This Week’s Canvas: Something is Burning

August 11, 2017

Returning to the fight to find something smart to read and we’re keeping our cool. No easy feat given the climate change report leaked recently suggests it’s nothing but record-setting high temps from here on out. Maybe devastation is the new black. Let’s see what we can figure out about how we got here.

North Korea WTH (also DJTWTH)

Is there anyone with more than WTH to say about the escalating war of words between North Korea and President Trump? I thought that was the only rational response until NYT’s new(-ish) podcast, The Daily, came to my rescue. The show’s host, Michael Barbora, interviewed former Secretary of Defense William Perry and asked much smarter questions than mine. Listen to the episode, “What a 1999 Meeting with North Korea Tells Us About Today” and have more context for this debate than most all of your friends.

Rolling Stone offers a timeline of events in the region while The Atlantic walks through four options of what might happen next. Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Sudan University in Shanghai, sees little hope for negotiating a deal with China:

Shen also dismissed the notion of a mega-deal between China and the United States, less because it wasn’t feasible than because the goal of such an agreement would be futile. North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is “impossible to stop,” he told me, “just like it was impossible to stop American nuclear weapons, impossible to stop Chinese nuclear weapons, impossible to stop Israel’s nuclear weapons, Indian nuclear weapons, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.


Poverty Forever

Several outlets have run headlines suggesting the White House is quietly accomplishing many things while everyone else waits for the next presidential tweet to drop. All the policy headlines seem to add up to making it harder and harder to be poor. In an opinion piece for Time, Wes Moore writes “The War on Poverty Has Become a War on the Poor.”

This nation needs a battle plan so our poor citizens can fight their way into prosperity. Instead, after decades of inconsistent policies and disparaging rhetoric, the 45 million Americans living in poverty today are more vulnerable than at any point in this nation’s history.

And the vulnerabilities keep stacking up. Check out The Hill’s report that 81 institutions working to prevent teen pregnancy just learned that their five year grants would be cut off after receiving only three years of funds. The U.S. has a maternal mortality rate higher than any other developed country in the world and complications of unplanned pregnancies is one of the reasons. Then there’s “gutting” the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development as cities across the country face affordable housing shortages. Housing is harder to find, there’s little help available and the plan is to cut more.

If I had more time I’d dig up that quote about, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers…”


The State of the Opioid Crisis

All the speculation over whether or not President Trump would declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency sent me looking for more information. I know it’s bad and people are suffering but I didn’t know what to make of this particular decision. Last February, Frontline took on the question, “How bad is the opioid epidemic?,” and effectively drew a chalk outline around the answer.

By Frankie Leon

One statistic that I had to read and re-read and still don’t quite understand:

12 states have more opioid prescriptions than people

If you read the previous section on poverty, you might be able to predict the states that made the list: Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma… There seems to be a trend but it’s also more widespread than you might think, cutting across demographics and geography.

The Washington Post then answered the question of what a declaration of emergency makes possible. Mostly, more money. States and localities can use the federal government’s Disaster Relief Fund to cover drug treatment and overdose-reversal medication. It could also make it easier to navigate around federal regulations that make it more difficult to get treatment.

If the current crisis is causing death rates comparable to the AIDS epidemic, maybe we should ask how we can improve our response rate this time. That requires federal funds and a strategy. I imagine I’m not alone in feeling this is the right answer even if I am unsure about what strategy would be the most effective. And when I say I “feel” it, I’m telling you that I still experience a wave of sadness whenever I hear a Prince song and am reminded of his loss. Casual attitudes about our prescription habits have delivered people deeper and deeper into a situation that quickly spirals out of their control.

It’s time to confront what we think we know about addicts and people who die from drug overdoses. They look more like us and our family members than we might imagine. The Science of Us has a treatment plan for all of us and it’s a doozy.

Combating the stigma of addiction may require a two-pronged approach, one that requires open discussion about mental-health issues on a policy level, while also forcing us to address our individual prejudices. Recognizing and stopping addiction when it happens is about being more aware and staying connected to one another — and this applies as much to our homes as it does to the communities we live in.

Want to fight fires? Find a way to connect with the people in your community. Follow those ups and downs like you watch what your high school friends are up to on Facebook.

National Academy 2017: Questions, Answers and More Questions

In today’s political forum, no one is looking to start another argument. It’s still true, however, that a good argument can make all the difference in what happens next.

Good arguments require connecting ideas. Listening to one another and thinking through a logical framework together. When we avoid arguing reasonably together, we also turn away the connectedness and empathy it cultivates.

