Connectedness

#Charlottesville

It’s time to act. Heather Heyer updated her Facebook page shortly before she was murdered by racial hate in Charlottesville this weekend. She added the quote, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.”

Be outraged. Find a cause in your community and become an active agent working toward the future we believe is ours. Remember Heather.

This Week’s Canvas: On Getting Things Right

There’s no magic trick for picking three stories to put at the top of the concerned citizen’s reading list. I struggle to survive the daily deluge of news just like everyone else. I often fiddle with the idea that this week was the week when it became impossible. Fortunately there was one headline this round that kept me focused:

What if Politicians Studied the Social Fabric like Economists Study GDP: One of Washington’s most conservative legislators on an age of polarization, inequality and fragmentation

I took the bait before I read the last word. What if? What if politicians and partisans took some responsibility for maintaining trust in our institutions? What if we all worked hard at getting things right and let the party’s wins depend on that?

And then I had this week’s list. Here’s hoping that Senator Lee’s project continues to be interesting to follow.


 It’s not Watergate

You may have noticed a new name in the headlines. Riding a blast from the past, writers jumped right over affixing a “-gate” to things and started comparing Trump’s White House to Richard Nixon’s. There are echoes, smoking guns and secret tapes to prove this is how impeachment starts. A fair comparison, however, might be more difficult than the talking points allow.

Bob Woodward talked about the comparison with the Washington Post:

It’s clearly a legitimate investigation, and Trump doesn’t like it. We’ll see. Some people think it’s a coverup already. Others think there’s no evidence, and let’s see. And what’s worrisome to a reporter interested in getting facts is, this is so polarized, this is so emotional. This is driven by tweets and assertions from people who don’t really know. It’s too bad we live in this Internet culture of impatience and speed, and it does not set us on the road to gathering facts.

Getting caught up in the pace of these comparisons makes it easy to forget that stable government requires meeting a high bar for impeachment charges. That’s one way to know it isn’t a witch hunt.

The Problem with Pre-Existing Conditions

Something that seems to have dropped out of the headlines is the American HealthCare Act. The U.S. House celebrated passing it like it was a done deal but now the Senate has it and no one is talking about it. Slate suggested it’s the Senate’s strategy to act busy. Very busy. There’s lots of legislating to do and the road ahead is complicated with many Republican concerns to navigate. The party isn’t wasting this time though. They have launched an ad campaign to shape what Americans think about the proposal even though our elected representatives seem to be a bit fuzzy on important questions like who wins and who loses. There’s also the strategy of skipping the questions.

Politics as team sport isn’t nearly as important here as understanding what the proposed changes might mean to you. Lifehacker waded through all the muck about pre-existing conditions to get straight to the point:

The ACA didn’t define pre-existing conditions, either, because it essentially outlawed the concept. Insurers had to set their rates for entire groups of people based on age and smoking status—”community rating”—and couldn’t charge you a different price due to your health status.

The new health care bill removes that provision. If a state asks for a waiver, then insurers in that state can use health status to set premiums again. For young and healthy folks, insurance will be cheap. But as soon as you get some kind of health problem, you’re in trouble. If you ever have a gap in coverage and need to go shopping again, you could find that the price of coverage is astronomical.

There’s also a concern about drafting healthcare legislation like this without including women in the working group. That tricky question about requiring maternity coverage doesn’t appear to have bothered anyone involved in drafting the legislation. See what they did there? When your “optics” are bad, there’s a good chance your policies are too.

Remembering History Like it Makes a Difference

Working to get our history right seems like a fitting task for a Memorial Day weekend. The last of the Confederate monuments came down in New Orleans this week. The effort overcame courtroom challenges and persisted despite the armed opponents that gathered in public parks. Politicolor already pointed to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s eloquent remarks about the opportunities that come to us when we face the “searing truth” of our history and a NYT Opinion piece gave Landrieu credit for “putting some poetry back in public life.” Here’s another gentle nudge to make time for this story this week.

Listen to his remarks here. There’s something great about hearing these words, as large as the American project itself, delivered in a local voice. ABC News has video of a statue’s removal and a few interesting pictures too.

What we’ll add here are the personal stories from people who have had to carry the burden of these symbols. From Topsy Chapman, a local musician:

I passed those New Orleans monuments all the time for most of my adult life. It never dawned on me that those statues were really honoring those people. But that point was made clear to me by the people who fought to keep the monuments there.

We know it’s a part of history. It happened. That’s the way things were in those days. But why do you want to hold on to something so evil?

From Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy:
What we do in the memorial spaces says a lot about who we are. The American South is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. We are celebrating the architects and defenders of slavery. I don’t think we understand what that means for our commitment to equality and fairness and justice.

Landrieu offers a “message about the future.” He sees an opportunity for citizens to work together and lead the country from New Orleans by making it “the City we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place.”

Here’s to a long weekend and the hard work of getting things right.

Together as One People

The original project to unite the people of the United States as one people began in May 1787. There’s a project taking place in New Orleans today that reminds us the project continues. The city started removing Confederate statues in the middle of the night. The original proposal to remove the symbols came in the wake of  the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and encountered countless legal challenges.

The time had come to take the statues down. The opposition gathered with Confederate flags and weapons on display. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke eloquently about why this project was necessary for getting our past right and for building a better future together.

You can’t do any better to remember what our veterans have fought for than to read the mayor’s full remarks.

Ralph Ketcham: A Champion for Civic Education

Civic Education lost a powerful voice for meaningful civics this week. While some count political wins with states adding the citizenship test to graduation requirements, Ralph Ketcham led the charge for civic education that was “interdisciplinary, team-taught and driven by deliberation on current events.” That’s civics worth doing and adds up to a political life worth sharing.

When I attended an institute with Ketcham’s biography of Madison on the reading list, I was skeptical of the agenda. 761 pages published in 1971 for a one-week institute in 2005. I will, however, recommend it today and every time I’m asked until my last day. The synopsis from Amazon nails the reason why:

The best one volume biography of Madison’s life, Ketcham’s biography not only traces Madison’s career, it gives readers a sense of the man.

A sense of the man, his intellect and the theory of self-government that compelled him. Sharing that week with Ralph Ketcham himself and walking the grounds of Madison’s Montpelier, I had the privilege of a guided tour of Madison’s mind. It’s a place in time that I return to often, especially when contemplating how to best understand the citizen’s role.

Godspeed, Ralph.

My Fellow Americans: Good Government is a Good Thing

Shortly after Donald J. Trump took the oath of office, one of this country’s most treasured celebrities posted a new status update. I’m talking about George Takei. He told us we had to “remind ourselves that good government is a good thing,” and added a warning that,” Without this belief, we are lost.” He navigated the Star Trek universe so Takei’s lead is a good one to follow.

This belief in good government helps us make sense of our past and think through the citizen’s role today. It helps us parse the words of elected representatives who understand who we are and those who would make us something else. When you address the American people, you should remember that we’re a people who believe good government is a good thing.

Understanding our History and Ourselves

Yes, it started with a rebellion, but we are a people who were founded in the pursuit of good government. We might champion our insurgency and make a spectacular showcase of our independence every July 4th, but the fight in 1776 was a fight for good government. Look at the Declaration, the document that announced our intentions. Immediately after “the right of the People to alter or abolish” government there is the right “to institute new Government, laying its foundation” on the principles of equality, inalienable rights and the consent of the governed. This list is the stuff of good government. The principles embedded in the logic of that founding document reappear throughout our history as a test, how we know good government from bad.

In the Jefferson’s next move in 1776, he sketched an image of absolute tyranny through negligent government. Those complaints, however, also add as the American people’s repeated appeals for good government.

Declaration Drafting Committee (Photo by Mike Licht)

Good government requires laws, “the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

Good government requires laws to address issues of “immediate and pressing importance” without conditions requiring the governed to compromise their right to representation.

Good government requires legislative decision-making free of harassment for opposing “invasions on the rights of the people.”

Good government requires an independent judiciary.

Coming into view on the world stage for the first time, the American people introduced themselves as a people who would pursue good government while resisting designs “to reduce them under absolute despotism.”

In lobbying for the new Constitution in 1787, James Madison shared how those despotic designs might appear among the people themselves. In Federalist №10, he points to “complaints everywhere heard” that “our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties,” and that these conflicts are too often decided by “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” Madison suggested that “unsteadiness and injustice” marked a government with a “factious spirit.”

In Federalist №14, he pleads that his readers resist the “unnatural voice” that suggests disunion and threatens to poison the “kindred blood” of the American people. Madison’s fellow-citizens had to “excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals and enemies.” Unstable, unreasonable and self-interested government dominated by the passion of a majority rather than the reasoned pursuit of the public good would have only one result: “rendering us in pieces.”

