Pollyanna?

 

 

On a chilly Sunday morning in March, my granddaughter Livia and I went on an adventure through a nearly-deserted downtown Kansas City. Judging from her response, there’s nothing quite like the joy of cartwheeling through an empty passageway between a mall and a hotel lobby. She showed me how to use the slow-motion video function on my phone and then continued wheeling back and forth in front of the fountain. She found it hard to stop.

For as long as I can remember my natural instinct has been to be hopeful and positive. I see possibilities and go for them. My parents encouraged me or, at least, stayed out of the way enough that the impulse stayed alive. I still carry the residue of a childhood belief in Annie Oakley’s, “I can do anything.” The sense of possibility I get from leaping into things to see what I can do feels akin to Livia’s cartwheeling spirit.

That spirit has certainly been tested over the years, seldom more than it is today by the state of our political and economic world. Can we really doanything? I’m convinced we can, and I’m egged on by a positive frame of mind that I just can’t shake.

Several decades ago a friend, Jennifer, sent me a postcard because it reminded her of me. Despite pack-rat tendencies to save documents and memories on paper, I can’t find the card now, but I remember it being a black and white photograph of a cobblestone street, in what I took to be early 20th century Paris. In the middle of the street, a man had popped his head out of a sewer, the round sewer cover on his head and a big smile on his face. My memory is that he looked happy, even a little giddy as though asking, what’ll we do next?

Jennifer wasn’t the only one who pegged me as cheerful. I remember being asked once, why I seemed so happy all the time. Since I couldn’t think of a good reason, I said something like, “It’s just easier this way.” More than once in the past, I’ve been called a “Pollyanna.” This may partly have been because nicknames tend to play off one’s own name, but I’m sure it also had something to do with my general disposition. At first being called Pollyanna seemed complimentary or just descriptive. More and more, though, I began to cringe when I heard it, feeling its pejorative undertones. I was embarrassed. Was my cheerfulness irrational or annoying? And who was Pollyanna anyway?

Bronze statue of Pollyanna in front of the public library in Littleton, New Hampshire

Pollyanna, a 1913 children’s novel by Eleanor H. Porter, told of a girl who got through a terrible childhood by playing what she called her “Glad Game,” in which she found something to be glad about in every situation, no matter how dreadful it was. Briefly summarized, this might not sound so bad, but colloquially, “Pollyanna” has come to mean being foolishly or blindly optimistic, sometimes responding insensitively to terrible things. The adjective Pollyannaish has a male parallel in “Panglossian.” Dr. Pangloss, in Voltaire’s Candide, was “an incurable, albeit misguided, optimist who claimed that ‘all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.’ So persistent was he in his optimism that he kept it even after witnessing and experiencing great cruelty and suffering.” (Merriam-Webster)

Even when I was younger, I knew this wasn’t the way my energy worked. I’ve never felt that taking a positive attitude into the world denies the conditions I find there. Being aware of suffering or unfairness can in fact move me to act, to see what I can do about it. I wouldn’t characterize my actions as playing a “glad game,” even though something like gladness can come from it. There’s a kind of joy in figuring out what can be done to right a wrong, find a solution, or discover a new way to see an old problem. My hopefulness lives, at least partly, in often small but ultimately positive acts.

I long to talk more about why or how I can be positive or hopeful now, but it’s not easy. I stumble when I try to write about it. I struggle with the words when I try to talk about it out loud. Hope and possibility can feel sort of wimpy and irrelevant. There always seems to be something more important and urgently serious. How does one take a hopeful stance in the midst of the fight for immigrants’ humanity or for protection of children and all of us from a lethal gun culture? What positive frame can one possibly create when democratic systems are failing and under attack and when we so urgently need to fight against more environmental destruction and against racism, the abuse of privilege, and increasing economic inequality?

If it’s not Pollyannaism or blind optimism that drives my hopefulness, what is it? And how in the world do I put that into words?

Whenever I get stuck and can’t seem to move ahead, I read, I listen, I learn and borrow from others to put the pieces together for myself. I can’t do it alone. Though I sit here now, by myself – trying to learn a little more and be clearer about my words – I’m not really alone. I’m surrounded by what I’ve pulled together from reading, from my own immediate experience, and from what I hear in other people’s stories.

As part of an early 2017 episode of WNYC’s On the Media, Robert Garfield interviewed writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit.* He began by mentioning that her 2004 book, Hope in the Dark: Untold histories, wild possibilities,was again “flying off the shelves.” The interview began with her reading a passage from the book outlining recent historical instances of unexpected, often nonlinear ways positive change has happened. Despite these lessons from history, Garfield was troubled. “In the foreseeable future, he said, “we are likely as a society to go abruptly and maybe irretrievably backwards on civil rights, human rights, climate, sanity. Isn’t a man permitted to be morose and desperate without surrendering? Isn’t that a reasonable reaction to horrible events?”

Solnit replied:

You’re talking about two different things: How do we feel, and what do we do? I’m not telling people how to feel. I’m telling people that there is scope for action. One of the great conundrums is that unless we believe there are possibilities we don’t act, but the possibilities only exist if we seize them.

I’m not an optimist. Optimism believes everything will be fine no matter what we do, and therefore we don’t have to do a damn thing. Pessimism is the mirror image of that that believes everything is going to hell in a hand basket, and it gets us off the hook. We don’t have to do anything. Hope for me is deeply tied to the fact that we don’t know what will happen. This gives us grounds to act while being clear that terrible things are happening.… There’s wiggle room in there. A lot of extraordinary stuff is happening and it’s happening in complex ways… We’re not talking about a future that’s already written.

Solnit inspires my determination to hang on to a positive orientation while not losing track of the conditions that keep me moving. One definition of positive is “concentrating on what is constructive and good.” That feels right to me.

My hope is not abstract. Hope can be an opening that gives us grounds to act, but it can also be triggered by stories of real people finding new, or sometimes bringing back old, ways of living and working together. It grows not just from the possibilities of an unknown future, but also from the actions, work, and ideas of real people who loudly, or often quietly, make a difference and show us new ways to live. Solnit reinforces my own observation that “a lot of extraordinary stuff is happening.”

