"Severe Dysfunction"

I am rather certain that I am not the only person with dramatically engorged “mail boxes”, awash in both email and text messages. This is a symptom of impending elections for US congressional seats and local governance roles. While the “mail” pattern itself is familiar, it seems to me this cycle is excessive, almost frantic in scope and content. It is perhaps a tribute to my efforts to “see both sides” that I am receiving these messages from both sides of the aisle.

With such a robust data set, it is easy to analyze the content. There is a pattern, shared by both parties. Message: “I am worried and only you can save me; my ‘opponent’ has bad ideas that will harm you; I have good ideas that will not harm you and will benefit you; I need money to get elected: please give me some money.” To be fair, there are some pretty entertaining variants on the theme, but it is consistent. I am provided with little information about policy and principles; money acquisition is the purpose of the message. Both political parties have a few standard theme phrases. And in every case, the primary emotion they seem to wish to evoke in me is FEAR, though guilt, shame and disdain are also popular.

Now this phenomenon is not new; the overall pattern has been the situation in the past. Yet it has seemed to me that it looks even crazier and more unsettling this time around. I lump it in with a whole range of phenomena that were worrisome before we all experienced Covid-19 and our induced cave dwelling. Before Covid-19 we knew we had some serious problems. Upon emergence from our Covid Caves, we have tried to slide back to our familiar behaviors, even though we have known them to often be seriously problematic. We look like little kids whistling in the graveyard. We are playing pretend.

This denial adds complexity to the phenomena we are trying to recreate. Unfortunately, however, if these phenomena were weird or self-defeating or dishonest in the past, they now present as an extreme version of their prior selves. It is creepy. I do not remember ever getting over 70 emails in one day, all saying the same unimaginative thing, all reading like they thought me quite stupid. It’s like the ghost of “Citizen’s United” is haunting my communication channels, and reminding me in bas-relief that things are not as they should be.

Rather than evoking in me a curiosity about the candidates (and I live in Ohio where there are some fairly sharp contrasts available), I find myself distracted. I am pondering the fact that this is yet another example of a democracy where money and fear have shifted the narrative, the process and the outcomes. I find I am repeating myself, like a mantra: “We had dysfunction before Covid.” As we have emerged from our caves, it has seemed to me that this effort to reestablish the old patterns can sometimes look ludicrous. I think my mailbox is a case in point.

Now I record all of this not because I feel judgmental of others or have a clever solution. Neither are true. I don’t feel judgmental because all these people running for office are using the tools at hand; in the absence of alternatives, they are doubling down on the established practices. One candidate who received a single donation from me during his primary run now texts me at least once and usually three or four times a day. After the election I will write him a note to share my views on his “over-kill”. He knew the rules; he just followed them with amazing intensity.

Nor do I think there is some obvious and imminent solution to this situation. I feel like the first step is calling the whole crazy mess “Severe Dysfunction” and making that a focus of conversations and reflections. Until we start honestly naming some of these crazy things as crazy, we will keep doing them. The emerging generations give me hope because they are much more comfortable calling “Severe Dysfunctions” by name. This one they call “Severe Dysfunction” and I thank them.

So, I feel like I am operating in some foggy zone between enduring the death throes of “Severe Dysfunctions” and waiting for the creative, imaginative and bright lights of tomorrow to emerge. I personally think they will. It gives me hope. In my youth, when I grew frustrated with older people sustaining “Severe Dysfunction” I would mutter to myself (and sometimes, with little charity, to others) that “They will die before I do”. I see a lot of young people today making the same assessment. They are waiting for those who embrace “Severe Dysfunction” to leave center stage. It cannot happen soon enough.

And I use the phrase “death throes” deliberately; it is how I have described many prior noisy, ugly, angry national shifts I have experienced. It helps to call them death throes: it implies the outcome will be the death of something that needs to die. I also think that spiraling backward to try to recreate things that are gone forever can be a temporary effort, but will fail. So yes, death throes.

In the meanwhile, I have opted to write blogs that call “Severe Dysfunction” what it is and try to make that description worthy of focus and attention and reflection.

“Refuse to inherit dysfunction. Learn new ways of living instead of repeating what you lived through.”

- Thema Davis -