Devil's Head Diary

Political Playground


Fortunately, in our little corner of the world we are immune to the most vile and incendiary campaign rhetoric. Sure, there are instances where messages reflect the pervasive incivility that seems to infect the national ethos, but by and large our local elections are relatively free of violent invective.

Recently I had the opportunity to have a long, rewarding talk with a friend with some (in my opinion) rather radical political views. This exchange brought back memories of that brief period of time shortly after 9/11, when political conversation could be civil. It didn’t last long but it was a time when ideas could be expressed, debated without insult, and people could still part as friends. I am sure there were put-downs and barbs that we could have exchanged, but my friend and I chose to squelch those impulses.

In today’s national political climate, restraint in expressing a policy opinion has been consigned to the dustbin of yesteryear. It seems that the pervasive campaign goal is to intensify feelings of grievance against and fear of those who hold divergent views. Listening has gone out of style.

But it is important to listen. The hardest lesson I ever learned back in the day when I was organizing local campaigns on the other side of the bridges, was that the only elections we lost were lost because we failed to listen carefully to what the other team was saying. Listening is an addictive habit. I listen to all the news, study campaign literature, and try to ignore messaging that echoes the intense power battles fought on every elementary school playground.

In my experience as a principal of vice at an elementary school, I was the main referee for an endless stream of playground-blame-game-battles. As I was reading through the tidal wave of post-primary message refinement, I was reminded of Joey, a memorable first-grader, who was delivered to my office for apparently instigating a bit of recess fisticuffs.

Joey was still fighting mad but unscathed. The other kid not so much unscathed, but exhibiting no life-threatening injuries. I asked what happened and Joey had an instant, angry reply.

“He called me a name!”

I was surprised because the damaged kid was one of those rare kids who was uniquely fair in his dealings with others. He had been in my kindergarten class, and, to my knowledge, this was his first trip to the behavior-correction office. He wasn’t one to get into arguments, much less fights.

The interrogation proceeded with “What did he say?”

Joey fidgeted uneasily, stared at the floor and finally blurted, “Well, he looked at me!”

Prompting another query, “How did he look at you?”

It took even longer for Joey to formulate a sniveling answer to that question. “Well, he looked at me like, like, he was thinking about maybe calling me a name someday. So, I hit him!”

This exemplifies the level of maturity and deflection of blame that characterizes the preponderance of political messaging that I have been diligently plowing through this on-going election season.

However, I do have a few complaints about candidates who rail about an issue in one video capture and in their next video-op are contradicting their previous message. Most of these messages center on the lack of election security. On the other hand, the fact that these pols hold office forces me to reconsider my thinking on this issue. Could there be truth in their belief? Surely, they would not be in office if there hadn’t been some form of vote manipulation.

On the other hand, do these elected officials suffer from serious memory lapses, or do they have compelling new information that has caused a complete reversal of belief? Recognizing that this tendency to flip-flop is exactly why I would be a poor candidate for office, my personal political stance is as substantial and stable as a dandelion puff. When asked to offer an opinion face to face, I will tell you what I sincerely believe at that moment, but I make no guarantees that I would tell you the same thing next week, tomorrow, or even an hour later. Like Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella, when I intercept new information coming down the pike, I just apologetically mutter, “Never mind.”

However, it really rots my socks when the messaging from those who aspire to fulfill a role of civil service behave so uncivilly. Much of the constant stream of campaign communication seems based on Joey’s defense philosophy: blame your opponent for any pre-retaliatory incitement, and just be sure to get in the first blow. Isn’t it about time for us to grow up and abandon the Joey mindset of playground politics?

I think that Walt Kelly got it right in his Pogo poster celebrating the first annual observance of Earth Day. In this political environment the message is clear, concise and true: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Award-winning columnist Carolyn Wiley lives quietly, for the most part, in Longbranch.