 

Patriotic Petworthians photo by HeatherMG

Thinking Through the Citizen’s Role

Madison countered this dismal picture of a faction-riddled government with the strength of the American people who persisted in their pursuit of good government. He wrote that the American people were a people who had used the “suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation and the lessons of their own experience” to protect “private rights and public happiness.” In adopting the new Constitution, the American people were fulfilling their duty to “improve and perpetuate” the work of the previous generation. The American project is designed to use the work that has come before us to pursue the principles that have animated that work all along.

This iterative logic is central to understanding our role as citizens. Our support and opposition, both formal and informal, guide a sometimes clunky process of attaining the principles embedded in our original programming. When we refuse to let go of the idea that good government is worth pursuing, we also align to an even larger project: the work of understanding human experience.

A hopeful note appeared in The Guardian a month after Trump won the election. Rebecca Solnit initiated the essay with an understanding about the relationship between hope and taking action toward a cause:

It is the belief that liberation might be possible that motivates you to make it more possible, and pursuing hope even when it doesn’t lead to the ultimate goal can generate changes that matter along the way, including in yourself.

The explainer at the top of the article assures us that the “American people will stand up for ideals of humanity, from lawyers to tech workers to the California Senate.” And that’s how George Takei knows we would be lost without our willingness to believe in good government. The world knows who we have professed to be and has heard our appeals for good government echo throughout history in places distant from us. They have cited our example when making their own appeals.

In acting up to pursue a cause that matters to us, we serve our country, upholding its founding principles and helping to navigate complex questions or difficult controversies. We stand up for those principles, refusing to let them be whittled down to something less than what has guided us through our tumultuous past. When we persist in standing up for these principles, we realize the hopes of those who have gone before us and make hope possible for all people who seek freedom, equal treatment and self-determination.

 
Patriotic Boque photo by Tronoski Photography

George Takei can see the way forward. We are a people who believe good government is a good thing. We won’t recognize ourselves and the world won’t know who we are if we allow the challenge of the moment to take that away.

Editor’s Note: November 2016 and Finding the Way Forward for Civic Education

Returning to “online news” with a fair measure of caution, I read a suggestion to “find solace in your tribe,” and I knew exactly who I needed to talk to in the days ahead. I have always counted a particular network of civic educators as one of the priceless assets of my career. Failing to put a value on it, however, puts it at risk of the same calculation that has allowed STEM education to push civics out of classrooms. All signs indicate that our communities might be more at risk than ever.

We need civics. It’s time we pull together, assess the strength of our work and put our weight into constructive opposition. Here’s what I think we can do together.

Civic Education as Our North Star

Like you, I spent this week wading through “What Do We Do Next? posts. My momentum for civic work hadn’t just disappeared, it had capsized. I recognized the frustration too. Like my fellow civic educators, I have watched Civic Education lose class time to the push for more math, science and engineering. STEM Education advocates point to a list of careers with higher than average salaries and proceed as though cutting civics to add more STEM is a matter of simple math. We have all shaken our heads wondering what it would take to convince people that living well in community with one another is an essential pursuit with a value that reaches beyond these calculations of lifetime earnings potential. This knowldge of living well together shapes that potential for all of us even if our economists have yet to develop a model for it.

When I felt like I had managed to read the whole Internet’s take on what to do next, it was a local activist’s post that pointed me to my tribe and marked out the way forward. Matt wrote:

Find your north star. Be inspired. Work towards that inspiration and keep that focus. Are you inspired by voter engagement? Do that. What are your goals? If you figure that piece out, outcomes like an election only reinforce your work or give you clarity to refine your tactics.

The Tribe in blue (sometimes National Academy alumni are spotted wearing matching shirts)

This is where I want help from the tribe. We have a network of civic educators scattered across the country who have all shared the experience of the Center for Civic Education’s National Academy for Civics and Government. We have other educators, learning professionals and community members who understand our quest and want to help. We have old friends with many conversations behind them and new allies joining us for the work ahead. The power of this tribe is in the combination of our perspectives. I could gather thought-provoking conversations about what to do next, one after another, and keep myself busy for days. In the end, the potential of every conversation would be limited to the two people who had heard it. I’m not looking for busy work. I’m looking for momentum to make Civic Education a guiding star in the days ahead.

The debate about whether or not we need civics is absurd. Consensus around its necessity grows with each new headlines and the talking points stack up. At the same time, we’re being enlisted to promote even smaller ideas of what passes for civics. A citizenship test yields answer-givers, not capable citizens. A computer game wraps that basic knowledge in a more entertaining package but does little to pursue better outcomes. We have been asked to accept an idea of Civic Education that yields little resistance to the talking points dressed up as serious issues dominating social media.

