Boy: Grandpa, I don’t understand what I see on TV. People seem angry. Why are people saying terrible things about one another?
Old Man: I don’t know for sure, my boy. It’s an election year. And for some people not everything is going well. And when that happens people become angry. It’s part of politics.
Boy: But I don’t get it. For instance, Grandpa, I saw pictures of people burning flags and punching people. Why do people burn flags? America is a great country, isn’t it?
Old Man: Yes, she still is.
Boy: Then I don’t understand.
Old Man: Neither do I, not fully, that is. Although, I have been around long enough to understand some part of it.
Boy: Can you explain it to me? At least explain what you do know, Grandpa?
Old Man: I can try, maybe. What if I tell you a story, and we can see if that helps?
Boy: Please do. I like stories, and I want to understand better.
Old Man: Ok. Let me try. It’s not an easy story.
Boy: Ok. I will sit here, and you will tell me the story. I will ask questions where I do not understand.
Old Man: Excellent. Here goes. A long time ago 100 people living in a simple way form a society.
Boy: Like pirates or something?
Old Man: That’s funny. No, not really pirates, they are good but not angels either. They were like most everybody else, just people who for one reason or another are trying to find a better way to live. There were things that they could not do alone that they could do better together. So they agreed to form a little hamlet of equal people for their safety and happiness.
As things go, 80 end up doing the manual work of the hamlet and 20 end up doing other needed labor because they are a little better at it. By the simple rules of this society of equals, this little hamlet, everybody is working hard and compensated pretty much by agreements they make with one another, although the 20 by their ability and recognition of it do better, but not too much better.
Boy: So these 20 are rich?
Old Man: Well you could say so. A little bit. But they don’t make a big show of it because other things are more important to them. Like every night at sundown a cannon goes off and everyone comes outside and they watch the flag of the little hamlet lower in solemnity, and for five minutes a day they think as one about how lovely it is to live in the little hamlet together. They are happy.
Boy: That’s what we do at night at your house, without the cannon part. The cannon part is better.
Old Man: If I had a little cannon, I would use it for that. You could be the one to set it off.
Boy: Really? That sounds good.
Old Man: Yes, it would be. Anyhow, as it happens there are neighboring villages of people, some bigger and some smaller. Some are similar to the hamlet but many are poorer than our happy hamlet with its 20 talented people and 100 people who like to work. One day, a few people in the hamlet go out and make trades with neighboring villages. More and more do that and soon after the goods available to the 100 grow.
Boy: Like your Scotch whiskey, Grandpa?
Old Man: Yes. I guess you noticed. I suppose like that. You can’t make Scotch whiskey anywhere but Scotland. So the Scottish have to make it there, and someone has to bring it here.
Boy: As a trade for something else?
Old Man: Right, as a trade for something else. So, everyone is working and generally agrees that the trades are good. So the idea becomes popular – the little hamlet is a democracy – and our hamlet says “Let us trade broadly with everyone and establish laws and treaties to promote this.”
The trades start to multiply and soon the 20 are managing the labor of 1,000 and selling their talents to 1,000, but for our 80, at first they also make more and better things for people in the other villages and they make more too. But also over time some of the things they did for work are not needed anymore.
Boy: Really. What happens to them?
Old Man: Well, some of them get to do other things, but also some of them end up without something to do. First maybe 3 are not working, then 5, but those not working are provided for.
Boy: How? By their families and neighbors?
Old Man: Yes, in the beginning, but later by taxes paid for by some portion of the other 95. Most falls on the 20 but oddly not on the wealthiest of them, because some of what they own and earn is in other villages and for other reasons.
Boy: That doesn’t seem fair. Why don’t the ones who benefit pay?
Old Man: It doesn’t seem fair. You are right about that. But people in the village put up with it because it seems like the easiest answer at the time.
Anyhow, 75 of the 80 are working and doing a little better, but not too much better, than before, although they can buy more because the goods made in other villages are cheaper than the goods that used to be made in the village.
