All posts by stepwinder

Vox Populi: Rights and Retribution

Conversations with nonvoters and the otherwise disengaged usually dredge up the question, “what difference does it make to me?” A very active colleague’s anything but active spouse actually pointed to his wallet in one of these exchanges. He was asked why he wasn’t more involved. His wallet was his answer.

The point was that no one had shown him how any of it made a difference to the purchasing power he held in his wallet. A simple cost-benefit analysis suggested he had better things to do with his time. Hordes of economists explain political behavior exactly this way and it’s difficult to argue with them. The problem, of course, is that this sense of stability that makes the purchases themselves possible relies on a different category of values, the kind that don’t carry dollar signs.

This week, two headline-getters drew a direct line between their own experiences and their political beliefs. They represent distinctly different vantage points but offer perspectives worth seeing.

Our Country’s Place in the World

Senator John McCain wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times, “Why We Must Support Human Rights.”He had felt compelled to respond to Secretary Tillerson’s address to State Department employees. Tillerson had advised the team to consider that “conditioning our foreign policy too heavily on values creates obstacles to advance our national interests.” McCain recounts his own days as a Prisoner of War and imagines the message Tillerson’s position sends to “oppressed people everywhere.” His articulation of the relationship between our values and our policy is powerful:

Our values are our strength and greatest treasure. We are distinguished from other countries because we are not made from a land or tribe or particular race or creed, but from an ideal that liberty is the inalienable right of mankind and in accord with nature and nature’s Creator.

To view foreign policy as simply transactional is more dangerous than its proponents realize. Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in. It could cost our reputation in history as the nation distinct from all others in our achievements, our identity and our enduring influence on mankind. Our values are central to all three.

His concluding line, a simple statement about the country’s role in the world, “We saw the world as it was and we made it better.” This, he says, it was makes America exceptional.

Equal Protection of the Law

Slide to the opposite end of the political spectrum for Desiree Fairooz’s story, “I’m Facing Jail Time after Laughing at Jeff Sessions. I Regret Nothing.” Fairooz is a Code Pink activist who addresses all of that personal history in her essay too:

After traditional methods of letter writing, phone calls, and office visits went ignored, our local chapter of Code Pink tried creative ideas to get Congress member “Smokey” Joe Barton’s attention on ending his votes for war. We crashed his fundraiser with chants of, “Don’t be a sucker for the GOP!” handing out hard candies to the attendees with messages about white phosphorus ammunitions and what it does to our soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

Her personal testament is interesting for the sake of how she understands the citizen’s role and the individual responsibility that comes with it. If you disagree with her, it’s worth contemplating what the alternative is that you would promote instead. Fairooz’s name landed time in the headlines with a small laugh during a Senate confirmation hearing. Getting the hearing started, Senator Shelby commended the nominee, Jeff Sessions, for an “extensive record” of equal treatment for Americans under the law. Fairooz laughed because she knew the opposite to be true. The evidence appears in the many reasons she had for making the effort to get to the hearing that morning:

The Sessions hearing was different. I didn’t want to get arrested. I shouldn’t have been arrested. I just wanted to be a part of the visible statement against Jeff Sessions’s confirmation. I felt it was my responsibility as a citizen to oppose his ascent to the most powerful law enforcement position in the country.

This is a man who supports anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ policies, who has voted against several civil rights measures, and voted against the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, and whose nomination for attorney general made the Ku Klux Klan ecstatic. I was and am still very concerned that Attorney General Sessions will not enforce equal protection of the law on behalf of people who face discrimination or worse because of their race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

In the final lines of her essay, she hopes that her story is an anomaly, some weird convergence of events involving a new police officer, rather than a signal that retribution is an acceptable public policy. Fairooz asks readers to consider her story a reminder that it’s up to each of us to “resist the government’s efforts to infringe upon our rights — or sit back and watch them disappear.” These two stories combine to present a potent case for thinking carefully about how we assess policy choices being proposed and pursued, both foreign and domestic. The message received and the consequences suffered by people on the other end of those decisions reveal something important about who we are, how we understand our role in the world and what kind of people we aspire to be.

This Week’s Canvas: Complications–in Taxes, Health Care and Hope

Three themes from the week ending May 6th, 2017

The push to make 100 days matter dumped a whole lot of headlines on everyone this week. It was tempting to stick with Star Wars socks and not so fun facts about the Civil War for this round.

Too Simple Math

A single-page tax plan from the Executive Branch has everyone talking about what’s missing. The specifics are scarce and the math doesn’t add up. The Boston Globe offers a nice rundown of the proposition under the title, “We’re a Typical Family. What Would Trump’s Tax Plan Mean for Us?” The paper’s answer for this average family is largely a matter of wait and see. There’s another group of Americans, however, that can get to the final answer without further explanation:

For the rich, the gains are very clear and very valuable, including reducing the top income tax rate, eliminating the alternative minimum tax and estate tax, and cutting capital gains.

A certain Minority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives calculated that the proposal would have offered a $30 million tax cut for Donald J. Trump in 2015. Politifact found that Nancy Pelosi got the math right. Bloomberg points to the necessity of the claim that the tax plan will pay for itself through economic growth. The math doesn’t add up but the politics do. Creating a deficit likely to exceed a 10 year window would require 60 votes to pass the Senate with permanent reform. Then there’s that whole question about the deficit and whether or not anyone is ever serious when they talk about balancing the budget or requiring budget-neutral legislation.

If you need to win at cocktail chatter this weekend, borrow this phrase from Bloomberg writer Peter Coy: Trump’s plan “violates what’s known as the transversality condition.” If you haven’t already had too much to drink at that point, you can add, “which says that debt relative to the size of the economy cannot grow to infinity.” Be sure to turn and walk away for another drink before there’s a follow-up question.

