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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.”

Echoes: Creativity and Aristotle’s Potluck

As classic works become more familiar you find those ideas are anything but dead and gone. In fact, they have us surrounded. The ubiquity of ideas you’ve come to associate with Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Federalists or Antifederalists suggests those writers captured something fundamental about how we understand the world and ourselves. Our Echoes series attempts to capture these reverberations through time. Perhaps there is new insight to be seen by presenting the past to the present and vice versa.

I recently read Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer in an attempt to keep thinking creatively despite the doldrums of dissertation writing. It’s a smooth read that attempts to match the mythology of creativity with the science behind a number of recognizable moments of genius, from the Swiffer to Pixar and from 3M’s masking tape to Broadway’s biggest success stories.

Jonah Lehrer shares his understanding of how creativity works

There was one moment, however, where I thought I saw Aristotle among these modern marvels. Lehrer was talking about why brainstorming doesn’t work.

I know a good number of you are teachers. And I can guess that some of you have used brainstorming in the classroom. With my eight years in the classroom and lifetime of thinking, I regularly came to the conclusion that I was doing it wrong. I never managed to unlock the magic mojo. It always felt silly, random and exhausting. I hated being the person at the front of the room who had to DO SOMETHING with the list once it was generated!

So, when Lehrer beat down all the magic talk of brainstorming with evidence that constructive criticism does more for creativity, I nearly threw my fist in the air and shouted, “hell yeah!”. He demonstrates how Pixar used their morning meetings of criticism and “plussing” to take Toy Story 2 from a dismal beginning to blockbuster success. Plussing makes all the difference; it’s “a technique that allows people to improve an idea without using harsh or judgmental language… whenever work is criticized, the criticism should contain a plus, a new idea that builds on the flaws in a productive manner.” Lehrer then connects this practice with an experiment conducted by Charlan Nemeth at UC-Berkley where she put brainstorming into direct competition with constructive criticism.  The group encouraged to debate produced more ideas while they worked together and had even more to add after the session had ended.

According to Nemeth, the reason criticism leads to more new ideas is that it encourages us to fully engage with the work of others. We think about their concepts because we want to improve them; it’s the imperfection that leads us to really listen. (And isn’t that the point of a group:? If we’re not here to make one another better, then why are we here?)

And the echo I heard was from Aristotle’s “pot luck” feast in Book III of Politics:

There is this to be said for the many: each of them by himself may not be of a good quality; but when they all come together it is possible that they may surpass–collectively and as a body, although not individually–the quality of the few best, in much the same way that feasts to which many contribute may excel those provided at one person’s expense. For when there are many, each has his share of goodness and practical wisdom; and, when all meet together the people may thus become something like a single person, who, as he has many feet, many hands, and many senses, may also have many qualities of character and intelligence.

This “creature” of many feet, hands and senses gets to a qualitative assessment of how we come together over brainstorming or plussing or any effort at collective action. The trick is in designing an experience that not only seeks to have everyone contribute but seeks to have everyone contribute according to their strengths and unique perspective.

MLK’s Supporting Vocals

We’ve all heard the sound clip of MLK’s speech from 50 years ago when thousands joined him and other leaders for the March on Washington. The refrain, “I have a dream” might be even be more recognizable to today’s students than pictures of the man himself. Whatever your social media channel, it has been overrun with pictures and memories from the moment on the mall.

There is no denying that those are powerful words that have a power today few could have imagined 50 years ago. Much has been made about the genius of King who improvised those famous words that day. Somehow they carried a weight and a provocation even more pressing than the fiery words John Lewis had planned for himself that day. He wanted to threaten to march through the South like Sherman but his colleagues convinced him to tone it down, fearing that it would alienate Congress, the President and other supporters.

There were hundreds of voices that made the civil rights movement a movement that could accomplish change. Instilling the story of  Martin Luther King or  the March on Washington with too much magic puts us at risk of losing our ability to recognize the ugly grittiness of standing up to power.