Sadly, Election 2016 has us all imagining partisan battle stations with perfectly calibrated talking points. One good argument could bridge the gap between fighting one another and thinking together. Good arguments rely on good questions. One good question could prove to be an invitation to connect rather than divide.

Occidental’s Greek Theater, photo by Keith Gall

This year’s National Academy for Civics and Government started with the question, “What are you for?” The Academy is best understood as a three-week exploration into what it means to take constitutional science seriously and then to apply to understanding how the American system came to be. What is the United States of America for? The twenty-one Citizen-Scholars who convened at Occidental College this summer had written their own answers when applying for the Academy. At our first session, they each had the option of recalling what they had written previously or to submit a new answer in the moment.

The usual suspect of fake news, limited political knowledge and extreme partisanship played leading roles in the questions that appeared alongside their FOR statements. These Citizen-Scholars devoted nearly half their summer to a serious course of study because they are FOR truth, engaged citizens, media literacy and political leadership. After these introductions, Professor Will Harris launched into the Academy’s opening session with reading the Declaration of Independence as a clear statement of a people who are FOR good government.

Final Presentations: Finding Answers and New Questions

With renewed authority, the scholars of the National Academy presented their own “findings” of at the end of the institute. A proposal for a new national anthem wove together the work of Aristotle, Thomas Kuhn, John Locke and Cicero and found harmony in between the melodies of “This Little Light of Mine,” “Fight the Power, “ and “Change is Going to Come.” Another team took Madison’s idea of revising and amending the U.S. Constitution (as opposed to adding another item to a list of amendments at the end of the document). The makeover yielded an Article IV that addressed a specific understanding of U.S. citizenship. Another panel of scholars gave the document the color treatment, applying the system Madison outlines in Federalist 37 for reviewing the proposed government. They assigned each category of review its own color and then analyzed the “color signature” of each article.

Photo from L.A.’s Natural History Museum (by Keith Gall)

As the complexity of the American system came into full view, one team of scholars traced the concept of equality through time, from Cicero and Aristotle to Locke, Jefferson, and the 14th amendment. They considered how the definition and different aspects of the concept combined to identify the purpose of government and define its role in society. The final panel of citizen-scholars took on the task of writing a new pledge, a credal affirmation, that would focus on promoting citizenship rather than saluting a symbol. They called their proposal a promise rather than a pledge and promoted it as an invitation to learn more about the founding documents it referenced and the commitments they represent.

The unsettled world had not grown any more quiet during the three weeks of the National Academy. The world still managed to look different to he citizen-scholars who had worked together to puzzle over hard questions. They returned to their own institutions of higher learning with new questions like how to create an “inter-text” dialogue where individuals, “debate the ideas of the texts using reason and empathy” and “what are the ways in which today’s environment might ultimately be good for Democracy and Constitutional Government?”

Questions of fatigue and despair had given way to questions with possibilities. Can’t wait to hear what happens next.

The Citizen-Scholars of the 2017 National Academy for Civics and Government

The citizen-scholars (and civic educators) of the 2017 National Academy for Civics and Government are:

Melissa Ackerman, Las Vegas, NV

Victoria Allen, Greensboro, NC

Scott Arronowitz, Keene, NH

Janet Bordelon, Palo Alto, CA

Angie Cosimano, Virginia Beach, VA

Amrita Dani, Boston, MA

Analia Escamilla, Salinas, CA

Cheryl Fleming, Brooklyn, NY

Adam Horos, Grand Rapids, MI

Michael Jackson, Swartz Creek, MI

Dennis Kass, Chicago, IL

Ross Ketchum, Dubois, WY

Erik Korling, Sacramento, CA

Amy Medlock-Greene, Irmo, SC

Tyler Nice, Springfield, OR

Andrew Orzel, Alexandria, VA

Dirk Schexnaydre, Geismar, LA

Jeanne Schierstedt, Racine, WI

Luke Schlehuber, Miami, FL

Emily Stout, Raleigh, NC

Steven Wang, Gainesville, GA

Christine Wilson, Washington, D.C.

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.



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. 😉

#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)

How to Start Something: Criminal Justice Reform and Buying In

Lucy’s niece had been convicted to life in prison. Watching Hannah endure the proceedings, she could hear the phrase we’ve all mumbled by heart, “And justice for all,” as it became a more and more distant echo. One injustice came after another and no one else seemed to notice or care. Hannah’s odds kept getting worse and worse.