What I’m Asking You to Do

Civic Education has been the north star for many of us for a very long time. We know it has the potential to make all the difference for healthy communities as well as electoral outcomes.

We need to create a channel where our expertise is accessible outside the classroom. We need to offer some sort of transparency to our thinking so that accusations of inculcating “partisan thinking” fall on deaf ears. We need to demonstrate how people in their own communities concerned to bring Civic Education to their gatherings can do that.

Let’s talk to one another and work together to identify what has been lost, what we might revive and where we should innovate to bring the Civic Education we need back into our classrooms and communities. Let’s get those ideas out of the classroom. I want to hear your ideas. I want to help you write them up here at Politicolor and to promote them from here.

Let’s Talk: A Conversation about Faith & Understanding at a Texas High School

The posters extended an invitation: “Let’s Talk.” The next line hinted at a joke that could get uncomfortable… “A Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu Walk into a School.” At Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas, three students looked beyond that discomfort to step into the spotlight and answer questions about their beliefs.

Jay Schlaegel, a Senior there, crafted the invitation to get people talking about the event. He recalls noticing the frustrations he knew from national headlines had started to gain traction in his community. Jay talks about the “small shifts” he saw in how people talked to one another, and then adds, “That’s not Frisco. We celebrate diversity.” He started to imagine a public conversation that challenged misconceptions with open communication and a willingness to work together.

Flyer image for Let's Talk

From the evening’s poster; Event held May 12th at Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas

With careful planning, Jay led his community through much more than an uplifting evening. The final event buzzed with potential as community members came together in an act showing their shared commitment to faith and to understanding each other.

The three students taking the stage that night — Jay, Shahir Ahmed and Roshni Parikh —  represented their community at its best. Their diverse perspectives became a show of strength as they modeled the work of cultivating a shared understanding. By the evening’s end, the buzz over what the event might be gave way to a conversation-filled auditorium where attendees talked about carrying this work into their neighborhoods and workplaces.

Jay shared his work with Politicolor as a way to amplify those conversations and to help them reach communities beyond his own.

A Big Plan for Keeping it Simple

Walking through the planning process, Jay talks about the three lead student roles and an extended cast of VIPs who supported them. The audience also became part of that extended cast. With lights turned up on a seemingly casual conversation between confident student leaders, the event looked like an informal get together where respect came easy with the support of Liberty’s school community. Making it an easy proposition for the audience, however, came as the result of careful planing.

Jay knew the conversation should be oriented toward three questions: What are your core beliefs? What are your daily practices? What are the common misconceptions of your faith? He explains, “if we understand these things, we will understand one another.” Laying out a litany of dogmatic positions would not be a conversation. An honest effort to understand these closely-held beliefs required an open inquiry into individual experiences and a discussion of their daily practices. Jay wanted to keep the conversation open to create an opportunity for learning rather than lecturing.

“Let’s Talk” took shape through Jay’s Independent Study and Mentorship (ISM) course where he explored a career in Christian ministry. He had thought about organizing the event through a less formal student organization on campus, the Pulse Group. Pulse welcomed students new to campus and Jay’s work with that group had reinforced his idea that this conversation could be an important way to support his community. In the end, he decided to work with his ISM teacher, Brian Wysong, so that the event would have to meet “the highest standards.” He would have to professionalize his plan, coordinating his work with Mr. Wysong, along with his career mentor, John McKinzie and his high school Principal, Scott Warstler. This team was a channel of support even as it pushed him to think through the details of managing the conversation and the difficulties that could accompany it.

Jefferson QuoteJay reached out to Shahir Ahmed, President of the Muslim Student Association, and Roshni Parikh, President of the Hindu Student Association. Having started a Bible Study group on campus as a Freshman, Jay stood beside his peers as students already known for their willingness to lead through their faith. They combined the efforts of their respective organizations to write the first set of questions for the evening. The group leaders, who would answer the questions onstage, then selected the questions they would use for starting the conversation.

The question that marked the beginning of the agenda also made it clear that the evening would not be an easy exercise. The question aimed at everything, all at once. Jay, Roshni and Shahir would have to get directly to the point:

How does your religion answer these three questions: Who is God? Who am I? And Why am I here?

