Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

December 13, 2020

My Fellow Citizens,

The answer is equal parts art and democracy, but we have everything we need. The trending stories on social media continue to focus on broken norms and lost time, but there’s another story to talk about in this last month of 2020.

What if the year ahead is full of possibilities?

The table of contents for the Winter Issue of Popular Science hits the themes you would expect to see. The issue includes stories of epidemiologists working to prevent the next pandemic, communities fighting against chemical plants and energy sources polluting their air, and documenting the world’s largest trees.

It’s the Editor’s Letter that does something unusual. Corinne Iozzio reflects on the year ahead with a question we’ve all contemplated, “Where do we go from here?”

Attempting to find an answer, Iozzio starts her letter with the art of kintsugi, a Japanese method of repairing shattered pottery. She explains that “artisans rejoin shards with gold-laced epoxy” in a way that increases the mended object’s value.

That’s when Iozzio turns her attention to the present moment, writing, “life in 2020 is not unlike fractured pottery.” She asks her readers to consider that “each of these fissures is a reminder that we can do better—and an opportunity to do better.”

What appears to be broken is both a reminder and an opportunity. Iozzio explains:

“How we fix these breaches shapes our path to a stronger, safer, healthier, and more equitable world. Like kintsugi, these efforts require care and diligence—not duct tape and hasty patchwork. Each gleaming gold line we create mends our communities so that they’re improvements on the originals.”

Following the lead of an art that has persisted through time, science and democracy can both find an answer to the question of where to start today.

In a speech titled “The Art of Democracy,” Darren Walker shows us that democratic citizens are artists too. Speaking as the President of the Ford Foundation, Walker diagnosed a “poverty of imagination.”

You might be familiar with the list of symptoms. Walker says this poverty of the imagination works against us by:

  • Corroding our capacity for generosity and empathy
  • Diminishing our discourse
  • Making our interactions petty and small
  • Breeding distrust of other people who do not look or think like us

Like Iozzio, Walker finds a remedy in the arts, and it nearly glitters with gold:

“Because when we do the work of the arts, when we hold the mirror up to ourselves and our society, we not only experience our shared humanity, we arrive at our shared obligation to humanity: Our connection with and obligation to all people who suffer and struggle, and seek to be heard.”

The work in the days ahead requires looking carefully at the reflections of our shared humanity and embracing our creative ability to put the pieces back together again.

There’s also a helpful reminder here. Art has always worked this way.

Democracy works this way too. We can start to build our democracy again today because we have done this work before.

John Dewey wrote an essay titled “Creative Democracy” in 1939. He had a long list of concerns over the state of the world too. As he took up the question of recreating democracy, he wrote about how much it depends on personal habits and a democratic way of life.

Dewey prescribed “inventive effort and creative activity,” explaining that the state of our democracy depends on each of us:

“Democracy is a way of personal life controlled not merely by faith in human nature in general but by faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished.”

There’s an opportunity ahead of us to improve the value of American democracy. We can each look for opportunities to practice democracy as a way of life and work together to mend our communities.

We can think of ourselves as citizen artists. Let’s find ways to repair what’s broken by inviting others to remember who we are and imagine who we might be. Or create ways.

Let’s Work Together and Get Creative,

Shellee

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Questions of Civic Proportions

“No fantasy, no reality. No studies concerning loss, no gain. No imagination, no will.

No impossible dreams: No possible solutions.”

—Ray Bradbury, Author and Screenwriter

Will the words we choose today change the conversation about our democracy in the future?

Our answer starts with Zeynep Tufekci’s reflection on the language different cultures have for talking about coups, those that succeed, and those that don’t. In “‘This Must Be Your First,'” Tufekci suggests, “Acting as if Trump is trying to stage a coup is the best way to ensure he won’t.”

She offers advice from living in Turkey, a place with many different words for different types of coups. Having the right words matters:

 “Maybe in other languages, from places with more experience with this particular type of power grab, we’d be better able to discuss the subtleties of this effort, to distinguish between the postelection intervention from the Election Day injustices, to separate the legal but frivolous from the outright lawless, and to understand why his party’s reaction—lack of reaction—is not just about wanting to conclude an embarrassing presidency with minimal fanfare.” 