This weekend NPR’s Sound Opinions, “the world’s only rock ‘n roll talk show,” devoted a whole show to the songs of the civil rights movement and they expertly relayed the real experiences of the movement through  its “supporting vocals.” I highly recommend the podcast to you and imagine some of you might even make the same recommendation to your students or children. Jim and Greg, the presenters, do a fabulous job of documenting the ebb and flow of the movement through the history of specific events and the music that accompanied them.

Horrific moments like pulling tortured and mutilated bodies out of the Mississippi River are presented alongside the powerful voices of the Staple Singers who shared their resolve the carry on even as they sang:

Found dead people in the forest

Tallahatchie river and lake

The whole wide world is wonderin’ what’s wrong with the United States

The hour long show expertly navigated around the temptation to celebrate the magic of one day in Washington and instead told the story of the movement with a powerful playlist that more of us should hear:

“Driva Man” by Max Roach & Oscar Brown Jr. featuring Abbey Lincoln, 1960
“How I Got Over” performed by Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington, 1963
“In the Mississippi River” by the Freedom Singers, 1965
“Mississippi Goddamn” performed by Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall, 1964
A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, 1964
“Keep On Pushing” by The Impressions, 1964
“Freedom Highway” by The Staple Singers, 1965
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed by Kim Weston at Wattstax, 1972

I had never heard the track from Nina Simone but instantly recognized its appeal to my punk rock sensibilities. There’s the bounciness of a show tune for a show that, she tells us, is yet to be written. And that bounciness works to emphasize Simone’s raw response to the ugliness of the daily news in “Mississippi Goddamn.”

It pains the imagination to think about what that show might look like…

Perhaps it’s necessary to add a NSFW label to that video but I think there’s every reason to hear the harshness of Simone’s words. Here’s to remembering the thousands who held fast to the courage of their convictions and made it possible for us to remember the magic of the movement while forgetting the horrific stories that challenged their resolve.

 

Reading List: The Warmth of Other Suns

If you’ve ever taught the Civil Rights Movement or even had a conversation about it, there’s a book you should read. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson reminded me of one of my favorite classroom moments talking about the Movement. It also made me re-think what I taught while I was there.

First, that classroom moment… It was Black History month and two of my students asked to interview me about the Civil Rights Movement for the morning’s video announcement program. This was not an easy question for me.

I was not a subscriber to these (sometimes) empty gestures at recognizing the experience of particular groups. I guess it’s risky to admit that. I was sensitive to how these efforts might trivialize real struggles and gut-wrenching experiences. When you walk through the halls of an average school during one of these months, you’ll see faux postage stamps, book jackets and movie posters of the same names and faces. Either the list of famous people for Black History month is short or it’s easier to administer when you provide the same list to all the classes. Consider that students, teachers and administrators do this same dance every year and you can’t help but wonder what we’re teaching students about Black History.*

Did you see Justin Bieber’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live? In a Valentine’s Day / Black History Month mash-up he sings about Maya Angelou inventing the peanut. Or maybe it was Denzel Washington… That’s how silly some of these Black History Month “events” felt to me.

But, in the end, these students were excited to talk about the Civil Rights Movement and to share that conversation with their school community. I had to agree to this very special Black History Month interview.

Prepped with an empty classroom at the end of the day and a little red light on the school video camera, we started the interview. Within minutes the students asked me what it was like to march in the streets with Martin Luther King. I took my first breath of life four years after he was murdered so I was speechless. They stopped the camera.

A short exchange revealed this wasn’t about my being crazy old in their estimate. My teaching had made the Civil Rights Movement real enough, substantive enough and provocative enough that they assumed I knew it. That I REALLY knew it. We then returned to the interview with a little better footing for a conversation about why I thought the Civil Rights Movement was still so important.

And, now, back to the book that answers that question so brilliantly while documenting the lives of people who lived through a complete transformation of the American people. In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson offers a beautiful statement about the African American experience of the mid-20th Century, how it re-shaped the country and continues to influence us today. She chronicles the lives of three individuals, from the harsh details of the lives they decided to leave in the South to their final reflections on the lives they were able to make for themselves in the North.

Wilkerson selected three stories, those of Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, to represent the more than six million African Americans who migrated from the South between 1920 and 1970. Six million people! She expertly demonstrates how this migration changed the South as much as it did the Northern cities where whole communities of southern blacks relocated.