Boy: They probably like that they can buy more.
Old Man: They do. But material things only go so far to make a person happy. It’s what you do that makes a person happy, and things are only a part of that.
Boy: That’s what Mom says. What about the 20?
Old Man: Well, they are pretty busy with the things they do. Everyone is watching the 20, who go from village to village running their trading enterprises and enjoying the best luxuries of each village and talking about ways to better this trade arrangement and how great it is.
Boy: Are they lying?
Old Man: You make me laugh. No, they are basically honest people. It is no lie. It is in its own way sort of fabulous. The village has become the number one village in trade and its influence has spread throughout the many villages.
Boy: But what about the other 80?
Old Man: At first they are satisfied to imagine the day will come when they or their children are more like the 20. But as time wears on, the 80 notice that the 20 are less and less interested in the other 80. They notice that during the flag ceremony each night some of the 20 are away and some are too busy managing their businesses or enjoying luxuries to take the time to come out and solemnify the lowering of the flag, which formerly had been an important and happy ritual for all.
Boy: That seems dumb, Grandpa. Who wouldn’t like the flag ceremony?
Old Man: You’d be surprised. Some people just never like those kinds of things. It’s not in their disposition, and you can’t account for their taste. But some people also develop a distaste for things because they see them as being at odds with something they have a strong taste for.
Boy: Explain that.
Old Man: We’ll get to that in a minute. Most of the 80 still really like the flag ceremony. It’s fun and it allows everyone to feel together and equal, even if just for a few minutes a day. And our village is still basically a simple democracy, so this feeling is important.
Boy: That’s good.
Old Man: Yes. Yes. It is a democracy, and for the time while most people think the general arrangement about trade is for the common good, elections would swing back and forth between two similar majorities.
Boy: Mom says there is no difference between the parties. Is that what she means?
Old Man: I suppose that could be part of what she means.
Still, as the number of people not happy with the policies of the village grows, the 20 recognize their unique interest and get more involved. When the time comes for a vote they spend some of their money to influence a few elected officials, who like to team up with them because the 20 include them in their luxuries, reward them socially, and hire them when they are out of office and hire their friends and children too.
Boy: That sounds wrong.
Old Man: It is.
But it is important for the village that votes break at least 51 to 49 for a continuation of these policies which have so far worked well, really for everybody, even if most of all for the 20. When asked the 20 say “We do well, it is true, but the whole village is doing well,” and they can point to numbers that back it up. They say “Yes, some people are not working, but support is offered. There is more money in the village, and even for the 80, nearly all of them have a lot more than people in other villages and more than they had before. The difference between us 20 and the 80 has grown, but there is no way to fix that without making all the wealth of the village smaller and the wealth of the 80 smaller too. People scratch their heads and say, “Maybe they are right. I trust them.” Then they remember the evening flag ritual and the increasingly poor turnout from the 20. And this won’t surprise you.
Boy: What won’t?
Old Man: Some of the 80 start to feel maybe they cannot be like the 20. And they wonder, maybe they would not want their children to be like them.
Boy: Yes. It seems like some of the 80 might be developing a dislike for the 20, even though I guess the 20 are pretty rich now.
Old Man: Yes, they are. I guess that’s right. But the 80 like the village and the feeling passes, and they go back to work in the morning with the same hopes which were felt in the early hamlet. Still year by year the tastes of the 20 become more cosmopolitan.
Boy: Cosmo what? What does that mean?
Old Man: More like they are a citizen of the world and not just the little hamlet.
Boy: How does that work?
Old Man: Nobody knows. Anyhow, as the 20 become more cosmopolitan, the tastes of 80 remain simple, as in the beginning.
Boy: And they continue to grow apart?
Old Man: Yup. The 80 also notice that the 20, when they speak of charity, are as likely to talk about spending for other poor villages as they are to commit to some charitable or public work in their own. This is highly praised as a sign of generosity.
