It’s common in a dysfunctional family for people to gang up on the family member who wants to make things better.

That’s probably how the Metro Charter Commission and Rebuild Government feel these days.  In return for suggesting there is a way for our community family to pull and work together, they have been vilified, derided and lied about. 

It’s been the political version of whack-a-mole.  Every time the latest untruth was corrected, two more would pop up.  Because it was next to impossible to correct them all, Charter Commission members leaned how difficult it was to debate the facts because they were on the wrong side of an avalanche of made-up “facts.”

So many people are comfortable in the dysfunction and fight to keep it. 

Fear of Facts

There’s the David Pickler approach that says that if someone can just keep making up enough numbers, it’ll sound like the truth.  So he says over and over that the charter’s single source funding (mandated by state law) will result in a $115 million tax increase: $80 million or so to meet the city’s current funding for Memphis City Schools and $35 million or so for Shelby County School’s ADA portion.

It’s just so much fuzzy math.  The $80 million or so is already being paid by Memphians and it would simply be moved to the general services district.  The other $35 million would go to Shelby County Schools.  In other words, Mr. Pickler is in the end opposing more funding for his own district after years of saying it needed more money. 

Meanwhile, inside Memphis, Al Sharpton parachutes into a local issue once again despite nothing more than a superficial knowledge about his topic.  He largely repeated National Action Network’s Greg Grant’s talking points and it was essentially a mistake a minute speech.  Strangely, Rev. Sharpton was supposedly speaking on behalf of AFSCME, but someone must have forgotten to tell him that AFSCME ‘s suggestion to the charter was included by the Charter Commission.

The old war horse from New York also beat the drum about diluting the black vote although he’s defending a city government whose Council now under-represents African-Americans and it’s a red herring anyway: African-Americans are the majority in population and voter registration, and its voting strength is destined to get stronger in the next decade.  Most of all, if consolidation is so bad, why isn’t Rev. Sharpton fighting to get rid of it in his hometown?  We bet he didn’t even know it was consolidated.

Off Track

But playing the victim is an essential part of our dysfunction and conflict feels familiar even if it’s self-destructive.  Like the family that fights to maintain the dysfunction, the only thing that brings many of these people together is the idea that they want to stay apart.

So, while Nashville competes with Charlotte to be the South’s #2 city, we’re happy to compete with each other.  At a time when we are falling farther and farther behind in jobs, income and talent, we are mortgaging the future by fighting to keep a past because it ensures our dysfunction.

Some people suggest that things aren’t really that bad.  It’s a delusion that comes from Memphis and Shelby County being largely off the grid when it comes to national discussions about great cities and the ambitious innovations they’re pursuing to catapult ahead in today’s complex, highly competitive economy.

As long as the dysfunction leads us to believe that Memphis and its suburbs can succeed while the other fails, we are seriously in trouble.  As long as the dysfunction leads us to believe that our community can frequent the bottom rungs of key indicators that matter when it comes to a city’s success, we’re asking for disaster.  As long as the dysfunction that feeds an attitude of scarcity that leads to a “if you’re winning, I must be losing” approach to civic issues, we are all losing.

It Feels So Normal

A psychiatrist friend was talking to us about dysfunctional families and the difficulty that members have in breaking away from the abusiveness and antagonism that are their constant companions. Ironically, in the midst of a destructive relationship, members fear – and fight – any change to things.

The problems are twofold: one, the family members think all families are like theirs, and two, the dysfunction becomes familiar and comfortable, albeit it hostile and painful.

In this environment, communications is raw and attacks are common, and communications has been used as a weapon so long that family members can no longer interpret each other dispassionately or react proportionally. Instead, every one is forced to take sides in every disagreement, escalating every issue into a controversy that bursts the family at its seams.

As he talked, we forgot for a moment that he was describing dysfunctional families. We thought he was describing Memphis.

Change We Can Believe In

But we didn’t tell him. Instead, we asked: What does someone do to change things?

He said that it’s not easy or quick. The people who use the dysfunction to have power resist change the most. They immediately feel threatened and set up roadblocks and obstacles. If people are serious about changing things, he said, there are several things they have to do:

1) They have to realize that one person’s not in charge of another person’s life;

2) They have to quit fighting old battles, because there are no winners, because every one loses;

3) They have to identify what they want to happen and then change their behavior to make it happen; and

4) They simply have to refuse to respond to the dysfunction or engage in the old combative ways of communicating.

Positive Attention

Maybe, before it’s over, we could actually attract national attention for a change for our ability to transcend our differences and abandon the bomb-throwing behavior that attracts national attention. It’s much more than simple decency (although that would be reason enough). Rather, it’s an economic necessity.

In a world of multitudinous ethnic groups, an assortment of religions, different sexual orientations and collections of cultures, a city that can’t respect its own differences can never connect – or compete – in a world whose overwhelming characteristic is its diversity.

Or put another way, a city that is open, inclusive and tolerant has the best chance of competing for the kinds of jobs – and workers – that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.