It was obvious, once I thought about it.
I’m reading a story in the New York Times about how the Kremlin has schemed for years to blame its interference in our 2016 presidential election on Ukraine — when it hits me. It’s clear who’s behind it all.
To review: a big, powerful government — which has its own issues for sure, but it’s expert at deflecting attention away from them by belittling others — uses every underhanded, manipulative trick it can think of to whittle away at its rival country.
You know, the country it pretends to be friends with now, even though it wasn’t very long ago that the two of them hated each other openly? That one.
And guess what?
All the rumor-spreading and the misinformation and pitting factions against each other starts to pay off. After a few years, the rival country is so full of internal division, its citizens so distrustful of their leaders, their institutions, and their news outlets that none of them know what to believe or who to listen to anymore.
So they start screaming at each other instead, and it’s all a hot mess.
It takes the rival country’s presidential election going all the way off the rails before it finally catches on. Once it starts investigating, evidence of the scheming government’s deceptions and misdeeds starts to pile up until it becomes irrefutable.
So what does the scheming government do?
It blames everything on a third country, a smaller and weaker one. The one it’s already targeting for refusing to get in line with its diabolical mission and standing up to it when it acts like a bully.
Who behaves like this? I work at a middle school so I can tell you.
Mean girls, that’s who. My bet is on seventh-graders.
Don’t get me wrong, please. I work in middle school education because I like kids this age. I find them fascinating, and I empathize with the unique challenges they confront as they make their way through the tumultuous passage between the elementary grades and high school.
In my heart, I hold every single one of our students in the light.
But that doesn’t mean I like all of their behavior. And when a group of seventh-grade girls coalesces around a negative agenda, the results can go very dark, very quickly.
I’ve had many a victimized student in my office over the years, besieged young Ukraines who, as though the waters of early adolescence aren’t turbulent enough, have to spend every moment swimming with sharks.
The targeted students, who can be of any gender, have their self-esteem eaten away through a bite here — exclusion — and a bite there — a vicious Snapchat campaign, say — until they have trouble showing up at school at all.
Okay, so maybe Russian intelligence isn’t literally employing seventh-grade girls.
But they certainly employ the same basic tactics. They just have more access to the means of spreading their nefarious influence.
How do you neutralize the destructive effects of a foreign power that seeks to turn your nation’s citizens against one another, like a virus seeking to infect your civic body with an autoimmune disease?
You deal with it like you deal with a mean-girl clique.
The first step is to recognize what’s going on and the damage it’s causing. And that means valuing, above all, the health and welfare of the polity as a whole.
This is easier said than done. It requires resisting the temptation to pile on with the meanies when they come up with something deliciously catty and aimed at the faction you don’t agree with.
You spot their manipulative tactics and reveal them for what they are. Lay bare the fallacy of their nasty rumors. Call out their baseless conspiracies and the logical flaws behind their spurious claims. Refuse to be drawn in.
You take their toys away to the extent you are able. Most powerfully, you stop feeding their dark agenda with your attention.
But here’s the thing: we have to be the adults in the room.
Can we? Will we? Heading into what history will almost certainly deem the most critical election cycle in our nation’s life, the one that will determine our survival — or not — as a nation conceived in liberty and based upon principles much more elevated than the notion that might makes right, the answer remains to be seen.
It’s scary to stand up to bullies. But I’ve seen victimized tweens, along with their brave and right-minded supporters, do exactly that, at great risk to their emotional and even physical safety.
And you know what? That courage shatters the power of a mean-girl campaign. In the best of scenarios, it even brings the mean girls back to their better natures.
We can be brave. And we can hope.