My wife and I celebrated the recent July 4 holiday on Cape Cod as the guests of a dear friend and her extended family. There were pretty impressive fireworks after dark on the evening of July 3. On the morning of the 4th, many families joined in a parade through their neighborhood with lots of red, white, and blue and John Phillip Souza blaring from one of the decorated golf carts equipped with a sound system. Our hosts actually had a large bass drum, three snare drums, and bugles. My wife grabbed a bugle (she was a member of her high school marching band) and I hung a snare drum around my neck and began a beat synchronizing with Souza. It was all great fun. Once the parade was over and we had put our instruments down, I could not help but reflect on how fabulous it was that an earlier generation had begun these traditions (including the world’s largest egg toss competition – 290 people this year – in which my partner and I made it to the final 8!) bringing their community together on Independence Day. During that day, we were all Americans celebrating together and yet, I suspect that if a poll had been taken, we would not all have agreed politically. I also could not help but reflect on a Mass Mutual add on the back page of the NY Times that I had read early that morning that wished readers “Happy Interdependence Day.”
I’m thankful for the courage of the founders 242 years ago who began what became a great experiment in democracy with the signing of the Declaration Of Independence. Ever since, independence has been a very strong and persistent theme in the culture of the United States; but, as one of my close friends in Houston once reminded me, an unguarded strength can become your greatest weakness. I wonder if that is not the case in America today and if a Declaration of Interdependence might not be in order.
The polarization that has been spreading across our country over at least the last 25 years and has reached a fever pitch in the last several years has it roots in our focus on independence and individual freedom. We seem to have lost the necessary sense of how interconnected and interdependent we are and must intentionally be in order to live in a healthy democracy. One of the most basic truths we learn from nature is the interdependence of the natural world. My first introduction to that concept was in seventh grade science, which is the first time I remember hearing the word ecology. We were taught that ecology refers to the study of the relationships and interaction of organisms with each other and with their environment. Ecology also came to be used as another word for a particular ecosystem, like the ecology of a desert or the ecology of a rainforest. I remember being fascinated by the idea that everything is in some way interconnected. Over the years, as first a lawyer, then mediator, and eventually peacemaker, I have come to appreciate that the interconnectedness of our reality includes societies or social systems.
In fact, our cities, counties, states, and nation are systems of interactive systems. Those systems that interact with each other that are more obvious include systems, to name a few, in which we educate our children, enforce our laws, seek and provide medical care, transport our families, ourselves, and products created by our economic systems. Because we live in a democracy, we participate in a political system in which we govern ourselves through representatives we elect when we bother to vote. Each day each of us participates in creating, maintaining, or even shifting these systems through countless decisions about how we relate to each other and choose to follow or disregard the rule of law. In short, we are part of creating, through action or inaction, the systems we often criticize and demand that someone do something about.
Wait! Before you roll your eyes and disconnect, let me give you a couple of examples that I think illustrate what I am talking about. Let’s start with the rule of law. Think of what we tend to take for granted every time we get into a car and drive. What keeps us safe on the road is that almost all of us respect the rule of law when we drive. Like driving the speed limit on the highway… well… OK 5 miles over because we’ve told each other the Highway Patrol won’t bother to stop us unless we are really speeding. So I’ll give you another example.
When was the last time you drove down the wrong side of the road facing oncoming traffic? I have experienced that multiple times in two other countries I spent some time in. Once I was a passenger in a car in Khartoum in which the driver came to a place where the road had a long line of traffic backed up for blocks before an intersection where we would need to turn left. He did not hesitate but immediately used an open median on the boulevard to pull out and turn right in the opposing lanes to race ahead of everyone in the legal but clogged lanes while laughing at oncoming cars honking and swerving to avoid us. When I observed that it would be OK to be late for our next meeting, he laughed again and said, “No worries, everybody does this!” Apparently he was at least partially right, because we had to wait to turn at the intersection behind the six or seven other cars that had done the same thing. Imagine the chaos in your community, if, instead of waiting in a long line of traffic, fellow citizens decided to use the lanes intended for oncoming traffic any time it suited them.
By now you might be objecting that this could never happen because we have laws and our cities, counties, and states train and hire police officers to enforce them. But, what if the voters decide to pass a referendum lowering taxes and then the city finds itself short of cash and therefore unable to hire enough police officers to enforce the laws? You may object again, they would never do that, they would cut someone else’s budget – like in social welfare, or street maintenance, or garbage collection, or the air conditioning at city hall… OK but doesn’t that mean that someone else in this vast complex ecosystem we call a city would be affected?
Which leads me to my next thought: interdependence describes a reality not the quality of relationships and decisions affecting those relationships. That thought leads me to a question. In view of the interdependent nature of society, which democracy do you think would be more healthy: one in which its citizens viewed each other with respect as human beings, even when they disagree on solutions for societal issues, or a democracy in which the citizens despise and disrespect each other based on partisan or ideological differences? I want to explore that question in my next blog post.