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Uncomfortable Essay #5: The Curse of Cooperation?

Though I had chosen the title of this essay some weeks earlier, this Uncomfortable Essay defined itself in a several hour period on Sunday, November 9, 2008, in Minneapolis MN.

I happen to be Catholic, and regularly attend the 9:30 Mass at Basilica of St. Mary, one of Minneapolis’ largest congregations. I quite often usher, and thus am familiar with the people and routine of this church, which justly prides itself on its commitment to Peace and Justice.

November 9 I was at Basilica as part of the congregation, and noticed at the time of the collection that the ushers were using the “baskets on a stick” which indicated that attendance at the Mass was lower than usual. Evidence of the reason for this came clear at Communion time when a fellow appeared, dressed in a Minnesota Vikings jersey. Aha. There must be a Minnesota Vikings football game in town at noon, I thought. (I don’t follow sports.)

Sure enough, enroute home going east on Interstate #94, there was little traffic with me, but a lot of traffic in-bound to Minneapolis: the Vikings crowd. The Metrodome was being filled to witness modern day gladiators tussle in our present day Coliseum, and the fans were paying big money for the privilege of seeing one team win, hopefully theirs.

About 2:30 the same day, I got back in my car and went back to Minneapolis for a talk by Fr. John Dear, well known for his public anti-war and nonviolence witness. There was little freeway traffic. This one-time only event – Father Dear was on a book tour - had been well publicized. The attendance for the free event, perhaps 200 in all, was good. Father Dear did not disappoint. (His new book “A Persistent Peace” is well worth a read. http://www.persistentpeace.org While there is no way of quantifying it, there were doubtless many more peacemakers either at the Minneapolis Metrodome, or at home watching the football game on tv, than were listening to the well known advocate for peace and non-violence November 9.

After Father Dear’s talk I got back in the car again, again heading east out of Minneapolis on the same interstate I’d driven a few hours earlier. This time I was part of heavy traffic. The game at the Metrodome was over, and in some of these cars there were happy fans, and in others, downcast fans whose team had lost, the ultimate visible outcome of any competition. (The final score, I noted the next day: Minnesota Vikings 28, Green Bay Packers 27).

Ours is a society that reveres competition. Competition is combat, and we love it. Who wins and who loses is about all that matters. Those most likely to declare competition a virtue are those most likely to have the competitive advantage going in: “winners”. Hubert Humphrey spoke powerfully about the central role of competition as compared to compassion some years ago. His brief commentary can be viewed at http://www.chez-nous.net/peace_xmas.html. Compassion, which is almost synonymous to cooperation, is, Humphrey made clear, clearly subordinate to competition.

Competitors tend to speak in terms of win or lose, right or wrong, bad or good, true or false: the middle ground nuance is at minimum subordinate. Examples abound. I noted the front page headlines in the Minneapolis Star Tribune Nov. 2-6, all commenting on the elections: “Fight to the Finish”; “neck and neck”; “tireless foot soldiers”; “holds onto lead”; “punishing verbal slugfest”; “bitter to the end”; “Bitter Senate race…too close to call”; “The brawl drags on”…. Concepts like peace, olive branch, seem to have no place at the table, at least till there’s a winner. Then the ‘sides’ can posture for a short while about cooperation, consensus or the like, before returning to the battle.

In a few months, the combat event of the American year will ensue, appropriately Roman-numeral identified as Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009, in Tampa FL. That day is a hopeless one for any competing events, much less a peace meeting. Out of Super Bowl XLIII will come one winner and one loser. For a moment, the winner of the Super Bowl will be celebrated; then the winner becomes a target for the next round of win-lose.

But this Uncomfortable Essay is not about Football; rather it is about the “Curse of Cooperation”. So, you say, “what’s the point?”

If we are to change others behaviors, we need to change our own. We have to model and practice what it is we wish to see in others. But even in the Peace and Justice and related movements, we are set up in teams which compete for scarce resources. As in society at large, the winners – the ones with the most resources – can and do dominate the conversation. They are the ones who decide on the allocation of the available resources.

A year ago I made an effort to both define this problem and suggest solutions as I saw them in my final message as President of the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers (MAP) http://www.mapm.org, then a group of 73 organizations which operate totally independently of each other and seem, often to be more in competition with each other, than cooperating. Some relevant portions of that letter to those leaders follow.

The solution we need to see within our movement is, I believe, how to elevate true cooperation and consensus building with each other (and others) over the natural tendency we have to compete, and to win. It is a tall order, but a task worth taking on. We simply don’t have the resources to waste on competing internally.

From Dick Bernard’s letter to leaders of Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers, December 11, 2007

“…Now, some observations about the MAP community, and some recommendations, as I leave office:

I think activists in the peace and justice movement need to take some serious time to reflect on… issues which offer both potential and peril for our continued health and potential positive impact.

A. Are we a ‘coat of many colors’, or just a bunch of ‘spools of thread’? We are an ‘alliance’ of independent entities which often seem to value their independence and special interest over the greater common good reflected by the principles of MAP. MAP in 2007 is without much question a known ‘player’ in the peace and justice and even the greater community, but its current role guarantees it subordinate and only supportive status to its member organizations. Perhaps this is what is desired by the members, but I think it is something to talk about. MAP can be more than the sum of its parts, if so empowered.

B. Do we dissipate our strength in Competing with each other, over Cooperating? We are a part of a society which reveres competition, and I think we all tend to operate under those embedded rules of win/lose, even though I think it could be demonstrated that cooperation (sharing) of time/talents/resources would bring benefits to all that far exceed individual wins. We have competing fund-raisers, competing programs, etc. It is not healthy for the individual or for MAP in the long run, I think, and it is a topic worthy of discussion. Think for a moment what our ‘world’ would be like, if each MAP organization committed 5% of its time/resources to enhance the vitality of MAP and their colleague organizations. The results would be awesome.

C. How about a “Thousand Thousands Initiative”? Over and over again I’ve noted that our organizations are, financially, poor in money terms, even though MAPs mission statement and the guiding principles we share likely reflect the sentiment of most citizens in our area, country and world. We work for positive future-oriented things but we’re constrained by that old ogre, money.

It is not possible to get involved in everything. At a personal level, if I were to contribute only $25 to each MAP member organization, that would now amount to nearly $2,000 a year.

In recent months I have been wondering what would happen IF we could find 1,000 individuals and/or groups and/or groups of individuals (i.e. 100 giving $10 each) who would be willing to pool $1,000 of their non-tax deductible dollars to be placed in a single fund to help finance things like commercial media ads, etc. Of course, 1,000 1,000s equals $1,000,000 – very serious money. I can think, probably, of almost all the objections people might have to this idea (who would control this money? etc., etc., etc.) But consider this: $1,000,000 amounts to only 33 cents per resident in this metropolitan area of 3,000,000 population, 1,000 contributors are really a small number given our population, and certainly this would be an attainable goal IF we had the will.”

I’ll leave the last word to Hubert Humphrey and his visitors, in the piece referenced earlier in this essay. http://www.chez-nous.net/peace_xmas.html

Uncomfortable Essay #6 will be “On the Role of Money in our Movement”.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 22, 2008 10:45 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Uncomfortable Essay #4: More Ways to Communicate Less.

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