A Matter of Life or Death

If you usually skip late-night TV, you might not have known who Jimmy Kimmel was until this week. After a brief absence from the show, he returned to the stage to share his family’s story about his newborn son born with a heart defect. He also made a powerful statement about questions of life or death and our obligation to one another:

We were brought up to believe that we live in the greatest country in the world, but until a few years ago, millions and millions of us had no access to health insurance at all. You know, before 2014, if you were born with congenital heart disease, like my son was, there’s a good chance you’d never be able to get health insurance, because you had a pre-existing condition. You were born with a pre-existing condition…

If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make. I think that’s something that whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right?

With their “4 Big Changes to Health Care in the Latest GOP Bill,” Fivethirtyeight puts pre-existing conditions at the top of the list. Real people are using the hashtag #IAmAPreexistingCondition to share their own stories of medical uncertainty. An excellent post by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic suggests stories like these, “of people in dire need of health care might be the thing” that makes it impossible to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Hope Forward

While others were running the table with tax cuts and health care legislation, the Obama Presidential Library made its first appearance this week. It’s aspirations match the namesake with Obama telling the Chicago Sun-Times that it would be a place to “train the next generation of leadership” who will “take up the torch and lead the process of change in the future.”

About that future, this will be the 14th presidential library managed by the National Archives and Records Administration but will mark a new way forward in many ways:

Other aspects of the center speak to the former president’s ideals and legacy. Its proximity to transit, parklike setting, and promise of eco-friendly construction nod toward his environmentalism. His plan to invite artists like Chance the Rapper and Spike Lee to teach kids about the arts reflect his love of music, film, and children. His desire for a center that “looked forward, not backward” echoes the entire point of his presidency.

Situated in an urban area, the new site has an opportunity to connect with people beyond the academics one finds on college campuses. It will also be the first “fully digitized” presidential library. A historian at Oklahoma State University who spoke  to (linked above) thinks this all adds up to thinking Obama has forgotten the “core function of a presidential library, which is to house the documentation of a president.” This understanding of a presidential library’s purpose has been especially significant since Watergate, the scandal that prompted the “Presidential Records Act of 1978.” It requires Presidents to make most of their documents public within five years of leaving office.

This potential  gap between physical documents and electronic copies is a question for the future. It might create confusion or inconvenience for investigative citizens but it might also make possible a new hub for civic life in Chicago. A couple of other question require considering the distance between words and deeds sooner rather than later. There’s the question of taking public park land, a gift to Obama, rather than buying land for a presidential library and that “$400,000 speech” that has everyone offering an opinion.

Looks like creating a space for “building consensus and community” is an expensive proposition.



Ralph Ketcham: A Champion for Civic Education

Civic Education lost a powerful voice for meaningful civics this week. While some count political wins with states adding the citizenship test to graduation requirements, Ralph Ketcham led the charge for civic education that was “interdisciplinary, team-taught and driven by deliberation on current events.” That’s civics worth doing and adds up to a political life worth sharing.

When I attended an institute with Ketcham’s biography of Madison on the reading list, I was skeptical of the agenda. 761 pages published in 1971 for a one-week institute in 2005. I will, however, recommend it today and every time I’m asked until my last day. The synopsis from Amazon nails the reason why:

The best one volume biography of Madison’s life, Ketcham’s biography not only traces Madison’s career, it gives readers a sense of the man.

A sense of the man, his intellect and the theory of self-government that compelled him. Sharing that week with Ralph Ketcham himself and walking the grounds of Madison’s Montpelier, I had the privilege of a guided tour of Madison’s mind. It’s a place in time that I return to often, especially when contemplating how to best understand the citizen’s role.

Godspeed, Ralph.

This Week’s Canvas: Counting, Courting and Creative Opposition

Three themes from the week ending April 29th, 2017

What’s 100 days?

There’s some truth that this is an arbitrary marker. FDR planted the flag as he took office picking up the pieces after the Great Depression. He wanted the American people to know he was on the job and it’s a marker we’ve observed ever since. Trump isn’t the first to feel the pressure so why should we forego the ritual and the fun?

With a particularly apropos approach, The Telegraph turns to the new President’s Twitter feed to reflect on his first 100 days. It appears that he has been getting up earlier in the morning. The New York Times had some fun sharing their Opinion pages with readers who offered their own assessments of the administration’s fresh start. A Senior Lecturer in History compared the flurry of activity this week to her students’ rush to complete unfinished assignments at the end of a semester.

Five Thirty Eight offers more measured reflections on the moment with  10 lessons from 100 days, including a reminder that “Trump isn’t the only story.” The Monkey Cage answers that reasonable account with more reasonableness, pointing to the two factors a President needs to turn up the fire on first 100 Days: a congressional majority and a national emergency (or other call to action).

The problem for today’s Republicans is that the social and economic context is relatively calm. There is no recession, bank crisis, terrorist attack or war. An election by itself is not enough. A 100-days legislative binge would have been astonishing.
–David R. Mayhew, The Washington Post

Whose Court is It Anyway?

While political observers watch for every wink, nod or nudge suggesting congressional Republicans have grown weary of President Trump, judges across the country are saying as much. Chief Justice Roberts issued an “oh come on!” in response to an attorney defending the administration’s rationale for deporting naturalized citizens. Justice Kennedy added his own remark, “Your argument is demeaning the priceless value of citizenship.”

