Playing Chicken is No Game

When we were kids, we occasionally played a game of chicken on our bikes.  Two of us would ride toward each other – as fast as we could, and the one who veered off at the last minute was identified – no, ridiculed, as a chicken.  A real wuss.  A designation no one wanted. There was one incident when neither of us turned away at the last second, and our tires collided – and popped.  We weren’t thrown off our bikes exactly, but we could have been.  We laughed it off, but beneath our chuckles we realized that the results could have been much worse.

I don’t remember playing chicken again. 

As we know, the Federal government is headed to financial default unless it raises the debt ceiling.  The current standoff has been described as a high-stakes game of chicken.  At this point in the ongoing saga, neither the President nor the House Republicans want to veer off.   If there is a collision, we are being told that the economic fallout will be devastating, but apparently not as devastating as being called a wuss.

What I realized as an 11-year-old after a chicken induced bike crash, and what I am observing now as the two sides careen toward a collision, is that the result of the debt ceiling debate, if not resolved, will involve violence.  There will be political violence visited on the “losing” side, as they will be identified – at least for several news cycles, as chickens.  Various predictions expect that businesses will be negatively affected, and that the stock market may go into freefall.  The decision-makers may experience some temporary – or perhaps long-term economic challenge, but they figure they can get by, if not laugh it off.

What is certain to me is that whenever there is economic gamesmanship that is being played in the political arena, people who are economically poor will suffer the most.  As a result of this potential impasse, more people who are in precarious financial situations will end up in poverty.

And to my mind, poverty is a form of violence.

In his recently published book, Poverty, by America, author Matthew Desmond makes the case that, for those of us who have discretionary financial resources, are complicit in and capitalize on a system that keeps people in poverty.  Late fees and financial punishments for bouncing checks – which Desmond says total $18 billion a year, enable many of us to have free checking and other financial perks.  It is a game of chicken that most of us don’t know we are playing.  And there is resultant violence, which we work hard at not seeing.

When we set out as kids to play chicken on our bikes, we were filled with an adrenaline rush.  It was fueled by an urge to take risks, an aspiration for power, and a desire to dominate.  In the years since, I have watched various groups get caught up in the same adrenaline rush.  Holding on to a position – and refusing to let go, simply because they could.  Winning was paramount.  Desire for power and domination dominated everything.  Consequences were regarded as inevitable collateral damage, and were either buried or ignored.  They were, after all,  wusses with little or no value.

For decades now, America has been playing chicken with the use and regulation of guns.  One side has dug in, and in my experience after years of working in this arena, refuses to veer off.  Their refusal has led to a frightening escalation of gun violence, and those consequences are invariably blamed on people in poverty, the mentally ill, the breakdown of the family, or government overreach.    The desire to dominate – by fortifying individuals, households – and increasingly schools, with ever more weapons, has resulted in tragic results.   

The violence wreaked by economic malfeasance and by the ongoing proliferation of guns is more than disturbing.  It is destabilizing.  Lives are being ruined or lost.  “Chicken”, engaged in such high stakes, is no game.

Matthew Desmond calls upon his readership to become “poverty abolitionists.”  I would expand that to a need for us to examine our complicity in violence – poverty being one of its consequences; and to develop disciplines and practices to renounce it.   









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