Picking Up the Sticks

My grandfathers, when they were just boys in the late part of the 19th century, played some version of a game called Pick Up Sticks with their family and friends.  In their day, it was likely known as Spillicans or Jackstraws, but the premise was the same as when they introduced the game to me a half-century later.

jackstraws

Their sticks were almost surely made of wood, resembling long toothpicks—or perhaps of straw.  Mine, thanks to the unbridled proliferation of plastic in the mid-1950’s, were a colourful array of synthetic sticks, identical except for colour.

The game was simple in concept, difficult in execution.  The sticks were held in one player’s hand, then released to spill on the playing surface in a loose, randomly-jumbled pile.  Any sticks falling separately, away from the pile, were removed before play began.

The first player then attempted to extricate a stick from the pile without moving any other stick.  If successful, (s)he tried to remove a second, and a third.  Each player’s turn ended when another stick was inadvertently moved in the attempt.

In some variations of the game—certainly in the one I played with my grandfathers—sticks of different colours were worth different values.  The single black stick was the most valuable; the most plentiful yellow sticks were worth the least.

I loved when I beat them at the game, basked in the praise they lavished upon me—having no idea then, of course, that my winning was their doing.

Grandpa-and-Grandson

The game helped to develop and test a variety of skills for all who played it:  hand-eye coordination, visual discrimination, spatial relations, and visual-motor dexterities, to name a few.  And patience, of course, and attention to the task at hand.  Every player had a hawk-eye trained on the pile during every other player’s move, watching for (perhaps hoping for) the slightest movement of other sticks.

I haven’t played the game in years.  But I’ve been thinking about it lately as I read about and listen to the challenges facing the legislators we have elected to govern us in our western world.  What a tangled web of sticks they face!

A partial list of those challenges, often directly contradictory to each other, includes:

0 embracing globalism vs. defending sovereignty,

0 pursuing free trade vs. safeguarding home-grown industries,

0 growing the economy vs. protecting the environment,

0 reducing national debt vs. increasing spending on social programmes,

0 encouraging immigration vs. protecting the homeland, and

0enhancing security vs. increasing civil liberties.

I envision such challenges, and countless more, lying jumbled on the table in front of our beleaguered politicians, like a nightmarish game of Pick Up Sticks, daring them to make a move.

Deal with it! the supporters of any particular issue might demand.

protestors

It’s complicated! the legislators might reply, fearful of the repercussions they will face if, by acting, they disturb any of the intermingled sticks—sticks representing issues of equal importance to others of their constituents.

Approve that pipeline!  We need it to move our bitumen.  The economy is at risk!

Stop supporting the fossil-fuel industry!  The environment is at risk!

Can one of those sticks be moved without jostling the other?

Lower taxes to encourage business to spend!  That will expand the economy!

Stop cutting back on the social safety net!  People need help!

You’re increasing debt to unsustainable levels.  It’s a ticking bomb!

With which stick do legislators start?  And will they then be able to get at the others, too?

Fix our immigration system!  We need skilled workers coming in to the country!

Keep those people out!  They’re taking away our jobs!

Is it even possible to handle both those sticks?

consequences

Scott Fitzgerald, the flawed but immensely-talented American author, once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Opposed ideas might be defined as those which are not synonymous, but nor are they directly contradictory.

Trying to manage contradictory thoughts or values, on the other hand—or having to synthesize them—can be so upsetting that people who are possessed of two (or more) will often eschew acting on any of them.  This state of mind, referred to as cognitive dissonance, is why most of us seek to avoid situations where it is likely to arise.

Noah Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics, a self-professed anarchist and human rights activist, has written, “Most people…can’t tolerate too much cognitive dissonance.  I don’t want to deny that there are outright liars…[but] I don’t think that’s the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception.”

If he’s right, how can we legitimately expect our elected officials to get it right in the face of so many contradictory realities, and so many contradictory demands from people who have come down on one side or the other of those issues?  Game or not, it must be a nightmare.

