Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter
September 20, 2020
My Fellow Citizens,
Suckers and losers. Again, we all had to ask the question of whether or not President Trump is fit to serve as Commander-in-Chief. We’ve been here before. We’re stuck in a loop.
Responding to Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic, “Trump: Americans Who Died in War are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers,” the political punditry returned to a question they have asked many times before: why don’t we ever hear from General Mattis or General Kelly?
These military men could lead the way, helping us evaluate the remarks of the Commander-in-Chief. Then a journalist who knows General Mattis will explain that he is a “system guy.”
Here’s what it means to be a “system guy” according to the conventional wisdom of these conversations:
Mattis will persist in standing by the system of calibrating his behavior according to the system of which he is a part. Yes, that system is being threatened and perhaps misused. However, if he steps out of line, he will become one of the forces putting the whole system at risk.
In a 2019 interview, Mattis described what he calls a “duty of silence.” He believes he owed the Trump administration silence after his departure as Secretary of Defense:
“When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country.”
This duty of silence makes it possible to stand strong even as the system falls apart around you. Bad things happen, but I did my part, standing by the system.
That’s when I started thinking about the army ants.
In Ed Young’s article about the pandemic, “America is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral,” he uses army ants to explain the predicament we’re in:
“Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped.”
Young diagnoses two problems for the ants. They have “no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead” and “no coordinating force to guide them to safety.”
The article includes nine ways our pandemic response has suffered for our not thinking any further ahead than army ants. Young’s writing then becomes a list of bad habits of the American mind.
We need to save room on the list for this “system guy” explanation too.
The strength of standing by a system is a static demonstration of fortitude. Consider the doric columns that hold up so many of our public buildings. Their strength serves to sustain a form.
In some pictures of ancient ruins, the columns still stand even though everything else is gone. When you look at the bigger picture, this understanding of strength looks purposeless.
When a public servant takes responsibility for our purposes, we need more than mere strength. We need power too.
There is power in dissent, and you are probably already thinking of the woman who proves the point. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg showed us the power of demanding, persistent and forceful dissent, relentlessly arguing at the very core of who we are and who we intend to be. She wrote her dissents, knowing the strength of the judicial coalition opposed to her.
She met that strength with a show of power. She used the coordinating force of constitutional principles and worked to guide the American public to safety. Having already failed to convince her colleagues on the court, she worked to help the American people see what was at stake.
Through her position on the court, Justice Ginsburg had the power to amplify principles and speak for people denied access to them. She had a reason to speak up.
Reflecting on the “Notorious RBG” phenomenon in 2019, court-watcher Dahlia Lithwick referred to Justice Ginsburg as a “feminist gladiator” and explained:
“I appreciate that steady Ginsburg—who has always toiled within the guardrails of the law and the Constitution—far more than the gangsta-feminist we’ve turned her into… She is real. She is smart. She still believes in the transformational power of the rule of law.”
That’s a power that each of us can participate in too. Justice Ginsburg used her time in public office to help the American people see the bigger picture and to live according to our shared principles. Now it’s as clear as ever that this is our work too.
Let’s keep that bigger picture in our sights,
Questions of Civic Proportions
“The people of the United States are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.”
—Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the U.S.
Can we remember Justice Ginsburg for the power and the promise she brought to public life?
This 12-minute video from The New York Times provides a look at the long career of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’m committed to seeing through the grief and commit myself to develop our capacity to see the nation, its problems, and our role in solving them as she did.
There is plenty being written, and I hope you will share your favorite reads over the week ahead. Just reply to this email and send me the link. Two reads I have enjoyed this weekend were not written for the moment of marking her loss.
On Thursday, the National Constitution Center awarded Justice Ginsburg its 2020 Liberty Medal. NCC CEO Jeffrey Rosen posted an edited transcript of his conversation with her that evening, “RBG’s Life, in Her Own Words” over at The Atlantic. I have also reread her remarks from July 20th, 1993, when she addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee after her nomination to the Supreme Court.
The Washington Post reprinted the full text of her prepared remarks under the headline, “‘What a distance we have traveled’: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on America’s promise for all.” From Justice Ginsburg’s remarks that day:
What is our responsibility now that we can see the systemic inequalities of our healthcare system?
We can now look at the data that proves the inequalities some journalists have tried to keep in the news throughout the pandemic. The conclusions sound like this from The New York times, “Why Surviving the Virus Might Come Down to Which Hospital Admits You,” and this from The Washington Post, “American Hospitals are Still Segregated. That’s Killing People of Color.”
Both papers did deep investigations into the sources and consequences of the inequality many had observed. From The Washington Post:
In a different article, Eugene Scott provides a list of spaces where COVID made it possible to see “the ripple effects of inequality… the exacerbation of inequality at every level.”
The Washington Post also presents data visualization and an interactive mapwhere readers can “Explore Chronic Health Rates” in their community. For the sake of further comparison, The New York Times also offers a “Canada Letter”where “A health economist who has taught on both sides of the border examines the difference between Canada and the United States.”
Is there power in any principle if there is no purpose in it?
This is the result of falling down a rabbit hole. It may have started with a search for “patriotic education,” but then I spent part of my afternoon reading Walter Lippmann’s essay, “The Basic Problem of Democracy.”
He is trying to understand what modern liberty is in 1919. He had my attention when he decided that the modern notion of liberty was “too feeble and unreal a doctrine to protect the purpose of liberty.”
An early formulation of the problem looked like this:
Good Work: The Wide Awakes 2020
They see themselves following in the footsteps of “The Wide Awakes” of 1860. That group consisted of “mechanics, laborers, and clerks who opened their eyes” and used their creative energies to support abolition. They rallied under banners of “Free Speech, Free Soil, Free Men.”
This connection across time made it possible for The New York Times to write, “A Civil War Political Movement Reawakens—Complete with Capes.” The first paragraph of that story written by Matt Delinger, offers something of an origin story for today’s effort:
One of the artists he reached out to called it a “mad scientist-type of situation.” The individual stories collected in the Times article will help you feel less alone and hopeless.
Wide Awakes 2020 will use Kickstarter funds to support 14 projects across the country that “accelerate our collective ability to imagine a more just, healthy and beautiful world.” They explain that using Kickstarter helps them support and pay the network of artists bringing the project to life.
At the heart of the movement is a commitment to the power of art. Their pitch video concludes with this:
Art is a megaphone for unheard voices that need amplifying.
Art gives us symbols to gather around, builds community, and helps us realize that we’re not alone.”
If you’re interested in backing the project, check out their Kickstarter campaign. If you want to join the movement, have a cape within reach by October 3rd.