Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter
December 27, 2020
My Fellow Citizens,
For 2020, the end-of-year lists are holding space for the things that didn’t happen. That approach seems inevitable, of course, with vacations postponed, weddings rescheduled, and holidays downsized.
The lists focus on looking to the past, but this exercise of looking closely at what didn’t happen can also help us see our way forward.
This work requires a particular type of vision, seeing something that scientist Douglas Hofstadter called the “impliciosphere.” This term referred to the “implicit counterfactual sphere,” or, as he explained, “things that never were but that we cannot help seeing anyway.” The concept appears in an essay he wrote in October of 1982, “Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity,” (Scientific American paywall) where he inquired into how we might extend “our abilities to see further into the space of possibilities surrounding what is.”
In the impliciosophere, the stories of what might have happened do not have to be stories of loss. There are problems that our pandemic response left wholly exposed. If all we aim to do is to “go back to normal,” we will have to forget or unsee those problems.
We have to move past the lament for our lost plans. We have to claim the future we want to see. We can call it an American tradition since our experiment in self-government has always depended on this kind of vision. At pivotal moments, we have exercised this ability to look at what is and see what might be.
When James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers, the government they defended did not yet exist. Madison offered a design he built from the impliciosphere. He learned from what had been attempted. He studied what led to failure. Madison proposed a plan for government informed by these studies, and his plan looked like something wholly unfamiliar. Madison looked to the past to understand what had happened and built something new with what he could see might be possible.
This act of imagination, of seeing something that doesn’t yet exist, is part of the country’s origin story.
In Federalist No. 14, James Madison counters his opponents’ claim that the U.S. Constitution should be discarded as a novelty, something untested and unreliable. He boldly claimed that:
“…posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favor of private rights and public happiness.”
If we look back at 2020 with a motive to learn from what happened or what didn’t, what innovations might we introduce?
This is the work that follows in Madison’s footsteps. When we look back, we want to look for more, for indications of what could have been given what the circumstances were. Our 2020 vision can empower us to see what we couldn’t see before or require us to confront what we chose to look beyond.
In explaining how paradigm-shifts work, Thomas Kuhn wrote:
“What a man sees depends both on what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see.”
With the experience we’ve had in 2020, it’s time to make our own study of what was attempted and what failed. It’s up to us to develop the innovations we need to promote private rights and public happiness in the year ahead.
Let’s not pay too much attention to these end of year lists that limit what we see. When we accept the story those lists tell, we risk adopting a small idea of who we are. We are a people that can only see as far as surviving a tough year and who want nothing more than going back to what we once thought was normal.
What we see or what we focus on when we look back has tremendous power to shape our ideas about who we might become. Let’s make those ideas as big and as novel as we can now imagine them to be.
Let’s Think Together and See What’s Possible,
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Questions of Civic Proportions
“Pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists.”
—Thomas Friedman, Author and columnist for The New York Times
Why is it important to share stories about the lives lost to COVID?
On most days, James Hohmann uses his Big Idea podcast with The Washington Post to share stories of lives lost to COVID. He has weathered criticism that this makes his show a downer. He has taken the time to answer the complaint but continues to share the stories. For listeners, there is a real sense of a shared loss.
In a recent essay for The Atlantic, Alex Goldstein shared why he thinks it’s important for all of us to know these stories. He created the “Faces of COVID” profile on Twitter where the bio explains, “They were more than a statistic.” In the essay titled “What I have seen running the FacesOfCOVID Twitter Feed,” Goldstein writes:
“I believe that Americans have a responsibility to share the stories of those who have died so our leaders don’t have the luxury of looking the other way. We have a responsibility to learn from their stories to better protect one another from this terrible disease. And we have a responsibility to affirm the basic dignity of our dead, proclaiming that their lives had meaning, and that those who loved them are not alone in their grief.”
For a quick take on what’s exciting about using mRNA to develop the vaccines being distributed, check out: “Why are mRNA vaccines so exciting?” from Harvard Medical Publishing.
The Washington Post has a longer read, and more personal narrative about what it looked like to develop the vaccine so quickly, and Bloomberg News takes a look at the women whose research made the vaccine possible.
There are more exciting breakthroughs ahead, but we still have to work together to bring the number of cases down. On that topic, read this essay for a perspective on the vaccine from an emergency medicine physician.
What will democracy require of us to survive the 21st-century??
As of this summer, we have a list of 31 recommendations. The bipartisanCommission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship started its work in 2018. They picked up the question of how to respond to the “weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our political and civic life.” When they published their work in June, they suggested we are at one of those occasions when the nation needs to reform its governing system.
The Commission’s three chairs include names that have landed in previous newsletters: Danielle Allen, Eric Liu, and Stephen Heintz. The project used listening tours and convenings to develop a vision for a diverse 21st-century democracy:
Good Work: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
This old song sounds wholly new again in this performance. The Late Show calls Jon Batiste the “heart and soul” of their show, but has a new movie to promote as well. Batiste is the man behind the keys in the animated movie Soul, Pixar’s first title with a Black lead character.
While I mostly wanted to share this small moment of magic with you this week, I also love how the playwright Kemp Powers who co-wrote the film, describes Batiste’s work when talking to NPR.
Powers shared that Batiste became a “jazz ambassador” for the film. When the lead character, Joe Gardner, tells his students about the moment when he first heard jazz, he shares one of Batiste’s own stories. The details include feeling as though the performer has floated off the stage, lost in the music and taking the audience with him. Powers recalls working with Batiste on the film:
“One of the first things he said to us was that he sees jazz as the newest form of music that there is because you’re literally making it up in the moment.”
Here’s hoping that this short video will work to lift you up today too.
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