Lucy had watched the case from the courtroom convinced this story was an anomaly. Something had gone wrong. There was a misfire somewhere so she watched quietly believing the tragic circumstances would crumble when someone rushed in with undeniable proof or when the jury finally issued a verdict.

But that’s not what happened. Hannah was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (short video recap from ABC’s 20/20 available here).

Jail cells by my_southborough,

Jail cells by my_southborough,

Lucy recalled hearing the verdict and thinking, “This can’t happen. This is America.” It had been difficult enough to get people to listen to her when Hannah was standing trial and was presumably innocent until proven guilty. That, of course, was another principle of American democracy that now seemed out of reach. Lucy knew it wouldn’t be easy, but she decided she had to do something.

I recently asked my friend to share her experience with me. We had met knocking on doors for Obama in 2008 when the country learned the intricate primary caucus maneuvers dubbed “The Texas Two Step.” We stayed connected online and shared our support for local music, but it was her niece’s case that had brought us back to talking “politics” again. More than a decade before we first met, I had assisted a family with limited resources and little education who needed to navigate an imposing system. A disgruntled friend’s teenage daughter made a terrible accusation and set a whole series of events in motion that her mother had never anticipated. I understood the frustration Lucy shared when her pleas for help were met by chorus after chorus of the ideas we repeat from memory but that actually had little influence over the proceedings she witnessed.

Hannah has now been released. She returned home to her family who all continue to make frequent trips to the prison facility where she was once held. Staying connected to the women there is now Hannah’s chosen ministry. The story, the proceedings and the persistent absence of accountability or anything that looked like justice has been well-told by Pamela Colloff with Texas Monthly. The entire series is worth reading but the last update marks the decision of the Texas Supreme Court of Criminal Appeals:

Today marked a turning point in the case of Hannah Overton, the Corpus Christi mother of five who has fought for eight years to prove her innocence. This morning, in a decisive 7–2 ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned her capital murder conviction. The court stopped short of declaring Hannah actually innocent, but cited “the fundamental unfairness of her trial,” pointing to the ineffective counsel she received when she was prosecuted in 2007.

I asked Lucy to meet me at a local coffee shop to talk about the distance she traveled between the moment when she decided she had to do something to the days she spent creating and sustaining the organization founded as a result, the National Coalition for Criminal Justice reform. Her activism included learning countless troubling details about the criminal justice system. We shared our shock and sadness about those issues, of course, but I wanted to know what she learned about what it takes to start something and the hard work that goes into organizing a cause.

She jumped right in and wrote her own recap that I hope she will share here soon. There’s this brilliant buzzfeed-like quality to a list of 5 challenges Lucy identified. It boils down to one harsh truth about trying to start something.

It is damn hard to get people’s attention and it’s even harder to convince them that a cause they had never noticed before is worth their time or money. If this shows up in our discussions of this kind of work, we bury it under our frustrations, complaining about apathetic and uncaring citizens.

That discussion loop is too easy and too familiar. It distracts us from the work that could make a new script possible.

Awareness: Asking Someone to Leave a Comfortable Place

Lucy freely admits that she thought little about criminal justice before it was her family member who was in trouble. She assumed the system worked and had little reason to think that it didn’t. She agreed whole-heartedly when I said, “it’s a comfortable place to be, thinking that the justice system works.” To get anyone to tune into her message about the many points of failure she had seen, she had to convince them to give up that comfortable place.

Showing up: Anti-Union, Anti-Walker protest in Wisconsin by Emily Mills,

Showing up: Anti-Union, Anti-Walker protest in Wisconsin by Emily Mills,

That’s the first lesson for would-be activists. You aren’t just asking people to give a damn. You’re asking them to give up their comfortable place. They have to be willing to show up. It’s not an easy ask and it’s never as simple as telling them the facts. Our digital days overflow with easy facts.

This is where Lucy had the benefit of expertise and luck. Her marketing background had embedded the stages of the “Customer Buying Cycle” into how she thought. She knew that getting something started would first require increasing awareness about the problem. She had to convince people that the problems bothering her were problems that extended beyond her niece’s case and were problems that everyone shared an interest in addressing. She wanted Hannah to be free, of course, but she now understood that the justice system would not live up to our idealistic notions without the vigilance of a concerned community.

Lucy’s effort also had some luck in regular headlines supporting this awareness campaign. 336 DNA exonerations since 1989 across 27 states have pointed to the same systemic problems that Lucy’s family confronted. The success of true-crime journalism like Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” and the record-breaking podcast “Serial” are evidence that more and more people know the stories of those claiming their innocence while serving their sentences. The more difficult trick is transforming those large audiences into a crowd with a shared purpose.