The author’s beautiful language helps the reader see the dissonance these Americans experienced and to understand it didn’t end with their arrival in the North.

Many people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things. Tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city or western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself.”

This is the story of the American Dream turned backwards or inside out. And it’s a story that’s absolutely necessary to know and understand before we can claim to understand the mythology of the American Dream that is casually told and retold a hundred times over. Repetition can engender attachment and affection but it can also hollow out an idea that was once meaningful.

The phrase “white flight” has become so familiar that it hardly conveys anything thought provoking, but Wilkerson makes it a proper horror story. A story Ida Mae’s family likes to re-tell about the vanishing house will shock you. I was so angry I had to stop reading. It took 30 years but Ida Mae’s family had finally saved enough to buy a three-story brownstone in a nice neighborhood where her children could comfortably raise their families. They were proud. It looked like the American Dream, the dream she and her husband had for themselves and their children when they left sharecropping, had finally arrived. The day after they moved in, however, a house across the street disappeared. THE WHOLE HOUSE! As the white families left, the whole character of the neighborhood changed while a lifelong accomplishment for an entire family was eroded away.

Wilkerson’s novel itself is as inspiring as the stories she tells about Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. She brings this “other” version of the American Experience out of the shadows to be seen:

By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.

This quote doesn’t just tell you about the book. It reveals the perseverance present in the three stories and the ambition of the author to make real those long fights of everyday life. So real that you begin to wonder if you could have done it. So real that you wonder if it’s folly to ever discuss the American Dream as something that could stand on its own.

So real that you start to wonder if you’ve ever done justice to that experience when re-telling it in the classroom.

—-

*I am very thankful for school administrators who listened (every year) to my lecture about living history together and teaching it that way. The laugh isn’t lost on me that I’m posting this in Black History Month.

Inauguration 2013: The Bridge between Words and Realities

This bridge between our words and the “realities of our time” is how Barack Obama described our “never-ending journey” in the United States. There is much to think about in the words the President chose for his 2nd Inaugural speech yesterday and the various snapshots the media has provided us of Americans who either made the trek to the nation’s capital or their local coffee shop to watch the event as a community of people. This post is a glancing blow, a first shot at sharing some of the ideas in the air this week.

Many of our alumni are welcoming students back to school today and one in particular is leading a group of students back home from Washington, D.C. I hope they’ll consider sharing their reflections and those of their students. I hope you will also consider sharing your ideas or those you find in the media that are meaningful. Until then, check out some of these stories…

Saying he was inspired by Walt Whimtan’s idea that America contains multitudes, Richard Blanco read his poem, “One Today,” during the ceremony. Blanco also represents a uniquely American story that enabled his words to convey a certain kind of heft. It’s impossible to choose one verse as the most moving. Perhaps what is the most interesting is how the ONE and the MANY reverberate through each and every stanza. So, you must read the whole thing but here’s one moment in the poem that was especially meaningful to me:

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

 

Commentary on the meaning of the moment flooded Facebook and Twitter where the White House’s graphics to accompany the text appeared alongside tributes to Martin Luther King. Too often in this era of 24/7 cable news, commentary is cheap, meaningless and whatever the opposite of thought provoking is (maybe mind-numbing?).

I was grateful for two pieces where the authors aimed to reflect on the moment and the context. James Fallows wrote about “The Two Most Powerful Allusions in Obama’s Speech” for The Atlantic. The two themes he discusses briefly are the “lash and the sword,” which he shows connects to the closing passage of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, and “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.” After sharing an excerpt from Obama’s speech, the very first sentence which he claims summarizes the entire thing, Fallows demonstrated how Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, Adams and George Washington lined up with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and Congressman John Lewis:

As in the one-sentence summary at the start of the speech, Obama wants to claim not just Lincoln but also Jefferson, Madison, Adams, George Washington, and the rest as guiding spirits for his kind of progressivism. In this passage he works toward that end by numbering among “our forebears” — those honored ancestors who fought to perfect our concepts of liberty and of union — the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and other veterans of Selma including still-living Rep. John Lewis, and the protestors 44 years ago at the Stonewall.