Boy: It doesn’t sound smart to me. They should build a library or something to help everybody.
Old Man: It may not be smart. But the people in the village have long thought they were the most prosperous village of all the villages. So at first it appeals to most everyone’s sense of goodness. They are generous people, and they like to reflect on conferring benefits to other people, even people of other villages.
Boy: Good people are like that. They don’t think about themselves too much.
Old Man: Yes, they are. The 20 and the few elected officials say “The village will continue to do well, as long as it keeps trading, and looking beyond the village. All that is needed is to educate the rest of you to be more like us because we are all equal and so you all must have the same ability and opportunity as we do to live this happy life of trade.”
Boy: Now that seems smart.
Old Man: Yes, it does, for everyone who wants to and is suited to do that. There has always been a school in the village and it teaches the finest skills in science, law and management, because the village has among the 20 the most talented people of all villages. The school is expanded. But for the technical programs the best and the brightest from all villages are invited to come as students, and the school charges double for students from other villages. For people from the village the school charges less, but still more than anyone can reasonably afford who is not from the 20. Many of those who go to the school from the 80 borrow a lot of money, but only a few of them actually join the 20, whose ranks do not get bigger.
Boy: Is this why Mom is always stressed about saving for college?
Old Man: Yes. I wish I could do more to help. Now where were we?
Boy: The school was not helping the 80 as much as people had hoped.
Old Man: Oh, yes. The school plan is not working and the trading has also begun to look different than it first did. The 80 remember when their village had tools that other villages did not have or did not have in the same quality or quantity. Increasingly the 20 like to trade the tools needed for the work of the 80 so the other villages can use the tools to make the goods that the village buys.
Boy: So now that the tools are gone, the 80 have nothing to do?
Old Man: No. Not entirely. A few more than 5 are not working, but most of the rest still have something to do. A few of them still make things with new and better tools, but most of them now do services for the village, like work in a restaurant and build and repair each other’s houses and sell and service the goods made elsewhere.
Boy: So most everything is made in other villages and the 80 who work stay busy more with services. Do they make more money doing these other things?
Old Man: No. That’s the thing. They still earn about the same. But they get to buy still more because goods are cheaper still and the other villages lend the village money so the village can spend money without raising taxes and so the village can buy more of the goods the other villages make.
Boy: Don’t they have to pay that back?
Old Man: Yes, someday. But someday never comes, at least that’s what some people in the village think. And the 80 start to wonder, “Are they selling our work for goods and borrowing the money to buy still more goods?” They remember a story of a man whose birthright is sold for a mess of pottage.
Old Man: Yup. Esau. Your generation doesn’t talk as much like that. We used to when I was a kid. Everyone knew these stories because we were made to go to Sunday school. So us older people are used to borrowing stories from the Bible when we talk. I am glad you knew what I meant.
So with people working less, about the same time it is noticed that people from other villages like to come to the village. They work, and do jobs the 80 never loved doing (so everybody says, because in truth not working has become a habit for some). Some of these visitors become very much like the original villagers, participating in the flag ritual and so on. But some don’t.
Boy: Once you start participating in the flag ritual, you are really part of the village. It’s like you were always part of the village. Right?
Old Man: That’s right, and that’s basically how people feel about it in the village in my story. Everybody who participates in the flag ritual earns the trust of most everyone else, and it doesn’t really matter where they are from before. They make a bond of friendship that is stronger than their former bonds. That’s how the village worked from the earliest days.
Boy: It’s like my treehouse club. Once you take the club pledge you are one of us. So it’s like that, except there are only three of us in the treehouse club, including my sister. Although I bet for the people who don’t like the flag ritual it does not do much for them when someone new adopts it.
Old Man: That’s probably right. And the 80 then start hearing the 20 talk about the promise of the village being for people of all villages and make little distinction as to who comes to the village by invitation and who comes against the rules of the village. People come and go this way without invitation because the people of the village are generally tolerant and welcoming.
