In case you didn't notice, the world kind of stopped working today, July 31, 2014. If it's any consolation, it could be even worse. We got a reminder of that this week, as the world marked (not celebrated) the 100th anniversary of World War I, which will always be a low-water mark for mankind's failure in trying to compromise and understand each other, in lieu of mass killing.
On the complete opposite end of the scale, the failure of negotiating was acted out as high comedy and farce by the Philadelphia Phillies and their embattled general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., -- who watched the baseball trading deadline pass as if they were soldiers on the front line of the Great War, scared and huddled in the muck, desperate to avoid the machine gun fire of making an actual move toward overhauling .
War and baseball? Like they say in "The Book of Mormon"...it's...a...metaphor. At various points of the day, a person who cared about both the Phillies AND local, national and international affairs (not a large tribe, but the one I belong to) had to wonder if the Phillies' defeated Amaro was now also Speaker of the U.S. House, or Speaker of the Pennsylvania House or maybe even the leader of Hamas...or Israel. Inaction and paralysis have taken over the whole world.
Let's look at some non-baseball headlines, the ones that actually matter:
-- In Harrisburg, state lawmakers -- fully aware that a) Philadelphia schools may not even open in September without new money, and face massive layoffs and b) locals are totally on board with a purely local tax on cigarettes to keep classes open -- decided to take their political football home for the rest of the summer, and let the chips fall where they may (it's...a...mixed...metaphor!).
-- In Washington, under pressure to resolve a humanitarian refugee crisis on America's southern border, President Obama adopted a wimpishly Republican-sounding policy -- secure the borders and send most of the kids back to the cities in Honduras where they may get raped or murdered. And yet House Republicans, instead of embracing that, kept scaling it back and scaling it back and finally (stop me if you heard this before) decided to take their political football home for the rest of the summer, and let the chips fall where they may.
-- In Philadelphia, the cycle of inanity known as the war on drugs took another downward spin this week with the arrest on multiple corruption counts of six narcotics officers -- the latest example of how those empowered to enforce empty drug policies -- emphasizing arrests over treatment -- breeds not only graft but disrespect and even contempt for law enforcement, which hurts all of us.
-- In the Middle East...sigh. I don't need to rehash how the cynical leaders of both Hamas and the current Israeli government are locked into their own self-defeating cycle of violence that manages to kill hundreds of innocent women and children in Gaza even as it makes Israel less secure than it was before. (In that context, World War I almost makes sense.)
These stories cover a diverse range of topics and a lot of geographical terrain, but they share some things in common.
First and foremost is that compromise -- and peacemaking -- are dead in the 21st Century. With our notion of human progress, you would think that the arts of conciliation, and people getting along, would be ever improving. The exact opposite is true. At home, we're experiencing one of the most gridlocked, incapacitated political seasons in American history, in Washington and also in the more bipartisan states (don't even get started on New Jersey). Abroad, try to imagine an end to the conflicts in Gaza and on the West Bank, in Afghanistan, Syria or Ukraine. It isn't easy if you try.
What's the deal? In some parts of the world -- but especially the United States and Middle East -- we seem to have hit an awkward stage in human development in which half the people fundamentally believe one thing and half the people believe something else, and they are things that cannot be reconciled. In America, half the people believe strongly in God and half the people question religion or do not believe at all; not coincidentally, half the people have a lot of faith in science and academic expertise and half the people believe that all professors are lying Marxist fools. Half the people believe in a government of the people, by the people and for the people -- and half the people believe that government is the mortal enemy. In the Middle East, the fault lines are different -- modernity versus fundamentalism -- but the effect is the same.
In such a world, leaders are not empowered by getting things done. They rise -- and sometimes fall -- on the issue of whether they share the of their people values. A 20th Century leader who "got things done" was a master in the Art of the Deal, in making accommodations with the other side and "bringing home the bacon." In the 21st Century, making a deal with the other party means that you've betrayed your values -- and the values of the people who elected you. In 1964, a member of Congress would go home for summer break bragging on all the bills that he passed; in 2014, the boasts are about the nation-destroying liberal/conservative bills that they stopped.
In foreign affairs....war was terrible in 1914 and it's terrible now, but there is something that's changed. As senseless and stupid as World War I (and its 9 million military deaths) was, at least at the end of the day it was nations, and their diplomats, that hammered out some kind of peace treaty. But in the last generation, the enemy has been redefined as "a terrorist" -- and no nation negotiates with terrorists. There are terrorists, or course (a guy named bin Laden leaps to mind), but in recent years we've seen the term used indiscriminately -- by both the Ukrainians and the Putin-backed separatists, for example -- and interchangeable with "the enemy". When everyone is "a terrorist," there can be no negotiations. The people on the other side now aren't even people. This, the war in Gaza can never end -- nor can America's permanent "war on terror."
World War I was the result of nationalism run amok. The League of Nations and its 2.0 version, the United Nations, were supposed to solve that -- but instead the world has regressed, into tribalism. That is literally the case with Palestine and Israel, in Iraq and Syria, in Ukraine and in the most war-ravaged section of Africa. But look also at how "tribal" the United States of America is becoming. There are many examples, but here's one. Why is there no sense of urgency among lawmakers from central and western Pennsylvania about Philadelphia kids attending schools with Third World levels of staffing? How much of that is because these kids belong to somebody else's tribe?
Except that's not true, not really. The real tragedy of the world's recent downward spiral (as others, like Helen Ubinas here, have noted eloquently) is that the victims are almost always the least-deserving ones -- the innocents, the children. From the slums of Gaza to the overcrowded classrooms of Philadelphia to the grossly inadequate refugee camps for Central Americans on the Texas border, it is always the little kids who are mired in the bloody trenches of the 2014 Great Mess that grown-ups have created.
This is our disgrace and embarrassment...but maybe our way out. If the suffering of these helpless children doesn't force us to look for a way to break the circle, nothing will. A lot of Beltway pundit types like to pretend that compromise is a mere matter of willpower, but it's a lot harder than that. I honestly don't know how to compromise with people who believe that climate change is a hoax, that homosexuality is a mortal sin, or that Barack Obama may truly be the Antichrist -- nor do you (and feel free to substitute your pet peeve about liberals). But even so, there have to be some shared values left -- and maybe the idea that all kids have a right to grow up unfettered by bombs or bullets, in safe and secure homes and in schools where the poor have the same access to learning as the wealthy.
If we can just agree on that basic, bare-bones definition of humanity and work backwards, surely we can get something done. If we agree, for example, that the kids in Philadelphia should all have a school nurse and a librarian and enough teachers to have less than 40 (or, heck, 30!) kids in a classroom, adults have to be smart enough find some way to pay for that. If we agree that 50,000 to 100,000 Central American kids should live somewhere where they won't be gunned down or sexually assaulted, surely a nation like America that aspires to greatness will find a way to guarantee that this gets done. And once we find that common ground, maybe we'll remember how to actually talk about the other things, and even the meaning of a lost word called "diplomacy."
But it starts with something this simple. Remembering that they're not Gaza kids, or Honduras kids, or North Philly kids. They're my kids, your kids, our kids. Maybe we'll look back on August 1, 2014, as the day that we started taking care of them.