The Quirky Art of Mugwumps
If you read the articles and blog pieces at www.mediate.com with any regularity, you stand on ancient shoulders and are descended from a long line of ancestors. The impulse to manage conflict constructively goes back 40,000 years and spans 4,000 cultures and language groups. It runs parallel to our deepest destructive impulses as human beings.
Across time and distance, biological necessity and social ingenuity have created hundreds of artful political interventions in conflicts, among them, Hawaiian Ho’oponopono, the Leopard Chief practices of central Africa, the Rabbinic interventions of Central Europe, Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga procedures, the disentangling ceremonies of Melanesia, the peace pipe rituals of Native Americans, the Yoriai tradition of Japan, and the song contests of certain Eskimo peoples. From a certain angle, all of them are forms of mediation. The tribes of the Papua New Guinea highlands, for example, have an especially long and often nasty history of aggression. Fights typically start over the same things all of us dispute about: interpersonal disagreements, religious and philosophical differences, dominion, and domain.
The person who is good at preventing fights or settling them is called a “Big Man.” A respected and effective Big Man will use all kinds of clever devices to help the conflicting parties try and achieve a momentary parity that ends the conflict and averts bloodshed. Women –- the “Big Meris” -- have equivalent roles in their own circles. You might think of the Big Man as a variation of the term mugwump, a word that came into popular use during the US election of 1884.
That was the year when a reform-minded faction of the Republican Party led by Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and George Curtis refused to support the candidacy of James G. Blaine for the presidency. They strenuously objected to the political patronage tradition and the long running spoils system. Instead of lining up behind Blaine as they were expected to do, they formed a splinter group which came to be called the Mugwumps. Their particular political heresy was supporting a more progressive Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, who won the election. After the election, the Mugwumps returned to the Republican fold and Teddy Roosevelt went on to become president a few years later. But over time, the word “mugwump” became synonymous with people who refuse to follow the party line. Another connotation was “turncoat.”
Eventually, the term migrated to England where it meant both a person who couldn’t make up his or her mind as well as someone who remains aloof from public controversies. Albert J. Engle, a political commentator of the time, described a mugwump as “one of them boys who always has his mug on one side of the political fence and his wump on the other.” And Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary and other barbed writings, described a mugwump as “one who is afflicted with self-respect and addicted to the vice of independence.”
The most interesting part of the mugwump saga though belongs to the Puritan missionary John Eliot who used it in his translation of the Bible into Algonquian, a Native American language, in 1661 to convey the English words for “duke” and “centurion.” Charles Dana, a 19th century journalist with the New York Sun, seems to have picked up on this. He was the one who popularized the term “mugwump,” also taking it from the Algonquian Indian word “mogkiomp” which means, among other things, “Big Man.”
Today, the term is out of fashion, but still signifies a person who acts independently in political conflict. Mugwumpery requires a different way of thinking, behaving, and engaging. In their independent examination of the Iraq war, James Baker, Lee Hamilton and the other members of the Iraq Study Group became mugwumps for the Bush administration. So too Lucy Moore from Santa Fe. She is a mugwump when she brokers difficult meetings between Indian tribes and government agencies.
Then there is Paul Cosgrave, Sister Marilyn Ross, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, and Michael Lewis. Paul helped put together a “Liquor Accord” to combat chronic public drunkenness in one community in Sydney. Sister Marilyn of the Sisters of Mercy organized an improbable low-income housing coalition in Omaha. Former Senator George Mitchell helped forge the peace in Ireland. And Michael Lewis helped thousands of black farmers achieve negotiated settlements with the federal government.
We mediators are variations on the mugwump tradition but we all seem to have this in common. We keep our mugs on one side of specific conflicts and our wumps on the other. If you think there may be others with mugwump tendencies, take comfort from this. There are more of us around than you might think and we will continue to be one of humanity’s best-kept secrets, even in this peculiar age of resentment as it amplifies in tweets, memes, snapchats, and instagrams.