Jacalyn Carfagno: Election-year cynicism blunted by Halloween's social benefits

Herald-Leader columnistNovember 6, 2012 

Jacalyn Carfagno

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Halloween in a presidential election year is tailor-made for jokes about our process and the people involved. By this point, it sometimes seems as if the candidates are little more than the sum of their campaign ads, the pundits' one-liners, their own 30- second pitches. It's hard to sort out the real from the false, tell what or who is under that suit, behind that mask.

I think there's another way of linking Halloween and elections. Bear with me, I'm not joking: Rather than serving as a cynical proxy for elections and candidates, Halloween can be an antidote, an event that restores faith.

I offer three stories, two personal.

1. Several years ago as my friend and I headed down the last block with our sugar-sated children after a long siege of trick-or-treating that had extended beyond the legally recognized hours, a police car pulled up to us. We didn't worry about being booked for going beyond the deadline but wondered if we'd be chided as that window slid down. What we saw instead was a female police officer offering our kids candy. She'd missed handing out candy at home that night, she said, so she carried some along to offer kids as she made her rounds.

2. I thought trick-or- treating would be very light this year. The weather was nasty and predicted to get nastier. I was wrong. Kids and their parents were out in force, going door to door in that slow-mo way I remembered all too well, trying to keep costumes together. I never heard a complaint about the weather, even as an icy rain began to pelt us. Among all the princesses, cartoon characters, skeletons and superheroes, I also got one Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books, two owls and one indigo bunting. A good night.

I've wondered about Halloween off and on for years. Why did it mean so much to me when that police officer gave us candy? Why was I so happy when I discovered that we'd moved with our 4-year-old daughter into one of the greatest neighborhoods for Halloween anywhere, the kind that attracted kids from other parts of town? Why do I keep handing out candy even though that little girl is off at college?

The answer is behind story number 3.

Not so long ago I heard an interview with David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist who has turned his discipline on modern life to study how cooperation works in communities. He maps neighborhoods for what's called in his field "prosocial behavior." Some indicators are no surprise: a low crime rate is a positive indication of prosocialty. But Wilson said he also looks at some non- traditional indicators, including Halloween participation.

"Everyone remembers as a kid that some neighborhoods are better than others for trick-or-treating," Wilson said. They're not just better at Halloween, they're better all the time. "From an adult perspective, decorating one's house, buying treats and staying at home are expressions of interest in one's neighborhood," he said. That's prosocial, it makes for better neighborhoods which make for better towns and cities.

There's a reinforcing loop here. "People take their cues from their environments," Sloan said. Welcoming environments cue people to be civil and courteous; hostile and disorderly environments provide the opposite cues.

Sloan talked about an experiment that involves a letter, obviously full of money, sticking halfway out of a mailbox. People are much more likely to do the right, the prosocial, thing and push it the rest of the way in when that mailbox is in an area that's clean and orderly.

But the same people, if they come across that letter in a mailbox surrounded by litter and graffiti, are much more likely to pursue their own interests and take the money.

Voting is very important but often very abstract. It can be hard to draw a direct line from casting a vote to how we're governed, how we live. That's why Paul Simon, the late U.S. senator from Illinois, planted a tree every Election Day, just so he'd know that something good happened that day.

So, I'm thankful Halloween came just as we are losing faith in democracy, sick to death of this election process we hold so dear. It offered me a concrete way to abandon cynicism and practice my own personal form of nation building. And I got to meet superheroes and some of my favorite birds, too.

Jaci Carfagno: Jcarfagno@herald-leader.com.

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