Saturday, September 18, 2004

Like Sports? Well, Use What You've Learned From Them Now!

Many a wag has observed that sports has replaced Christianity as the dominant religion in America today. Whatever the truth may be about that, we do need to learn to listen to our interests as individuals, and apply them to other arenas of life. We weren't designed by Nature to break our lives into a few big boxes or pigeonhole coops carrying such labels as "work", "home", "hobbies", "family", or "relationships". First of all, it takes too much energy to keep the divisions in places, because the walls tend to collapse whenever we're not paying attention. Second, it's not natural, and therefore not very practical: we short-change ourselves through compartmentalizing things. On the other hand, you'll find that whenever you allow one area of your life--what you've learned in it and the talent or insight that you bring to it--to inform and enrich another area, everything benefits and there's a lot less conflict in general. Just try it and see where your experience leads you.

So, what does this have to do about sports? Well, let's say you're a sports fan to some extent or another: what have you learned or observed from watching American team sports--baseball, football, basketball, that sort of thing? Have you noticed, perhaps, that the successful teams are not always the ones with the most money, the most talented individual players, or the coach with the "genius" label attached to him? Maybe you've also wondered why power and violence don't seem to ensure victory for professional teams: even in football (where you'd think that violence and domination would be the recipe for success), the Raiders lose every year while teams with more speed, grace, and smarts win. Have you ever asked yourself what kind of synergy or chemistry goes into the formula for victory? It does seem that, in sports, there is more to success than mere appearance--the team that seems dominant "on paper" rarely manages to win the day on the field.

Now let your mind wander from the playing field over to the political landscape--it's right there, just outside the stadium (indeed, sometimes the politicians themselves step into the playing field for a little TV time). Is the current political contest a boxing match--a battle of two isolated individuals with competing agendas and contrasting backgrounds--or is it a matchup of two teams? Ask either major candidate, and he will tell you that it's more the latter, and that his team is more rounded, more experienced, more capable than his opponent's. As much as we are conditioned by experience to question any politician's blustering claim, this one's worth exploring further.

President Bush has a team, comprised of expert businessmen who are very good at entering a situation with a well-defined profit motive and executing a plan designed to maximize their profits. Their resourcefulness, ambition, and energy in this kind of endeavor are truly impressive: Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and the corporate entities that support and benefit from their efforts are extraordinarily effective at generating insular financial wealth and power in the most unlikely and seemingly adverse circumstances. However, the profit goes to themselves and their supporters rather than to the government or the people; and it's kind of one dimensional, like having a baseball team with a lineup that averages five or six runs a game but a pitching staff that gives up seven. None of these leaders has any military experience that would qualify him for directing a war--let alone a war of occupation with its concomitant dangers and inevitable reversals (a glance at Roman history or the Napoleonic era would be enough to convince anyone as to these realities). And so, lots of people die--horribly and needlessly, and the American economy is stretched to the breaking point while the leaders of this enterprise build gargantuan nest eggs for themselves and their funding supporters.

Perhaps it is necessary to allow a team with somewhat more internal diversity and chemistry a chance at managing this situation. Of course, we don't know who will be filling John Kerry's cabinet, if he is elected. Perhaps it is time for Kerry to give us an idea of how he would put his team together, and what kind of players he will be calling upon to start a late-inning rally come January for the American nation. If he truly believes in the team concept of government, then he will see the advantage in publicly announcing his intentions regarding key members of his would-be cabinet. Would Wes Clarke, an experienced military leader, make a more effective Secretary of Defense than Don Rumsfeld, who has proven his business skills in abundance but shown us nothing but a tragic inconsistency in military knowledge and leadership? Might not anyone offer more stability and vision than John "Let The Eagle Soar" Ashcroft as Atty. General (the contenders at this point would be Joe Liebermann, Jamie Gorelick, and Eric Holder)? And how about a real physician for Health and Human Services (Howard Dean)? Or an acknowledged diplomatic leader in building consensus with foreign nations, such as George Mitchell (who helped to foster a peace agreement in Northern Ireland) for State, rather than another four years of the ineffectual Colin Powell?

The details are, of course, open to debate and speculation, but the general point is stimulating: if successful politics is about team-building, then Kerry has got to start showing us the major elements of his team soon, while the American public still has time to weigh the options. If we begin to see that there are some attractive alternatives to the monotonic administrative treadmill that we've been walking for the last four years, then perhaps we will become more open to the possibilities of change. In any event, such a broadening of perspective would help to take the public debate out of the realm of what two individuals were doing or not doing in their military service over 30 years ago, and bring us back toward a consideration of current and future issues affecting our nation's likely course in world and domestic affairs. It would also show us that Kerry believes in leadership by cooperation and consensus. That may draw more Americans toward a position of openness toward his potential as the manager of a new team in Washington. After all, many of us are, to some degree, sports fans.

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