Human Nature Doesn’t Stop at the State Line

by rthieme on December 15, 2003

“It’s different in Wisconsin”

The first time I heard that was as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during a political science course. I had lived until then in Chicago and when I raised issues based on my experience with the Richard J. Daley machine, the instructor laughed at my naiveté and spoke of Lafollette Progressives and Socialist mayors which, she suggested, were the proper benchmarks for Wisconsin politics and, indeed, Wisconsin culture.

“We’re not like Chicago,” she said. “It’s different in Wisconsin.”

When I moved to Milwaukee sixteen years ago I heard the same refrain. In the meantime I had lived in Madrid, London, Salt Lake City, and on Maui before returning to the Midwest, so I knew something about other cultures. I knew that basic cultural assumptions are often invisible to members of a culture like water to a fish. I also knew something of tribal loyalty whether it was mocking derision directed at Chicago corruption or Packer backers bashing Bear fans. Primitive feelings about our inherent superiority to our neighbors run deep.

After transferring to Northwestern for my final three years of college, I worked with the Daley machine in my precinct and ward in exchange for patronage jobs. Everything I learned about how it worked in Chicago was true to its reputation. I delivered money and liquor to poorer voters in exchange for votes while the alderman took care of zoning changes for those that needed something more. I observed that if our alderman had four ways of doing something and three were legal, he would do it illegally just to maintain his integrity.

Still, there was something refreshing about deals getting done on the top of the table. Everybody knew the rules. If you needed something, you came up with a quid pro quo. The Mayor, a master at knowing what others needed, used to invite attackers to his office. “So what do you need?” he always asked, and once they had it, Republicans became Democrats and detractors became supporters. I learned that partisan positions usually stem from simple self interest.

Chicago was a good place to learn about how people really work. Those lessons helped me understand members of the parishes I served as an Episcopal priest for sixteen years because people everywhere have the same needs and the same levels of self-interest. Those are basics of human nature, and I learned that there was nothing shameful in being human. The compassion I developed as a minister came from the realization that whatever burden someone confessed, I might have done the same thing under the same circumstances. Nobody has the high moral ground.

Still I was told: “It’s different in Wisconsin.”

Indeed, there are differences in how the deal gets done up here, but it’s not what people think. The major difference is that while human nature leads to the same human flaws and behaviors, the commitment to denial is so strong in our culture that the deal is done under the table instead of on top of it. That way deal-makers can insist that everything’s on the up and up and people want to believe them.

Appearance matters more than reality.

“What will the neighbors think?” is emblazoned on the flag that flies above us. Or as someone said when I interrupted an angry rant to tell the ranter that I belonged to the very group she was savagely attacking, “Oh! If I had known, I wouldn’t have said anything.”

I agree with Walt Whitman, who said there is about as much good and evil in the world now as there always was and that it is pretty much evenly distributed. Walt wouldn’t be popular in a place where the fault is found not in the being or the doing but in the saying so.

Now some of our mighty have fallen. Local financial heroes like Bill Nasgovitz and Dick Strong lead the parade of investment managers charged with serious indiscretions. From the state level with its caucus scandals to the pension scandal in Milwaukee County to local alderman sentenced to jail, malfeasance at all levels of our public life has been exposed. It’s not that it wasn’t always there, it’s just that it happened under the table while everybody pretended they were dealing sheepshead, not making deals.

The issue is not whether or not Wisconsinites are more or less righteous than Chicagoans. People are people. The issue is what we do with self-knowledge now that we have it.

That’s where cultural differences make a HUGE difference. A culture determines what we believe are appropriate actions. A culture that denies it’s all-too-human roots is setting itself up to be taken to the cleaners. A culture that recognizes our common flaws, on the other hand, and knows what can happen if they are ignored or denied recognizes that we need transparency in government, a meaningful system of checks and balances, and a skeptical sense of humor when hypocrites pretend to be our moral benchmarks.

That’s where Chicago might have an advantage. A more freewheeling environment lets people come to the table based on what they have of value. People get down to what they need and trade on that basis. It may not look like a Sunday School, but maybe that self-awareness is one reason Chicago is a regional center and we’re an economic satellite.

We are the same people whether fifty miles north of the state line or fifty miles south. Human nature does not cash in its chips at the border. The evidence of our humanity is in,  so can we admit that our founding fathers were wise to provide checks and balances because they knew that honest people might do the wrong thing if no one is watching? Trust but verify, said President Reagan, speaking of the Russians, but the Russians were saying it too, speaking of us. Can we accept that the enemy needs to be watched just as closely when the enemy is us?

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