Weapons of Math Destruction

“Hey Kenny!  Look over here!”  The little tow-headed boy who, a few seconds ago, had left the group of grasping, pushing candy seekers to see if there was anything else of interest in the music store, is looking for confederates.  I’ve mentioned these young fellows a time or two before — the walkers, headed home or to the Boys and Girls Club after school.  Every day, they stop in for the free suckers we happily supply.  It’s an inexpensive public relations campaign.  I expect to get a return on my investment in the future, when the little imps are old enough to purchase guitars and ukuleles, to say nothing of the trumpets and clarinets they’ll need when they join the band.  But today, Kenny and his fair-haired friend need supervision.  I’ve seen the gambit before…No, I’ve worked this particular con myself, many years ago.  More about that in a minute…

It’s called “Divide and Conquer”; patterned after the war maneuver which sends combatants into the line of the enemy at several points to split the adversary into a number of small, ineffective groups of fighters, rather than one large, intimidating war machine. I normally don’t care to discuss arithmetic, but this quasi-mathematical  formula works in many different situations.  In this case, it means that a small group of boys will split off from the herd and while my attention is either on them or the herd, the group which is out of my field of vision is free to purloin any concealable items they happen to want.  A quick call and jerk of the head in the Lovely Lady’s direction, prompting her presence near the stray fellows is all it takes to restore a semblance of control, and they are out the door shortly, to try their hi-jinks another day.  It makes a lot more sense to head off any wrongdoing, keeping the boys as allies instead of antagonists.  Calls to parents and the local constabulary won’t help my long term plan for these young men any at all…

I smile as they head out the door, but my mind is drawn unbidden to the past, back forty-five years to an episode which I would rather forget forever.  On that summer day, so many years ago, the “Divide and Conquer” con was attempted and worked without a hitch.  I find myself wishing that it had not.

A bunch of the neighborhood boys were bored.  We had played “kick the can” until the can was unrecognizable from being kicked so often.  Before that, we had been up at dawn to fish for perch in the local storm drainage ditch, chasing the dragonflies and swallowtails along the banks until we tired of that.  The battle with slingshots and china berries had ended badly and we were anxious to put that behind us.  Finally, one of us piped up with what seemed a wonderful idea.  “Let’s go get a ‘raspa’!”  A raspa was nothing more than a snow-cone, but in the Rio Grande Valley, the Tex-Mex language had given us “raspa stands”, and there was one down the road three or four blocks, in front of a little mom-and-pop convenience store.  We had the price of two or three between the group of six or seven boys, so we headed down the blazing hot pavement toward the unfortunate business.

Along the way, someone had a bright idea.  “If she’s there by herself, we could get a five-finger discount on some cigarettes, while the rest of us get our raspa.”  We didn’t really smoke, but it seemed that this would be the right thing to steal, if one were going to steal.  David was designated as the operative, since he had on a long sleeve shirt.  He walked up to the store before us and sat on the bench out front.  The other guys all went inside and asked if we could get some raspas.  The aging lady behind the counter agreed and we headed out, making sure to arrange ourselves around the windows of the stand, so that all she could see clearly were the sun-bleached heads of a few boys and the dark complexions of several others.  As we exited the store, David slipped in and began stuffing his shirt full of cigarette packages.  Within a few moments, we had the fruit-flavored crushed ice desserts in hand and David had walked past, considerably larger around the mid-section than when he had gone in.  The smoke rose in clouds from our hiding places for days to come.  We thought we were the coolest gang of boys ever.

The shop owners are long since dead and the convenience store is no longer standing.  I still want someone to apologize to, some way to make amends.  The shame of that caper is still as fresh, still as odious as was the smoke that rose from our loot.  Oh, I have confessed the sin long ago to God and in His book, it will never be counted against me because of His grace.  Even so, the embarrassment remains, to be periodically dug up like old bones, in situations such as we encountered with the young lads recently.  I have actually argued with myself on any number of occasions about writing of it here.  I don’t want you to see the ugly things in my past.  It is not a pretty piece of history to dredge up.  What must you think about the real me, buried down deep?  Well, it’s on the table tonight.   Perhaps though, there’s something to be learned (besides the obvious).

I can’t help thinking that this “divide and conquer” game is played a lot more often than we imagine.  I’ve seen it in children, playing one parent against the other.  “Daddy, can we?  Mama says…”  They also play one social group against another.  “Why won’t you let me?  All the other kid’s parents are letting them…”  We see it in world politics.  Countries are splintered, with one tribal faction, one religious faction pitted against at least one, and sometimes many, others.  In country after country where this is the situation, there is no unity, no resolve to accomplish great things, and there is hunger, and poverty, and disease as a result.  The nations have been conquered from within, their divisions guaranteeing calamitous conditions beyond repair.  Around us in every direction, we see the same con game paying its disastrous dividends for the participants…our churches, our schools, our neighborhoods, our families.  “Divide and conquer” works!

The patriot Patrick Henry is credited with popularizing the phrase “United we stand, divided we fall” soon after the American Revolution, although actually the phrase appears in Aesop’s fables much earlier.  We realize the dangers of isolation, the need to stand together.  Yet again and again, we allow common things to drive wedges…pride, greed, arrogance, dogmas, the list is without end.  Division leads to defeat.

In my music store, it takes constant vigilance to keep from having what is innocuously described by the accountants as “shrinkage”.  We watch, we move items which are likely to be targets, we talk with each other about potential situations we have noticed.  When we let down our guard, we find empty packages behind equipment, and torn wrappers left among the merchandise in the display cases.  Just so, in our own lives, we cannot let down our vigilance for one moment.  We have to be aware of the changing landscape, and understand the danger to our souls when we allow even a single wedge to be driven.  If we stay ahead of the game, it doesn’t often take drastic action to effect the necessary reform.

Sometimes, all it takes for victory to be assured is the invitation for an extra pair of eyes to help sweep the field of battle.  Our brave Captain is on guard and I think I could be ready to help a little.  How about you?

“…so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every parts suffers with it.  If one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
(I Corinthians 12:25,26 NIV) 

“Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall;
In so righteous a cause let us hope to succeed,
For heaven approves of each generous deed.”

(excerpt from “The Liberty Song”~John Dickinson~American patriot~1732-1808)

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