After reading much (maybe too much) about the rhetoric and watching a video of Conrell West ranting against Obama’s decision to use MLK’s bible for the swearing in, I went looking for what Ta-Nehisi Coates writing. Also posted on The Atlantic, his reflection on the President’s remarks made an essential point. This is the reason why we should always be careful about dismissing something as “nothing but rhetoric.” Coates writes:

As surely as it has always mattered to homophobes, white supremacists, and chauvinists what was and wasn’t said in the public, it should matter to those of who seek to repel them. What ideas do and don’t get exposed in the public square has to matter to any activist, because movements begin by exposing people to ideas. “I Have a Dream” is not simply important because of whatever civil-rights legislation followed, but because it put on the big American public stage a notion that was long held as anathema — integration. The idea extends beyond legislation.

The moment wasn’t lost on a Chicago high schooler who attended the inaugural event and shared her thoughts with NPR, “I think this is the first time he bluntly said everything he believed in outright to the public and I thought that was phenomenal.” The NPR piece that focuses on this group of Chicago teens and their ideas about Obama was short but invaluable.  That might be what I appreciated most yesterday… hearing the voices of the future consonant with the voices of the past and taking to task the voices of now.

***I very much want to “color code” both texts, Obama’s speech and Blanco’s poem, to bring out each of these groups of people, the past, the future, the now and the people of all times. Expect a future post. If you have ideas for different ways to present these words or to put them into conversation with other familiar forms, please do it and share it with us.

UPDATE: Todd Heuston is trying to escape D.C. with his group of students from South Anchorage High School but shared a sound clip from Alaska Public Radio. Now we can add his voice and those of his students to this collection of reflections on the inauguration. Listen to Todd’s thoughts about Obama’s “broad strokes” and the issues that interested his students this most here.

Politics on the Inside

No, we’re not talking about political insiders. Not those hideous creatures that live inside the much maligned Beltway. We’re talking about one man’s perspective on the truth about politics as he understands it through human experience.

For rapper El-P, all politics is internal to one’s self or to mankind. In an interview on Sound Opinions, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot asked the rapper about the subversive or personalized politics they heard embedded in his music. Jim and/or Greg (I’ve been listening for years but can’t tell their voices apart) asserted that El-P’s music had captured something important about the “tenor of the times.” The host continued to describe a vibe going around the world, and permeating El-P’s music, that urged people to rise up, defend themselves and speak out. It says, “they may not win the battle but the struggle is worth fighting.”

Politicolor has weighed the political statements of favorite songs from the audience’s perspective on several occasions.  We looked at the messages in the music to determine what resonated with a Federalist way of thinking, how certain titles communicate revolution and constituting a new people, and when music seems to multiply the effect of a moment. Prompted by a NYT op-ed written by Bono, I wrote about how music motivated my own early activism as my young self believed whole-heartedly what Bono suggested in that piece, music has the power to change the world. This all made the interview with El-P even more interesting as the artist was asked to comment on the political ideas a couple of avid music-listeners found in his music.

Remarking that many people walk away from his music thinking it’s all negativity, El-P described the message of his latest album, Cancer 4 Cure, as one of hope, “but not un-battered hope.”

The artist suggested that transcendent moments come with a price of discussing what is uncomfortable and difficult. Transcending those difficulties, El-P says, requires knowing them and understanding them. He explains that his music is his attempt to explain his perspective on the human experience from his own eyes but also, “from another part of me [El-P] that I’m having to contain on these records. This other voice in me that is terrified and angry and confused. Doesn’t really know how to get to point B from point A without wanting to scream.”

El-P’s admits his latest album, Cancer 4 Cure, sounds like a struggle but he hopes his fans finish the album thinking it  was a good fight…

To me the battle is not out there. I mean, it maybe to some degree, but…

To me the battle is internal. And that’s what the record is about. The idea of cancer for cure, the idea of us being the cancers for our own cure; Of fighting ultimately internal battles. I always had in my head something that someone  told me that said ultimately we all have cancer to some degree and our immune system is just constantly fighting it back.