Over the past year or so I’ve struggled to figure out the best ways I can respond to the current state of the world – to find my piece of the puzzle. One thing I’ve come to is that I want to contribute to imagining how we get out of this mess. Another way to put it is that I want to help answer questions like, Where is it we want to go? What do we want to be creating as we go forward, and how do we get there? For me, real-life stories along with leaps of imagination that tie them together are like fuel for my hopefulness.

Now and then in coming months, I plan to share stories I’ve collected and new ones I will discover, the kind of extraordinary stories that Solnit refers to. I also plan to write about some of the connecting threads, broad ideas or theories that draw on the various stories and that may tie them together and add to their potential and their power. As I write, I’ll try to avoid being blindly Pollyannaish without losing my own stubbornly positive voice.


Photo credit

The original photo of Littleton’s Pollyanna statue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The photo is by David Fulmer, Daveynin, shown here with my modifications.

Note

* “Rebecca Solnit on hope, lies, and making change,” interview by Bob Garfield for WNYC’s On the Media, first broadcast on January 12, 2017, rebroadcast on December 28, 2017.


Where in hell are we?

 

Where in hell are we? Judging from our national politics, international tensions, and the suffering described in news reports and visible on sidewalks in my own neighborhood, we’re in pretty deep. Like many people, I struggle to shape and reshape the way I take action in this post-2016 era without completely losing my balance in the maelstrom.

My vision of hell probably looks a lot like Dante’s Inferno (1320), an image I encountered in college when Dante’s long poem of his journey through the nine circles of hell was assigned as an essay topic in a philosophy class. I remember liking the premise I’d come up with, and it has stayed with me since then. It pops up especially when I get to wondering just how bad a particular incident or situation is – could it be worse? what could I do to help make it better? Given the current political, economic, and social climate, I’m not surprised that the premise of that 54-year-old essay is on my mind again.

A few weeks ago, a folder of college papers surfaced in one of the many boxes I’ve stashed away over the years. This essay was among them and I was eager to see it again. As I started reading, I remembered the panic I felt when I turned the essay in. Not only had I, a generally rule-abiding student, not read the whole book, but my essay was only about a page and a half, double-spaced. The suggested length was ten pages. With no prefatory comment and no helpful title, my 19-year-old self just leaped straight into my basic contention:

The severity of punishment in Dante’s Hell does not vary from one circle to the next. There only seems to be a difference to an observer, like Dante, passing through. But all souls in Hell are suffering and all are in agony no matter which circle they are in. Each soul has no other punishment with which to compare its own agony, and with this lack of comparison, that soul’s punishment would feel just as severe as any other. Each soul receives the worst and most appropriate punishment for the sin that soul committed. The soul of a thief is punished by having nothing, not even a form, that is not stolen from it. A glutton’s soul is punished by having to wallow in mud, an appropriate punishment for one who wallowed in material things on earth.

Dante says, “The more perfect, the more keen, whether for pleasure’s or for pain’s discerning.” A person evil on earth will not be as affected by a punishment in hell as will a person less evil on earth. The souls in the Circles of Incontinence, because their sins were not thought to be as bad, would be “more perfect” so the suffering they felt would be “more keen.” The souls in deeper circles do not suffer any more than the ones in higher circles. It just takes a stiffer punishment to make a sinful soul suffer the same agony.

After all my trepidation, the professor gave the paper an A with a hand-written comment, “In three brief, brilliant paragraphs you have touched the soul of the Inferno.” Only now do I appreciate her use of the word “soul” in the comment, which seems apt given that I used the word 13 times in the three brief paragraphs. I have no doubt, though, that her note played a part in how firmly the idea that my 18-year-old self took from a medieval text got planted in my mind.

The power of comparison burrowed into my thinking. If souls in the upper circles of hell had been able to compare their punishment with the punishments received in the lower circles as Dante had, might they have felt a little better about their plight, might they have suffered a little less? I suppose, though, that this wasn’t the point. In fact the upper levels only seemed better if, like Dante, you were able to walk from one circle to the next and observe the comparison, but not if you imagined being caught in one of hell’s circles suffering its specific punishment.

 

About 15 years ago, an editor I admired used a quote that felt true to me. Purported to be from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, though I can’t find proof, it said, “The root of all unhappiness is comparison.” Memory of the idea planted by Dante may have helped this quote feel right to me. I pinned it on the wall over my desk and it stayed there for years. I tried applying it to my life.

If I could let comparison go, I reasoned, my sense of worthiness or even happiness would not depend on comparing myself to others. It wouldn’t matter how I or anyone else judged my life against the lives of others. The amount of stuff or money or fame I had, whether or not I had a partner or children, how I expressed my activism, or any other of the many measures I’ve used, consciously or unconsciously, to judge myself – wouldn’t have so much influence over me. I’d use the quote over my desk to remind me that I’d be happier, more at peace with myself, and more able to be active and useful, if I could quiet those comparisons.

This expands Dante’s lesson to include pleasure along with pain. In hell, the pain experienced is appropriate partly because the souls in each circle aren’t aware of the pain felt in other circles. In my lived experience, I’m fuller, happier, more ready to be and act in the world, when I can stay in my own circle of pleasure and pain, keeping comparison away.

The impact of comparison takes a different but at least as powerful a turn when I step into the turmoil of the world around me. Much as Dante considered the circles of hell when he moved through them, I’m acutely aware of the widely differing conditions of people’s lives as I move through and act in the world today.

More than two decades ago, I discovered an exchange between Hannah Arendt, a German-born American political thinker, and Mary McCarthy, an American author and political activist, in a book of their letters from 1949 to 1975.The ideas they discussed have stayed with me over the years, but only now am I making a connection with the Inferno.

On June 9, 1964, McCarthy wrote to Arendt about an idea she longed to write about.

The present idea has to do with equality. I’ve long thought that this is the spectre that has been haunting the world since the eighteenth century. Or at least it has been haunting me all my life. Once this notion was introduced into the human mind, existence became unbearable, and yet once there it can never be banished.