For a look back at the trouble with the travel ban, revisit Washington Post’s “Federal Appeals Court Rules 3 to 0 Against Trump on Travel Ban.” That saga alone might explain the President’s willingness to look at breaking up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals but another court has now blocked his Executive Order cutting off federal funds to “Sanctuary Cities.” The courts’ decisions keep returning to this idea that sounds familiar: limited government.

Writing for the New York Times, Adam Liptak observes that partisanship and precedents get tricky given that, “Trump’s Losing Streak in Courts is Traceable to Conservative Judges.”

The Trump administration’s losing streak in courts around the nation has in large part been a product of precedents established by conservative judges in the Obama era. It turns out that legal principles meant to curb executive overreach are indifferent to the president’s party.
–Adam Liptak, New York Times

A Swarm of Scientists Strike D.C.

Earth Day shared the stage with the March for Science last weekend. While you might think activists should have these public marches down to a science by now, this was a remarkably different kind of march. Maggie Koerth-Baker writes that “there haven’t been many protests that addressed the repetitional concerns of a single occupation.” Results still depend on convincing legislators that science is something people care about when they vote.

The nearest match for the potential of the moment involves angry farmers who marched to Washington in the 70’s (and released goats on the capitol steps!). The audience for silly signs and viral videos aside, the March for Science has provoked discussion about science as the “secret sauce of Western civilization,” and its ancient opponent, fear.

The very existence of science is disruptive—because the tool is designed to undercut belief, to challenge both the sacred and the prosaic. The aim of science is disprove the comfortable assumptions of life, not to reinforce them. And since the time of Galileo, it has been seen as a threatening interloper to those in power and to everyday living.
–Clifton Leaf, Fortune

Leaf also points to the antidote for fear: creativity. We’ll add civics. 😉

My Fellow Americans: Good Government is a Good Thing

Shortly after Donald J. Trump took the oath of office, one of this country’s most treasured celebrities posted a new status update. I’m talking about George Takei. He told us we had to “remind ourselves that good government is a good thing,” and added a warning that,” Without this belief, we are lost.” He navigated the Star Trek universe so Takei’s lead is a good one to follow.

This belief in good government helps us make sense of our past and think through the citizen’s role today. It helps us parse the words of elected representatives who understand who we are and those who would make us something else. When you address the American people, you should remember that we’re a people who believe good government is a good thing.

Understanding our History and Ourselves

Yes, it started with a rebellion, but we are a people who were founded in the pursuit of good government. We might champion our insurgency and make a spectacular showcase of our independence every July 4th, but the fight in 1776 was a fight for good government. Look at the Declaration, the document that announced our intentions. Immediately after “the right of the People to alter or abolish” government there is the right “to institute new Government, laying its foundation” on the principles of equality, inalienable rights and the consent of the governed. This list is the stuff of good government. The principles embedded in the logic of that founding document reappear throughout our history as a test, how we know good government from bad.

In the Jefferson’s next move in 1776, he sketched an image of absolute tyranny through negligent government. Those complaints, however, also add as the American people’s repeated appeals for good government.

Declaration Drafting Committee (Photo by Mike Licht)

Good government requires laws, “the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

Good government requires laws to address issues of “immediate and pressing importance” without conditions requiring the governed to compromise their right to representation.

Good government requires legislative decision-making free of harassment for opposing “invasions on the rights of the people.”

Good government requires an independent judiciary.

Coming into view on the world stage for the first time, the American people introduced themselves as a people who would pursue good government while resisting designs “to reduce them under absolute despotism.”

In lobbying for the new Constitution in 1787, James Madison shared how those despotic designs might appear among the people themselves. In Federalist №10, he points to “complaints everywhere heard” that “our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties,” and that these conflicts are too often decided by “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” Madison suggested that “unsteadiness and injustice” marked a government with a “factious spirit.”

In Federalist №14, he pleads that his readers resist the “unnatural voice” that suggests disunion and threatens to poison the “kindred blood” of the American people. Madison’s fellow-citizens had to “excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals and enemies.” Unstable, unreasonable and self-interested government dominated by the passion of a majority rather than the reasoned pursuit of the public good would have only one result: “rendering us in pieces.”


Patriotic Petworthians photo by HeatherMG

Thinking Through the Citizen’s Role

Madison countered this dismal picture of a faction-riddled government with the strength of the American people who persisted in their pursuit of good government. He wrote that the American people were a people who had used the “suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation and the lessons of their own experience” to protect “private rights and public happiness.” In adopting the new Constitution, the American people were fulfilling their duty to “improve and perpetuate” the work of the previous generation. The American project is designed to use the work that has come before us to pursue the principles that have animated that work all along.

This iterative logic is central to understanding our role as citizens. Our support and opposition, both formal and informal, guide a sometimes clunky process of attaining the principles embedded in our original programming. When we refuse to let go of the idea that good government is worth pursuing, we also align to an even larger project: the work of understanding human experience.

A hopeful note appeared in The Guardian a month after Trump won the election. Rebecca Solnit initiated the essay with an understanding about the relationship between hope and taking action toward a cause:

It is the belief that liberation might be possible that motivates you to make it more possible, and pursuing hope even when it doesn’t lead to the ultimate goal can generate changes that matter along the way, including in yourself.

The explainer at the top of the article assures us that the “American people will stand up for ideals of humanity, from lawyers to tech workers to the California Senate.” And that’s how George Takei knows we would be lost without our willingness to believe in good government. The world knows who we have professed to be and has heard our appeals for good government echo throughout history in places distant from us. They have cited our example when making their own appeals.

In acting up to pursue a cause that matters to us, we serve our country, upholding its founding principles and helping to navigate complex questions or difficult controversies. We stand up for those principles, refusing to let them be whittled down to something less than what has guided us through our tumultuous past. When we persist in standing up for these principles, we realize the hopes of those who have gone before us and make hope possible for all people who seek freedom, equal treatment and self-determination.