And I believe that, ultimately, that these are the real truths of the struggles that you’re seeing in the streets right now; and the struggles you’re seeing in the world. Nothing happens and nothing gets emanated from anywhere else except from things other than inside mankind, internally. There are no external factors except weather.

I choose to make my political statements from a personal perspective. Because the times will change and the movements will rise and fall and the talking heads will rotate and there are truths that will remain the same. There will still be a struggle.

 

 

Detroit’s Hiedelberg Project: Questions of liveliness at the edges & organized complexity

It was like walking through a graveyard. We found ourselves talking in hushed tones or, mostly, not talking at all. Spookiest of all was the hope that still occupied the hollow spaces of the Hiedelberg Project. Horror and hope. Calling out from the empty houses, there was at once a community abandoned and a community committed to persevere.

A four minute intro to the space that includes community voice and the artist, Tyree Guyton, who grew up in the neighborhood:

Keith (Hobbes21), his family and mine walked through the Hiedelberg Project in Detroit enjoying the whimsy of giant polka dots and nonsensical clocks. The Hiedelberg Project (HP) describes itself as “an outdoor community art environment. The elements contain recycled materials and found objects, most of which were salvaged from the streets of Detroit.” We shared smiles over piles of stuffed animals but then realized they looked like refugees crowded into a boat, determined to get anywhere that wasn’t here. The uneasy quiet returned to wash away our smiles.

Stuff Underfoot (photo by Kelly Fox)

The community art project included colorful cartoonish drawings of shoes amid piles of discarded shoes. These piles were so high it was hard to fathom how many people the empty shoes represented. I started to wonder where all those people were now. And then quickly tried to think about something else.

On the web, HP tells you the whole project “is symbolic of how many communities in Detroit have been discarded. It asks questions and causes the viewer to think. When you observe the HP, What do you really see? Is it art?… That’s for you decide.” Keith and I were trying to decide about the shoes.

I had thought of empty slogans you see plastered all over recovery efforts. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. But it was also easy to imagine they were there to nag you about something or someone trampled under foot. A people downtrodden. The same cognitive dissonance accompanied the armies of old vacuums, reinforced with brooms and empty gloves. These were the tools of a brigade prepared to make a clean sweep. To rebuild. To begin again. But the tools were abandoned, exposed and showing the wear of being exposed for years.

A Clean Sweep (photo by Kelly Fox)

A collection of nonsensical clocks asked you to consider either that the time had come to do something or to concede that even thinking that phrase made you part of a regime that never delivered on that promise. The time to act had come. And gone. And come and gone. Again and again. Each clock showed a different time, provoking you to wonder why. Think about it too long and each of the different times started to haunt you too. They want you to know that the time to act comes and goes each and every day while the Detroit neighborhoods this community represents continue to sit quietly. Forgotten and unchanged.

Haunting Dolls (photo by Kelly Fox)

We left the Hiedelberg Project but I couldn’t shake the cognitive dissonance. More than just art accessible in a public space, HP represents a powerful installment of civic art. It made you think about the people who once lived in those spaces and what they had heard from their city and fellow citizens. Not just what they heard but what they had believed. What they knew about themselves, that neighborhood and their city when they fled, begrudgingly left their family home or were dragged away. It made you think about how a people had been neglected or abandoned and how complicit you had been in it.

I think it was this idea of being a part of the problem that required us to quiet our voices. Being in that space required contemplating what it might mean to be lost or forgotten. Maybe even discarded. The problems we witnessed at Hiedelberg had an unrelenting gravity.

Liveliness at the Edges

The force of this community art project came into full view unexpectedly one night as I was reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He was sharing his thoughts after a week on a grass farm, but I replayed the images of Hiedelberg as I read his ideas about an essential relationship between antagonists.

He suggested antagonists need one another:

For some reason the image that stuck with me from that day was that slender blade of grass in a too-big, wind-whipped pasture, burning all those calories just to stand up straight and keep its chloroplasts aimed at the sun. I’d always thought of the trees and grasses as antagonists—another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other. To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass. But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands. So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as, indeed, with all the species sharing the most complicated form. Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. Before I came to Polyface [the grass farm] I’d read a sentence of Joel’s that in its diction had struck me as an awkward hybrid of the economic and the spiritual. I could see now how characteristic that mixing is, and that perhaps the sentence isn’t so awkward after all: ‘One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life.’

