Children, I’ve noticed, are powerfully drawn to tribes, groups of others who are, if not like-minded, fitted out at least with the same colors, slogans, face paint, piercings, war whoops. The first tribe is the family, the “us” into which each child is born, but kids are quick to diversify, declare allegiances to other “us”es–teams, clubs, gangs, fraternities–that may or may not reflect the values of their tribe of origin. I’ve no idea why, six thousand years into civilization, the biological urge to band together under a common flag is still so strong, I only know that at some level the primitive synapses continue to fire in the modern homo sapiens’ brain. How else to account for the fierce alliances my own children have made, to tribes ranging from Tar Heel basketball to the My Little Pony Fan Club. This last year, my 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter found themselves choosing yet another tribe, one whose prominence would be decided in something called a presidential election. Four years ago, when George W. Bush calf-roped the vote out from under Al Gore, Henry, just out of diapers, asked whether Bush would be put in time-out for what he did, then lost interest in the chaotic aftermath of the election. This time around, with his parents glued to the news and his classmates sporting campaign buttons, the temptation to join up was overwhelming. He picked the Kerry tribe, got his own campaign button, and began watching The Daily Show with his dad. Not one to let the train leave without her, Rose, too, was anxious to form an opinion and fly her colors. Standing in the early vote line with her father, she eyed the crowd, dismissed the “No Campaigning Beyond this Sign” poster and announced in a loud voice, “WE’RE FOR KERRY.”
Once the children’s allegiances were decided, it was our job, their father’s and mine, to teach them about the two tribal leaders, George Bush and John Kerry. It would be tricky, since our own opinions were strong and since children make it their business to know your every secret, read the tea leaves of your hidden heart, ferret out the stooped, hairless things that live in the basement of your soul. About Kerry we could be open and honest; here was a smart man who wanted to help the poor, revive the economy, end the war and pull our country out of its tight dark hole of fear. Bush was harder, but again, we felt it was important to present him in appropriately neutral terms, free from the animosity, frustration and rage that marked our own opinions of his presidency. After all, this was our leader, a man who deserved an intelligent, balanced and fair assessment. A man whose office deserved respect, and to whose leadership our children might, for better or worse, look for the next four years. And so it was that, some months ago, when a friend asked Henry and Rose’s opinion of Bush, we listened carefully, waiting for their version of the thoughtful, restrained portrait we’d taken such care to paint.
“He’s a meathead,” Henry said.
Rosie nodded her head. “He’s a… Oh. Well. Mama says I can’t say that word.”
Like many young children in this country, ours received their introduction to politics–to the concept of larger tribes–on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. And, like a lot of parents, we tried to protect our kids from what happened that day. In the end, though, it was too big. It leaked out, spilled over in conversation, flashed onto the TV screen.
I remember feeling sad about the end of this particular innocence, but also knowing that, in the simplest terms, the jig was up. We Americans had holed ourselves away for too long in Prospero’s castle, dimwitted with ignorance and plenty, blind to the lessons of history. The truth was that outside those families who lost friends and loved ones in the attacks, the average American child suffered nothing more than a new, nameless dread, a boogie man in a white keffiyeh. That first winter of war, with U.S. troops scouring the Afghan countryside, there was in our morning paper a front-page photograph of refugee children shivering in a makeshift tent. Like so many images of that season, this was a hard one to explain to our children, and harder for knowing that what these Afghan children faced in their freezing tent was not qualitatively different from what they’d known before the bombing started.
Not to deny the boogie man his due. Until he came along, the machinations and agendas of the grown-up world had been, in the eyes of most of our children, and with the exception of hair cuts and trips to the dentist, fairly benign. Here, in the space of weeks, they learned that the grown-up world could be much more sinister, that skyscrapers could fall and people die. What the new boogie man taught our children is that there are catastrophes from which not even diligent parents can protect, dangers that fall at the feet of tribal leaders. After 9/11, for that long moment before the missiles were loaded, it looked as if it might be possible for our own leader to respond with something that resembled insight and intelligence. When the moment was over and we began circling the wagons, when our leader began to unravel in a tattered, erratic fit of vengeance, what could we tell our children? That here, in this particular tribe, there was no competent grown-up to make them safe, to keep the lights burning, to perform his duty with wisdom and strength?
“I wish somebody else could be the boss of the people,” Henry said the day after Bush began bombing Baghdad. With the keen bent of his competitive mind, he saw that this man, Bush, had mistakenly been put on the team, and that it was costing us points. “Nobody likes him,” he said. “Why do we keep him?”
I faltered. I find it easier to explain the psychology of a suicide bomber than how it is that most Americans like Bush, think he’s taking the right course. I leave the defense of democracy to my husband, who in the darkest moments is a true-blue believer, unshakingly faithful to the ideals of a government of, by and for the people.
I’m too black-hearted for all that. The way I see it, Bush has a brilliance that defied his superficial bumbling, and that is his direct access to the hairy little homo habilis in us all, making our piles of rocks at the mouth of the cave. He may have the intellect of a prickly pear, but he enjoys the totem power of the swaggering male whose inept forays are mistaken, by virtue of the noise and smoke they make, for wisdom.
Whatever sort of leader we may want when the contrails are innocent, it is not what we want when the barbarians are at the gate. And once the primitive synapses start firing, it doesn’t take much to convince us they are there, gnashing their terrible teeth and rolling their terrible eyes. And then what? Do we want some guy who paints the cave walls with his endless “plans”? Or someone who brushes aside the complexities, who is in fact temperamentally unable to process them, and gets down to the business of feathering the arrows?
R ose loves to tell the story of Saddam Hussein, how he’s a bad man who killed people and how they found him in a hole in the sand with a rug over his head and now he’s in jail and that’s a good thing, but that our president had started a bad war and he was killing people too and he is such a … well, she can’t say that word.
When Rosie told this story to her preschool teacher, the teacher said that really, really, Bush wasn’t a bad man, he just made “bad choices.” Rose later asked me whether he would keep on making bad choices.
“Only if we let him,” I said.
“Because it’s up to everyone to decide?” she asked. The concept of a representative government is, for her, like a remote rung on the monkey bars. She’s on her toes, but it’s just out of reach. She can’t believe, with all she’s heard about Bush, that he could represent anybody. That he could, as Henry puts it, keep on being the boss of the people. She can’t believe the grown-ups could fail her so badly.
And yet, and yet. When I told my children, on the morning after the election, that it looked as though Bush had won, they said nothing for a while. I cast about for some way to explain, but all I could think was that, for better or worse, this country had its representative in the White House, a like-minded man who wore the face paint and flew the colors of a majority of the people. That if so many of us are going to be intentionally stupid, well then, we get what we deserve.
But how do you say that to small children whose faith is intact, whose eyes are wide with the news of defeat?
“I guess,” Henry said, breaking the silence, “I guess we just keep trying.”