Starting something begins with taking two questions seriously and recognizing how much they each rely on the other:

How will you increase awareness that your cause is a “real thing?”
With this new realization in mind, how will you convince others to support the effort with their time, money and talents?

Awareness matters but it isn’t enough if it fails to bridge the next gap by convincing someone that this new understanding makes them so uncomfortable that they have to do something.

How often is the question “Did you hear the latest about Adnan’s case?” followed by “What are we going to do about prosecutorial misconduct?” A sea of pink ribbons or a neighborhood of blue porch lights can be a power-up for those already committed to the cause but still do little to solicit new contributions of time, money or talent.

This gap between a too easy show of support and a substantive effort toward change underlies the criticism of Slacktivism and the ever expanding list of ribbons for a cause. A successful awareness campaign still suffers a limited reach if it fails to create a clear channel for new supporters to pick up the cause as their own and to take the next step.

The Next Step: A National Coalition

Lucy had discovered a large and fragmented collection of organizations operating under the umbrella of criminal justice reform. Some revolved around one individual’s story and sought to raise funds for their appeals. Others focused on death penalty cases alone or the availability of DNA evidence. She recalled the she hadn’t seen the connection between her niece’s case and broader issues until Sam Milsap, a San Antonio attorney and former prosecutor, asked her, “you see how this is connected to the death penalty, don’t you?” That simple question will turn your ideas about the justice system upside down and backwards with innocent people on death row as well as behind bars.

Having once thought there was nowhere to turn, Lucy now needed to navigate lists of organizations working separately across a spectrum of criminal justice reforms. She imagined building a coalition so these groups could reach out to one another, broaden their information sharing and coordinate their work for maximum impact. The next person in her position would have one place to go to access a network of know-how and reliable resources.

But that’s not what happened either. The crew that came together to create and support the National Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform had difficulty sustaining the organization over time. They celebrated success like the first annual Freedom March for the Wrongfully Convicted and helped one another continue their own fights believing justice could still be won. In telling her story, Lucy refers to her own “activist fatigue” and the way commitment to the organization would ebb and flow depending on how well one’s own case was doing. In retrospect, Lucy can see how the coalition never quite coalesced like she had hoped.

Their reach hadn’t extended far beyond the original collaborators and their direct interest in promoting awareness for their own cases. When their appeals met a resolution, for better or worse, it affected their commitment to the coalition. They had not successfully recruited new activists willing to take their place. The network of know-how and resources that would continue after any one case ran its course never quite took root.

Getting Buy-In: Having a Strategy and Giving it Time

While our conversation bounced from terrifying statistics (1 in every 110 American adults is incarcerated) to honoring the hard work of leaders in this movement, we kept returning to the advice Lucy would offer the next person who encountered a “system error” in any category and decided they had to do something.

Looking back at the Buying Cycle, she said that what you really needed was to walk people through this cycle until they became the advocate themselves and took the lead in learning more about the problem. To get there, Lucy recommended organizers talk frankly about the time they would need to commit to building the organization and the time they were asking others to give. There is no easy way to move beyond awareness to taking action. It requires a strategy and a strategy takes time.

The strategy has to carve out this channel for newly persuaded supporters to pick up the cause as their own. Success requires focus. The result of that focus is a clear message with a call to action connecting that message to the interests, skills or resources of the individual who has given you their attention. It’s that connection that grows your audience, extends your reach and recruits new resources in the time, money and hard work you’ve made possible. This creates an opportunity for supporters to give what they have to offer while knowing how they are contributing to the larger effort.

There’s an important distinction between inviting someone to support your cause and enlisting them in an ongoing campaign for change. It may not make much of a difference to activists counting “likes,” ribbons or Meet Up attendees but it will make all the difference in who shows up the next time. Carrying a cause over time and across any individual’s experience requires buy-in and muscle. Awareness is required but it’s not enough.

Looking to get something started? You’ll need a plan to help a newly uncomfortable person buy in, take the next step and carry the cause.


Our Civic Health: Discovering the Art & Science of Working Together

There’s a chorus asking us to think about our civic health. A relatively quiet (i.e., hardly noticeable) effort in Arizona added the citizenship test to graduation requirements. Then there was San Bernardino. And, in President Obama’s State of the Union speech, he asked American citizens to join him in creating a “better politics.”

