Monday, April 8, 2013

Good Intention Despotism

Back when daughter, Social Sphere, was young, she was in a girls’ organization, and I helped out with it. She was invited to the group by a girl who was her favorite friend from first grade through elementary school years, whose mother was the leader. We met weekly, and did crafts, learning experiences, and learning adventures and camps. Most moms stayed and helped, rather than drop their daughters off. We moms took on assignments to help with part of the program, and help the kids do crafts. We made some good memories and good friends during those first few years.
Then there was a rift, with many (most) of the moms objecting to the leader. There were some valid issues that had been building up. One was that the leader enforced a no sugar policy for her own household and insisted that should be the policy for all troop activities. No cupcakes or cookies at snack time.
The time this became most frustrating was at a campout. The girls were in a cabin, so not hard-core camping. They had made their own menu and shopping list, with the guidance of the moms. This included trail mix for the hike. The leader forbade the girls from putting M&Ms in with the peanuts, sunflower seeds, and raisins. The moms who had overseen the menu planning hadn’t seen a problem with a little sweetness among other healthful foods. It was bad enough that no meals could have desserts, and breakfast disallowed syrup on the pancakes.
The event took an entertaining turn when the regional leaders dropped by the cabin to offer a presentation on some topic—and they used M&Ms as part of their object lesson, a little packet for each of the girls. The leader happened to be in another room napping at this hour; she’d been up late and gotten up early as the main leader, but there was plenty of backup during the afternoon. So, anyway, the girls and grownups all looked at one another, and there was a silent conspiracy (including the leader’s daughter and husband) to allow this and just not say anything to Ms. Leader. What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
There were other issues. Ms. Leader spent a chunk of money on a piece of equipment that would rarely be used and could have been borrowed—against the approval of the other moms. Also, moms were asked to volunteer for various assignments, and then they were overruled or ignored, amid complaints from Ms. Leader that she was doing all the work and no one could be counted on.
The aggregate of complaints led to the decision to separate. We held a meeting, with a regional leader as a mediator. My purpose there was to try to find a resolution, because I wanted to avoid having the girls separated. Ms. Leader didn’t come; she sent her husband (who was also a registered leader), so there was no way to actually air grievances and come to an agreement about change. The regional leader said any parent is free to start a new troop and recruit girls, and there was no reason to step in and prevent that from happening.
That seemed to be the simple answer for everyone—except us. It was a dilemma. There was loyalty, particularly to the friend who had first befriended my daughter, and the desire to continue to be with her. But there were a dozen other friends we would lose contact with if we didn’t go with them. Under this pressure, I stayed with the original troop for a trial, along with Ms. Leader’s daughter and one other girl recently recruited. We tried to go on as if all was as before. I took on more assignments, since there were fewer moms to divide the work.
The last straw for me was after I’d spent a number of hours on an assignment, a craft with purpose that met some badge requirement. I’d bought the materials, prepared the kits, and showed up prepared at the meeting—which was what could always be expected of me, good old reliable. Ms. Leader went through the program, and then, without notice ahead of time to me, substituted another activity for the one I’d prepared. We didn’t even do mine. She didn’t so much as acknowledge that I had had an assignment and had put time and effort into it. She had what she thought was a better idea and went with it, always her preference because she knew best, and this way she had control of the outcome.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me, but I had been ever forgiving. Now the mass of slights and what suddenly felt like oppression—combined with the separation from so many friends—came hitting me in the face. My daughter was sorry about the separation from her friend, but they could still meet for play dates. And she was happy to join the other dozen girls and their moms in a fuller troop that did more fun things. So we adjusted and moved forward. (The new leader was indeed better leader material.)
The friendship between us adults was strained, not because she had offended me (which she had), but because I had broken loyalty. We got back to congeniality eventually, but never to easy conversations or dinners together as couples. And there were fewer play dates as time passed.
I’m guessing this is something very similar to just about everyone’s experience with some leader in some organization. I tell this story as a micro example of some principles that apply at macro levels:
·         Parents want to be in control of decisions about the care and upbringing of their children. No one else has the right to step in and make policy because they know better and just have the child’s best interest in mind.
·         People are willing to do their part, but they expect respect in return. They are not willing to simply follow orders of their “superiors” and have their efforts ignored and unappreciated, or their opinions overruled.
·         People are not willing to put in time, money and effort and then have their expenditures go to things they disapprove of as unnecessary.
·         “When a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations…evinces a Design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security,”[*] or whatever purpose they have for the organization. Despots, whether of little “fiefdoms” or larger “kingdoms,” deserve to be removed from any position of authority.
Here’s one more thing I learned: sometimes a petty despots suffer from the prideful misapprehension that they know better and have the good of their subordinates in mind; they thinking they are serving by controlling.
We can see this in the fascist efforts of Michael Bloomberg controlling the size of sugary drinks in New York. We see it in public education at the national level, where it simply doesn’t belong, and often at state and district levels. A few days ago MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry voiced what we’d suspected was the despotic belief, but we were shocked to hear it anyway:
We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we have this private notion of children. “Your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility.” We haven't had a very collective notion of “these are our children.” So part of it is to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.
Once it's everybody's responsibility, and not just the household's, then we start making better investments.

Really? How dare I believe I am entitled to make decisions on the care and upbringing of my own children, just because I happened to give birth to them and provide for them? A better question is, how does anyone come to believe a fit parent isn’t the responsible party for decisions about the child? My belief is rational. Hers is outrageous. It fits the pattern of way too many youth novels about post-apocalyptic tyrannical societies: the Matched trilogy, Agenda 21, and Among the Hidden, for example.
This morning I came across a piece by socialist Cass Sunstein, defending paternalistic government—because people make mistakes and need the right choices forced upon them. Seriously. He thinks the discussion should be about which approach to take, not whether to be paternalistic, because:
What seems to unify paternalistic approaches, however diverse, is that government does not believe that people’s choices will promote their welfare, and it is taking steps to influence or alter people’s choices for their own good.
He says it calmly, with an attitude of, “of course reasonable people will agree with me”—and I disagree with every example he offers of government making things better. In his case I do not give him the benefit of the doubt about intent: it is not about caring for the stupid people; it is about controlling all the people. The point of his article is to find a way to control the people without letting them know their freedom of choice is being controlled. But concern about that abstract notion of freedom is only important until tyranny takes sufficient hold.
The “long Train of Abuses and Usurpations” is growing. These are in opposition to the Constitutional law that protects us from them. The question, then, is not how to separate and form a new government less oppressive; it is how to throw off the extra-Constitutional usurpations while we still have a Constitution to return to.

[*] The Declaration of Independence

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