Thursday, January 20, 2011

Don't Make Me Stop the Car!

When my brother and I were growing up, we tussled as any pair of siblings might. I remember once when the two of us rode with our mom on the spacious bench seat of her beautiful baby blue and white 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser.

We squabbled back and forth over something as important as who ate the last Popsicle, with counterpoints as erudite as, “Did not!” and “Did too!” until she got sick of it and directed us both to keep quiet, which we did. With arms crossed, chins out, and jaws set, we established a battle free zone for her sake.

But then my brother, God love him, stretched his fingers under his arm and across the space between us to my skinny upper arm (where my triceps would have been), and gave me a hard pinch.

It was on! Where we had exchanged inane pre-adolescent barbs ‘til kingdom come (as mom would say), we now engaged in full tilt physical war. I think she stopped the car…

Could be that’s why it’s so hard to feel confident about the newest claims from our lawmakers in Washington, D.C. With contrite expressions, representatives from both parties hit the airwaves this week with proclamations of a new way of business in our nation’s Capitol - cross-party collaboration. They feel sure they’re going to be more successful this way. Hallelujah and amen.

Why, they’re going to quit being rude and combative with each other. They will even sit next to each other! My oh my! What big boys and girls!

Okay, okay, I’ll tone down the attitude. I want to be sarcastic about our lawmakers and their resolutions to be nicer to each other. It’s easier and yes, more fun to be mocking and cynical about their late but well-meaning declarations. But someone has to provide them a role model.

Honestly, I applaud them for stepping up and taking responsibility for the acrimony they have created. They have, in effect, confessed to being vitriolic and venomous. They must have made themselves miserable, along with the rest of us who depend on them for thoughtful leadership and support.

In fact, I appreciate their symbolic gesture of mixed seating for the State of the Union address later this month. (Though it begs the question of why some felt compelled to proceed with the equally symbolic repeal of the Health Care Reform Bill when in their magnanimous mode only moments before, they acknowledged that the whole bill shouldn’t be scrapped. Specific elements are valuable as written and enacted; other elements should be reviewed, tossed out, or improved.)

In the interest of cross-party collaboration, they should dispense with party seating altogether. A rotation of seating might be enlightening and productive for them. This week, let’s seat them alpha by last name. Next week, alpha by state. After that, brown eyes - blue eyes. Anything to get them out of their packs and into the true mix of the needs and interests represented there.

Maybe if our political parties weren’t so well-insulated from each other, they might listen to and learn from each other. In their long-standing segregated practice, too many seem not to listen to anything once the party line is established. Like the penguins in Antarctica, they close ranks, backs to the storm, and wait out the winter of intellectual challenges.

It’s easy to see that when they return to their well-worn, still–warm, and familiar seats, they’re more likely to return to their well-established and unproductive custom of group-think. Common sense and human nature tell us that getting out of the old neighborhood is one of the best ways to get out of an old habit. It’s too easy to blend in, vote with the pack, and avoid controversy and even retribution, when the party is closed around you.

It’s darn near impossible to break from the pack when you’re surrounded by the pack.

It doesn’t seem likely that the seating arrangement planned for the State of the Union will endure beyond its ephemeral symbolism. Too bad.

I hope I’m wrong, but my guess is that ultimately, someone will reach across the aisle and pinch the other guy.  Congressman Anthony Weiner, Democrat, New York 5th District, came close with the tone of his "half time report" during the Health Care repeal debate. 

Soon we’ll have another partisan battle in the hundred year war, replete with volleys of, “He started it!” “Did not!” and “Did too!”

I just hope we don’t have to stop the car, or the country, for it.