After thirty minutes of these prepared questions and answers, the audience had thirty minutes to ask their own questions. Attendees could text in their questions and “vote up” other questions with an app from Sli.do. This tool gave the audience a real opportunity to influence the second part of the conversation.

Jay was so serious about audience engagement that he rattled off the stats for the evening without prompting: 285 participants asked 175 question that received more than 1300 votes. This feature required additional logistics to manage. AP Government Teacher, Coach Swinnea, sorted through the questions as they were submitted and relayed the popular questions to Rob Rever, a fourth student on stage for the evening. Jay had the data close at hand because he wanted to know the audience had become part of the conversation.

For those who attended, it remained a simple proposition, as simple as a conversation. That’s precisely the experience Jay had planned to make possible. When it was over, he had led his community in an evening of thinking together.

Risk Taking is Reward Making

In other communities, the “what-if” scenarios could have shut down an event like this before it ever had the chance to draw a crowd. Principal Scott Warslter admitted to being worried about what might happen. When asked how he had thought through “the worst thing that could happen,” Jay responded with a statement of faith, saying that aiming for “big rewards” requires taking “big risks.” That’s what he wanted to do, and then he added, “I knew those guys [Mr. Warstler and Mr. Wysong] would take care of me.” The school community at Liberty High School showed a willingness to take risks and followed Jay’s lead in aiming for big rewards.

Some of the tension that worried staff members showed up on the audience’s list of questions and persisted. Coach Swinnea had the task of reviewing questions and skipping those that wouldn’t be helpful. In a show of confidence in the students, he ultimately passed along the question, “A common debate in our society today involves discussion about gender identity, homosexuality and acceptance of everyone. What are your religion’s views on topics such as these?” When asked about that question, Jay said he didn’t think it was the most difficult one of the evening. He worried more about answering the very first question from the audience, “What does each respective faith believe happens to non-believers when they die?” The debate over the study of evolution and creationism also made it onto the agenda before the conversation was over.

The students each proceeded cautiously, thinking deeply and holding to their commitment to speak honestly. Shahir became the perfect example of dealing with his own uncertainty when addressing the question about evolution. He began his response with Adam and Eve and then a caveat:

“I am not as knowledgable on this topic as I would like to be but there are people in our audience who are, definitely, and I wouldn’t want any of my personal thoughts to get in the way of the truth of what Islam actually believes in.”

Shahir asked the audience to seek out those more knowledgeable practitioners at the end of the night. He concluded his remarks with a statement of truth that transcended the question, “I have a lot to learn still, when it comes to everything really.” Shahir showed how accepting the incompleteness of one’s own understanding can change the tone of our conversations.

Lets Talk MadisonJay believes this moment represents an advantage student leaders have when navigating these controversies. Before the conversation started, the students explained that they were still working to understand their faiths themselves. Jay said he asked for “forgiveness and grace” up front because they were certain to get something wrong, to choose the wrong words and to say something that might cause offense. This gesture asked audience members to understand the students as individuals practicing their faith, puzzling through their own questions even while attempting to answer whatever questions the audience asked of them. This framed the conversation as an exercise in understanding one’s own faith as much as it was an effort to know the beliefs of others.

Wanting to show that the conversation was just getting started, the final act of the night included one more invitation. The students asked everyone to bring their questions to the front of the auditorium where they would be joined by adult practitioners of their faiths. The auditorium filled with conversations as audience members left their seats.

This moment had worried Jay some. He had imagined what it would look like if no one took them up on this less formal and more personal part of the evening. The audience could have instead filed out of the auditorium and left the conversation behind them. Stepping to the front of the stage at the end of the night, Jay shared his concern with the audience, “if the conversation stops when you walk out the doors, then this night did not meet its goal.” He then finished his remarks by emphasizing the evening’s theme, “Let’s talk,” and extended it to include, “Let’s communicate. Let’s cooperate.”

The audience stayed to talk more. Jay laughed as he recalled having to resort to flipping the lights on and off to convince everyone to go home.

Their evening together had reached its end but the conversations spilled over into the days that followed. Jay, Shahir and Roshni received an invitation to speak to a nearby retirement community, and the Lieutenant of the Frisco police asked them to come talk to the police force too. Jay excitedly shared that he had just seen a letter the retirement community sent to the Muslim congregation building a mosque near their residences. The letter referred to having attended the “Let’s Talk” event, expressed appreciation for the the beauty of the building taking shape next door and then extended a good neighbor’s offer to help if they needed it.