Boy: They do seem like nice people.
Old Man: They are. They are not quick to anger. They think most people do things for reasons that seem good to them, and if you just explain to them how you see it, you would be surprised how they listen. Still, the 80 start to notice something that bothers them. The 20 seem to encourage some of the visitors to retain their identity of their other villages, even when they are officially adopted by the village. Like you suggested, the 20 no longer care if the newcomers participate in the flag lowering ritual that the happy villagers used to enjoy so much.
Boy: That is bothersome. The flag ritual had helped them to feel together.
Old Man: Yes, it did. But the 20 perhaps see the flag ritual as being at odds with the way they butter their bread.
Boy: Butter their bread?
Old Man: Yes, make their living. The 20, you see, do not like the hostility of some of the 80 towards the newcomers who do not participate in the flag ritual, because it is a clear mark of a lack of exposure to other villages that define the economic and social life on which the 20 now depend. The trading has been really good for them, and it has changed the way they live, as they see it, for the better. And because of this some of the 20 start to think about the 80 who know and love only their own village and retain its early simplicity. This way of living makes them uneasy because they sense it threatens the new way of life of the village. So they say “It is not who we are.”
Boy: I hear people say that all the time.
Old Man: Yes, I hear it too. And some of these few see the simplicity of the 80 somewhat correctly as a reminder of the early days of the hamlet when life was different, become openly critical of the beginning of the village.
Boy: They say bad things about it?
Old Man: Yes, they put it down. Some even encourage in the other 80 feelings that all along the village was never really about equality but inequality, until of course the progress in trading started and the 20 fully took their place at the head of the village. The feelings of hostility in the 80, they say, are rooted in the rude character of the early days of the hamlet that the village has moved past. Not everyone feels that way but it gets noticed that people say this is what the flag ceremony represents, the bad things of the past that slow down progress.
Boy: So the flag ceremony is becoming really less popular.
Old Man: Feelings about it are getting stronger on both sides, those who like it and those who don’t. Listen carefully now, from time to time conflict between villages breaks out.
Boy: Like war?
Old Man: Yes, like war. All notice that those who participate in the flag ritual tend to be the ones that come to serve in these conflicts. One day the village is attacked by people from a different village.
Boy: Why would anyone do that?
Old Man: Hard to say. Maybe they did not like the way of life of the village. It does not matter much how it started, what matters is that the conflict goes on for a long, long time and gets worse and worse. And what is different now is the 80 see that the 20 are hard to find in this long conflict. Sure, the 20 talk about it a lot. Sometimes they talk tough about the importance of winning, and sometimes the talk weakly about learning to live with the conflict. The conflict is expensive, and the village doesn’t seem to be winning. No price of unending conflict is too high for the 20 as long as someone else bears the burden of crying for the loss of sons and daughters.
Boy: This sounds really bad, Grandpa.
Old Man: It is really bad. And it gets worse. A portion of the 80, maybe 30 or 40, start to believe that the 20 do not like them much. The 20 talk to some of the 80 in small groups, encouraging them to think of themselves as groups, promising policies that will help each group but not everybody. You see, the village retains its democratic way, even if the behavior has changed, and the 20 need to win elections.
Boy What do you mean the behavior has changed?
Old Man: Well, politics still revolves around getting more than half the votes, because that is what democracies do. But less and less do they try to get half the votes by convincing people what is good for the whole village but more and more by convincing people what might be good for a group they are told they belong to. They encourage people to think about a small group to which they might belong rather than the whole village.
Boy: You mean like the visitors who were told to retain their identity from other villages?
Old Man: Precisely. When the 20 succeed, these groups vote nearly all together in their group, and the people who still think about the whole village split on opinions about what is the best policy for the whole village.
Boy: Seems like a bit of a trick.
