Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter
February 21, 2021
My Fellow Citizens,
It would be absurd to send a normal newsletter this week. Luckily, my family only suffered inconveniences during this winter storm in Texas. These inconveniences, however, are still best understood as the failure of government.
Texans died this week or spent their days panicking over the threat of death. Our lawmakers adopted an approach to energy production and management that had no backup plan.
This week was one when it felt like I lived in another America. The experience drove home what I see as the alternative to accepting this narrative of two different American experiences. That story becomes a tool by which we can disassociate ourselves from failure.
The problem with one of those Americas is that it is wholly an act of imagination. When we accept this idea of two Americas, we allow that fantasy as much purchase in our idea of ourselves as the other America. That other America is very real and has exacted a horrible price of lost lives and violence. This faux equality makes it possible for us all to be FOR the best version of America without putting ourselves to work AGAINST the other version.
We convince ourselves that the story of failure is the exception. It’s the anomaly. The reality of this narrative of two American experiences is less like what we hear in campaign speeches and more like Frederick Douglass’s letter to William Lloyd Garrison in 1846:
“In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky, her grand old woods—her fertile fields—her beautiful rivers—her fertile fields.— her mighty lakes, and star-crowned mountains. But my rapture is soon checked, my joy is soon turned to mourning. When I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slaveholding, robbery and wrong…”
When we see the whole picture and accept it as one, we have to reckon with real horror. We have to confront failure and the many institutional devices that enforced and required that horror. The failure was no anomaly. The violence happened by design.
Many biographers refer to Douglass’s work as prophetic. He called the country back to its founding principles. He saw that the end of the Civil War could bring compromises and negotiation rather than emancipation. He challenged the nation to persist in the pursuit of its principles. He saw an opportunity to make those principles real.
Accepting two different American experiences blinds us from seeing these opportunities.
A more recent piece of journalism offered a way to understand the type of vision we need instead. Reflecting on Amanda Gorman’s call to action on Inauguration Day, Brandon Tensley wrote for CNN: “Amanda Gorman’s Distinctly Black Love for Country.” He placed her work in the context of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Tensley sketched out a plan for practicing this kind of vision.
A Black love for country requires developing a perspective that makes it possible to see a complete picture. Tensley describes a “kind of patriotism that is by turns critical and optimistic.” He reminds his readers that Gorman’s idea of America is both imperfect and incomplete but still worth fighting for.
Practicing this kind of vision for the country requires us to remember our history and take it seriously. We need to work with the tension of knowing what’s possible while also acknowledging how we have failed.
When we strive to be ambitious in meaningful ways, failure is always possible. We have to be careful not to get distracted by punishing that failure. We have to insist on looking at the whole picture. We have to challenge the institutions and narrow interests that made this failure possible.
It’s time to practice that love for country that is both critical and optimistic. Fiercely critical and fiercely optimistic.
Join a community that believes in the power of thinking together.
We designed our Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter to help you tune your attention to the questions, ideas, and good work of a political life worth sharing. Subscribe to get a copy and let us know what you think.
We will never share your address or any other information without your permission.
Questions of Civic Proportions
“The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.”
—Helen Heller, Author and Disability Rights Activist
What can you do to help people in Texas?
Personally, we have donated to mutual aid organizations that have helped Texas families find a warm place to stay this last week. As temperatures start climbing, that’s not the most pressing concern. Today it’s all about water and food.
The Texas Tribune offers a long list of organizations you can support: How to help and get help as the winter storm causes power outages.
The Texas Tribune has done incredibly valuable work this week. Their work is worth supporting too. The Texas Tribune is our state-focused non-profit news room with a mission of informing the public about policy, politics, government, and statewide issues. They developed and deployed an SMS notification system this week, providing updates on power outages this week. No public agency was doing this much.
The Texas Tribune has some of the most thorough reporting on the institutional decisions and failures that made this failure possible. Read this analysis by one of the Tribune’s veteran reporters: A winter storm leaves Texas with a black eye. They also do an excellent job of reporting on the horrific failures of government that play out in Texas jails.
If supporting the work of an informed citizenry in a state that definitely needs the work of investigative journalists, you can donate to the Texas Tribune here.
Good Work: Rumors of War by Kehinde Wiley
The monument now recalls a Confederate monument that the city has now removed. Wiley’s Rumors of War has made a different public conversation possible. While I had intended to share pieces of this recent celebration, instead I found the most compelling discussion of the sculpture in this video from Virginia Public Media, marking its debut.
I can’t do any better than Valerie Cassel Oliver, the museum’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. She says the monument shifts the conversation about what to do with Confederate monuments:
Turn this newsletter into a civic conversation. Share it.
For people who believe in the power of thinking together.
Our Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter is a power-up for the civic-minded. Spend more time with the questions, ideas, and good work that make a political life worth sharing.