Hiedelberg’s polka dots were that blade of grass fighting to stand up straight, testifying to a liveliness at the edges that once existed.

photo by Kelly Fox

Polka Dots (photo by Kelly Fox)

The trouble that demands your attention in that urban neighborhood is that we as a people have misunderstood something fundamental about our life together. Pollan asks his readers to consider that corporate agriculture has ignored biological fact in an effort to increase their productivity. The HP story connects here. It does not argue that disorder simply happened on those streets but that order had been neglected or even abandoned. Stories of gangs, violence and vengeance recur in our discussions of urban streets. They tell us order was turned upside down as bad elements invaded the streets and conquered everything that had been good. That version of the story suggests gangs turned things upside down making it more admirable to stall and thwart police efforts than to cooperate and assist them.

If order is lost rather than turned upside down, however, society has to ask how it allowed this to happen. The community and city leaders have to confront their role in abandoning a certain group of people or certain places, for certain reasons; They have to evaluate those reasons, including those that are allowed to go unsaid and unchallenged.

The unrealized possibilities of Hiedelberg are not confined to that community alone or even to those that resemble it. There is something more to be known about being a whole community or a whole people that is lost when we sacrifice the liveliness of the edges for the false comfort of zero-sum thinking. Consider the usual vow to put more police on the streets that increases perceived safety but has a minimal effect on crime rates and the actual decline that accompanied the “broken window theory” described by Kelling and Wilson. As they observed in 1982, the neighborhoods felt safer because the foot-patrol officers were able to “elevate… the level of public order in these neighborhoods.” A useful summary of the theory appears in James Wilson’s NY Times obituary, “his most influential theory holds that when the police emphasize the maintenance of order rather than the piecemeal pursuit of rapists, murderers and carjackers, concentrating on less threatening though often illegal disturbances in the fabric of urban life like street-corner drug-dealing, graffiti and subway turnstile-jumping, the rate of more serious crime goes down.”

Recognizing Organized Complexity

Organized Complexity (photo by Kelly Fox)

The question of urban neighborhoods is not answered simply by counting the number of police, instances of gang activity or even broken windows alone. In her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs urged city planners to understand the question of cities as one of “organized complexity,” presenting “situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.” [italics in original text] The Hiedelberg project does not stop at asking us to consider the demise of a single urban neighborhood but provokes us to look at the systemic failure of a political society.

Walking down the street we were poised at a sort of event horizon confronted with the possibility of a lost state. Something Cicero described in The Republic as a sort of black hole:

As for the punishments which even the stupidest can feel—destitution, exile, jail, flogging—individuals often escape them by choosing the option of a quick death; but in the case of states, death, which seems to rescue individuals from punishment, is itself a punishment. For a state should be organized in such a way as to last for ever. And so the death of a state is never natural, as it is with a person, for whom death is not only inevitable but also frequently desirable. Again, when a state is destroyed, eliminated, and blotted out, it is rather as if (to compare small with great) this whole world were to collapse and pass away. (Book Three, 33-35)

This idea makes sense of the silence we adopted as though we were witnessing catastrophic devastation. But we witnessed hope and perseverance too. Tocqueville contemplated the failure of democratic government in Democracy in America and shed light on what makes this idea of hope make sense:

Many people, on seeing democratic states fall into anarchy, have thought that government in these states was naturally weak and powerless. The truth is that when war among their parties has once been set aflame, government loses its action on society. But I do not think that the nature of democratic power is to lack force and resources; I believe, on the contrary, that almost always the abuse of its strength and the bad use of its resources bring it to perish. Anarchy is almost always born of its tyranny or its lack of skillfulness, but not of its powerlessness.