Old Man: Yes, it is tricky. Then it happens only naturally that people take this a step further. The 20 say their political opposition, the 40 people who don’t typically support them, is also a group. Pretty soon everyone is talking mostly in terms of groups and not much in terms of the whole village. And more and more the 20 encourage an ethic which shames the simple thoughts and hostility to strangers of this group of 40. They also shame the religious feelings of this 40.
Boy: Really? Don’t they have freedom of religion?
Old Man: Yes, they really do that. They still have freedom of religion. But there is not much use of religion in trading. So the 20 tend to see too much religion as bad for business. So they criticize it. It becomes impolite to talk like the 40. Their rustic and plain spoken ways are likened to rudeness.
Boy: Like elbows on the table?
Old Man: Worse. Elbows on the table is inappropriate. But the rustic and plain spoken manners are made out to be immoral.
Boy: What do the 40 do?
Old Man: The 40 are proud and react to this by rejecting the manner of the 20. They become more impolite. The 20 then think this reveals the ugliness of the village, what the village has always been like and how it should be changed. Anyone who expresses the wrong thinking is shut out of decent stations in the village.
Boy: Does this story have a happy ending?
Old Man: It could. But we are not there yet. The 40 are now really angry. Ignored by the few existing politicians, they help elect people who they think will represent their point of view. But the two or three elected officials they help into office quickly give in to their desire to be liked by the 20, who are, with their good manners, right thinking and knowledge of the world, very easy to like, when they like you.
Boy: But don’t people see what the 20 are doing?
Old Man: Most people if you let them have a taste of something special will want to come back for more. Especially if you make it seem harmless and fun. And so they really want to believe that what they are doing is right when it benefits them.
Boy: That sounds selfish.
Old Man: It most certainly is.
So as their elected politicians fail to speak for them, the 40 notice that the 20 make fun of the 40 more, in hopes to shame them more to try to change their minds, because if the 40 remain such a large group and convince just a few more people to vote with them, the 20 will have to rethink everything about the way of life they have come to love. So the 20 call the 40 names, even the names of enemies outside the village. And they tell them that they are afraid of change and cling to things that are not up to date (and the insult stings in part because it is true). The 40 are blamed for the injustices and inequalities of the early village, though in truth that can’t really be right because in the beginning it was the 20 who were most involved in running the affairs of the village and probably bear the most responsibility for anything unfair about the early village.
Boy: How do you make someone change their mind by insulting them? Won’t they just dig in their heels?
Old Man: If they are like your Grandma, they will. She can be a real mule if she feels you have put her friends or family down. And Grandma seems like a lot of people I know.
Boy: I would not want to get on the wrong side of Grandma.
Old Man: It is best not to. That’s my advice.
Now let me finish. The 40 are starting to really worry. The village they once knew is barely recognizable in the village they now know. They can accept that some things change but there is something more alarming. The 20 really, really do not seem to care for them, at all. The 40 start to think they let us fight the wars, but repudiate our simple thoughts, our consciences, and teach others they need not respect us. They blur distinctions between us and enemies from other villages. When we speak plainly we are shouted down. When we speak politely we are told we are sending secret offensive messages about things we do not believe. The 40 eventually reach the unsettling almost inescapable conclusion: It’s not what we say – it’s who we are.
Boy: It sounds like there are at least two villages in this one village.
Old Man: It kind of does, I suppose. I wasn’t sure where this was going as I told the story but it seems one thing led to another, and that is what happened. The 20 whose idea of progress at first watered down the idea of the village later created many villages out of one.
Boy: Where’s the happy ending?
Old Man: It’s coming but it is not here yet. They are still a hopeful people, just like us. And maybe all that’s needed is for the 20 to stop thinking about themselves and their narrow concerns and to start thinking about the happiness of the whole village again, which was the purpose of the hamlet from the very beginning. They renew their forgotten feelings about it and the happy moments when everyone stood together for a few minutes a day thinking about their devotion to a common good under rules that served everyone, not little groups. Say, it is getting late. The sun is almost set. Let’s get ready to take down the flag.