Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

July 26, 2020

My Fellow Citizens,

The country mourns the loss of a hero this weekend.

A man whose work in the real world achieved the legendary status of becoming a series of bestselling comic books. The heroes in comic books appear larger than life but Congressman John Lewis would insist that any of us could do what he did.

He even dressed in costume to appear at Comic-Con events. Lewis would wear the clothes of his younger self, an overcoat, and a backpack, and lead young people in a march across the convention floor. There is no better example of dogged determination to fight for what’s right than the life of John Lewis. 

Yet, while looking back at a career committed to good trouble, we also see just how much remains unfinished. 

If a man who shed his blood for the right to vote died while fighting another rising tide of voter suppression, what hope is there that you or I can dismantle the injustices that we see today? 

John Lewis left us the answer to that question too: 

“We must accept one central truth as participants in democracy. Freedom is not a state; it is an act.”

The work is ongoing. When we discuss the work as though it could be finished, we risk missing the point. 

Lewis wrote this central truth in his 2012 memoir Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change. In reflecting on Lewis’s work, Adam Serwer (The Atlantic) used this quote to make sure we understood not just what the Congressman did but how he approached that work. 

In his article, “John Lewis Was an American Founder,” Serwer wrote: 

“By custom, headline writers refer to men such as [C.T.] Vivian and Lewis as ‘civil-rights icons.’ This understates who they were. They were the leaders of an incomplete revolution that remade American society… They are part of a third generation of American leaders who elevated the universal truths of Christian doctrine and the words of the 1776 Founders, and shamed the nation into deciding that these ideals mean something.”

Founders work to make principles real. They see those principles and take action to lift them from the pages, to give them force in the world. 

We will miss our part in the story of America if we look only at what remains unchanged. We have to look at the Congressman’s work and think constitutionally. In The Origins of American Constitutionalism (1988) Donald Lutz wrote: 

“The story of American constitutionalism since 1789 is the story toward a more perfect union. The Founders would never have expected Americans to create a perfect union, nor should the citizens, but the commitment is to making it better.”

As participants in the American experiment, we never get to rest and call the work finished. The principles of that experiment call us to commit ourselves to work towards its improvement.

Over a year ago, Nikole Hannah-Jones introduced the 1619 project with the claim that Black Americans have always worked as the “perfecters” of the United States. She wrote, “Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.” 

The work of freedom is never finished, but we can each lend our strength to this work of perfecting the American system. That’s the call to citizens and that’s how we can continue to follow Congressman Lewis’s lead.

Recording an interview with Lewis this June, Jonathan Capehart (Washington Post) listened as Congressman Lewis described his motivations in way that aligns with this idea of being a perfecter: 

“I had the feeling from listening to speeches or reading books that we had everything in the Constitution. We just had to make it whole. We had to interpret the essence of the Constitution. So we wanted America. We wanted America.”

That’s the call of the perfecters from across time, generation to generation, and from one side of the country to the other. We want America. 

We want to continue the work of making the American union better.

Let’s keep working at this together,

Shellee

Questions of Civic Proportions

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

—Ida B. Wells, Investigative Journalist

What happens when there is no law that constrains the pursuit of order?

There is much to read about what is and isn’t happening in Portland and federal troops’ actions there. One of the first and most powerful essays about why this matters to all of us came from Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes. They usually write for Lawfare but this essay appeared in The Atlantic. When it comes to the danger on display in Portland, they write:

 

“But let’s leave the legalities aside for now. Because whether the Trump administration has the technical legal authority to deploy this show of force in this particular matter does not answer the question of whether it should do so. The use of federal officers in this manner is corrosive of democratic culture, it makes for bad and ineffective law enforcement, and it’s likely physically dangerous both for the law-enforcement officers and for the protesters in question.”

Over at Time, Joyce White Vance shows how this “federal intervention” diminishes trust. She writes, “This is the impact of damaging faith in the criminal justice system – people lose their ability to trust and the system can’t function properly.” Trust was already a difficult question. The head of Portland’s NAACP wrote an op-ed to say that a “white spectacle” in the city’s streets today displaced a movement that was supposed to be about black lives.

