Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter
February 7, 2021
My Fellow Citizens,
“Two Americas” has been a theme in our political discussion for decades. Headlines in January warned that a “clash of Two Americas” was real and could get worse.” That’s a tale of Republicans vs. Democrats. It reads like a rhetorical device, something that amps up the drama.
It has roots in our past. We can’t let it slip through our collective memory and become just another strategy to get more clicks.
When John Edwards made “Two Americas” part of his (painfully) unsuccessful run for the presidency, he told stories of the wealthy vs. the poor. This more closely recalls Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech in 1967, “The Other America.” King described the difference between one America, “overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity,” and another where “poor by the millions… find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty.”
Only a few months later,, President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” We keep collecting stories of two Americas—Black and white, poor and wealthy, Democrats and Republicans.
In mid-January, journalists Jamelle Bouie and John Dickerson picked up on precisely this shortcoming when discussing the insurrection of January 6th. Bouie had been revisiting some of Lincoln’s speeches, and he shared how often we quote the famous “House Divided” speech to point to political divisions but skip his conclusion that “a house cannot stand that way. It must be one thing, or it must be the other thing.” Dickerson adds, “one side has to win this argument.”
We see two Americas. Do we not see the problem?
We repeat that we see a difference, but there’s little evidence that we have developed a vision to address it. If a shared vision is a call to our better selves, a lack of vision means our ideas appear smalll.
Sighted through the
Telescope of dreams
So it seems,
Than truth can be.
But turn the telescope around,
Look through the other end—
And wonder why
What was so large
Becomes so small
“Long View: Negro” by Langston Hughes
If we reclaim this storytelling device of two Americas, we can make the call to action our own: On what terms will we become one America?
That question is larger than any single policy proposal on the President’s desk or lingering on the congressional agenda. There will always be disagreements over how to best implement our vision.
Trouble grows, and the house falls when we can’t agree on what that vision is, on what we see through that “telescope of dreams.”
Writing last June, Peter Wehner looked at other famous words from the turbulent times in the 1960s. He was “Listening to Robert F. Kennedy,” and asking if there was “something about his habit of mind and heart, his disposition that we could use now.” He says Kennedy “had an authentic interest in a national dialogue, in hearing from and speaking with those who shared very different views than he did.”
According to Wehner, “Robert Kennedy spoke about racial injustice more often and with more intensity than any other white politician of his era.” Kennedy’s disposition was not to accommodate those who didn’t understand the vision of the country. His enemies were not white or wealthy, or Republican.
In a speech he delivered six days after Dr. King’s assassination, Kennedy aligned himself with those who “believe we have the power to do justice and to make our streets fit places where men can live and children play in tranquility.” He said:
“The enemies of such an achievement are not the black man or the white man… The enemies are fear and indifference. They are hatred and, above all, letting momentary passion blind us to a clear and reasoned understanding of the realities of our land.”
Over time, we have reduced the story of two Americas to a familiar plot device. We have yet to do the hard work of developing that clear and reasoned understanding of our reality.
Our commitment to this work will decide whether we will become all “one thing or all the other.” The way we approach this work and persevere in it will reveal whether we see big things or small things ahead.
There’s no letting go of that telescope of dreams.
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Questions of Civic Proportions
“A lot of people want to skip ahead to the finish line of racial harmony. Past all this unpleasantness to a place where all wounds are healed and the past is laid to rest.”
—Ijeoma Oluo,, author of So You Want to Talk about Race (2018)
Will our institutions do better to confront extremism now that it’s Marjorie Taylor Greene in the spotlight?
Marjorie Taylor Greene is the latest test for the media and democracy. The Washington Post picks up the question of how the media can cover an outrageous public officeholder without amplifying hate and misinformation, and AP News attempts to provide a full list of those troubling tactics here.
Once again, we are learning that we need a media that can resist following every new stunt and instead provide important context. Vox does this regarding the institutional questions in the House of Representatives where Greene was removed from her committee assignments, and Jamelle Bouie tries to lend a historical perspective to this latest moment in conservative politics. He takes his own turn back to the 1960s when William F. Buckley, Jr. distanced himself from the John Birch Society due to its extreme views. With this history in mind, Bouie looks ahead and writes:
“Those once-porous borders, in other words, now appear to be nonexistent, and there’s no one in the Republican Party or its intellectual orbit to police the extreme right. Representative Greene is the first QAnon member of Congress, but she won’t be the last, and she may not even ultimately be the worst.”
So far, it’s a small win for the House of Representatives, maybe, and an ongoing struggle for the media.
What inequalities do we allow to hide behind our ideas of merit?
It’s hard to resist the pull of someone The New York Times calls a “rock star moralist,” but more interesting than that is the justification for this title. Sandel helps “us grapple with the unexpected and uncomfortable questions that history delivers us.”
In this case, he wants us to consider that a preoccupation with what is fair makes it possible to leave many inequities unchecked.
Sandel’s most recent book starts with the college admissions scandal, setting the stage for a discussion of how “the credentialed have come to imagine themselves as smarter, wiser, more tolerant — and therefore more deserving of recognition and respect — than the noncredentialed.” Sandel explains:
“On the surface, our debates are about fairness: Does everyone have a truly equal opportunity to compete for desirable goods and social positions? But our disagreements about merit are not only about fairness. They are also about how we define success and failure, winning and losing — and about the attitudes the winners should hold toward those less successful than themselves… Finding our way beyond the polarized politics of our time requires a reckoning with merit.”
Good Work: Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Luvvie Ajayi introduces herself as a professional troublemaker. She has a best-selling book described as a “truth riot” and has crafted a personal brand of speaking up. In her TED talk, she explains, ”In a world that wants us to whisper, I choose to yell.”
This wildly successful TED talk is worth a revisit for several reasons. She challenges the idea that the people who speak out are fearless. With a grab-bag of stories from a year when she decided to say “yes” to things that scared her, Ajayi explains that truth-tellers feel fear. They speak up anyway. They don’t believe there’s an option to do otherwise.
She describes this decision to do it anyway as “taking the fall. Her theory is all about being the domino. Ajayi explains:
To do the work of developing a clear and reasoned understanding of our reality, we have to be willing to take the fall or to be the domino when someone else does. Ajayi encourages the audience to imagine the different places we would be in today if we understood that “Everyone’s well-being is community business.”
Being the first to speak up and take the fall is how we take responsibility for this community business. According to Ajayi, this is the way for us to find common ground:
“I think we commit ourselves to telling truths to build bridges to common ground, and bridges that aren’t based on truth will collapse. So it is our job, it is our obligation, it is our duty, to speak truth to power, to be the domino, not just when it’s difficult—especially when it’s difficult.”
There’s nothing easy about building bridges, but it starts with speaking up and telling truths.
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