The citizens of Hiedelberg had a sense of the power that still remained despite the appearance that all had been lost. They experienced this lack of skill and misuse of force but they know Hiedelberg has the potential to teach us the skills we need. This too resonates with the work of Jane Jacobs and how she concludes her book on great American cities, “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” Hiedelberg begs its observers to shift their perspective and consider its questions anew, with a sense of hope instead of loss and a substantive concern for what happens next.

Politics and Public Art

There’s something about public art that gets to the heart of Politicolor’s project. When Carlos Collejo offered a tour of L.A. murals to our National Academy group in 2009, he explained the people and the art meet in the streets through these works of art. In the short video, “The Battle for LA’s Murals,” a muralist suggests museums are for dead people. While that might be a bit extreme, the art we saw on the mural tour was electrified with what a community aspired to and accomplished alongside the challenges they faced, the conflicts they still carried on their shoulders and their calls to a higher purpose.

Politics is inescapable. It’s embedded in every effort to understand who we are as a community, what we value and how we resolve conflict. L.A. muralists believe their work to represent their community is now challenged from two different directions with everyone claiming their right to free speech is in jeopardy.

I found this video through Open Culture so I’m going to recommend you visit their site for a bit of background on the conflict. I find it interesting that the muralists claim their work represents the community while graffiti artists only promote themselves. Graffiti has a long history associated with public protest, and I’m not interested in arguing that point here. The interesting part is that, in this assessment, the community outweighs the individual. This criticism is presented as everything you need to know to understand which work has value and which work doesn’t. These value judgments are tricky when you compare a real Rembrandt work to one from “the school of Rembrandt.” It might just be impossible when comparing museum pieces, public murals and graffiti.

What is informing the value we assign to L.A’s murals and their challengers: the city’s commercial ordinances and the local graffiti artists?

You can watch the video here:

Behind The Wall: The Battle for LA’s Murals from Oliver Riley-Smith on Vimeo.

Bonus Points: Open Culture is an excellent resource for free educational media on the web. They have a directory of free university course on the web, free ebooks, free videos, free language courses… you get the idea, right? If you’re not the type to keep up with a website through an RSS feed, you can “like” them on Facebook and pull their posts into your newsfeed. Super easy.

A Theory of American Identity: Or the Radical American Exceptionalism: Or Why Baseball is Better than Soccer?

An abstract submitted for you consideration. Your questions and assistance in refining the ideas presented here would be greatly appreciated.

(Submitted by Todd, National Academy alumni, 2001)

Over the last year I have been contemplating the notion of American identity, and what that means.  As I contemplated the bounds of this notion, I began formulating a rather extreme form of American exceptionalism.    I see no way to avoid getting there, so I ask that Politicolor readers will help dispel it or create a more construct for this idea.

I begin with a basic premise that the American founding experience is transformational; I would refer to it as a paradigm shift but I keep falling asleep through Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolution.  The state system resulting from the Treaty of Westphalia was the final blow to the medieval Augustinian notion of the “City of God,” or that all governmental forms existed for a heavenly purpose.  The Westphalian system provided two key elements to state systems

  1. linking the idea of property to national territory; and
  2. asserting the political expediency of “Cuius Regio, Eius Religio” that is, he who makes the rules, makes the religion.  So each state began to be identified through property ownership and religious identity.

The American colonial experience missed much of this through two reasons; being mostly English in heritage they had avoided some of the real outcome of the Westphalia settlement because they were fighting their own transformational civil war in England; and that the extreme isolation changed their very nature the moment they stepped of the boat.  They still brought the intellectual tradition of the mergence of classical and biblical thought with them; and settling post-Renaissance/Reformation helped them to have a solid grounding in both traditions at the time of settling.

But we need to add a third intellectual tradition that started with the Colonists, that is the “Natural” mode of thought.  The mere act of survival against hostile land, nature, and yes, indigenous persons (much of it admittedly the colonists’ doing), brought a new form of “metaphysical” understanding.  The character of Natty Bumbpo from the Deerslayer Chronicles is one I am envisioning here; but if you want to go with Daniel Day Lewis from the film, “Last of the Mohicans,” I can dig that. Locke wrote, “America is made both continuous and discontinuous with already extant nation-states by relegating the business of making new landed property, and the state-making system associated with that possession, to a place outside the system of nations.” Americans understood they both are and are not a part of the international state system.