The question that rose above the usual position taking in San Bernardino sounded like one we all expected so it was easy to miss. It wasn’t whether or not HE was crazy but whether or not WE are. The implication is that it’s possible for us to fail at democracy. Something President Obama even worked into his last State of the Union address. He summoned the power of the first three words of the Constitution to remind us that the American people will “rise and fall together.”

Addressing the question of our civic health might be difficult than adding another test to our graduation requirements. If we think hard about our shared purpose in working through such a question, however, we might engage ourselves and other citizens in the work that determines whether our political community grows stronger or shrinks away.

Understanding the Question

Writing for Politico Magazine, Jonathan Zimmerman asked if the tragedy in San Bernardino was proof of our failure in civic education. An American citizen who completed his entire education in the states took the lives of fellow citizens in the apparent support of a radical foreign ideology. Zimmerman wrote that schools were once “our central mechanism for making Americans… for socializing the young into the norms, traditions and beliefs of the nation.” He then pointed to today’s culprits for compromising on that work by naming shifts in public opinion after Vietnam and Watergate and listing a series of movements to promote “more marketable vocational skills” instead.

Electric Brain by Michael Cohglan

Another version of Zimmerman’s question might be, “is our civic mind well?” The question is one of our collective health. The American people as a whole are the patient of interest.

Writing in 1789, James Madison also described the American people as a patient suffering different maladies and searching for a remedy. The future of the United States relied on finding the right course of treatment. Madison asked his fellow citizens to make distinctions between good advice and bad.

Such a patient, and in such a situation is America at this moment. She has been sensible of her malady. She has obtained a regular and unanimous advice from men of her own deliberate choice. And she is warned by others against following this advice, under pain of the most fatal consequences.
— James Madison, Federalist No. 38

The doctor’s perspective is one that requires careful examination of ailments, thorough testing of potential cures and a careful understanding of how all these actions influence other outcomes. When the question of our civic health arises through tragic events, the direction and distance we go looking for answers reveal how little or much we understand of the question and the context that made it possible.

Knowing We are Not Well

It isn’t difficult to feel disfranchised when we experience daily life in our communities as fixed propositions. We’re convinced that anyone paying attention knows city officials have their minds made up. The meetings on the city’s calendar run more like a final mechanism to show public support for the city’s plan and less like opportunities for civic engagement for communities to define and address their priorities.

Banksy by Rocor

Banksy by Rocor

This is a paradigm of managed care. Elected officials and professional bureaucrats tell us what the problems are and then oversee the prescriptions they have provided. Citizens follow their orders.

This, however, isn’t just about how we choose to govern ourselves. This disposition toward managed care runs parallel to how we approach problem-solving generally. We don’t discover answers and the stories that made them possible. We Google what we need to know.

We don’t puzzle over questions. We fill in the blanks and move onto the next. Finding the answer is the end of the story instead of the beginning. In looking for answers, we travel the shortest distance possible.

On this model, the citizen’s role is defined by the answer to a single question, “did you vote?”. The answer is either yes or no. It leads to either “sanctioned” complaining about decision-makers or shaming of non-voters. If, however, we imagine citizens to be civic discoverers, the patient collaborating with physicians to look for both old and new answers, we unlock a list of much more interesting questions. Problem-seeking and puzzle-solving challenge the apathy, hopelessness and cynicism that too often pass for political discussion.

What are the signs of our illness? How do we know these signs point to serious trouble ahead? Can we evaluate these symptoms with past experiences or address them with other known approaches? Is there in fact something fundamental at stake and, if so, how do we chart our course forward?

We look beyond search results to discover answers once understood in our past or newly understood to be possible in our future.

In contrast, the most shallow version of political life surrounds us in arguments via Facebook threads and the resilience of past ideas that haunt current campaigns. For example, some part of the American public has yet to question Donald Trump’s nativist policies. These are ideas understood to be fundamentally un-American by the majority and held to be incompatible with democratic government since the end of World War II. These ideas still appear to be winning primary votes because there’s an opportunity embedded in the affliction of the American people.

We don’t just disagree, we mistrust one another. It’s fear and loathing shaping our political life. Writing on Policy and Politics for Vox, Ezra Klien summarizes recent Pew polling data

This, then, is the last 30 years of American party politics in a sentence: we like the party we belong to a bit less, but we hate the other party much more.

Dislike Parties JPEG

According to the data, there’s more of us thinking less of the rest of us and we’re even willing to say that we see the other party “as a threat to the nation’s well-being.”These troubling assessments add up to a system malfunction and makes it necessary to question of our civic health. These bad attitudes are no longer an anomaly when they influence our ability to cooperate and live well together.