The only people who remain happy or content are those who haven’t yet heard of it, for one reason or another – at either end of the social scale. The beknighted squires (and there still are a few) who don’t have a guilty conscience, and the beknighted peasants (and there still are a few) who don’t suffer from envy. Both these groups, as it were, don’t question God’s disposition of His favors, whether He smiles on them or frowns on them. But everyone else is only pretending if they claim to take inequality for granted. On both sides. “Why should I have this and not he?” or “Why should he have this and not I?” 

…I have the sense, maybe subjective, that the worm of equality is not only eating away at the old social and economic foundations but at the very structure of consciousness, demolishing the “class distinctions” between the sane and the insane, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad.

Arendt replied on June 23, 1964.

Let us talk about the equality business; most interesting. The chief vice of every egalitarian society is Envy – the great vice of free Greek society. And the great virtue of all aristocracies seems to me to be that people always know who they are and hence do not compare themselves with others. This constant comparing is really the quintessence of vulgarity. If you are not in this hideous habit you are immediately accused of arrogance – as though by not-comparing you have decided to be on top.

McCarthy’s words, like ideas sparked by Dante, are firmly planted in my mind. McCarthy’s “worm of equality” digs through layers of class, health, beauty and morality, just as Dante’s downward path draws him through the circles of hell.

But what of Kierkegard’s root of unhappiness or Arendt’s vice of envy? What if we long for the satisfaction and joy that might come from living in a world that allows us to know who we are without the envy and arrogance that can come from the habit of comparison? Can we imagine such a world without assuming that it requires returning to an medieval realm inhabited by beknighted squires and peasants?

If we’ve found such a place, why would we venture out to see and feel the inequalities in both suffering and joy in the world around us? Why venture into a world that demolishes the distinctions between classes and between “the sane and the insane, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad”… the truth and the lies?

Why? Because the suffering is just as unbearable today as it was in the past. The violence now may be less but the pain remains as keen. Perhaps our hell, the circle of suffering being experienced right now, is exactly matched to the conditions we’ve created, just as the punishment in Dante’s hell was perfectly matched to the sin. And if, in absolute terms, today’s conditions are better – “more perfect” – and the suffering less than in the past, as some research shows2, the reason the world has improved must be because many people have ventured out, seen the differences, and insisted that things get better. Digging through the layers of class, health, beauty, and morality and comparing what we find, one layer with another, can be a source of energy to act. Things would not be better now if so many people in the past had not been restless, dissatisfied with what they saw, and determined to be part of making things better.

Choosing to work to reduce suffering or strive for more equality doesn’t have to mean living without joy or pleasure. We just have to engage in two apparently opposite ways of living a life, one that digs down through layers of inequality, taking action as we can, and one that allows for the pleasures that come from being ourselves, avoiding envy and comparison with others. In The Crack-Up (1936), F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

I see it as a matter of continually weaving back and forth between stepping outside the dynamic spiral of action and into a more constant awareness of our own groundedness, then getting up and leaping back into the fray…then stepping out, then back in, and out, and in.

 

 

Notes

  1. Excerpts from two longer letters in Between Friends: The correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975, edited and with an introduction by Carol Brightman. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995, p163-167.
  2. For example, The Angels of our Better Nature: Why violence has declined, by Steven Pinker, Viking, 2011.

It’s not a jigsaw puzzle at all

 

In mid-January, I traveled about two and a half hours north by bus from Seattle to the ferry landing in Anacortes. Once there, I hurried as quickly as I could, given bulky bags, to the ferry landing and walked on the waiting boat that would take me to Orcas Island where I would soon be house- and dog-sitting for friends. The hour-and-a-half ferry ride took us past many of the San Juan Islands and stopped at two of the more inhabited ones before reaching Orcas. While we sailed, I noticed at least three or four tables-full of my fellow passengers engrossed in jigsaw puzzles.

After briefly wondering why, on such a nice day, the view outside our windows hadn’t captured them as it had me, I wondered how it happened that so many different groups came up with the same idea for passing time. In fact, I learned later that the ferry system itself provides the puzzles, which are often left unfinished as one group disembarks and new passengers pick up where the first group left off. But watching them got me thinking about puzzles.

One of the tasks I’d given myself for my time on Orcas was to take another pass at my stubbornly unresolved desire to find “my piece of the puzzle.” How am I finding my place in our current political, economic, and social circumstances? Am I using my time and specific experience in the best way I can?

Being surrounded by jigsaw puzzle players made me think about the kind of “puzzle” I actually want to help piece together. From the moment I began asking myself the question, the image I’ve had was of a giant jigsaw puzzle. As I watched the ferry-riding puzzle players I realized my puzzle is not a jigsaw puzzle at all. I’m not trying to help put back together a picture that was once whole – a picture, in fact, that is usually on the box the puzzle came in, propped up in front of the players. The players knew exactly where they were heading.

What faces us in this country right now is not at all like that. We need to be creating a new picture or a new pattern, made of both old and new parts, one that is constantly in motion and changing and that can help us know where we’re heading and, maybe, how we’ll move forward.

For quite different reasons, the year 2005 was another time filled with reflection on where I’d been, how well I was doing what I was doing, and how I wanted to be working and living in the future. Though I don’t put too much significance on what I call the “big round birthdays,” I turned 60 that year. Both my job as the director of a national nonprofit and also my life and work in Seattle were filled with assessments of my role.

At my job, the board of the nonprofit organization I served as executive director, seemed to go into a fury of evaluation. They asked me to describe my “leadership style,” something I hadn’t thought much about before. I engaged an “executive coach” and created “mini-mentorships” with foundation leaders I admired. I participated in team-building efforts and personality tests with the staff and assisted with a board governance assessment.

At home, in the very same year, “assessment” took a different form as I received several awards and other kinds of recognition for contributions I’d made to the Seattle community over the years. Though only coincidentally coming in the same year, each honor put me in front of a microphone to say a few words – of gratitude, certainly, but also of my perspective on the award, the occasion, or the times – each also a valuable moment of self reflection.