Patriotic Boque photo by Tronoski Photography

George Takei can see the way forward. We are a people who believe good government is a good thing. We won’t recognize ourselves and the world won’t know who we are if we allow the challenge of the moment to take that away.

Editor’s Note: November 2016 and Finding the Way Forward for Civic Education

Returning to “online news” with a fair measure of caution, I read a suggestion to “find solace in your tribe,” and I knew exactly who I needed to talk to in the days ahead. I have always counted a particular network of civic educators as one of the priceless assets of my career. Failing to put a value on it, however, puts it at risk of the same calculation that has allowed STEM education to push civics out of classrooms. All signs indicate that our communities might be more at risk than ever.

We need civics. It’s time we pull together, assess the strength of our work and put our weight into constructive opposition. Here’s what I think we can do together.

Civic Education as Our North Star

Like you, I spent this week wading through “What Do We Do Next? posts. My momentum for civic work hadn’t just disappeared, it had capsized. I recognized the frustration too. Like my fellow civic educators, I have watched Civic Education lose class time to the push for more math, science and engineering. STEM Education advocates point to a list of careers with higher than average salaries and proceed as though cutting civics to add more STEM is a matter of simple math. We have all shaken our heads wondering what it would take to convince people that living well in community with one another is an essential pursuit with a value that reaches beyond these calculations of lifetime earnings potential. This knowldge of living well together shapes that potential for all of us even if our economists have yet to develop a model for it.

When I felt like I had managed to read the whole Internet’s take on what to do next, it was a local activist’s post that pointed me to my tribe and marked out the way forward. Matt wrote:

Find your north star. Be inspired. Work towards that inspiration and keep that focus. Are you inspired by voter engagement? Do that. What are your goals? If you figure that piece out, outcomes like an election only reinforce your work or give you clarity to refine your tactics.

The Tribe in blue (sometimes National Academy alumni are spotted wearing matching shirts)

This is where I want help from the tribe. We have a network of civic educators scattered across the country who have all shared the experience of the Center for Civic Education’s National Academy for Civics and Government. We have other educators, learning professionals and community members who understand our quest and want to help. We have old friends with many conversations behind them and new allies joining us for the work ahead. The power of this tribe is in the combination of our perspectives. I could gather thought-provoking conversations about what to do next, one after another, and keep myself busy for days. In the end, the potential of every conversation would be limited to the two people who had heard it. I’m not looking for busy work. I’m looking for momentum to make Civic Education a guiding star in the days ahead.

The debate about whether or not we need civics is absurd. Consensus around its necessity grows with each new headlines and the talking points stack up. At the same time, we’re being enlisted to promote even smaller ideas of what passes for civics. A citizenship test yields answer-givers, not capable citizens. A computer game wraps that basic knowledge in a more entertaining package but does little to pursue better outcomes. We have been asked to accept an idea of Civic Education that yields little resistance to the talking points dressed up as serious issues dominating social media.

What I’m Asking You to Do

Civic Education has been the north star for many of us for a very long time. We know it has the potential to make all the difference for healthy communities as well as electoral outcomes.

We need to create a channel where our expertise is accessible outside the classroom. We need to offer some sort of transparency to our thinking so that accusations of inculcating “partisan thinking” fall on deaf ears. We need to demonstrate how people in their own communities concerned to bring Civic Education to their gatherings can do that.

Let’s talk to one another and work together to identify what has been lost, what we might revive and where we should innovate to bring the Civic Education we need back into our classrooms and communities. Let’s get those ideas out of the classroom. I want to hear your ideas. I want to help you write them up here at Politicolor and to promote them from here.

Let’s Talk: A Conversation about Faith & Understanding at a Texas High School

The posters extended an invitation: “Let’s Talk.” The next line hinted at a joke that could get uncomfortable… “A Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu Walk into a School.” At Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas, three students looked beyond that discomfort to step into the spotlight and answer questions about their beliefs.

Jay Schlaegel, a Senior there, crafted the invitation to get people talking about the event. He recalls noticing the frustrations he knew from national headlines had started to gain traction in his community. Jay talks about the “small shifts” he saw in how people talked to one another, and then adds, “That’s not Frisco. We celebrate diversity.” He started to imagine a public conversation that challenged misconceptions with open communication and a willingness to work together.

Flyer image for Let's Talk

From the evening’s poster; Event held May 12th at Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas

With careful planning, Jay led his community through much more than an uplifting evening. The final event buzzed with potential as community members came together in an act showing their shared commitment to faith and to understanding each other.

The three students taking the stage that night — Jay, Shahir Ahmed and Roshni Parikh —  represented their community at its best. Their diverse perspectives became a show of strength as they modeled the work of cultivating a shared understanding. By the evening’s end, the buzz over what the event might be gave way to a conversation-filled auditorium where attendees talked about carrying this work into their neighborhoods and workplaces.

Jay shared his work with Politicolor as a way to amplify those conversations and to help them reach communities beyond his own.

A Big Plan for Keeping it Simple

Walking through the planning process, Jay talks about the three lead student roles and an extended cast of VIPs who supported them. The audience also became part of that extended cast. With lights turned up on a seemingly casual conversation between confident student leaders, the event looked like an informal get together where respect came easy with the support of Liberty’s school community. Making it an easy proposition for the audience, however, came as the result of careful planing.

Jay knew the conversation should be oriented toward three questions: What are your core beliefs? What are your daily practices? What are the common misconceptions of your faith? He explains, “if we understand these things, we will understand one another.” Laying out a litany of dogmatic positions would not be a conversation. An honest effort to understand these closely-held beliefs required an open inquiry into individual experiences and a discussion of their daily practices. Jay wanted to keep the conversation open to create an opportunity for learning rather than lecturing.