With a persistent global perspective, Anne Applebaum deployed a term that I can’t get out of my mind. Read her article in The Atlantic too,” Trump is Putting on a Show in Portland: The president is deploying the kind of performative authoritarianism that Vladimir Putin pioneered.”

Performative authoritarianism. There will be order. There might not be much left of the law.

How does the way a story gets told reveal who has power and who doesn’t?

Take the time to watch Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ten-minute speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives this week. Whatever you think of the Congresswoman’s policy preferences, she gave a history-making speech.

Watch the speech here. On Facebook, Slate provided a useful summary, “In ten devastating minutes, AOC shamed the Florida congressman as emblematic of a culture of misogyny and workplace harassment and tied the Republican Party to that abuse.” The speech matters beyond any one person’s brand, partisan affiliation, or electoral calculations. Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Rage (2018), puts the speech and the broader controversy in perspective:

 

“What is also true and unsaid here is the way in which degradation and dismissal of women—as disgusting, as crazy… has been key to the building and maintenance of disproportionately maile power in American political, economic, social, and sexual life.”

 

Read the rest of Traister’s essay on The Cut: “The Poison of Male Incivility.”

It’s critical to understand this moment as a cultural one, not just a political one. As AOC said, “dehumanizing language is not new.”

What makes an idea about what’s right different from a dream?
 

It’s the work that we put into bringing it into action. This comes from an essay Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1862, “American Civilization.” In it, he argues that “morality is the object of government.” He uses this claim to argue for the federal emancipation of slaves, and it resonates with more recent appeals we’ve heard from civil rights activists.

This particular excerpt provides a powerful description of the work those activists, people we might call perfecters, do:

 

“It is the maxim of natural philosophers, that the natural forces wear out in time all obstacles, and take place: and it is the maxim of history, that victory always falls at last where it ought to fall; or, there is perpetual march and progress to ideas. But, in either case, no link of the chain can drop out. Nature works through her appointed elements; and ideas must work through the brains and the arms of good and brave men, or they are no better than dreams.”

Good Work: More Than A Vote (LeBron James and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition)

Interwoven between pictures from movements then and now, the video introducing More Than A Vote explains their mission:
 
Our right to vote is under attack
Again
It’s in our hands to protect it
Because it’s more than checking a box
It’s keeping our people out of one

 

You may have seen headlines suggesting this is the work of LeBron James alone. The basketball star created a nonprofit to pay fines for Florida’s former felons, but it’s part of a partnership to make sure these nearly 775,000 people can exercise their right to vote this year. 

James’s organization, More Than A Vote, is supporting an effort led by The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition that Politico reports “already has raised more than $1.5 million for its fees-and-fines fund.” James and More Than A Vote recently committed another $100,000 to that effort. 

The More Than A Vote website declares: “Change isn’t made by watching from the sidelines.” 

The organization represents a coordinated effort by Black athletes and artists to use their platform to raise funds that will counter a recent Supreme Court decision that leaves returning citizens, men and women who have served their time, unable to vote in 2020’s elections. Both organizations, The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and More Than A Vote, believe their partnership will increase awareness and engage a new audience.

Athletes have invited their fans to get involved. Udonis Haslem, who plays for the Miami Heat, explained his participation, “Your right to vote shouldn’t depend upon whether or not you can pay to exercise it.” On Instagram, More Than A Vote features a quote from Trae Young, a point guard for the Atlanta Hawks:

 

 “As a player, there is no place more sacred than the arena—and as a citizen, there is no duty more sacred than casting my vote…”

 

In another video, Renee Montgomery, a WNBA athlete playing for Atlanta Dream, celebrates the use of arenas as polling places, saying it “levels the playing field.” There’s public transportation to get you there!

LeBron James used Twitter to make his case in just a few words: “This is a fight about their constitutional right to vote being denied.”

You can contribute directly to the fees-and-fines fund here or accept the organization’s invitation to remember John Lewis and support the cause at the same time. More Than A Vote is hosting a screening of the John Lewis documentary Good Trouble via this link where 100% of the funds will support Florida’s returning citizens.

The march for a better America continues.

Now, share this newsletter with a civic-minded friend and start a conversation.