My grandfathers have long since passed away.  I cannot remember whatever happened to my game of Pick Up Sticks, long gone as well.  But I do know that I have no desire to play it on the public stage, and I do have some sympathy for those whose job it is to clean up the mess.

clean-up-your-mess

Tossing the sticks down is easy, but picking them up is difficult, nigh impossible, indeed.

Standing Your Ground

Over the past twenty years, the political landscape in many of the so-called free, democratic countries of the world has become more contentious, more rancorous, more partisan than I can ever remember it.

That’s not to say that the notion of rough-and-tumble politics is a new phenomenon, for it assuredly is not.  One need only read the history books to learn about such scandalous activities as, for example: the Profumo Affair, the Zinoviev Letter, or the Suez Crisis in Britain; the Teapot Dome Scandal, the Iran-Contra Affair, or the Watergate crisis in the US; and the Pacific Scandal, the Munsinger Affair, or the Airbus Affair in Canada.

nixon

The playing of hardball politics has been with us for a long time.

Many of the examples cited here occurred long before my time as a mostly-passive observer of the political scene, so I have no perspectives on them that haven’t already been hashed and rehashed by pundits more astute than I.  Nevertheless, I think such scandals were more the exception than the rule—although I concede that may be more a commentary on my naïveté than an accurate assessment.

Today, however, regardless of whether or not political scandals roil the waters upon which sail the ships of state, there seems to be an especially bitter tone to the back-and-forth among the various political parties in each of these three nations, and even between the factions within those parties.  It seems that no one is prepared to listen to anyone anymore, so desperate are they to trumpet their own messages.

Stand your ground! is the order of the day.

Sixty-five years ago, in 1953, fighting in the vicious three-year war between North and South Korea—which also involved hundreds of thousands of troops from China, the US, and other allied nations—was halted with an armistice.  A demilitarized zone was created as a buffer between the two Koreas, and no formal peace treaty was ever signed to formally end the war.  In all the time since, both countries have fiercely guarded their borders on each side of the DMZ.  Neither side, until very recently, has even bothered to hold talks with the other, relying instead on the issuing of provocative, aggressive threats against each other.

Yet, earlier this year, for a host of reasons important to both countries, their leaders decided to sit down with each other to talk—and to listen.  That, in itself, was a notable and praiseworthy endeavour.  Even more significant, however, was the location they chose—the demilitarized zone that keeps them apart.

korean leaders

After decades of standing their ground, the two men stepped forward, across their respective borders, to stand face-to-face on common ground, the DMZ.

Is there not a lesson here for the politicians who govern us?  The Korean peninsula, by some accounts, is the most dangerous place on earth, a tinderbox where even the slightest spark could re-ignite the long-ago war—but this time with even more disastrous consequences.  Nuclear consequences.

Still, the two Korean leaders managed to take that step on to common ground, even though the precarious circumstances in which they find themselves are infinitely more perilous—infinitely more—than any found in the halls of Congress or Parliament.

So why, I ask, can our elected representatives not do the same thing, ensconced in their much safer environs?  Why can they not forego their squabbling over issues that history will consign to the dustbin, and focus on finding solutions to the real problems confronting us?

Looming environmental disaster.  Decaying infrastructure.  Racial and religious intolerance.  Poverty and inequality.  Spiralling debt.  Food and water security.  To name but a few.

No one knows at this point where the discussions that have begun between the two Koreas will lead, whether to lasting peace or to a resumption of hostilities.  And no one knows, either, how successful a coordinated, bi-partisan, multi-national effort to address the world’s problems might be.

But, just as those two leaders have tried to find common ground across the border that divides them, so, too, must our elected officials do the same thing.  They must try to understand each other, and the opinions each side holds dear, rather than labelling each other as enemies of the people.

parliament

In 1989, in his acclaimed book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote:  Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.  Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

To all our elected officials, I would add this:  Stop standing your ground, look for common ground, and have the courage to take the first step forward.

The ensuing steps will be easier.

Tyrants

Herewith, four definitions—

  • sociopathic: personality disorder manifesting extreme antisocial attitudes and behaviour, and a lack of conscience;
  • psychopathic: chronic mental disorder manifesting amoral and antisocial behaviour…extreme egocentricity…an inability to feel guilt;
  • psychotic: severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are impaired to the point where contact is lost with external reality; and
  • zealous: fanatical and uncompromising pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals.