“Let’s Talk” took shape through Jay’s Independent Study and Mentorship (ISM) course where he explored a career in Christian ministry. He had thought about organizing the event through a less formal student organization on campus, the Pulse Group. Pulse welcomed students new to campus and Jay’s work with that group had reinforced his idea that this conversation could be an important way to support his community. In the end, he decided to work with his ISM teacher, Brian Wysong, so that the event would have to meet “the highest standards.” He would have to professionalize his plan, coordinating his work with Mr. Wysong, along with his career mentor, John McKinzie and his high school Principal, Scott Warstler. This team was a channel of support even as it pushed him to think through the details of managing the conversation and the difficulties that could accompany it.

Jefferson QuoteJay reached out to Shahir Ahmed, President of the Muslim Student Association, and Roshni Parikh, President of the Hindu Student Association. Having started a Bible Study group on campus as a Freshman, Jay stood beside his peers as students already known for their willingness to lead through their faith. They combined the efforts of their respective organizations to write the first set of questions for the evening. The group leaders, who would answer the questions onstage, then selected the questions they would use for starting the conversation.

The question that marked the beginning of the agenda also made it clear that the evening would not be an easy exercise. The question aimed at everything, all at once. Jay, Roshni and Shahir would have to get directly to the point:

How does your religion answer these three questions: Who is God? Who am I? And Why am I here?

After thirty minutes of these prepared questions and answers, the audience had thirty minutes to ask their own questions. Attendees could text in their questions and “vote up” other questions with an app from This tool gave the audience a real opportunity to influence the second part of the conversation.

Jay was so serious about audience engagement that he rattled off the stats for the evening without prompting: 285 participants asked 175 question that received more than 1300 votes. This feature required additional logistics to manage. AP Government Teacher, Coach Swinnea, sorted through the questions as they were submitted and relayed the popular questions to Rob Rever, a fourth student on stage for the evening. Jay had the data close at hand because he wanted to know the audience had become part of the conversation.

For those who attended, it remained a simple proposition, as simple as a conversation. That’s precisely the experience Jay had planned to make possible. When it was over, he had led his community in an evening of thinking together.

Risk Taking is Reward Making

In other communities, the “what-if” scenarios could have shut down an event like this before it ever had the chance to draw a crowd. Principal Scott Warslter admitted to being worried about what might happen. When asked how he had thought through “the worst thing that could happen,” Jay responded with a statement of faith, saying that aiming for “big rewards” requires taking “big risks.” That’s what he wanted to do, and then he added, “I knew those guys [Mr. Warstler and Mr. Wysong] would take care of me.” The school community at Liberty High School showed a willingness to take risks and followed Jay’s lead in aiming for big rewards.

Some of the tension that worried staff members showed up on the audience’s list of questions and persisted. Coach Swinnea had the task of reviewing questions and skipping those that wouldn’t be helpful. In a show of confidence in the students, he ultimately passed along the question, “A common debate in our society today involves discussion about gender identity, homosexuality and acceptance of everyone. What are your religion’s views on topics such as these?” When asked about that question, Jay said he didn’t think it was the most difficult one of the evening. He worried more about answering the very first question from the audience, “What does each respective faith believe happens to non-believers when they die?” The debate over the study of evolution and creationism also made it onto the agenda before the conversation was over.

The students each proceeded cautiously, thinking deeply and holding to their commitment to speak honestly. Shahir became the perfect example of dealing with his own uncertainty when addressing the question about evolution. He began his response with Adam and Eve and then a caveat:

“I am not as knowledgable on this topic as I would like to be but there are people in our audience who are, definitely, and I wouldn’t want any of my personal thoughts to get in the way of the truth of what Islam actually believes in.”

Shahir asked the audience to seek out those more knowledgeable practitioners at the end of the night. He concluded his remarks with a statement of truth that transcended the question, “I have a lot to learn still, when it comes to everything really.” Shahir showed how accepting the incompleteness of one’s own understanding can change the tone of our conversations.

Lets Talk MadisonJay believes this moment represents an advantage student leaders have when navigating these controversies. Before the conversation started, the students explained that they were still working to understand their faiths themselves. Jay said he asked for “forgiveness and grace” up front because they were certain to get something wrong, to choose the wrong words and to say something that might cause offense. This gesture asked audience members to understand the students as individuals practicing their faith, puzzling through their own questions even while attempting to answer whatever questions the audience asked of them. This framed the conversation as an exercise in understanding one’s own faith as much as it was an effort to know the beliefs of others.

Wanting to show that the conversation was just getting started, the final act of the night included one more invitation. The students asked everyone to bring their questions to the front of the auditorium where they would be joined by adult practitioners of their faiths. The auditorium filled with conversations as audience members left their seats.

This moment had worried Jay some. He had imagined what it would look like if no one took them up on this less formal and more personal part of the evening. The audience could have instead filed out of the auditorium and left the conversation behind them. Stepping to the front of the stage at the end of the night, Jay shared his concern with the audience, “if the conversation stops when you walk out the doors, then this night did not meet its goal.” He then finished his remarks by emphasizing the evening’s theme, “Let’s talk,” and extended it to include, “Let’s communicate. Let’s cooperate.”

The audience stayed to talk more. Jay laughed as he recalled having to resort to flipping the lights on and off to convince everyone to go home.

