September 24, 2020
Sen. Robert Kennedy’s grandson Max found himself in Jared Kushner’s special “volunteer-only” Covid ad hoc committee. He was horrified by the lack of expertise assigned to this enormous federal responsibility. Soon after agreeing to join in the effort, he quit. He couldn’t participate in what he saw as an ineffectual charade.
The report on Max’s experience reminded me of one I had 28 years ago….
“I think I’ve got a 3fer,” I said to Bill, with an embarrassingly boastful air. Bill Daley was a former Mayor of Olympia, current colleague on the Child Care Action Council board, and an aide to Governor-elect Mike Lowry. I asked him how I could help Lowry, and he brought me on board the gubernatorial transition team.
Here’s the way it was to work. The month was November 1992. At Lowry’s transition team our task was to fill slots in about a dozen policy working groups. My group was titled “Land Use and Environmental Protection.” Each group of about a dozen “experts” was to have a representative demographic balance of age, sex and race/ethnicity. A “3fer” met the traditionally excluded of all three categories – a real prize candidate!
“Hello, is this Janelle?” I inquired brightly.
“Yes, how may I help you,” she replied in an even-tempered, professional voice.
“My name is Daniel Farber and I am a member of Governor-elect Lowry’s transition team here in Olympia. Do you have a couple of minutes to talk now, or can you suggest a better time for me to call?”
I heard silence for a few moments before Janelle responded. “Oh, well, yes, we can talk for a few minutes now. What is this regarding?”
“Governor Lowry is forming a series of short-term ad hoc working groups to discuss critical issues facing the state and to assist him in developing an agenda for action in the upcoming legislative session and beyond. Your name has been brought to our attention as someone who could contribute to our work in the ‘Land Use and Environmental Protection’ working group.”
“Um… why me? I’m just starting out in my career. Why wouldn’t you want our Planning Director Jones or someone else with more experience?”
“That’s just the thing. We are looking for a wide range of input, from older professionals and younger, from those with much experience and those who are just starting out. Would you consider joining this ad hoc group? The group will be in place for only one month, starting December 1. It will meet in person twice on Saturdays in December and several times by phone in the evenings.” Was my statement a lie? Uh, not exactly, but….
“Well, I want to check with my supervisor, but I think I’ll be able to make that work.”
“Great. Can I give you a call next week to confirm?”
“Yes, that will be fine,” Janelle replied.
“Great. Bye for now,” I said in closure.
“Bye,” responded Janelle, still a bit nonplussed by the whole interaction.
The process and objectives kind of stuck in my craw. “I’m talking to this nice young lady, Bill, and she is clearly suspicious about why she is being singled out for this ‘great honor.’ I can’t tell her the truth, which is that the only reason we are asking her to be on the committee is that she is under 30, a woman, and black. It’s just awkward as hell.”
“Yeah… I know. But that’s what we are doing here. You know that people in those groups have been excluded from such committees in the past. Mike feels strongly about this.”
Now, I understood what Bill was saying and of course, as a political liberal, I had a certain consciousness about social justice issues. But the weirdness of the call with Janelle remained a reality, and just as I was getting my “3fers” and “2fers” that month, I was aware of – and had a measured sympathy for – the critiques of such efforts that no doubt came mostly from political conservatives.
I use, in the above paragraph, the terms liberal and conservative, not Democrat and Republican, because back in 1992, they were not synonymous. Our state had had a long tradition of liberal to moderate Republicans, as well as some racist, quite conservative Democrats.
Nowadays, things are considerably different. The political left and right have pretty much separated into the two American political parties, with each establishing a broad and comprehensive set of positions to universally distinguish one from the other. If you are “pro-choice” you are a Democrat. If you are “pro-gun rights” you are a Republican.
That process of party conformity both fascinates and appalls. What is it about we humans, that advantages conformity of views?
I look back on my civic/political life and think of all the times I dallied in Democratic Party politics and found myself unable to dig in deep. This aversion to fully buying into that group – or any group – has been due to my overwhelming tendency to see the legitimacy of different points of view. Add to that my discomfort – and disagreement – with the agglomeration of different issues into one platform, necessarily agreed upon in total.
At age 17, I volunteered in London for the McGovern for President campaign. At age 19, I was an alternate delegate to the Washington State Democratic Convention and volunteered to help Sen. Warren Magnuson get reelected. I also had my personal moment that same year urging Jimmy Carter to run for president, 3 months before he announced. At age 21, mom, dad and I controlled the Democratic neighborhood caucus and moved it away from Sen. Jackson and toward “Undecided.” But it never really stuck. I didn’t go all in for the Dems.
I’ve thought over the years, about people’s need to be wanted and welcome and part of something. For some, politics and politicians meet that need. The thrill of going to a Trump rally must be like that. I remember in 1988 going to a rally with Michael Dukakis just a few days before the election. It was a spillover crowd next to the UPS Fieldhouse in Tacoma. Dukakis was famously one of the driest, least charismatic presidential candidates ever. But I tell you with the certainty of my soul, just being there with the crowd and eventually seeing Dukakis and his wife Kitty come to talk with us “spillovers” was absolutely thrilling. I shouted my lungs out.
My sister Laurie told me once that she was indeed a “screamer” at age 13 at a Seattle-area “Beatles” concert (She has since denied it!). When the Mariners came back from a 6-run deficit to win 10-7 as part of their “Refuse to Lose” 1995 last ditch successful playoff run, I was part of that capacity crowd with my son Zac and I was exultant with my fellow 51,000 comrades. All smiles and shouts of joy as we walked down the Kingdome’s ramps after the game. We had all shared a life experience on the same side.
And then I think of shul. Joining a religious congregation is easy. Staying is easy. Being welcomed, an almost certainty. All you have to do is buy in – to some obvious degree – in the organization’s ethos and you’re accepted. We have this need to belong. We get reassurance in being part of a team. We get comfort when sharing in consistent, lifelong ritual.
But this need for belonging can also be dangerous. In an interview with Bob Woodward, President Trump can be heard to say “So, you’ve drunk the KoolAid, Bob” as he was asked to comment on America’s history of racial discrimination. Trump was being critical of what he viewed as Woodward’s group-think and was referring to the mass death in Guyana by the People’s Temple cult followers of Jim Jones. How ironic of him, of course, to make such a reference, for he is the one who said, “I could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose a vote.”
Independent thought versus the succor of being part of a team. There is value in both.
On Jean’s and my trip through the Intermountain West, how bizarre it has become to see the wearing of masks so associated with both personal choice/freedom and being part of a group. We are seeing a predictable diversity of American ethnicities, cultures and social statuses. Yet how odd and how terrible is it that masks have become a group choice symbol?
I have been thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the powerful and influential species – humanity – that I am a part of. What are the strengths of our resistance to authority? How does authority claim and maintain legitimacy? What does this say about humanity’s capability to not destroy the planet and ourselves? Who are the gatekeepers to collective sanity?
As we approach this crucial election, I see many differences I have with the mainstream of the Democratic Party. I am also terrified of the potential for autocratic anti-democratic (small d) trauma in a second Trump term, and beyond. But politics is not the only group identity occupying my days and shouldn’t be.
I suspect my approach to the balance between group participation and individual choice will be practical. I will continue to participate in group activities (temple, non-profit boards, etc.), civic efforts (voting and urging others to do the same), family and friendship connections, and individual and even iconoclastic beliefs and actions. A healthy balance of all that, nice reservoirs of skepticisms, and a willingness to continue to act on my judgments seems to be a reasonable way to move forward in these weird and frightening times.