Thomas Edison was more than just an inventor. He was a card-carrying progressive who shocked his contemporaries with his atheism as much as his views on social reform. A fair wage, worker’s comp, and suffrage were all causes he supported at the turn of the last century. His disdain for free-market capitalism was as deep as any socialist’s.
West Orange, where he lived, worked, and died, has a strange relationship with Edison. We lionize him but brush over his politics. Instead, the Wizard has been reduced to a hollowed-out mascot for a fairly conservative suburb.
Now, I know there are plenty of residents who would be appalled to hear their hometown described as “fairly conservative,” especially after all the marching they did last summer. The progressivism that West Orange engages in is tokenism. We fly Pride flags, hold BLM marches, and we elect candidates of diverse backgrounds to our town council and board of education. And we think our work is done.
Meanwhile, participation in local government is embarrassingly low, we allow politicians to serve longer than first-time voters have been alive, and there is a culture of nepotism that waters down the checks and balances. The small chorus of residents who follow local politics are dismissed as “complainers” who stand in the way of progress. The only issue that riled up sleepy constituents this year was an online petition to ban gas-powered leaf blowers. Conflicts of interests, tax abatements to wealthy developers, questionable government appointments. No big deal.
Last week, news broke of a lawsuit filed by Prism Capital Partners against Mayor Rob Parisi over a plan to build a movie studio for Whoopi Goldberg’s company. Once again, residents reacted predictably. Do you know how many jobs a movie studio would bring to the township? There was little concern over whether the allegations were true, no alarm over the appointment of Goldberg’s cohort as chairman of a fabricated commission, and no debate about whether our elected officials participate in a pattern of behavior when it comes to redevelopment plans. Why? I can only conclude that residents don’t care about corruption as long as they expect to gain from it. A new library? A movie studio run by a celebrity?
True progressive action is happening in the towns next door. Montclair, Glen Ridge, and Maplewood are all passing strict green legislation. West Orange, on the other hand, can’t even pass a resolution establishing a shade tree commission because protecting street trees is apparently too polarizing here.
Edison’s approach to life was informed by his inventions. “How can you get any new thing without experiment?” he said. “You never know until you try, in government or in mechanics.”
The progressivism most residents partake in — with their Biden signs and blacked-out social media pages — is only a performance if we can’t elect candidates that will push for a progressive agenda. We need term limits, nepotism laws, green legislation, and support for small businesses instead of wealthy developers. The good news, this is an election year. Voters have a chance to make me eat crow and turn the township into a place Edison would be proud to call home.