My Wednesday began, literally right out of the gate in the morning, with the news making a fervent attempt to kill me. The first headline I saw was “CNBC Guest Compares Climate Change ‘Hype’ to the Holocaust,” with the money quote from this particular guest being, “The comment I made was, the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews.” The guest, as it turns out, is a physics professor at Princeton. I managed after a time to keep my brain from crawling out of my ear and jumping out the window, but it was a close shave.
Then I read a story about Senate Republicans blocking a Democratic bill that would have undone the damage caused by the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision regarding contraception for women. Why block the bill? Because, according to GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democrats “think they can score political points and create divisions where there aren’t any by distorting the facts.” Because irony is always awesome. Except when it isn’t. Like, at all.
Then I read an analysis of the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the plane that nobody wants because it doesn’t work – the entire fleet was recently grounded days before the fighter was to make its international debut – but which keeps getting funded to the tune of billions and billions of dollars. According to the analysis, the money being poured into this box of Fail is enough to purchase a $600,000 home for every single homeless person in the United States.
Then I read a story about a Texas minister named Charles Moore, who set himself on fire in the parking lot of a Dollar General store outside Dallas, in a final effort to protest the racism in his community. “I will soon be eighty years old, and my heart is broken over this,” wrote Rev. Moore in a farewell letter. “America (and Grand Saline prominently) have never really repented for the atrocities of slavery and its aftermath. What my hometown needs to do is open its heart and its doors to black people as a sign of the rejection of past sins.”
I had an appointment to keep at noon, so I slid this steaming plate of horror and doom away from me, got myself together, and hit the road.
And that’s when my day turned.
The town square of Nelson, New Hampshire, a few miles north of me, is no bigger than a minute. It does not have a single traffic light, and is defined by the perfect white New England edifice of the Nelson Congregational Church. GPS systems do not work in Nelson; the “You have arrived at your destination” announcement always comes when you’re still driving through the deep woods, 100 yards from where you’re trying to get to. On one sprawling piece of property there is a lovely farmhouse, and behind it sits a large barn guarded by a floppy yet friendly Basset hound. That barn was my destination, for within, The Game of Village was being played.
The Game of Village is a day-camp for children between the ages of ten and fourteen (9-year-olds are sometimes invited, if they prove themselves to be sharp enough to keep up with the curriculum) that takes place all over the country and in several parts of Europe. It is a five-week community-building exercise in which the kids create small anthropomorphic versions of themselves out of dowels and yarn called “Peeps.” The Peeps purchase “Homesteads,” build little houses on their patch of land, and engage in commerce with their neighbors. There is a bank, a store, a working radio station, and a newspaper, and each Peep (and their kid) take shifts running them.
According to the Game of Village website:
Homesteaders are granted a mini acre of land on which their PEEPS (short for miniature people) are required to reside, and make their home. Homesteaders may borrow money on their land at a land bank, without interest, and seek their fortunes as they will, for a stipulated period of time.
Constraints of time do not allow for every dream born of this bountiful opportunity to be realized, but the ones that come true are truly wonderful; and others may be stored in that wrinkle in time where they may grow and bear fruit later.
Village is not a programmed game. It is richly tempered by the creative spirit of its players. This does not mean that there is no sequential plan in the scheduling of events, but it does mean that outcomes are dictated, as they are in real life, by unforeseen circumstances, confrontations with natural laws, fortuitous events, personality differences and creative imagination.
Most importantly, however, there is also government, which is where I came in. A dear family friend sends her daughter to this camp (she’s one of the sharp 9-year-olds they invited), and convinced one of the adults running the camp (called “Commissioners”) to invite me to give a talk. The timing, as it turned out, was perfect. Initially, the kids had chosen Anarchy as their form of government, but that was quickly overthrown by a small cadre of campers who manage to institute an Oligarchy. The bank was promptly looted by an oligarch Peep (does life imitate camp, or does camp imitate life?), and several of the other campers began an insurgency to dump the Oligarchy in favor of Democracy.
When I arrived, the children were arrayed across the main workroom, engaged in various projects. Some were repairing damaged Peeps, others were working their shifts at the bank and the store, and still others were debating the relative merits of their preferred form of government. It was a loose, friendly environment created, with little obvious influence from the adults, by what was clearly a very special group of kids. After I was introduced to each table, everyone gathered in a circle in the next room to hear what I had to say.
My talk centered loosely around the article I wrote last week about the legacy of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Here was a man, I said to the kids, of exceeding privilege and power, a true child of the Oligarchy, who spent his entire campaign advocating for the poor and the downtrodden, for the rights of the little guy, and on the wanton amorality found in the fact that the wealthiest nation on Earth did not care for its neediest citizens.
What does that say about Oligarchy, I asked them? What does that say about Democracy? A dozen hands flew into the air, and the Q-and-A session lasted a full hour. When I was their age, I was preoccupied with shoving Star Wars figures up my nose. These kids, however, asked amazing questions. Have there been any Oligarchies in history that worked? What are the problems with a Theocracy? Is Democracy always good? At one point, I was able to hammer home what I thought was a deeply important point to make: any form of government, even Democracy (especially Democracy) can be unbelievably destructive if it falls into the wrong hands, if it is not carefully tended to by the citizens it represents. I pointed around the room at each and every one of them and said, “That’s you.”
The news was still terrible when I got home – and has grown worse by orders of magnitude since Wednesday – but a few miles north of me, glowing like a coal in the night, a bunch of kids are immersed in the practice of community and good government. They are engaged, learning how to express themselves, learning how to work together, learning how to be real and effective citizens. They will carry those experiences with them into adulthood, and improve their world. Coals like that are glowing, as we speak, all across these United States, thanks to the Game of Village.
That, right there, is hope.
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