Conversations at the front of the auditorium

Conversations at the front of the auditorium

A Community that Listens Together, Learns Together

Jay paused and thought over the question about the night’s success, but the answer came quickly. He knew the night was a success at something near the halfway point of the evening’s agenda. He remembered looking out into the crowd and seeing faces that looked like Frisco… “there were turbans next to baseball hats.”

The support of his community had sustained his work and made it possible. That, however, would not have been enough to make the event succeed in all the ways he wanted. When asked to consider what made the evening work in Frisco and what would be important in planning events in other communities, Jay identified three must-haves:

  1. The participation of well-respected students who were willing to demonstrate the work of learning together,
  2. A school community willing to take risks and able to support one another in the face of those uncertainties, and
  3. An audience able to accept the students’ appeal for forgiveness and understanding.

Like a professional event planner, Jay added that a heavy amount of marketing had also contributed to the night’s success. He devoted a month to promoting the event with his simple proposition, “Let’s Talk.” That simplicity made it possible to counter the tension and discomfort of religious differences in a community. That casual invitation put learning together and respecting one another back at the top of the community’s agenda.

The conversations sparked by a one night event at Liberty High School continue to work their way across the community improving the way people there talk to one another. When you want to start this conversation in your community, you know who to talk to.

Video of the event’s first 60 minutes courtesy of Halle Barham, an ISM student at Liberty High School

Notes from Our Past: Understanding the Threat of a Demagogue

There’s no clearer sign about the character of this year’s presidential contest than the renewed interest in asking Google,  “What is a demagogue?” Senator Joseph McCarthy (led the Communist witch hunt) and Governor George C. Wallace (defended segregation) have landed in the news again as everyone grapples with whether or not we’re on the verge of electing a demagogue to the highest office.

We all know demagogues are bad and could probably name a couple. What we really want to know is if we have the self-governing skills to recognize a demagogue without the benefit of reading about it in a textbook.

In a brilliant demonstration of how to use our own history to understand the present, Phillip Gourevitch at The New Yorker wrote in March, “Abraham Lincoln Warned Us about Donald Trump.” He points to Lincoln’s concern for a “mobocratic spirit” threatening the country in 1838 when lynch mobs took up the cause of justice on their own terms. In Lincoln’s “Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum” in Springfield, Illinois, he warned that the “approach of danger” in the United States would “spring up amongst us.” He shared his concern that there was “something of ill-omen” in the events of the day and prescribed a “political religion” to counter it.

Here’s a small excerpt about the contest between the mobocratic spirit and good men. We gave it our “amplified” treatment to lend some visual interest:

Amplified: Lincoln's Address before the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois 1838

Amplified: Lincoln’s Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois 1838

 

A mobocratic spirit aims to disrupt or suspend government in the name of freedom while threatening that freedom at the very same time. A demagogue uses this strategy to pursue personal gain and to diminish their detractors.

Back to the recent New Yorker piece, Gourevitch tells us Trump has this covered:

Donald Trump personifies the mobocratic spirit; he fuels it and is fueled by it, though it is doubtful that he can control it. All the elements are there: the incessant, escalating lust for violence; the instinct for mobilizing a mob to take the law into its own hands; the claim that whole groups are the enemy; the belief that those who are not with the mob forfeit all protection from the mob and invite attack..

And that’s only half the list.

Last December, The New York Times collected the words of Donald Trump’s public remarks as a way to consider the weight of these accusations  of demagoguery. Analyzing 95,000 words, authors Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman uncovered a “potent language” used to “connect with, and often stoke, the fears and grievances of Americans.” They argue that his words create a “threatening dynamic” with only one resolution: “trust-me-and-trust-me-only.”

This observation points us to a demagogue’s operating logic: fear. The NYT analysis shows that fear is the substance of Trump’s appeals:

The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use, based on a quantitative comparison of his remarks and the news conferences of recent presidents, Democratic and Republican. He has a particular habit of saying “you” and “we” as he inveighs against a dangerous “them” or unnamed other — usually outsiders like illegal immigrants (“they’re pouring in”), Syrian migrants (“young, strong men”) and Mexicans, but also leaders of both political parties.

Healy and Haberman acknowledge that office-seekers often appeal to passions and patriotism, but point to Trump’s ability to “forge bonds with a sizable segment of Americans over anxieties about a changing nation, economic insecurities, ferocious enemies and emboldened minorities.” When assessing a candidate’s potential for demagoguery, we have to consider the possibility that this “us vs. them” thinking could be the logic that governs us.

