Sunday, July 05, 2009

Getting The Buzz Right For The Mayor's Election

There was a tree in my backyard that’s looked dead for some time, but I loathe to cut down anything, so until it became obvious that not even one small leaf would appear on it, I was content to leave it alone.

But finally, it seemed like I had no choice, so I cranked up the chain saw which sliced through the dried wood in a matter of seconds. It was those same few seconds that saw a horde of bumblebees swarm around me since they were living in the hollowed out center at the bottom of the tree.

They stung me a few times, but after 15 minutes of combat, after being chased across the back yard, the deed was done. Finally, there were no more bees, and I could get back to productive work in the yard. .

Forgive the Monday metaphor, but I was thinking that maybe this upcoming special city mayor’s election needs to be the equivalent of cutting down the deadwood in our political system and eliminating the buzzing bees that distract this city from its serious problems.

New Politics

They take the form of people who are willing to put their own personal political interests ahead of the overall public good. There is no issue immune from their impulse to divide us on the basis of race, geography and political philosophy if it is to their political benefit.

We saw a naked form of it during the most horrendous legislative session in modern history in Nashville this year, and we fear that we are now on the brink of seeing it take form in the special election for Memphis mayor.

Already, there are calculations being done by candidates whose success is based on dividing us enough that they can win with a small percentage of the vote. There are candidates developing campaign plans aimed at only one race. There are candidates whose primary strategies are vitriol and venom.

We live in an age where the ends justify the means, and nowhere is this more apparently than politics. There’s never been a question that politics is a contact sport, but these days, it’s often as much about destroying as campaigning. It’s more about ad hominem attacks rather than substantive policy debate.

Beekeepers Needed

Before you think we’ve succumbed to a fatal bout of naivete, we believe it is time to demand more of our candidates and to require more of their campaigns. Last week, the incumbent congressman was called an asshole by the outgoing city mayor and questions from a narcissistic talk show host to the county mayor featured the deprecatory word for African-Americans tossed in for shock value. And to think, the real campaigning hasn’t even begun yet.

So often, Memphis politics is like the dead tree in my back yard. It looks like it’s serving a purpose and that things are all right…until you look closer. Then you learn that it’s really not healthy at all and that it mainly attracts folks who sting first and ask questions later.

Memphis politics seems to have more than its share of bumblebees, and in the end, the victim is the kind of civic discourse that is needed about this troubled city. Instead, aided and abetted by the news media’s penchant to focus on personalities and fuel conflict, the buzz is so loud that it drowns out the serious debate that every campaign should pledge itself to contribute to.

Most of all, listening to the degraded public discussion that passes for political debate has become as much of our lives as the Mississippi River. It helps create the reputation of Memphis as a city at war with itself. Unfortunately, it’s the message that we are most effectively sending to the rest of the country at the exact time that we need to be attracting more people.

Finding A Fresh Start

Lunch at Soul Fish revived my spirit today. It wasn’t just the catfish. More to the point, there was the Project Green Fork notice that punctures any notion that Memphis is stuck in time. The program to create “green” restaurants – Soul Fish is proudly one of them – is proof positive that things are changing here and that it’s happening at the grassroots, thanks to its creator Margot McNeely.

In addition, the restaurant was jammed with families – and with lots of kids. Parents talked across tables to each other about children who were visiting and circling. They were black and white families, and it was clear that no one cared.

It’s a scene we see played out all over Memphis. We are inextricably tied to each other in this fascinating place at this challenging moment, and in the end, despite all the political provocateurs, we have much more to join us than to divide us.

That’s why post-Herenton City Hall should be about more than who can win an election. It should be about who can deliver the fresh start we need. It should be about who can open up a progressive era in which we talk candidly about our problem, that we face them together and that we refuse to allow candidates to play to our dysfunction.

Therapeutic Answers

Awhile back, I was talking with a psychiatrist friend about dysfunctional families and the difficulty that its members have in breaking away from the abusiveness and antagonism that are their constant companions. Ironically, in the midst of a destructive relationship, members fight change.

The problems are twofold: one, the family members think all families are like theirs, and two, the dysfunction becomes familiar and comfortable even if it is hostile and painful.

In this environment, communications are raw and attacks are common to the point that family members can no longer interpret each other accurately or react proportionally. Instead, every one is forced to take sides in every disagreement as every issue escalates into a controversy that threatens to burst the family at its seams.

As he talked, I thought that he could just as easily been describing Memphis, so we asked: What does someone do to change the dysfunction?

Correcting Course

He said that it’s not easy or quick. The people who use the dysfunction to have power resist change the most. They immediately feel threatened and set up roadblocks and obstacles. We thought immediately of certain politicians.

If people are serious about changing things, he said, there are several things they have to do:

1) They have to realize that one person’s not in charge of another person’s life, and every one has the right to express their opinions free from attack;

2) They have to quit fighting old battles, because there are no winners;every one loses;

3) They have to identify what they want to happen and then change their behavior to make it happen; and

4) They have to refuse to respond to the dysfunction or engage in the same old combative ways of communicating.

Taking The Step

Most of all, for change to happen, it requires constant attention to positive behaviors and improvements in relationships, until the people who try to perpetuate the dysfunction find no reward or power in it.

We assume it’s asking too much that this city mayor’s campaign could be our first steps toward the kind of healthy civic culture that lends itself to productive answers to the challenges that face Memphis.


Zippy the giver said...

I bet if Myron, as acting mayor, kicks major butt for real transparency and real accountability in areas that matter in addition to blocking criminals from holding office or voting, and election reform and accountability, that he would win by a landslide mandate vote.
One piece of advice when chopping dead trees, BRING THE BUG SPRAY AND USE IT FIRST.

Anonymous said...

Hey! is soul fish hosting a hairington retirement part Friday nite?

Anonymous said...

This is one fine article... so sad, but so true. Thank you, and let's hope the right people read it!

packrat said...

You're right about one thing, sc. You ARE asking too much, in this city at least.

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