They needed to find a way to merge this third intellectual mode of thought to their traditional modes.  Many of us have already been exposed to this notion; Cicero’s “Scipio’s Dream,” Job’s tour of heaven, and even “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy;” Think of Arthur Dent’s tour of Magrathea. These stories are allegorical of man trying to see a greater order in a chaotic universe.  The “Natural” Mode of thought, in many senses, shatters the collective ideas of the classical and biblical polity.  The battle for survival in nature and endless land led to individual subsistence requirements, and self-reliance on a scale never before seen in Western civilization.

So what is that which makes us “American?”  We can look at Whitman and Thoreau in many ways as the philosophers of the Natural Thought School.  Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond; his friendship with fish, plants, and animals; he could steer a canoe with one paddle; but also his disconnect to a populated, corrupted state system can be used to describe this Natural Thought notion.  Even as he disavows society; he stills clamors to reform it, shape it, even create a new polity.  Walt Whitman provides another example in Leaves of Grass when he writes:

“One’s self I sing, a simple separate person

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word for en-masse”

The trick is finding the schema to describe the American identity.  But it cannot be constructed to describe what Americans are at a current time and place.  How do we get it into a fixed point in time and space but also have the ability to “enlarge the Orbit?”

For this I have thought I will need seven “virtues” to properly border us as Americans along two-dimensionality (national borders), but extra-dimensionally (transcending contemporary thought, and also through-out time).  This means that this a common identity in 2010, and that it would be common in 1810, or even 2210.

So here’s the construct:

I am using a blend of Biblical and Classical notions here:  meaning the square and the triangle are important shapes.  These are important to builders; and I am thinking Masons here; not the creepy Dan Brown Masons, but the real notion of construction.  We have to use the triangle here, because the treble virtues of New Testament Christianity inform our civilizational experience; “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” in their ancient application and definition are what we are looking for.  I invite any helpful definitions; and references to any of this concepts here or hereafter mentioned.

The four “Earthly” virtues are much more difficult to define.  They are what bind us terrestrially in governmental order and polity.  Using a square bounded by four sides, but also thinking cardinal directions on a compass point, and using Aristotle’s notion of “four cardinal virtues,” as the point of departure here, I am thinking we are bounded by four notions.  (I also realize I may be stretching the boundaries of some of the traditional definitions here).

Side One:  Aristotle’s Four Classical Virtues:  Moderation; Justice; Courage; and Wisdom.  It is a little cute to add another square to as a border; but really when you think that this represents the Aristotelian notion of civic virtue in a citizen; there is some elegance to this that can be stretched and defined later.

Side Two:  Enterprise:  My love for Star Trek not withstanding  (although in the Original we see Three main characters combining to live by the standards of the Four Aristotelian virtues-so it fits quite nicely); the notion of risk-taking, adventure, exploration, wanderlust, entrepreneurship, experimentation, and tinkering are so much a part of who we are this seems self-evident.

Side Three:  Prudence:  Again; this is more of a collective concept.  Rational discourse; thoughtful application; or problem-solving through Ratiocination.  This is deeper than the short-term criticism of our “sound-bite” media; or many of the folks who attend minor-league baseball games.  This is still reliant on a rational-choice theory; and perhaps even collective action theory.  So all you economists, chime in.

Side Four:  Republicanism:  The notion of liberty, equality, and confraternity that is so important in our thinking and feeling.

***

I need to credit a work of remarkable erudition, and accessibility that came out this summer by American diplomat, Charles Hill, entitled, Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order. Many of these ideas are given words and a base from his work; but many others have been crafted through two National Academies, and a week at Montpelier and conversations with Tim Moore, David Richmond, Justice Susan Leeson at Morro Bay, California last summer.  And lastly, I must credit a wonderful patio bar discussion with my dear friend Mike Williams, who gave grounding to undisciplined thought and forced me to articulate my ideas in a disciplined way.  Lastly thanks to Will Harris for reminding us to cultivate “Makers” Knowledge. Any logical leaps here are my fault, but I hope you can help me make the connections.