On this question, Michael Gerson with The Washington Post recommends recalling the work of the American founders. Writing before the Ohio and Florida primaries this Spring, Gerson takes on the question, “Who is to blame for Donald Trump?” He writes, “In a dangerous world, fear is natural. Cynically exploiting fear is an art. And Trump is a Rembrandt of demagoguery.”

Trump is to blame for Donald Trump. There is also an important reminder about the genuine difficulty of democratic government:

With the theory of a presidential nominee as a wrecking ball, we have reached the culmination of the founders’ fears: Democracy is producing a genuine threat to the American form of self-government. Trump imagines leadership as pure act, freed from reflection and restraint. He has expressed disdain for religious and ethnic minorities. He has proposed restrictions on press freedom and threatened political enemies with retribution. He offers himself as the embodiment of the national will, driven by an intuitive vision of greatness. None of this is hidden.

Demagoguery and democracy make for an easy partnership. The U.S. election of 2016 is only the latest test of our capacity for self-government. This time, it’s up to us so we have to be sure we understand the question.

Writing for The Atlantic, Megan Garber suggests that calling Trump a demagogue works to “dismiss him as a candidate and amplify him as a political threat.” We need to understand this threat and that it extends beyond our usual partisan politics.

The threat is instability. It’s a threat that has occupied political thinkers since the beginning of political community. It’s the same threat that motivated Madison’s draft of the U.S. Constitution and everything he wrote about it from there.

Hamilton Quote2Barber offers us this leverage on the problem, “Demagogues undermine the stability of a ‘by the people’ form of government particularly by turning ‘the people’ against each other.” She then turns to no lesser authorities than Aristotle and Federalist No. 1 (Alexander Hamilton) to remind us that Trump is “a human distillation of the maxim that democracy ‘is a device that ensures we shall be governed by no better than we deserve.'”

We need to ask a bigger question than Google can sort out for us. It isn’t whether or not Trump is a demagogue or who is to blame for him. We have to ask about our role as “the strongest bulwark” of self-government and how can we convince our fellow citizens to resist the siren call of “us vs. them.”

We have to turn our own gaze from a demagogue’s demands for attention. We have to insist that we deserve better.

 

A Student Steps Up: Creative Impatience and the Willingness to Act

Stepping Up

As a High School Civics teacher, I am often and absolutely embarrassed by my own lack of civic activism. While I am encouraging and requiring and rewarding my students for getting involved in something – ANYTHING! – that they care about to protect or improve their communities, I nearly never practice what I preach.

And it’s not simply that as a young, charter school teacher, my time and energy seem to disappear into an unending vortex of planning/grading/updating/bureaucracizing.
OR the fact that as a perpetual presenter of the fair and balanced, I am daily forced to equivocate, moderate and pause for a more thorough examination.

I think there’s something deeper. Some way in which I have redefined myself as a person who no longer acts. I have reclassified myself as a bystander – shudder – although admittedly a vociferous one. Still, no more than an armchair analyst – not even the passive activist I once swore never to become.

As such, I find myself curious about what it is that motivates the folks who find the activation energy to make change. The folks who answer the call of – “Someone should do something!” With “I’ll do it.” And, high school senior, Caesar Loving-Manley offers the perfect case study.

Loving-Manley has not yet attained the larger than life status of the untouchable figureheads we so often imagine leading movements – the predestined messiahs of our time. For now, he’s just a regular High School student who, when faced with the injustices of the world, used some pretty accessible tools to create something larger than himself: his impatience, his creativity, and the willingness to simply step forward and DO something.

Impatience
Caesar Loving-Manley is impatient.
Through his participation in the Racial Reconciliation and Healing Project run by the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center, Loving-Manley attended a workshop on public health disparities in his home town of Boston and was outraged.

The fact is that in Boston, Black and Latino kids under age 5 are four times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than White kids. Facilitators Abigail Ortiz and Cecilia Flores quickly dismissed the idea that those statistics are tragic byproducts of cyclic crime, irresponsible parenting or some broken window hogwash.

Low rates of asthma are linked to parks and green spaces – disproportionately absent in areas of Boston like Roxbury and Dorchester with large populations of Blacks and Latinos. High rates of asthma are linked to junkyards and bus depots – disproportionately present in Roxbury and Dorchester. And that’s just asthma! – to say nothing of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or infant mortality.

