11.27.2007

CODE

In his seminal book, "Code of the Street," Dr. Elijah Anderson describes the unwritten ethos that governs city life for young black men. He tells of two youth who know they have to fight one another to be accepted in their neighborhood; even though neither has any interest in fighting, they do it in order to earn credibility.

It seems highly irrational, and perhaps it is. But such a "code" is more prevalent than you might think. Take the political landscape in our country today. I honestly believe the typical American is fairly moderate. But the way we've redistricted, spun media in our campaigns, and organized ourselves politically, the path to victory now involves "getting out the base," which means out-righting or out-lefting your opponent just to get through the primary. The Economist had an interesting article earlier this month about how California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's "post-partisanship" approach to politics can't really work in such an environment, because candidates who play to the middle won't get to the general election. So just like you find two urban kids not wanting to fight but being governed by the street code to do so, you are increasingly finding politicians not wanting to give their base red meat but being governed by today's political rules of engagement to do just that.

Or take the current situation with Palestine, as covered by The Economist this week. The typical Israeli and Palestinian is quite conciliatory, as are their respective leaders, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas. And yet neither leader can afford to be seen giving even an inch in the peace process, lest they be vilified by their media and the more outspoken members of their parties. And so the rhetoric and the lack of budging continues, for these two leaders are governed by a political code that goes far deeper than the surface logic that would seem to dictate a different, more compromising stance.

This is not to excuse fighting or pandering or face-saving that goes against peace and reason. This is merely to underscore the logic and the complexity that is involved when people come together, lest we automatically judge and wonder why anyone could be so hard-headed as to act in such a way. I have sympathy, even as I wonder to myself what can be done to break out of such codes so that peace can reign.
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