Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Meta-Politics Of Children

Art Linkletter used to have this television show, back when I was a wee little lad, called Kids Say The Darndest Things. It featured children, well, saying the darndest things. It was meant to be both charming and funny. Very often we treat the words of children as mere sounds without meaning other than pure entertainment. "Isn't that funny?" we say.

Well, not all children say the darndest things. Some say things that go beyond anything we might dream of saying, cutting through the niceties and polite rules we set for ourselves, rules that are, in the end, nothing more than conventions to be flaunted. Nation Public Radio featured a story this morning about a group of children at a school on a Navajo reservation in Arizona who were given a class assignment - write a letter to President-elect Barack Obama. The results are remarkable for their bluntness. Once one gets passed the fact that these come from some of the poorest Americans, or perhaps precisely because of that fact, I think it may just make us look at the world, and politics, a little differently than we had.
Dear Mr. Obama,

My name is Christopher Tinajero. I live in a brick house. All my family needs is food. Whenever I get home and I'm hungry I cannot find anything. We can't go anywhere because we always have no gas to drive. My mama voted for you, Obama, because we are a big fan. When you won we went crazy. I would want you to take away guns so our people don't have to die.


Christopher Garcia Tinajero

Dear Mr. Obama,

Hello, my name is Alisa Talor Yazzie. My maternal clan is Deer Springs, born for Bitter Water, and my paternal clan is Red Bottom clan, born for Towering House. I am full-blooded Navajo and I am 9 years old. At my school I voted for you, I wanted you to win. I was also a princess at my other school but I gave up my crown. There are a lot of things that are happening in my life. My uncle has kidney failure on both kidneys, but he'll be all right, won't he? I hope so. I just wanted to say hi, and I hope I will be able to see you once. When I get a new phone I will tell you my number.


Alisa Yazzie

While some of the letters feature requests for money - not exactly a surprise considering the profound poverty and lack of any resources whatsoever - they still feature a refusal to buckle under the weight of the cares these children, at least, are aware of. It is all mixed together, the good and the bad, the horrible and the magnificent.

What struck me most when I heard these letters being read by the children who wrote them was the simple reality that, as much as we like to console ourselves that politics is mostly a sport that has to do with who is on top, who holds the whip hand, etc., in the end, what politics is really about is having the power to achieve something for people. Doing stuff. Power for its own sake is worse than useless, because if power is not used for something, it isn't really power, now is it. These children are cutting through the debate about ideology, Republican-Democrat, liberal-conservative, and asking the new President of the United States to do something. Obviously, they are asking him to do something for them; some of them include the information that they pressed their parents and other adults to vote for Obama, so they are canny enough to understand the game does work a certain way. Yet, in the end, there is something that transcends the mean and petty bickering of so much of our public discourse here. These children believe, as I think we all should, that our national politics is only a means toward the end of accomplishing results that benefit real people.

For far too long, conservatives have repeated that government is inefficient, that government doesn't work, etc., etc. Except, of course, this is not true. Not only does it work, some - perhaps many - expect it to work at least as well as private industry, and to do so with the goal of helping citizens who cannot help themselves.

I'm not suggesting that Barack Obama should order the Treasury to send a blank check to the Navajo Nation (although that might be nice, you know?). I am suggesting that there is a wisdom on display here that we adults, in our endless bickering over trivialities, have forgotten. This isn't a game; this is about leadership, real leadership with real results for real people.

Virtual Tin Cup

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