Loving-Manley paired his training through the SJPHC with a Ta-Nahesi Coates interview that he watched in 11th grade history and concluded that racism was literally killing Blacks in Boston – not race but racism.

Moving quickly from his initial reaction of: “Really? This is systemic lynching!” to: “Why? Do people know this?”, Loving-Manley felt compelled to act. Someone needed to “make people open up their eyes” and “pay closer attention” and, for Loving-Manley, there was no time to think about who it was going to be.

He explains that while others were spinning their wheels saying “what if what if what if”, he knew that our school (and, incidentally, his core support network at the school) needed “to scream it rather than just to whisper it”. He needed to shake things up.

Creativity
One of the things that has led to Caesar Loving-Manley’s success has been his natural attraction – and maybe the purely human drive – to innovate, to improve, and to be creative.

After the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in November of 2014, there were a wave of Black Lives Matter protests in Boston, including walk outs by students from Boston Public Schools. When Loving-Manley saw these school protests, he immediately recognized their importance but he was not impressed.

“It’s one thing to attend but it’s another thing to want to inform others. We miss educating people.”

As such, Loving-Manley decided that at our high school, the Academy of the Pacific Rim, he would not just organize a walk out, but a teach in.

“One of the major goals of the walk in was to educate people as to what’s going on to make clear the severity of the situation.”

Still, even with his well designed and attended teach-in in December of 2014, Loving-Manley worried that people weren’t being educated. They were just leaving class. Worse, some students saw the walk outs as counterproductive or pointless. Loving-Manley actually saw the walk outs turning some people off of the Movement.

The challenge as he saw it, was to “take something that grabs people’s interest and tie it into something that educates them”.

This is where his idea for a Black History Month Fashion Show came from. He knew he could draw his audience in with fashion and music and that he could use these tools to make them feel a fierce pride in Black Culture. So he started planning for January of 2016.

Once other students realized what he was trying to do, the momentum became contagious. People understood the importance and the power of what he was doing and they were excited about it. Loving-Manley fed off that energy.

He selected three eras of Black Resistance he thought embodied the message he was trying to portray and named his acts: Selma; Black Panthers; and Black Lives Matter. For each act, he selected a song he felt laid the backbeat of the era; researched the fashion of the era and what those fashions represented; and selected a mood and pose for models to embody on the runway.

Act II: Black Panthers

Three Acts: Black History Month Fashion Show

At the end of the third act, the spotlights switched to flashing reds and blues and the music was interrupted by police sirens. Students ran to the stage where most died on the floor and four were left standing above them holding Black Lives Matter placards over their heads. The result was a collective loss of breath – a visceral communication of the message that “we can’t breathe” with the twist of four determined students still standing and still fighting.

His best friend, co-producer, and captain of the Stomp team, Janaya Burke-Smith, choreographed a step routine about Black Women in the movement to begin the show. To embody the indomitable pheonix of the Black spirit, the show ended with a dance celebrating pan African Black Culture, leaving students and staff not with just the raw sorrow of “dislodge[d] brains, block[ed] airways, rip[ped] muscle, extract[ed] organs, crack[ed] bones, and [broken] teeth” but with a fierce pride in the resiliency of Black Culture despite this terrifying and pressing reality.

The result was spell-binding, mind-blowing, and – absolutely – revolutionary.

Make it Happen
To be honest, Loving-Manley is incredibly charismatic . . . but I really don’t think that that is all there is to it.

When I asked him to describe himself, Loving-Manley laughed and admitted “I’m loud.”
But when I pushed him, asking: why him? Why was he the one to make this happen at our school, he replied:

“I wanted it to involve the input of all the students who wanted to participate but it needed to HAPPEN and I knew it wouldn’t happen unless I was the one to leave class first and spread the word to others. It’s easier to think: I’ll do it later, it’s not that serious, but I felt like I had the leadership qualities to get the ball rolling”

Fists RaisedI think it comes down to this. Loving-Manley is incredible. He is brilliant and passionate and unstoppable but the same impatience, creativity, and ability to get the ball rolling exist in all of us. And in truth, he’s right. When an issue of injustice arises, there is no reason not to take action and to use our imaginations to pull others into action with us. Someone has to do it. And that someone may as well be me. Or you. Or both of us in different ways.

As Loving-Manley explains:

“If I have the ability to start a conversation with someone about something . . . and then they get the lightbulb in their mind, it’s like woah – maybe I have the ability or the resources to fix this. If everyone was informed, there would be more action. It starts with a conversation; you don’t know where it’s going to go from there.”