This is a modern round of an old sickness… American political life dominated by ideas of enemies and rivals.

How Citizens Work to Promote Wellness

Two writers from our past can help breathe new life into our ideas about our civic health. At first, it requires a small bit of imagination. Alexis de Tocqueville and Thomas Kuhn thought of our civic life as a science, and a necessary one.

In the 1840’s, Alexis de Tocqueville declared that democratic societies depend on the “science of association” and that this “mother science” makes progress possible in all other sciences. More than a hundred years later, Thomas Kuhn analyzed how science itself made innovation possible. The relationship between science, civics and the art of innovation becomes more real and less imagined as we consider this work.

Writing in 1962, Kuhn observed that political and scientific change start with the “sense of malfunction.” He understood that reports of this failure would only come from a segment of the community who would then have to interrogate it to see if it could actually be resolved by current commitments, if it required the further articulation of those commitments or if it in fact pointed to something new. This work to better understand a malfunction and to communicate its consequences beyond that initial segment of the community is the work of citizens. With long lists of questions and no certainty about their answers, citizens engage in this work as citizen scientists or civic discoverers.

Kuhn’s “extraordinary science” provokes the practitioners who suspect the malfunction to “push the rules” harder than ever in an effort to understand the problem more precisely and to give structure to its interrogation. Overlaying this discussion of science onto our understanding of civics, we turn to civic discoverers to identify these difficulties, “magnifying the breakdown… making it more striking and perhaps also more suggestive than it had been.” This work culminates in generating alternatives that will possibly “disclose the road to a new paradigm.” A disposition toward civic discovery on this model marks a path toward innovation through the citizen’s work. To engage in public life, community members participate in accumulating anomalies to both identify potential malfunctions and to communicate what they see to others.

Civic education, when it works, aims to build an understanding of our current commitments. But, on Kuhn’s model, knowing them is not enough. Citizens also have to recognize the anomalies that occur to challenge those commitments and then use those same commitments to test the accumulated anomalies and to share their results.

The three branches of American government, for example, appear in most evaluations of civic education. The citizenship asks respondents to name one branch of government and then which branch makes federal law. But Kuhn’s model also requires looking at how a citizen would distinguish good lawmaking from bad. The anomalies that might grab our attention include the current filibuster and the accumulated efforts to either defund or understaff policies and agencies established by previous lawmakers. Listing the three branches of government proves very little if the person listing them has no capacity for evaluating the work of each branch and how well they serve to support the shared work of democratic government.

Passing the test proves they knew the first and only answer to a series of questions. It does nothing to prepare citizens for stepping into the role of asking the questions and evaluating diverse answers.

Alexis de Tocqueville described these small ideas about what people in democratic society could do in the mid-1800’s. He recognized it in the arguments of his contemporaries who suggested, “as citizens become weaker and more incapable, it is necessary to render government more skillful and more active.” Once again, the citizen’s role was imagined to be little more than following orders. Or memorizing correct answers.

Tocqueville believed they were wrong. According to him, the solution to this problem resided in the people rather than the government. He saw an American model of democracy that turned to associations to enroll the people in participating in their own government. Associations in the United States made it possible for a democratic people, inclined toward isolation and independence, to benefit from a strength that occurred naturally in aristocracies where “sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed” through the “reciprocal action” of powerful men and their ideas. The American capacity to form associations, what Tocqueville called an “infinite art,” represented power and possibilities.

The alternative was to “fall into impotence,” and Tocqueville imagined that this outcome could have tragic consequences. He warned us that people who “lost the power of doing great things in isolation, without acquiring the ability to produce them in common, would soon return to barbarism.” If we have lost the capacity to work together, Tocqueville suggests we already know the answer to these questions about our civic health.

Civic Discoverers…

With these models of the citizen’s role, managed care or well-programmed test takers is not only a sad state of affairs. It’s dangerous.

Tocqueville’s democratic citizen needs to counter isolation and impotence with a willingness to work with other citizens through an “innumerable multitude of small undertakings.” Civic discoverers look for these shared goals and work to enroll fellow citizens in shared efforts. Kuhn’s community participates in the inquiry of what works, what doesn’t and seeks to understand both cases. Civic discoverers look beyond the first question to understand how it came to be and to predict what might come next.

Collaborative inquiry is essential to improving our civic condition as well as our civic education. Approaching civics as a science and discovery as a civic skill, we might even discover how to work together again.