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Thursday, October 17, 2013
Thirty years ago, my husband Steve and I worked with local organizations all over Uganda trying to end a civil war. Visiting in a remote, bleak area with a long-experienced development worker, we asked him what characteristics set apart local groups that were successful long-term from those which faded and disappeared.
His succinct answer: The best groups have a tree. This was an area with very few trees, so perhaps he meant that they competed well? No, he said, having a tree meant having an agreed place and time to meet, an agreed process, a way of discussing issues and resolving conflicts, so they got things done.
The U.S. Congress is looking like a group without a tree: constant disputes over whether and when and how to meet, inability to discuss issues or resolve conflicts, and a consequent inability to get anything done.
It recalled a colleague’s insight: Transitions are the times when rules are not agreed upon. In that sense, we are probably in a time of political transition, which made me wonder whether perhaps one transition is a generational one. The veterans in Washington had ways of working with each other, reaching compromises, in the common interest of getting things done. The tea party and other recent arrivals pride themselves not on collaborating, but instead on holding out for what they want, regardless of consequences.
They look for a small advantage in perpetual confrontation. Indeed, they extend the confrontation to those who seem to be members of the same party. Members of both parties look for ways to evade rules, to game the system, to appeal to judges and lawyers, to use power to defeat others rather than to meet society’s needs.
This, in turn, makes me think of the changes in how children play. In my youth, parents sent children “out to play,” and we preferred to play in places of our own choosing, without adult supervision.
We rarely played formal games, but invented games out of what was around us. This meant that we had to work out ways to play together, ways to decide on rules, and ways to resolve disagreements.
We developed a sense of fairness that was finely honed, dependent in part on the recognition that each of us could be the winner or the loser at another moment, so we wanted the game to be fair and fun for all.
Perhaps the tea party new arrivals grew up instead with organized play dates, games with written rules and coaches and referees — adults to appeal to.
The doctrine of fairness clearly holds no interest for them, nor does getting things done. They seem to lack empathy altogether and exultantly sabotage the needs of the needy to the enrichment of the already-rich. Somehow, people are persuaded to vote for the tea party candidates, even when their platform and voting patterns are against the clear interests of their constituents.
But if they were like this as children, my friends and I would have refused to play with them.
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