Field Notes from the Valley of Fear


valleyoffearOver the past five years living in Alamosa, Colorado, I have collected a few observations about what could commonly be called “small town politics.” Beyond any individual detail on any single issue, I have begun to notice a pervasive, underlying barrier between what people privately believe and how they publicly behave. I have come to name this corrosive phenomenon in the San Luis Valley as “the Valley of Fear.”

In the Valley of Fear, too often people are afraid to stand up for what they believe in. They sense that something is wrong, it tugs at their heart, it gnaws at their mind, but they are overwhelmed by the prevailing sense that it is simply better to keep their heads down and lay low. So they stay silent or whisper quietly; their true beliefs are conveyed in hushed tones and in quiet corners even as their public persona aligns with the existing power structure – the legislators, the administrators, the boards and the business moguls.

In the Valley of Fear, it is totally reasonable for people to do this. They have a keen sense of deference for the hand that feeds them, albeit meager rations. “I wouldn’t want to risk my job” they say. “I need to maintain my grant funding” they say. “My relative holds an important position” they say. “I might be branded as a troublemaker” they say. “I rely on support from the business community” they say. “Look at what happened when someone stood up last time” they say.

People see the sparse economic opportunities that exist in the region and make the calculated decision to stay quiet even as they see wrongdoing, even as they suffer. After all, it could be much worse if the nail that stands up is hammered back down. There is a certain wisdom in not throwing stones in glass houses – even if the glass ceilings are far too restrictive. One must take care not to burn bridges, even if they lead to inequity and injustice. This is the predominant paradigm in the Valley of Fear.

And when it comes to challenging such a system, support is often a private wink and a nod, a remark made in confidence, an anonymous note of congratulations. “Thanks for speaking up.” “You are an inspiration for us all.” “Don’t take this lying down.” “I am glad someone finally did that.” Or just “it’s about time somebody sued those bastards.” This is the sound of a dissenting inner monologue in stark contrast to the outward display of conformity. But once the tides have turned, once the coast is clear, the people of this Valley of Fear are prepared to get involved and say, “I always supported you.” And they did, though effectively in secret.

How difficult it must be for these many people, I imagine, to live in such a state of compromise, of calculated temperance, of measured circumspection. I have thought about being such a person on occasion and even made a failed attempt at such for a passing moment, but apparently it’s not in my DNA to succumb to these very palpable societal pressures as a more cautious man might.

I have discovered a precious few who are also willing to stand up for what they believe in, regardless of the risk of ostracism, irrespective of the odds, because it is necessarily right to do so. I can only hope that such bold acts by such sagacious actors, however foolish in their bravery, however upsetting to the prevailing establishment, echo across this Valley of Fear and let others know that it is worth standing up to be heard, fully and truly, in this one life we will ever author as our own. For me, it has made all the difference.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more on what happened when this commentary was submitted to the Valley Courier, please see: Valley Courier Refused to Publish Critical Op-Ed, Other Publications Did