Their evening together had reached its end but the conversations spilled over into the days that followed. Jay, Shahir and Roshni received an invitation to speak to a nearby retirement community, and the Lieutenant of the Frisco police asked them to come talk to the police force too. Jay excitedly shared that he had just seen a letter the retirement community sent to the Muslim congregation building a mosque near their residences. The letter referred to having attended the “Let’s Talk” event, expressed appreciation for the the beauty of the building taking shape next door and then extended a good neighbor’s offer to help if they needed it.

Conversations at the front of the auditorium

Conversations at the front of the auditorium

A Community that Listens Together, Learns Together

Jay paused and thought over the question about the night’s success, but the answer came quickly. He knew the night was a success at something near the halfway point of the evening’s agenda. He remembered looking out into the crowd and seeing faces that looked like Frisco… “there were turbans next to baseball hats.”

The support of his community had sustained his work and made it possible. That, however, would not have been enough to make the event succeed in all the ways he wanted. When asked to consider what made the evening work in Frisco and what would be important in planning events in other communities, Jay identified three must-haves:

  1. The participation of well-respected students who were willing to demonstrate the work of learning together,
  2. A school community willing to take risks and able to support one another in the face of those uncertainties, and
  3. An audience able to accept the students’ appeal for forgiveness and understanding.

Like a professional event planner, Jay added that a heavy amount of marketing had also contributed to the night’s success. He devoted a month to promoting the event with his simple proposition, “Let’s Talk.” That simplicity made it possible to counter the tension and discomfort of religious differences in a community. That casual invitation put learning together and respecting one another back at the top of the community’s agenda.

The conversations sparked by a one night event at Liberty High School continue to work their way across the community improving the way people there talk to one another. When you want to start this conversation in your community, you know who to talk to.

Video of the event’s first 60 minutes courtesy of Halle Barham, an ISM student at Liberty High School

Notes from Our Past: Understanding the Threat of a Demagogue

There’s no clearer sign about the character of this year’s presidential contest than the renewed interest in asking Google,  “What is a demagogue?” Senator Joseph McCarthy (led the Communist witch hunt) and Governor George C. Wallace (defended segregation) have landed in the news again as everyone grapples with whether or not we’re on the verge of electing a demagogue to the highest office.

We all know demagogues are bad and could probably name a couple. What we really want to know is if we have the self-governing skills to recognize a demagogue without the benefit of reading about it in a textbook.

In a brilliant demonstration of how to use our own history to understand the present, Phillip Gourevitch at The New Yorker wrote in March, “Abraham Lincoln Warned Us about Donald Trump.” He points to Lincoln’s concern for a “mobocratic spirit” threatening the country in 1838 when lynch mobs took up the cause of justice on their own terms. In Lincoln’s “Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum” in Springfield, Illinois, he warned that the “approach of danger” in the United States would “spring up amongst us.” He shared his concern that there was “something of ill-omen” in the events of the day and prescribed a “political religion” to counter it.

Here’s a small excerpt about the contest between the mobocratic spirit and good men. We gave it our “amplified” treatment to lend some visual interest:

Amplified: Lincoln's Address before the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois 1838

Amplified: Lincoln’s Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois 1838


A mobocratic spirit aims to disrupt or suspend government in the name of freedom while threatening that freedom at the very same time. A demagogue uses this strategy to pursue personal gain and to diminish their detractors.

Back to the recent New Yorker piece, Gourevitch tells us Trump has this covered:

Donald Trump personifies the mobocratic spirit; he fuels it and is fueled by it, though it is doubtful that he can control it. All the elements are there: the incessant, escalating lust for violence; the instinct for mobilizing a mob to take the law into its own hands; the claim that whole groups are the enemy; the belief that those who are not with the mob forfeit all protection from the mob and invite attack..

And that’s only half the list.

Last December, The New York Times collected the words of Donald Trump’s public remarks as a way to consider the weight of these accusations  of demagoguery. Analyzing 95,000 words, authors Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman uncovered a “potent language” used to “connect with, and often stoke, the fears and grievances of Americans.” They argue that his words create a “threatening dynamic” with only one resolution: “trust-me-and-trust-me-only.”

This observation points us to a demagogue’s operating logic: fear. The NYT analysis shows that fear is the substance of Trump’s appeals:

The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use, based on a quantitative comparison of his remarks and the news conferences of recent presidents, Democratic and Republican. He has a particular habit of saying “you” and “we” as he inveighs against a dangerous “them” or unnamed other — usually outsiders like illegal immigrants (“they’re pouring in”), Syrian migrants (“young, strong men”) and Mexicans, but also leaders of both political parties.

Healy and Haberman acknowledge that office-seekers often appeal to passions and patriotism, but point to Trump’s ability to “forge bonds with a sizable segment of Americans over anxieties about a changing nation, economic insecurities, ferocious enemies and emboldened minorities.” When assessing a candidate’s potential for demagoguery, we have to consider the possibility that this “us vs. them” thinking could be the logic that governs us.

On this question, Michael Gerson with The Washington Post recommends recalling the work of the American founders. Writing before the Ohio and Florida primaries this Spring, Gerson takes on the question, “Who is to blame for Donald Trump?” He writes, “In a dangerous world, fear is natural. Cynically exploiting fear is an art. And Trump is a Rembrandt of demagoguery.”

Trump is to blame for Donald Trump. There is also an important reminder about the genuine difficulty of democratic government:

With the theory of a presidential nominee as a wrecking ball, we have reached the culmination of the founders’ fears: Democracy is producing a genuine threat to the American form of self-government. Trump imagines leadership as pure act, freed from reflection and restraint. He has expressed disdain for religious and ethnic minorities. He has proposed restrictions on press freedom and threatened political enemies with retribution. He offers himself as the embodiment of the national will, driven by an intuitive vision of greatness. None of this is hidden.