Elsewhere in The Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein looks at a recent Supreme Court decision and puts a familiar phrase in quotes. Brownstein explains how a concern for religious liberty is working to create a new set of privileges. 

Don’t we have institutions that will save democracy?

“With that, the big one is done.” That’s how Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote about the Supreme Court decision to deny Texas’ challenge to election results in four swing states. She has all the details on Republican officeholders that signed an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit and the response to the decision from the Texas G.O.P. It reads like a call for secession.

This situation has led some institutional observers have called for the justices to say more. Jeffrey Tulis, a friend of the National Academy and Politicolor, pointed to a SCOTUS blog op-ed from Tom Goldstein, “Don’t just deny Texas’ original action. Decimate it.” The court denied the state’s challenge of election results but offered no written opinion on that decision. Goldstein notes that this fits the rules but misses the moment:
 

“Every once in a long while, the court needs to invest some of its accumulated capital in issuing judgments that are not only legally right but also respond to imminent, tangible threats to the nation. That is particularly appropriate when, as here, the court finds itself being used as a tool to actively undermine faith in our democratic institutions…”

Do we have to accept disinformation as part of democratic life?

A recent episode of Lawfare’s podcast started with the question, “Can democracy play offense on disinformation?” Quinta Jurecic hosted the conversation with Alina Polyakova and Ambassador Daniel Fried to discuss their paper, “Democratic Offense Against Disinformation,” recently published by the Atlantic Council and the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Of particular interest was their insistence that defensive strategies would never be enough. They also worked with a commitment to democratic values that grounded every strategy they proposed:

 

“Democracies also need to go on offense: to take the fight more directly to the purveyors of disinformation and the regimes that sponsor and direct them… Care and caution are still required. The principle of remaining true to democratic values holds as much for offensive as for defensive options. We must not become them to fight them. Democracies should not attempt their own version of disinformation. Doing so would undermine the values that democracies seek to defend…”

 

For a take on what we can do as individuals when we’re confronted with disinformation, read “It’s Only Fake-Believe: How to deal with a conspiracy theorist” by David Robson (The Guardian).

Good Work: Save Our Stages

Neil Young narrates this video, titled “A tribute to independent venues.” It’s part of an effort by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) to raise awareness that many of our favorite venues may close permanently without long-term assistance from Congress. You might conjure up memories of one of your favorite shows as you listen to Young’s tribute.

He starts with the familiar words of Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage.” Then he tells us that some stages are part of our history, culture, and community. The conclusion is powerful:

“All the world’s a stage, but there are some stages that feel like the whole world.”

NIVA’s website features marquees across the country, displaying the message “Save Our Stages.” These venues are “100% shut down for an indefinite period of time,” and there’s reason to believe that 90% will not survive. They also explain how the Payroll Protection Program failed to provide for businesses like theirs. You can read their letter to our congressional leadership here. They put numbers to the economic impact of the industry, but they also write:

“The cultural impact of our venues on our local communities is priceless. We are the steadfast incubators and launch pads for the most popular talent in the world.”

Rolling Stone reported that 600 artists signed a letter to Congress supporting NIVA’s effort. Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Robert Plant, and Willie Nelson all appear as signatories:

“We urge you to remember that we are the nation that gave the world jazz, country, rock & roll, bluegrass, hip hop… All of these genres of music, and the artists behind them, were able to thrive because they had neighborhood independent venues to play in and hone their craft, build an audience, and grow into entertainers that bring joy to millions.”

In a short interview on CNN, James Murphy is asked, “Would you be where you are today without independent music venues?” He answers with an emphatic, “Impossible.” He explains what’s at stake if we lose these venues:

“This is a kind of like natural ecosystem that you can’t rebuild. It’s like a coral reef of venues. It’s like a national asset that if it goes away, it doesn’t come back.”

These stages are hubs of creative activity that make art accessible and support our communities. These are the types of spaces where art can show us who we are.

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