Finally, toward the end of the year, I was commissioned to write an essay that allowed me to reflect on the way I get things done. The invitation came from a writer I admire, Matthew Stadler, who also edited and published (in early 2006) the result, A pragmatic response to real circumstances.* At the time I wondered how I might take advantage of all this reflection and assessment, of feeling “so extensively diagnosed — washed, scrubbed, rinsed, and polished up.” As part of my current search to understand my “piece of the puzzle,” I’ve looked back at that essay to see what I might learn from my 12-year-younger self. Here’s an excerpt:

From “Risk and drift” in A pragmatic response to real circumstances, 2006

Recently, I’ve imagined that the ages when risk might be easiest would be in our 20s and again in our 60s, before we have a lot to lose and after much work is behind us. In fact, Gene Cohen (M.D. and Ph.D. with a specialty in aging) says that as people move into their 60s, “they often feel free to do something they have never done before. It’s a time when people begin to hear an inner voice thåat says, ‘If not now, when?’ These are powerful feelings of liberation…a counterpoint to adolescence, but with a formed sense of identity.” I have no idea whether this applies to me — or, if it does, maybe “liberation” will simply be a quiet, barely audible release of insecurity and a willingness to own up to my own patterns.

Rebecca Solnit, in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2004), recasts this private shift as a part of something much broader:

In important ways, little ripples of inspired activism around the United States parallel aspects of the global justice movement and the Zapatistas. All three share an improvisational, collaborative, creative process that is in profound ways anti-ideological, if ideology means ironclad preconceptions about who’s an ally and how to make a better future. There’s an openheartedness, a hopefulness, and a willingness to change and to trust. Cornel West came up with the idea of the jazz freedom fighter and defined jazz “not so much as a term for a musical art form but for a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid and flexible disposition toward reality suspicious of “either/or” viewpoints.

I take heart from that. And Jane Jacobs, twenty years earlier in Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life, articulated a similarly widespread practice that she called “drift,” a kind of work defined not by “practical utility,” but by play, curiosity, and aesthetic investigation. Jacobs described an “aesthetics of drift” and said that successful economic development had to be open-ended and make itself up as it goes along. Her words gave me new ways to understand artists’ work and new ways to imagine their place in the world. Now, I see that much of it also corresponds with patterns that matter in my own life. Here is Jacobs (and the ellipsis is hers):

We might call development an improvisational drift into unprecedented kinds of work that carry unprecedented problems, then drifting into improvised solutions, which carry further unprecedented work carrying unprecedented problems…

Coda

If ever there were a time that we’ve needed to operate with improvisation, to not rely on old patterns, and to be aware of and participate in the “little ripples of inspired activism,” this is it. We definitely face unprecedented problems and have to be prepared for unprecedented work in the hope that it will lead to unprecedented solutions, knowing all the while that those solutions will also lead to more unprecedented problems. It’s a never-ending process, as implied by the ellipsis that closes the quote from Jacobs.

Clearly, jigsaw puzzles don’t capture the kinds of patterns suggested by words like “ripples,” “improvisation,” or an open-ended process that “makes itself up as it goes along.” Images and metaphors often help make ideas tangible. And if the image isn’t of a jigsaw puzzle piece, what is it?

For ideas, I looked back on images I’ve used in other contexts:

I’m still working on it.

 

Notes

* Anne Focke, A pragmatic response to real circumstances, Publication Studio, 2006.


Digital dependency and civil society

Our dependence on digital data and infrastructure expands both the options for civil action and the levers and forces by which it can be restricted.     
–Lucy Bernholz

Photo, Perpetual, Ltd.

 

Preamble: A piece of the puzzle?

Back in February, I wrote of struggling to find my place in the political, economic, and social circumstances of our world today. What is my piece of the puzzle in building up a countervailing force? 1 I’m still sorting this out, and now I suspect there’s not one but several pieces.

One puzzle piece is informed by my work with Lucy Bernholz, director of Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab and self-defined “philanthropy wonk.” For the last nine years I’ve been lucky enough to work with her as editor and sounding board for an annual monograph. Now based at Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society and director of its Digital Civil Society Lab, Lucy has deep practical and theoretical knowledge of philanthropy, and many people in that world have long looked to her for insights into their work. Over the nine years I’ve worked with her, her focus has expanded to encompass the whole of civil society and all the ways that, in her words, “people and organizations voluntarily use private resources for public benefit.” In this context, resources mean time, money, and expertise. She has also broadened the work to acknowledge and directly confront the fact that our civil society is highly dependent on today’s digital infrastructure and digital data, a dependency that brings both promise and peril. This work and these interests led to founding the “Digital Civil Society Lab.” 2

The annual monograph that I get to work on is published at the end of each year and offers “insight,” “foresight,” and “glimpses of the future” that are meant to help readers anticipate and navigate the next year. In January this year I posted excerpts from the previous Blueprint. 3 This year’s edition will be published in mid-December ­— Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2018. At that point, you’ll be able to find it either at the Digital Civil Society Lab or on her blog, Philanthropy2173. 4   I’ll also post a link on this site. If you’re eager to read a Blueprint before then, you can check out all eight back issues here. 5

I love the process of working with writing by people I admire in part because it gives me a privileged view into their thinking. This is especially invigorating when the process allows for dialogue around ideas that matter to me. Working with Lucy has reinforced, challenged, and expanded my thinking. What work could be better than that?

Why might all this be a piece of the puzzle? Often a first step in changing something is better understanding what we’re dealing with. Learning from Lucy and doing what I can to help her insights be clear is part of it for me. Another is not hanging on to what I learn but sharing it with friends and posting it here. What follows is based on a couple of ideas from the Blueprint that’s underway right now, mixed up, I’m sure, with my own experience.

The dynamism of small and fluid

“We are surrounded by big, fragile institutions,” writes Lucy Bernholz referring to global companies, established political structures, and big nonprofits. This might seem to contradict what it feels like when we read the news and experience the impact of these large institutions on our daily lives. Lucy goes on, though, to point out that we can see their fragility in their mono-cultural, top-heavy, and increasingly rigid structures.

