Social Glue Most Effective When It's in Positive Form
I've been searching for reliable social glue. It's an elusive holiday gift.With the presidential primary season upon us, aflame with anti-immigration rhetoric and partisanship, we've seen some of the worst sorts of social glue.
I learned about perverse social glue in Africa 25 years ago. Having lived in Washington, D.C., before joining the Peace Corps, I understood racial divisions. But I wasn't prepared for the other forms of other-ism I encountered.
An agro-forester, I would approach villages in deforested northern Cameroon and offer to help them plant tree plantations in exchange for their protecting the trees in a little nursery and then helping me properly plant, water and protect them from roaming livestock. Villagers in Mawa warned me not to bother helping villagers in Mozogo -- "They're lazy." In Gabass, they dismissed villagers in Nguetchewe as thieves. And so it went. What held these fragile communities together was how they defined people excluded by them.
There were many bad reasons the Bush administration promoted the war with Iraq. But was it coincidence that in the months before the 2002 midterm elections, war drum-beating and Iraq-baiting rose to a fever pitch from those seeking to consolidate Republican majorities in Congress? The message of fear and patriotism was designed to unite the nation around the Republican Party, and for a time, it succeeded.
Such short-term gains don't account for long-term or hidden costs -- like the widows and children forced to flee Iraq for safety. Like American families grieving the death of soldiers. Or families torn apart by divorce when returning soldiers feel ruined by post-traumatic stress disorder.
If exclusion and war are off-brands of social glue, what works better to promote social cohesion? Sports are an obvious strategy. After the Green Bay Packers' ignoble defeat by the Bears last Sunday, Chicago is suddenly drawn closer together. Millions of people pay big bucks to feel the attachment from being with thousands cheering the right team. When my son was little, he once asked me as I cheered, "Why are we cheering for the Packers, Mom?" I explained that in sports there really aren't good guys and bad guys; we just like to pretend that they are. But I might have answered, "So we don't create wars unnecessarily."
Big challenges. The Works Project Administration, war on poverty, and even the war on drugs are examples of attempts to bind our nation around big problems. Sometimes it works, but society's many factions must buy in, and the strategies used must actually work. The war on poverty failed largely because the wealthy felt threatened by its intent and skeptical of its strategies. Today's huge challenge -- global warming -- is similarly vulnerable to struggles between winners and losers and to flawed strategies, but its potential to unite a war-torn globe is potent.
Another uniting force in many cultures is ritual and tradition. In our polycultural nation, it's tricky to find rituals that unite. So we fall back on the national anthem, fireworks, flag-waving, and parades with military music. Unlike some vocal politicians of the moment, I love the winter holidays best when they braid tendrils of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, pagan traditions and Christmas into a larger cultural observance of the season.
Which brings me to religion. For all of the killings and hatred sown by religion, there also are religiously inspired acts of uniting. The Muslim marabou I knew in Cameroon who inspired his village toward cooperation with neighbors. The Buddhist teaching of compassion that helped prisoners of war in the Vietnam War. The radical teachings of Jesus to love those whose position in society makes them easy to hate.
Illuminating and debating divisive issues through unfettered media is obviously crucial and sadly lacking. But humans' need for group attachment is deeply embedded wiring, not rational.
A leader's most important job is to create conditions to channel that deep need for social belonging toward constructive, not just politically expedient, ends. I'm sending President Bush a gift of strategies to help peacetime businesses flourish, immigrants integrate successfully, and the nation engage with others to protect the globe. It's a rarely used but darned good brand of social glue.
Margaret Krome is a Madison resident who writes this column every other week.
© 2007 The Capital Times