (thus and so),” at which point the proponent for change is supposed to instinctively respond, “Oh! I didn’t know you had such a long, distinguished history as a Charlestonian! Based on that alone, you must obviously know more about what’s better for Charleston than I do. Let me withdraw this proposal, with apologies for being so presumptuous. Thank you for being such a staunch defender for what is special about this town.”
Whether or not the desired response is given, the implicit reasoning behind the maker’s “ultimate fallback argument” is that the length of one’s domicile in Charleston somehow bestows a greater insight on what is best for the city. Or going a step further, that one’s historical lineage in Charleston is an unassailable trump card in all discussions involving development. In the words of the immortal Jules Winnfield, “Allow me to retort.”
The very concept that the duration of one’s personal or familial residence in a town allows him or her to speak with greater authority on matters of civic importance is a position of extreme hubris. It is an exclusionary mentality that says to all newcomers (with newness being extremely relative), “Your opinion on what is good for this town will never be equal to mine because I have lived here longer than you, or because my family has been here longer than yours.” The concept brings to mind the antiquated tradition of nobility in Europe, where families could claim an acknowledged pre-eminence that was inherited rather than earned. Certainly, the validity of one’s ideas does not have to stand solely on its own merit if it is automatically enhanced by the speaker’s lineage.
The problem with this mentality is that long-time residents do not always have the best ideas and vibrant cities frequently benefit from the contributions of new residents. If this were not the case, our city’s Code of Laws might be defensibly redrafted to allow weighted votes to Charlestonians based on their longevity in the city. If your family went way, way back, your vote would be really important.
The reason why such a ludicrous proposal would never fly is because it matters not one bit how long a person has lived here when important public decisions are being made. Instead, we should be asking: “What is the speaker’s current civic involvement? What authority have they earned to speak on this issue? What is the logic or rationale behind their position? And how many votes can they influence on this matter because of their affiliations, reputation, or credibility?” The answers to each one of these questions bear more relevance when anyone speaks rather than how long they or their family have lived here.
Based on the most recent census data, thousands of new people are coming to our area every year, many with capital, energy, and new ideas. Whether we like it or not, Charleston will be every bit as much theirs as it is ours. Our collective future will be properly determined based on the substance of all of our ideas, not how long any of us have lived here. Anyone who thinks otherwise is living in the past.