She contrasts these big institutions with the many small, fluid, and networked alternatives that exist all around us. In her words I recognize the kinds of informal groups, small organizations, and loose networks that have been home for the communities I inhabit and the work I do. The dynamism of the world of small groups isn’t changing, Lucy says, but she senses that their attitude toward big institutions is. The small have adopted a more challenging attitude toward the big and take a more confrontational stance than they did in the past.

From her vantage point at the Digital Civil Society Lab, Lucy specifically calls out small, networked “tech-driven alternatives to party politics, nonprofit or research-driven alternatives to corporate data monopolies, and crowdfunding of public services.” These groups, she reports, have often been purchased, suppressed, and ignored by the big institutions. And they “don’t see themselves as mere fleas on an elephant, rather they challenge themselves to be the termites that topple the house.”

A fluid array of these small, active alternatives function within civil society. In fact, along with many other groups and a set of behavioral norms, their participation constitutes civil society. As Lucy puts it…

Civil society is where those without power or critical mass can build both and influence the majority. It serves as a conduit to the majority system and a counterbalance to extreme positions. It also serves as an outlet for those actions, rights, and views that may never be the priority of a majority, but that are still valid, just, or beautiful.

Civil society is distinct from but overlaps with both the commercial marketplace and government, and it’s meant to be a place where we can come together to take action as private citizens for the public good.

Digital dependency

The Lab defines digital civil society as “all the ways people and organizations voluntarily use private resources for public benefit in a digital world.” It also refers to the space of digital civil society as “complicated,” and part of what complicates it is that most of digital space is owned or monitored by commercial firms and governments. For the most part, the designers of the tools we use and the rules that regulate our use of them are guided by corporate or governmental norms and not by the norms of civil society – not, that is, by a commitment to the common good or to individual rights (of free expression, peaceable assembly, and privacy), and not to pluralism or tolerance.

Much of the resurgence of political action and resistance among my various communities of friends functions in civil society’s small, fluid, and networked groups, fostered in living rooms, in coffee shops, and on the streets. And it also relies heavily on digital communication and on information gathered from digital sources. These tools facilitate many aspects of our lives and increase the ways we can organize, share information, and reach people across the city and the world. However, our dependency on the digital infrastructure also means we’re vulnerable to actions by both corporations and governments to narrow the space we have to operate in.

In the upcoming monograph, Lucy writes:

Our daily use of the most basic tools of the digital age such as cellular phones, email, or networked printers means that our activities are bounded by and reliant on the rules and tools of the companies that make the gadgets and wire the world. As we use these tools, our activities are also monitored by the governments that surveil the digital spaces in which our tools operate. Our actions in the space are shaped by the values of the companies that make the tools (even as the companies seek to deny it) and by the way we respond to being watched by both corporations and governments.

Lucy gives many examples of ways that governments and corporations can and have narrowed or closed the space for civil society, and her scope is global. Her information is based on direct observation and on engagement with people in countries around the world – that is, her examples don’t just reflect what’s happening here, in the United States. The restrictions she mentions may be familiar to many of us, but the list is long. A few include: Digital tools make it easier to monitor financial transactions and public assembly. Business models using digital systems can use social media to censor or confuse. Governments have a direct impact on nonprofit and civil society purposes by shifting funding and cutting off access to key data sets and sources. In some places, companies are allowed to charge different rates to different internet users. “Toxic company cultures, their seemingly unchecked power and influence over public policy, the manipulative power of their products, and their ability to be used as news sources are common news stories across the world, even in the polarized media of the U.S.” And this is only the beginning of identifying the ways that the space for civil society and digital civil society is closing.

Another challenge Lucy identifies is that “civil society advocates,” many of us, for instance, “are largely isolated from digital rights expertise.” Beyond this, much of the open source infrastructure that supports the tools used by civil society groups and individuals is sustained “by the voluntary, episodic labor of a remarkably few people.” The system is underfunded, she says, fragile and invisible. As I see it, most of the rules and tools of our digital dependency are invisible…so invisible, in fact, that much of it has come to seem intuitive and natural.

What to do?

My first impulse is to simply to share something of what I’m learning and encourage you to read Lucy’s next Blueprint when it comes out. Working on both this edition and previous ones has made me more alert to choices I make when I’m online and gives me new targets for my advocacy. So much of what we’re organizing and fighting for is a fair and open civil society, a space for the small, sometimes confrontational, ever-changing groups that work for the common good and individual rights. So I take these words of Lucy’s to heart:

Efforts to maintain an open civil society now require a much deeper understanding of how dependent we are on digital data and infrastructure and how much the digital world changes civil society’s relationships to state and corporate actors.

I’d like to be part of increasing that understanding. This issue of Blueprint reinforces my awareness that digital technology is, as Lucy puts it, “not inherently democratizing.” More of us have to become intentional about engaging with it. Gaining a better understanding of what we face also increases my awareness of just how hard it will be to change, especially since the impact of the way it works has become ubiquitous and invisible.

Another of the many things I love about working with Lucy is that, with all she knows and all the perils she identifies, she still ends Blueprint 2018 this way:

It’s audacious to think that civil society, globally, can reboot and reframe itself. I think it must. And it can.

Notes

1.  What’s my piece of the puzzle?  http://www.annefocke.net/?p=1793
2.  The Digital Civil Society Lab, https://pacscenter.stanford.edu/digital-civil-society/
3.  “We must fight to protect democracy in a digital age, Lucy Bernholz,” http://www.annefocke.net/?p=1681
4.  Philanthropy 2173  http://philanthropy.blogspot.com
5.  Eight years of Blueprints  https://pacscenter.stanford.edu/blueprint/

The photograph of Lucy is from Perpetual, Limited, the Digital Civil Society Lab’s partner organization in Australia.


Who is the “public”?

“Wait a minute!” I said. “I am the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said, “You are the public, and you are the public!”

 

In an interview earlier this year, David Mendoza recalled making this comment. He was referring to a moment in the late 1980s when he was in the midst of a debate about public funding for the arts. Three students – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design – conducted the interview as part of an internship with me, Alum in Residence. We were delving into the history and files of Arts Wire, an online network that started at about the same time as the incident in David’s story. The students decided to produce a podcast series including interviews with intriguing people they found in the files. David was definitely on their list. The hour-long interview, with David in Bali and we in an apartment near the university, covered many of David’s experiences.1 The following exchange took place at the end of the interview.

