Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter
April 19, 2020
My Fellow Citizens,
We’re all asking one another, “how are you holding up?” The standard response usually starts with a deep breath and includes some bad joke.
We’re looking for a new approach to our standard greetings. The usual ones don’t seem to do enough to recognize that we’re all keeping a safe distance from one another.
In addition to looking for the right words to start a Zoom meeting, we’re also looking for the right words to share with a high school senior who has been denied a long list of once-in-a-lifetime memories. At times, we’re struggling to find the right words for offering distant support to loved ones fighting an illness, and the right words to mask how worried we are about their chances.
This work of finding the right words is exhausting, and author David Blight helped me dial into why.
Blight wrote the award-winning biography of Frederick Douglass. A recent discussion with the crew from Slate’s Political Gabfest focused on his recent article in The Atlantic: The United States is Being Taught by Facts and Events. The subtitle even suggests, “The pandemic is reminding Americans of the importance of government.” Fingers crossed!
The March 26th conversation with the Gabest crew, Blight pointed out that we don’t yet have an analogy for the pandemic. On 9/11, we understood that we had suffered some sort of military attack. We could look to Pearl Harbor and feel like we had a guide so that we knew what to do.
We don’t know where to look in our past. We can find no guides. We feel as though everything has come unmoored.
We find a sense of certainty, or at least comfort, by looking to the past to see something we need to know about today. That’s where David Blight had all the right words, starting with the idea of the “solidarity of ages.”
He described the past and the present as being wholly intertwined. Blight had borrowed the phrase, solidarity of ages, from a French historian named Marc Bloch. A member of the French Resistance, Bloch completed his book Craft of History while on the run from the Nazi army that invaded Vichy France in 1942. Bloch died at the hands of a Nazi firing squad, but his book and Blight’s love for it makes it possible to use his work as our guide.
Blight paraphrases Bloch’s ideas about the solidarity of the ages:
“[Bloch] …makes a profound case of how the past and the present are all with this [together] hand and glove. They’re always inter-related, even when we don’t know it. Even when we don’t think so… Past and present are all mingled, and the past is always waiting to get you in the present. “
So, we need to find the right words for the forces of our past that threaten us. We need to name them and know them so we can protect ourselves from them. In his 1838 Lyceum Address, Lincoln described two different types of men, and two different ways of relating to the past in the present moment.
Lincoln’s retelling of the American story included a class of men who had made the country possible. They saw their “celebrity, and fame, and distinction… their destiny inseparably linked” with the success of our ability to govern ourselves. The success of the American experiment in self-government was their success too.
Then Lincoln described a second group of men to come. Men who “seek the gratification of their ruling passion,” they disdain a “beaten path,” and “see no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. “ These men would pull the country apart.
The struggle of finding the right words for any single moment includes this challenge of choosing the right guide to our past as well as our present and future. We have to find the words to connect us to one another as we find our way forward.
Stay safe. Those words need our voices to be heard.
Questions of Civic Proportions
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
—Mark Twain, The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain
Will we be able to vote safely in November and is anybody working on this now?
The New York Times called it “one of the most politically freighted voting-rights cases since Bush v. Gore.” The Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision that prioritized questions of imagined (but never proven) voter fraud ahead of the health concerns of Wisconsin voters. If they didn’t receive their mail-in ballot on time, they would need to go to the polls on election day. The Court could not afford them the few extra days it would take for them to vote safely from home.
NPR has a few great graphs that show the people of Wisconsin met the challenge, putting their lives on the line to show up at a small number of polling places. President Trump actually said that widespread mail-in ballots would be the end of the Republican Party, the data doesn’t support him on this either.
When Time magazine asked what Wisconsin can tell us to expect in November, they determined that it’s public confidence that’s at stake:
This discussion is all related to predictions of when we’ll be able to return to work, school, and public spaces again. If that’s the answer you need before you can worry about November, make time for this longread from Donald G. McNeil in The New York Times—The Coronavirus in America: The Year Ahead.
Will we think more broadly about what we have and haven’t done to address inequality?
Michael Sandel organized his recent op-ed in The New York Times around the question of what we owe to one another as citizens. The title asks: Are we all in this together? He is a political philosophy professor, so this isn’t the first time he has asked questions like these. Now his answer includes learning from what the pandemic has laid bare.
Rates of infection and deaths have followed a well-known curse of geography with minority citizens facing the highest risks. The Atlantic announced that our ongoing culture war has expanded to include our response to social-distancing. And the President himself used his Twitter account to incite violence against state governors.
With this as the backdrop of the moment, Sandel says we have to think more broadly about how we contend with inequality and “reckon with the morally corrosive downsides of meritocracy.” Jamelle Bouie, a frequent NYT writer, tells us that these are forces that have the President’s attention:
When this is over, will we crave normalcy too much to change anything?
A history professor at Indiana University took to The Ideas pages of The Atlantic to consider a question that’s occupying minds across the country. Do we really want to just go back to what we thought was normal?
Rebecca Spang wrote: “The Revolution is Under Way Already.” There must be a cause for hope in the words she wrote. Alumni of the National Academy for Civics and Government continued to share it day after day. I expect the weeks ahead will continue to include too many discussions of how soon we can get back to normal. This is the clip that’s going to help me through it:
Good Work: A Boy Scout Keeps Ears Comfortable on the Frontlines
Quinn Callander is a Boy Scout in the 7th grade. When he saw pictures of the bruised faces of healthcare workers who have to wear masks for long hours, Quinn started to look for ways he could help out.
He found a design for a “Surgical Mask Strap Remix” on Thingiverse, and he put his parents’ 3D printer to work. It takes four hours to print eight straps, but Quinn’s effort had far-reaching effects.
He has personally printed over 1,300 straps, and he is asking volunteers to fire up their 3D printers for their local communities. The design can be found here on Thingiverse. Thousands of scouts and other volunteers have followed his lead. Ken Lord, who created the design Quinn put into production, says that he has heard from people all over the world.
The local news picked up Quinn’s story and Ken’s too. He has now printed over 3,400 straps for his community. Quinn told the Washington Post:
It’s another quote from Quinn in the Washington Post article that will help us smile as we think about the future. During a phone interview, Quinn’s mom asked him, “What do you tell people who say you’re too young to make a difference?”
Quinn’s had a quick response to that challenge, too, “Watch me.”