Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

February 23, 2020

My Fellow Citizens,

I want to share a call to arms: “Less despair. More repair.” 

So says Austin Kleon, a local artist and writer here in Austin, Texas. His most recent book Keep Going wants readers to persist in their creative pursuits. I’m borrowing this call for resolve in the interest of our political lives. Let’s keep that going too. 

Despair. That’s the reason I didn’t send a newsletter a couple of weeks ago. Repair. That’s where I’m going to pick this up like I never got knocked down. Despair is a dead end. We can’t go there. 

We have to ask how we can contribute to this work of repairing what’s broken. Less despair. More repair. This is the work of political life.

Quinta Jurecic took up this cause, too, writing “How to Avoid Despair” for The Atlantic. She found a guide to our moment in Max Weber’s essay “Politics as Vocation.” For many reasons, quoting Jurecic on Weber will get us further than quoting Weber himself. You can read the original essay here, but Jurecic tells us what we’ll find. Weber “describes political life as torn between the voice of conscience and the practicalities of getting things done in an ‘ethically irrational’ world.”

An ethically irrational world. That nearly describes what I see on Twitter these days. Weber was writing in 1919, so there’s some comfort in seeing that our moment isn’t as unprecedented as all the hype suggests.

Living in this irrational world, Weber says we will encounter a “moment of crisis.” From Jurecic’s article: 

At a certain point, Weber wrote, a moment of crisis arrives: The irrationality becomes too much. The politician “reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.'”

When the irrationality gets to be too much, it’s time to take a stand. Weber suggests this moment when we take a stand is “foundational to the human experience.” 

When we take a stand, as Weber suggests, we both hold onto our principles and resolve to “engaging with a world that doesn’t have space for them.” We take a stand and make space for our principles. This is the work many of us feel like we’ve been called to do. 

That call gets louder in times like these, and there’s a model to follow when it comes to continuing to answer it. With her introduction to The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones shares how she came to understand the role black Americans have played in the United States:  

“Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”

To sustain democracy in America, we have to follow the lead of those who have gone before us. This isn’t your usual call to action. It’s one of the most important calls to action in political life. 

Hannah-Jones concludes her essay with this: “We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.”

This is the work of repair. It’s the work of becoming who we always said we were. 

Let’s do some repair work together,

Shellee

Questions of Civic Proportions

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise…”

 

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, American author (also quoted in Austin Kleon’s book Keep Going

 

What does it look like to feel a sense of “deep responsibility to abide by the Constitution?”

If you have heard Senator Mitt Romney discuss his vote for impeachment in his own words, you have listened to someone who thought hard about this question. His discussion with Michael Barbaro on NYT’s The Daily has some restorative power. Jeff Tulis offers a look at what answers to this question might require in the days ahead. A Professor of Government at the University at Texas, Tulis published a “Post-Imeachment Roadmap for Congress” on The Bulwark. He has a prescription for the Speaker of the House:

“But the real leader of an anti-corruption effort should be the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.”

Set the narrative as well as the agenda and respond to tweets not with tweets of her own—but rather by being more presidential than the president.” 

What’s the problem with our primary system?

You’ve heard about the app that failed and heightened concerns for just how white the early states are. Vice has the story of analyzing the app, and Brookings has a good rundown of what the electorate looks like in these early primary states. Vox tries to explain the whole process and how we got here.

I’ve been recommending FiveThirtyEight’s series “The Primaries Project” a lot this week too. Everyone wants to know if this is the moment that killed primary caucuses once and for all.

Following that mode of thought, the Editorial Board at Boston Globe published “Kill the Tradition: N.H. and Iowa should not vote first.” They also chose to break their own tradition, withholding their endorsement of a candidate until after the New Hampshire primary. They explained their decision:

 

“More important than wielding our influence on a single small state’s primary, we believe, is to call for the end of an antiquated system that gives outsized influence in choosing presidents to two states that, demographically, more resemble 19th-century America than they do the America of today.”

 

There isn’t an app that’s going to solve that.

What if, in 2016, “nothing unusual happened at all?”

This question comes by way of a new book by Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized. The introduction introduces this question by way of a conversation between two political scientists. Klein describes the subject of the book as “How American politics became a toxic system, why we participate in it, and what it means for our future.”

The horrifying answer to the question about 2016 and the necessity of Klein’s work come into shocking relief in passages like this:

 

“The fact that voters ultimately treated Trump as if he were just another Republican speaks to the enormous weight party polarization now exerts on our politics—a weight so heavy that it can take an election as bizarre as 2016 and jam the result into the same grooves as Romney’s contest with Obama or Bush’s race against Kerry. We are so locked into our political identities that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition, that can force us to change our minds. We will justify almost anything or anyone so long as it helps our side, and the result is a politics devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability.”
 
Read Norman Ornstein’s review of the book for The New York Times: “Why America’s Political Divisions Will Only Get Worse,” and notice how the whole system might be biased toward geography rather than people.

 

Good Work: “Swingposium Celebrates Music in Japanese American Incarceration Camps… with Taiko”

That’s the headline at the top of an interview with Franco Imperial, artistic director for San Jose Taiko. He explains, “Music was a source of hope. It allowed them to escape.”

Swingposium presents an interactive theatre experience that transports ticket holders to an internment camp mess hall. A mess hall that has been transformed into a dance hall for the evening. San Jose Taiko’s web page describes the project as one that “employs the power of performance to teach about internment and foster dialogue around civil rights, honoring the resilience of those who lived through internment.”

It somehow looks like a lot of fun too. The performance combines Taiko, jazz, and swing dance. When you purchase a ticket, you’ll see this note:

 

“Please be advised that this event is a dance, not a concert… Audiences are welcome but not required to dress in 40’s dance attire.” 
Guests can expect to:

“dance, meet new people, be guided through a narrative, and experience from the inside one of the great, beautiful, under-told, and uplifting stories of the Japanese American internment camps.”  (see What is Swingposium?)

 

The War Relocation Authority had sponsored swing bands as a tool to “Americanize” the Japanese Americans they held in the internment camps. Imperial says that dancing to the music was “a way incarcerated people affirmed their American identities.”

That also affirms how misguided any idea of “Americanization” was. The music in the incarceration camps did not include Taiko. That addition to today’s performances serves as a “symbol for the spirit and resilience of Japanese people.”

With Swingposium, music creates an opportunity to celebrate that resilience.