DAVID: I want to put in one last pitch for public funding for the arts.  Anne, do you remember my pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC”?

ANNE: Oh, I still have a couple, David. I should start wearing one.

DAVID: I created that pin because I got so tired of people using the word “public” and saying, “I’m against public funding for the arts. I’m against public funding for this, or public support shouldn’t go for that.” At some debate I was in, I said, “Wait a minute! I am the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said “You are the public, and you are the public.” The anomalous idea that a public means someone who is not me or not many other people…I just wouldn’t accept that. So I created a pin that said, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” And we distributed it widely. People loved this pin because they got it immediately, because they knew they were not being included when the word “public” was used.

What public funding for the arts did, what the NEA did, what NYSCA and many other arts councils did, was diversify the arts in America. They realized that not just a few major European-based institutions were the arts in America: there were all kinds of others. Just last night I was listening to PBS NewsHour and learned there’s a revival of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdéz’s play that he created with Teatro Campesino in California, which went on to Broadway and a movie. Now it’s being revived again. And once again, it has relevance, to the Chicano community especially. Teatro Campesino was supported by both the California Arts Council and the NEA. That theater would never have been supported by a Koch/Trump type of philanthropy, though I don’t actually want to include Trump because he’s really not a philanthropist. But people who were known for their philanthropy gave big money to what they liked. Nothing wrong with that, but there was nobody to give money to Teatro Campesino. That’s what public support for the arts did. And, that’s why we created that pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” Everyone who wore it was part of the public.

JESSICA: I just want to chime in…Anne has one of these pins in the office. And when she told me the story about it, it really spoke to me and I tend to tell a lot of people about it. Personally, I am myself Hispanic and a lot of my co-workers are minorities as well, you know, Pakistani, Taiwanese. I mentioned this same pin to them, actually just today. I mentioned it to them in the art context but also in terms of what’s happening today. And they loved it, and they were just, like… YES, this is exactly it.

DAVID: Yes! Maybe your first activism after this podcast could be, just make some! Just make it!

VOICES ON TOP OF EACH OTHER: Just make some!  Yeah!  And… create some. Definitely!

DAVID: I’m telling you, it was amazing. Actually the message is quite, I don’t want to say deep, but profound in a way…patting myself on the back a little, I guess. But I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle], which used to be on Broadway in those days. We were marching and had bags of them and were handing them out. People loved this pin! They got its message immediately. Then I’d see it on people all over Seattle. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce it.

JESSICA: It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this today. After mentioning them to my co-workers, it was, wow! I just want to make more and start giving them to people. Yeah… it’s just amazing. It doesn’t have to be in the art context, but just in general…what that actually means to people. Just making them realize they are part of this whole debate. They are the public. “Yeah! I am, and I really should have a bigger say in what’s going on.”

KAREN: It’s a reaffirmation of your own value. This understanding that, like, wait a second, I’m culpable. I’m responsible. And that means that I also have power and I have agency. That is really important! We so often become isolated in the sense that we think, well, my opinion is this. But the point is not that. The point is that my opinion is as valid as the “public’s” opinion, that everybody has an individual opinion, and that, all together, is what creates any group, right? even on the scale of the country.

DAVID: And remember, you have to always be aware that when you hear someone talk about the “public,” they probably have an idea of it that doesn’t include a lot of people. They’re excluding part of the public.

ANNE: When you come back in June or July, David, we’ll give you a new pin.

JESSICA: Yeah, we need to revive this!

DAVID: Yes!  I have one in my little treasured storage chest in Seattle. It’s time, it’s time again. We’ve come full circle with what’s happening right now.

KAREN: If you had the opportunity to share some advice or to provide some guidance to people who are wanting to be involved now and wanting to be active now, in the current moment, what might you say?

DAVID: I was so devastated after the election that when I left the U.S. last December, people here would ask, “What’s wrong with you?” I really had thought, with the election of Obama, that all the work we’d done had slowly progressed, one step forward, one step back, and onward. I thought we finally had arrived where we’d been trying to get all these years, though of course, there was still a long way to go. And then this sudden turn… I just felt like it had been a waste in a way.

But I’ll tell you what heartens me right now, where I find solace and hope is seeing all these people who are turning up at the town hall meetings of Congresspeople around, in Nebraska and Kansas, that I’ve been reading about, and in Texas. Republicans in Congress are having meetings with 800, 1000, 1500 people showing up who are well-informed, who are angry, who are speaking out. My god, we never had anything like that in those days. We would only have dreamed we could have orchestrated something like that. What’s truly important now is showing up first and secondly opening your mouth. That would be the advice I’d have. Show up, open your mouth, and be informed.

“That would be the advice I’d have.
Show up, open your mouth, and be informed.”

 


AFTERWORD
:  At one of our weekly meetings a month or so after the podcast recording, the group of interns surprised me with several hundred brand-new pins. You can bet that one way or another, they’ll make sure David gets some of the new ones.

• • • • •

NOTE

1 Jessica Capó created a website for posting the series of podcasts produced by the interns from their work with Arts Wire files. There will be about 15 episodes in the final series. They’re posted weekly on Fridays. The site is here., and the interview with David is titled, “Golden Horseshoe.” You’ll find a list of all the podcasts with live links to the audio at the “podcast” tab, and a brief description and additional notes at “extras.”

The podcast production is definitely low-tech, just the make-it-up-ourselves style I love. We gather at Jess’s apartment a few blocks from campus (my office reverberates too much) around a dining table with a small microphone and a cell phone on the speakerphone setting. You might need to adjust your ears a bit.

Final note: You can also read a memoir David wrote about his life since graduating from the UW, here.


What’s my piece of the puzzle? Is resistance enough?