Tyrants the world over, since the dawn of history, have displayed one or more of these characteristics in dealings with their contemporaries.  A catalogue of infamous names might illustrate the point.  Caligula; Genghis Khan; Attila the Hun; Ivan the Terrible; Robespierre; Stalin; Hitler; Pol Pot; Amin—all deserving of the wonder, fear, and loathing they inspire even today.  Under their regimes of terror, countless people suffered and died as a consequence of their perverse aspirations.

tyrant

Interestingly, this small list of tyrants contains no names of leaders of the so-called civilized world.  There is, for example, no Cromwell, no Elizabeth I, no Bolivar, no Lincoln, no Churchill, no Gandhi, no de Gaulle, no Roosevelt, no Mandela—no one, in fact, who is thought to represent the ideals we enlightened peoples cherish.  Ideals such as liberty, peace, prosperity, and good government.

But could any of these worthies have been tyrants, too?  Benevolent tyrants, perhaps, pressing forward their own ambitions, convincing us of their correctness?  And do such tyrants exist in our world today?

We live on a planet fraught with peril, both in our local communities and globally.  Granted, many dangers result from natural phenomena—earthquakes, floods, droughts, pollution, and epidemics.  And for the most part, there is a cooperative, international effort to cope with these.

Too many of the perils, however, are brought on by foolish actions in the face of consequences we know to be severe, perhaps even catastrophic—

  • the deliberate despoiling of our environment and atmosphere, knowing such actions are unsustainable;
  • antagonistic expansion of national borders, provoking states of war and massive displacements of people;
  • premeditated acts of terror, often visited upon innocents; and
  • a relentless, worldwide drive to acquire ever greater wealth, enriching the few at the expense of the many.

Insanity, it has been said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  To that I would add:  insanity is purposely doing something in the face of overwhelming evidence that the outcome will be ruinous; insanity is wielding power over others, for our own benefit, without regard for the effects it may have on them; insanity is living on a small, blue orb floating in a vast interstellar sea—a lifeboat, so to speak—and deliberately engaging in actions that will inevitably capsize it.

And insanity is the purview of tyrants.

Tyrants pursue their ends without regard for truth, careless of consequences, without attention to moral imperatives that govern most of us, never doubting the rectitude of their delusions.  Uncompromising in their beliefs, they seek to foist them on the world they inhabit.  As do sociopaths, psychopaths, psychotics, and zealots.

But an interesting thing about tyrants is that their actions are judged, not objectively, but through ethnocentric filters we all employ.  We hold, many of us, a belief that the groups to which we belong—be they racial, religious, gender-based, age-related, economic, nationalistic, political—are superior to groups to which other people belong.  It is all too tempting, therefore, to label the motives and actions of other groups’ leaders as tyrannical, even if suspiciously similar to those of our own leaders.

Tyranny, it might be said, is in the eye of the beholder.

aphorism_by_aesop_ancient_greek_poet_and_fabulist_any_cg1p45800971c_th

With respect to the first list of tyrants referenced earlier, it is likely that consensus exists among much of the world’s peoples as to the evil of their deeds.  Most of us share an abhorrence of certain actions—genocide, for example, or murder and rape.  These are obvious and odious.  But what of the smaller, less noticeable acts of tyranny we put up with?  What are the checks and balances in place to restrain the leaders to whom we grant governing power?

When I look at the state of our planet, and at the people who have brought us to where we are, I wonder if they are all not tyrants of a sort.  Whether elected, appointed, or self-installed, do our leaders act in the best interests of us, the people?  Or do they pursue their idiosyncratic crusades, heedless of potentially harmful outcomes?  Are there fifty, or more, shades of grey in the spectrum between insanity and rationality?  Between tyranny and altruism?  And if so, where on the scale do our current leaders fall?

I despair of the answers when I observe the follies they subject us to.

Benevolent tyrants are tyrants, still.