Demagoguery and democracy make for an easy partnership. The U.S. election of 2016 is only the latest test of our capacity for self-government. This time, it’s up to us so we have to be sure we understand the question.

Writing for The Atlantic, Megan Garber suggests that calling Trump a demagogue works to “dismiss him as a candidate and amplify him as a political threat.” We need to understand this threat and that it extends beyond our usual partisan politics.

The threat is instability. It’s a threat that has occupied political thinkers since the beginning of political community. It’s the same threat that motivated Madison’s draft of the U.S. Constitution and everything he wrote about it from there.

Hamilton Quote2Barber offers us this leverage on the problem, “Demagogues undermine the stability of a ‘by the people’ form of government particularly by turning ‘the people’ against each other.” She then turns to no lesser authorities than Aristotle and Federalist No. 1 (Alexander Hamilton) to remind us that Trump is “a human distillation of the maxim that democracy ‘is a device that ensures we shall be governed by no better than we deserve.'”

We need to ask a bigger question than Google can sort out for us. It isn’t whether or not Trump is a demagogue or who is to blame for him. We have to ask about our role as “the strongest bulwark” of self-government and how can we convince our fellow citizens to resist the siren call of “us vs. them.”

We have to turn our own gaze from a demagogue’s demands for attention. We have to insist that we deserve better.


#CitizensRead: “Gumption” and the Battle Cry of a Decent People

Doing her part to keep the flag off the ground during a 4th of July Parade (photo by Julie Raccuglia)

Doing her part to keep the flag off the ground during a 4th of July Parade (photo by Julie Raccuglia)

American founders worried about limiting our expectations if we only understood ourselves through lists. In the original case, the question revolved around the perils of listing fundamental rights. That list became our Bill of Rights, a document that many mistake for the sum total of their constitutional rights. That’s what Madison was afraid would happen.

More than two hundred and twenty-five years later, Nick Offerman has his own list for us and a powerful example of how to understand lists as a set of forward-looking propositions that require our participation.

In Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, Offerman presents a list that includes four categories, twenty-one stories and not a single thing to be gained by memorizing any of the above. Introducing his work, he writes, “part of what defines gumption involves a willingness, even a hunger, for one’s mettle to be challenged.” The potential of Offerman’s project isn’t about knowing who is “in” and who is “out” but in understanding this “mettle-testing.”

Gumption first imagines someone has asked, “What makes America great?” A tired question that usually only gets taken seriously during candidate debates, Offerman transforms it into a springboard to muse casually about our past and think deeply about what we should understand about our shared history. He uses a yawn-worthy question to create a fresh opportunity to interrogate the ongoing experiment we call the United States of America.

Understanding Gumption

The list of the gutsiest amongst us doesn’t just look back to the past. There’s a present and future where it’s possible to improve on the previous model.

This writing will endeavor to examine some examples of the ways in which we as Americans have used the powers of freedom bestowed upon us to become more decent as a people, which I believe was loosely the idea when the whole shebang got started.

Offerman believes the American people were founded to be a more decent people than they were in 1787 and were thereby designed to pursue, with persistence, those ideas that will make us even more decent today. His understanding of the American people allows for their fallibility as much as it does their potential.

A protest sign for decency? (Sign and photo by Lily Rhoads)

A protest sign for decency? (Sign and photo by Lily Rhoads)

This struggle with our ailments recurs throughout Offerman’s work and often identifies the place in time where we prove our mettle.

The opening set list, the Freemasons, is easy to write off if you’re just skimming names on the Table of Contents. There’s little intrigue when one finds that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison made it onto another list of old white guys who made this country great. Offerman presents these guys as, “the magnificent sons of bitches who founded our United States” while brandishing, “a courage that is hard to fathom and a serving of foresight that very well beggars my modern imagination.” Offerman’s articulation of being beggared carves out a new space for understanding the American experience through the stories we all thought we knew.

Washington is understood through the fight for American independence alongside the American Enlightenment when “the self-evident truths of an individual’s right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’” required colonists to rise up against “the onerous hand of monarchist rule.” Offerman marks this moment in our history as one “when the corncrib of gumption was fully stocked” because these men “had the temerity to make this moral choice even when the life-threatening odds were stacked against them.” As though drawing the chalk outline around the tired and trivial ways we re-tell these familiar stories, Offerman reminds us that failure was not only possible, it was imminent. He muses that few Americans could be provoked to get up off the couch today without reasonable odds that their energy expenditure will result in success.

Franklin earns praise not for his achievements alone but that they were compelled by an “insatiable curiosity,” a self-evaluation that pursued perfection while expecting to fall short of it and a concern that Americans might “be lulled into a dangerous security… being both enervated and impoverished by luxury.” Offerman thinks through Franklin’s story as a model for living diligently so that productive pursuits and luxuries serve one another. James Madison’s story is one of a “diminutive man” who could hardly command the attention of a crowd but who still became the one guy the founders trusted “to write up both the captain’s orders and the owner’s manual” of the new government. Madison’s role as “The Father of the Constitution” is a small detail as Offerman instead asks what we can learn from Madison’s work ethic and commitment to follow-through. Madison saw what needed to be done and did it in a way that made the whole enterprise sustainable.

Largely a list of familiar historical legends, the Freemasons section of the book concludes with the story of Frederick Douglass. After announcing, “Hey, it’s a black guy!,” Offerman describes Douglass as a “priceless sword” for the abolitionist movement. He explains that Douglass worked through a combination of, “searing common sense, an inspired talent for language, and a furious commitment to justice, all resting solidly upon the bedrock of his all-too-real history in bondage and brutality.” He shares his realization that all the snapshots of Douglass’s life presented in the classrooms of Offerman’s youth had provided only the “bullet points of horror,” while doing nothing to communicate the self-determination and perseverance that made Douglass’s story possible. Reading Douglass’s own words, Offerman says he could finally see why the proslavery crowd feared Douglass as “a firebrand” who would be “powerfully instrumental in helping to bring about the end of slavery.” Understanding the depth of misery Douglass endured made it possible to see that he wielded extraordinary strength.