Like many of my friends, I’m still struggling to find my place in the political, economic, and social circumstances of our world today. What do I have to offer in building a “countervailing force”?1

During the week-long pause after the 2016 election, I and many others in my very blue part of the country, simply wandered around stunned, caught our breath, and wondered how the results would change our lives and our priorities. But then the energy began to build. We needed to get out, talk with others, and figure out what to do. More people have been stepping up to become active than I’ve seen in decades. It didn’t take long before a deluge of news reports, alerts for critical causes, and entreaties to join this or that action started appearing in our email boxes and Facebook pages, on printed notices delivered by “snail mail” or stapled to telephone poles, and in conversations with friends over coffee or the telephone. There are marches to join, news reports to read, letters to send, meetings to attend or organize, and occasionally thoughtful talks and essays that help give perspective and context.

Back in fall 2015, when I created my website I added a subtitle to remind me of a basic fact that I keep forgetting, “You can’t do everything . . . at least not all at once.” That’s been hard to remember lately. And I thought by now I’d be clearer about how to narrow my focus, how to best use my skills and knowledge, short of trying to do it all.

Conversations often help me start figuring out something going on in my life. In this case, I need help finding the shape of my particular piece of the much bigger puzzle. One thing I’ve done is join with four or five other people who are interested in how we talk about the task facing us—about language and reframing the conversation (with a nod to George Lakoff)2 and John Boylan’s call for a new narrative.3 Our conversation has taken place in person and through lots of exchanged stories and articles. Just recently, I took time to write down and send some of my thoughts to them before an upcoming meeting. What started as a simple email message got to feeling more ponderous than an email message should be, it was more like an essay. So in addition to sending it to them, I fussed with it, made it a little more like an essay, and have included it here.

February 22, 2017

Greetings all,

By now, I think I’ve read everything you’ve sent, along with other things that have come my way. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my arms around it all and what I want to do with it. What questions am I trying to answer? What do I have to offer? I definitely haven’t sorted it out yet, and I’m familiar with the tendency to think the latest thing I read or hear is the most important or the most urgent. I fully expect to keep learning and adjusting. Our conversation prompted me to write, to make some of the ideas in pieces you’ve sent hold still long enough for me to really see them. Here goes . . .

“Resistance” is crucial, but not enough. Unlike a couple of the writers I cite, I certainly believe resistance and protest are needed and make a difference. I’m so glad there are other people who are more active in the streets and on the phone than I am.

David Frum, “What effective protest could look like,”4 put forward his thoughts about why demonstrations won’t stop Trump, about the difference between self-expression and persuasion, and about our need for a large goal, like “protecting our democracy from authoritarianism.” I especially liked his observation that “it is the steady and often tedious work of organization that sustains democracy.” (I closely identify with the often invisible, behind-the-scenes work of organizing . . . organizing anything, for that matter). Frum wants us to “be motivated by hope, not outrage.” But beyond protest, he says little about what the aim that we should be striving for with our hope and organizing.

David Brooks, “After the women’s march,”5 also made a case that ”marches can never be effective opposition to Trump.” Their focus is wrong, he says, and grass roots movements only rarely lead to change, the civil rights movement being an exception; most change is made through the Democratic and Republican parties. He also says that the central challenge today “is to rebind a functioning polity and to modernize a binding American idea”—a coherent vision. That resonates with the discussion we’ve had of the need for reframing and for a new narrative, but his call for “a better nationalism” and one that balances “the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality” doesn’t work for all of us.

Even finding new language isn’t enough by itself. New language also needs to help us get ahead of the moment and take a deeper look at how we understand and talk about what we hope to see happen. In a piece in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, “Negative Energy”,6 the author, Beverly Gage, gives a brief overview of the history of resistance, and says that, today, we certainly have plenty to resist against. But what is the resistance for? She asks it this way, “If ‘yes’ seems impossible and ‘no’ seems insufficient, what fills the space in between?” And toward the end, she suggests that we need to think about “where we want history to go.” I thought, right. Where do we want it to go? This actually lies behind much of my concern. And going back to our discussion . . . the language, the new narrative, the reframing needs to reflect it, the “where.”

Then, in a recent Guardian Weekly, I found this: “Welcome to the Age of Anger,7” by Pankaj Mishra, with the subtitle: “The seismic events of 2016 have revealed a world in chaos—and one that old ideas of liberal rationalism can no longer explain.” One thing I like about his perspective is that it goes way beyond Trump and this election. It reaches 200 years back in time and outside the boundaries of this country to other parts of the world. Reading it helped me know that, If I’m to have any idea of how to move forward, I needed a better understanding of how we got here and what we’re actually facing. Mishra’s piece gives me a helpful, new place to start. Although, as the Guardian says, it’s a “long read,” it’s definitely worth it.

Here are a few snapshots of Mishra’s thinking: he was quoted in a Washington Post review8 of his new book, The Age of Anger: A history of the present (published 2017), saying, “Now with the victory of Donald Trump, it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm. . .between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality.” In the opening paragraph of his piece in the Guardian, he stresses that, “It is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world.”

Toward the end of the Guardian piece, after detailing the long history of this chasm and times it has widened in the past, he considers where we go from here. Some reviews of his book hold him accountable for not offering any solutions. Not having read the book, I can’t counter this. But in the Guardian essay, while he doesn’t offer answers, but he does suggest places to begin:

We need a more sophisticated analysis of how today’s landscape of hyperrational power has coerced a new and increasingly potent irrationalism into existence.”

And later . . .

Even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality, and prosperity.”

Finally, to throw just one more (much shorter) piece your way, I was glad to find a fairly recent column, again in the Guardian Weekly, by George Monbiot, “The case for despair is made. Now let’s start to get out of the mess we’re in.”9 His piece starts to give me a more solid place to begin. He caught my attention when he referred to Mishra—for example, writing:

“Pankaj Mishra, in his book Age of Anger, explains the current crises as new manifestations of one long disruption that has been ripping up society for 200 years or more. Our sanitised histories of Europe and America allow us to forget that bedlam and carnage, civil and international war, colonialism and overseas slaughter, racism and genocide, were the norms of this period, not exceptions.”

I was encouraged, though, that Monbiot continued by saying that in the face of convincing evidence for despair, “This column will try to champion new approaches to politics, economics, and social change. There is no going back, no comfort in old certainties. We must rethink the world from first principles.” And on top of that, given the keen interest I have in the commons (no surprise to many who know me), I was especially heartened by what came next:

There are many points at which I could begin, but it seems to me that an obvious one is this. The market alone cannot meet our needs; nor can the state. Both, by rooting out attachment, help fuel the alienation, rage and anomie that breed extremism. One element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.”

