When I was working as a teacher, I loved the phrase “best practices.” It suggested pooled wisdom, a collective weeding out of the more effective from the less effective; a distillation of the authentic out of a world of potential baloney. It implied disinterested cooperation to figure out what really does work when we’re trying to help children learn. Any collection of best practices would synergize with each other in a perfect storm of competency.
I heard the phrase again during the extended health care reform debate, in one of the most sensible discussions of the issues broadcast on the radio. A gentleman named T.R. Reid had gone to four countries and picked out sensible options that could work well here in the U.S. For example, French citizens have an electronic card that has their entire medical record on it. When they visit a clinic, the doctor gets the needed data off the card. What a great idea!
But of course in “real life,” the corrupt processes of our politics boil most suggestions for best practices away; what remains is a residue composed of the shortsighted interests of the powerful. And, as we have learned from watching contemporary institutions like our own Supreme Court at work, apparent disinterestedness can often mask a latent political bias.
I know that Washington and other capitals of the world are dotted with think tanks that aspire to disinterested best practices. But there is something about the distance between the pace of the challenges we face as a planet and the molasses-like speed of elite research and legislative change that seems not only grossly inadequate but also intolerable. The oil disaster in the Gulf is one good example. There is the black goo that coats the wings of pelicans, and the thicker, blacker political goo that paralyzes the thinking processes of our lawmakers and bureaucrats. The mainstream media, gigantic corporate interests often owned by even bigger gigantic corporate interests, are not in a position to lead on this proactively.
Maybe what we need is a People’s Manhattan Project of Best Practices. The Internet makes it possible! Wikipedia, while not perfect, is one possible model. Offer a site with a series of issues, and open it to disinterested creative ideas about all our challenges — nuclear weapons, global climate change, pollution, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how to accelerate positive social change. Arrange a voting system where people can see the raw contributions, make comments, and move the best ideas to the forefront without erasing those wild and crazy contributions that might just turn out to be valuable in the long run.
Ideas are powerful, especially when they bubble up from “ordinary” people all around the world. When they do come from global sources, they also represent a meta-idea, which is that posing enemies is obsolete. As the oil spreads into the entire single ocean system on complex currents, once more we are reminded that we are all in this together. It is really dysfunctional to blame and demonize others in this oil-spill crisis. My own demand for inexpensive gasoline fueled it.
The same is true for many other crises, even big ones like war. War depends on the ability of one group to dehumanize another group to the point where the necessary violence and killing can be rationalized. But if we open the prevention of war itself to a disinterested worldwide forum, there are no enemies, there are only members of the human species sharing ideas about alternatives to war, resurrecting that old 1960s bumper-sticker possibility: what if they gave a war and (because everyone knew the best practices for resolving conflict without violence) nobody came?
Winslow Myers, a retired teacher and author of “Living Beyond War,” lives in Boston and serves on the Board of Beyond War, a non-profit, non-political foundation exploring and promoting alternatives to war.