Offerman refers to it as gumption and mettle-testing, but Douglass provides the logic for why it matters.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

(Photo by Chris Devers)

(Photo by Chris Devers)

Idealists: Becoming a More Decent People

The proposition the progress emerges through struggle marks Offerman’s shift to achieving maximum horsepower. The answer to what makes America great is not one that’s fixed in the past. It’s one that requires something from each of us who would call ourselves an American. The next section of the book honors the Idealists, individuals who “continue to pay homage to our founding principles.” Offerman shows how they each represent a personal commitment that shapes public ideas and makes it possible for the American people to continue to become more decent.

Offerman initiates this list with Theodore Roosevelt, another example of how “a properly applied dose of gumption” makes it possible to use a previously unknown strength. This section includes massive demonstrations of power exercised by otherwise ordinary people who sought to open up NYC’s Central Park for all residents to enjoy (Frederick Law Olmstead), to appeal to common sense for the sake of accepting people of all races, genders and abilities (Eleanor Roosevelt), to own and represent unpopular policy positions (Barney Frank), to create art that requires re-examining dogmatic thinking (Yoko Ono) and to drag those who would skirt decency into the light of the public eye (Michael Pollan). Offerman’s storytelling often makes clear that these people we know to be remarkable could have chosen to stay comfortable on their own couch. This technique makes it possible to understand how their ideas about the American people and their country added up to a discomfort and dissatisfaction that refused to accommodate the usual cost-benefit analysis.

His own craftsmanship often seeps into Offerman’s perspective on a story but two stories in this section work to reveal what he sees in the basic proposition of having a craft to practice, whatever it is.

His own words blend with Wendell Berry’s work to demonstrate that the search to understand our purposes is worthwhile for its own sake and that understanding those purposes requires working towards them. There is more to be understood but that understanding requires practice.

Offerman’s appreciation for Tom Laughlin’s work is sentimental while sacrificing nothing about its substantive contribution to the project. Offerman explains that Laughlin “stubbornly persisted” in promoting a film his production company dropped as a failed venture. Laughlin wrote, directed and starred in Billy Jack, a film he booked into theaters himself in 1971. Today the film is recognized as the highest-grossing independent film of all time.

Offerman turns to Roger Ebert’s words to tell us what to make of this success and Laughlin’s place on our list, recognizing that his

…movies are personal ventures, financed in unorthodox ways and employing the kind of communal chance-taking that Hollywood finds terrifying. The chances they take sometimes create flaws in their films, but flaws that suggest they were trying to do too much, never too little.

Offerman interprets this as the highest praise for a person. The suggestion being that Laughlin’s “heart was in the right place and the utmost of gumption was employed.”

Making the Gumption

Artists make the gumption (Photo by Vigo74,

Artists make the gumption (Photo by Vigo74,

This accolade makes for a perfect pivot to Offerman’s final section, the Makers. Remarking that these are “some pretty cool kids” at the “back of the bus,” he tells us how their music, furniture, poetry, art and punchlines make for the strongest conclusion a work like this can achieve. Offerman writes that “their creations enkindle within us the flames of gumption, as we seek each our own path to lead lives that enlarge and also depend upon the lives of others in America and beyond.”

Making appearances in this closing act are familiar people like Carol Burnett, Jeff Tweedy and Willie Nelson but their stories achieve new altitudes, accompanied by the less familiar stories of Thomas Lie-Nielsen, Nat Benjamin, George Nakashima, George Saunders and Laurie Anderson. In Offerman’s retelling of an evening spent with his friend Conan O’Brien, the entire list comes together with force and magnitude. It’s a quiet and unassuming moment, one that’s easy to miss.

Offerman refers to Conan’s after-dinner musings as “Irish jazz-riffs” so there’s a bit of a set up to navigate first.

The two are talking about how people their age often get angry about change and how to best avoid that trap. To stay young, Conan says, “the thing that I would like most… is to accept change; be interested in change.” This leads to a monologue about human nature and the drive to seek rewards. After achieving a reward, your average human wants to repeat endlessly whatever behavior it was that got rewarded.

Then Offerman writes,

Instead, my host suggested, we prosper by ‘keeping our eyes upon our own test or running our own race. By working hard, building things, writing things, making things, and trying to better yourself, trying to be a good person, that is our life’s work. That’s how you proselytize, is by doing it.

Everything in your body’s going to tell you to hunker down and shake your fist at the sky like King Lear, it’s like — try not to go that way. The easy way to go is to say, ‘It’s all gone to shit,’ when the great moral of the story, I think, for your book should be, that It’s always been shit.

That’s the big finish. Move beyond its merits as a punchline to consider it as a provocation.

The gumption that fuels our collective efforts to make America great resides in understanding the difference between concluding “It’s all gone to shit” and that “It’s always been shit.” It’s the difference between an easy opt-out and a complicated obligation to try anyway. Offerman’s list of America’s “gutsiest troublemakers” becomes a guide for recognizing that both conclusions are reasonable in most circumstances but only one leaves a mark.

The American enterprise is realized through the collection of these unlikely marks and the impossible details make the stories worth telling. Offerman’s list is a civilized battle cry for democratic people of the 21st century, “Get off the couch!”


Another worthy take on the call to arms (Photo by Thomas Hawk)