Saturday, June 23, 2012

All Politics are Personal -- To Our Collective Demise

I have had a hard time getting back here. For lots of reasons. The end of the school year and finals week are always way to busy. Then add on five writing classes, a failed recall election, the oldest daughter's graduation and graduation party, a quick fishing trip with the boys, a physical and some dental work, two basketball tournaments and suddenly the Summer Solstice has passed us by.

But what has kept me away from the blog is more so my thoughts than my actions. I have had a difficult time getting past the June 5th recall election. As a public employee -- specifically a public school teacher -- I was in full favor of the recall. And when Walker won so handily I knew I needed to accept the fact and move on. I mean "this is what democracy looks like." As depressing as the results were, I had no choice but to guide my emotions to a better place. And yet in getting to this better place it is essential that I do not drift into a world of complacency. And there lies my conundrum.

The political battle that took place in Wisconsin over the past 16 months has worn me out. It has worn out many of us ... On both sides of the political aisle. And yet still, as I accept the Walker win, I must continue to fight for my profession. And my livelihood, and for the betterment of my state.

But I can't help but wonder if there is a better way. Because so much of the battle in front of us involves putting faith in a system that appears more broken by the day.

Everywhere I turn I hear talking heads: On the radio. On the television. On Facebook. On on-line newspapers and especially with the article's corresponding reader comments. What I know, or at least what I feel, is that nobody is listening. Everyone is talking and no one is listening. Or at least we are only listening to other like-minded thinkers. Instead of listening and learning from our neighbors we instead let voices -- hateful voices -- dictate our thinking. And what we are left with is a very false view of each other. And that is just the way the wealthy and powerful like it.

Tip O'Neill famously said "all politics are local." Today, these words should be revised to read: "all politics are personal." In O'Neill's version local citizens sit down and together figure out what works for their locale. In the revised version it is never about ideas but rather about victory and power -- victory and power for those who have access to the government, defeat and humiliation for our democracy. 

Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill share a laugh
Yet O'Neill's words are why I am confused and why since June 5th I have felt a bit helpless. Helpless in trying to figure out how I can accept Walker's win and still fight for what is right. Our state needs to heal, and yet as we begin to move forward out of this mess, we cannot sit back and expect that policies -- or politicians for that matter -- will heal us. But as I dig further into my thoughts, I keep coming back to one specific idea ... that the healing can't be just part of accepting this divide. It is the future not the past that must heal. And this thinking about the future is what has left me wondering: how do we get back to the idea that "all politics are local"?

Since the election my thoughts have stayed central to one single question: "How is it that we have gotten to the point where public school teachers have become the enemy?" I don't ask this with a critical tone, but rather with an honest curiosity. I like my friends in the private sector and I respect what they do; I think they like me; I think they respect me. If my assumptions are true, then what has happened? I always thought, that even with our differences, that we are in this together. Today, I am not so sure.

The public school question is one I am starting to ask outloud ... to my friends, to my colleagues, to my family, and on appropriate occasions even to those who think differently than me. I know this question can be broadened to include all public sector workers, but I want to -- at least initially -- talk to what I know: public schools and public school teachers. I see this question as a starting point for some essential conversations ... and very likely some painful discourse.

Yet I trust my friends and my neighbors. I trust that we can share ideas, and beliefs, and differences. And that we can all leave feeling better about ourselves and our neighbors -- even those who had "Walker" or "Recall Walker" signs in adjoining yards.

I do not believe that politicians or talking heads can take us to a place where trust and respect resonate. We can only get there by getting rid of the noise and start speaking to each other about what matters. I am willing to bet we have a lot more commonalities than we do differences.

I was raised in a place where people got along. It is a placed steeped in conservative values. The neighbors I grew up with were and are good people.  They looked out for each other and they cheered for each other. Wanted good things for their neighbors, for their schools, for their community. They shared common ideas and infrastructures and yet still, many voted differently from each other. But that was okay because eventually they sat and figured things out. And then they had picnics and beers together.

Yet on June 5th many of these same people who I grew up with -- some who I saw as  mentors -- voted for something radically different than what I voted for. And now we sit on completely different sides of the divide.

I struggle to wonder why?