He spends most of the rest of the column expanding on what the commons are and why they have great potential now, a discussion that he ends by saying: “In other words, reviving the commons can act as a counterweight to the atomizing, alienating forces now generating a thousand forms of toxic reaction.”

Then to close the column, he gives himself what seemed like an audacious goal: to explore a wide range of potential solutions and “start to develop a synthesis: a new political, economic and social story that might be matched to the demands of the 21st century.” I like that he plans to do this “with the help of your comments and suggestions,” though I’m not yet sure how we readers can contribute. I’ve gone to his website, <monbiot.com>, and found that interspersed among other writings, he pursues his large goal in a series of three pieces so far: this one, retitled, “The Fortifying Commons,” as well as “All Together Now” and “All about that Base.” I plan to follow along.

The commons are so much on my mind that you won’t be surprised to know that comments by two of you jump out at me. One of you ended an email saying:

It would be a good idea to look at every issue and every program through this lens: Is this a program that benefits us as a community, regardless of who specifically benefits more or less under it? Is the common good substantial enough to tolerate the redistribution? Can the redistribution be managed in a reasonably fair way? How can we talk compellingly about the common good?”

And, a second might be a little more of a stretch: you made an appeal for a narrative that can be seen as everyday “common sense,” that isn’t oppositional, and that includes “plural stories,” all of which reflect values that I associate with the commons. Both the “common good“ and “common sense” seem closely related to the commons.

Carry on!  I’m so grateful to be in this conversation with you.

Anne


Notes

  1. A bigger choir, a countervailing force,” posted on my website on 12/31/16.
  2. Don’t think of a rampaging elephant: Linguist George Lakoff explains how the Democrats helped elect Trump,” Salon.com, 1/15/17.
  3. A new narrative,” John Boylan Essays and Comment, 12/14/16.
  4. What effective protest could look like,” David Frum, The Atlantic, 2/6/17.
  5. After the women’s march,” David Brooks, The New York Times, 1/2417/
  6. “Negative energy” (it seems to have a different title online), Beverly Gage, The New York Times, 1/31/17.
  7. Welcome to the age of anger,” Pankaj Mishra, The Guardian, 12/8/16.
  8. Inside the anger that gave us Donald Trump,” by Carlos Lozada, Washington Post, 2/16/17.
  9. The case for despair is made. Now let’s start to get out of the mess we’re in,” George Monbiot, The Guardian, 12/13/16.

The New Colossus, 1883

The New Colossus

Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
 

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), a Jewish American author, wrote this sonnet in 1883 to help raise funds to build a pedestal and install the Statue of Liberty. The poem was engraved on that pedestal in 1903, where it remains today. Esther Schor, who wrote a biography of Lazarus, told The New York Times in 2011, “Emma Lazarus was the first American to make any sense of this statue.”

Within a day or so of President Trump’s executive order on immigration  (1/25/17), the words of this poem began appearing across the Internet. This time around, the mighty Colossus must be all of us—we the people.


A bigger choir – a countervailing force


One thing Penny U1 made clear to me is that many of us want to be active in new ways, or, if we’re already active, we’re ready now to step up our game, to build toward something bigger. It’s also clear that there is not just one way, not just one cause to fight for. Many spheres of action emerged from our first post-election Penny U conversation and were discussed at the second. There is so much to do. It’s easy to feel numb or even helpless when the need for action comes from so many directions.

In his Penny U kick-off talk, Congressman Jim McDermott suggested that J.R.R. Tolkien’s words might be helpful:

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”

Even with this, though, finding a specific focus for our own energy can be difficult, and it can be further complicated when, at the same time, we long for a cohesive movement. In fact, building such a movement was one of the topics raised at Penny U. Don’t we need to begin developing a unified voice? How would we even do that?

For me, “unified” too often means singular, expressed as a desire for the kind of impact that can come from a powerful single voice. But I’m not convinced that a single voice is what we need. A better image is of many voices together, a choir or a chorus. Which reminds me that for years I’ve been bothered when I hear the disparaging critique of the phrase, “You’re just speaking to the choir!” In fact, that mindset should change. Instead, we should work to expand the choir, join new choirs, welcome different voices in our own, combine choirs, allow for differences. Dissonance is part of powerful music.

Can’t we instead create a choir that incorporates the strength of our differences as well as what we share? I like a term I heard first from Robert Reich, who used it when he spoke at Town Hall in late 2015. We must create, he said, a “countervailing force.”

A countervailing force. Before I learned the history of its use, the term conjured up something bigger than a single voice and much more powerful. A “force” can have many attributes, with eddies and surges like a raging river or a giant surging wave. If I had the graphic skills of some of my friends, I’d create a fearsome wave, perhaps like the Great Wave of Hokusai2, and it would be made up of many choirs, both secular and sacred, of people young and old, urban and rural, and of many races. For now, you’ll just have to imagine it. This is the force to strive for.

«•»

To provide a bit of history, “countervailing force” appears primarily in discussions of the political economy. “The Concept of Countervailing Power” is, for instance, the subtitle of a 1952 book by economist John Kenneth Galbraith.3  Two quotes from Robert Reich, in a book he dedicated to Galbraith’s memory,4 show something of the way it’s used:

Between the 1930s and late 1970s, centers of countervailing power enabled America’s middle and lower-middle classes to exert their own influence – labor unions, small businesses, small investors, and political parties anchored at the local and state levels. This countervailing force has withered in more recent decades.”

And . . .

The only way to reverse course is for the vast majority who now lack influence over the rules of the game to become organized and unified, in order to re-establish the countervailing power that was the key to widespread prosperity five decades ago.”

I also like the way philosopher/activist Cornel West used it:

“The only countervailing force against organized money at the top is organized people at the bottom.”

«•»

I woke up after the second post-election Penny U wondering what I can contribute to strengthening a countervailing force. This force will necessarily consist of many separate efforts. At the same time, as we all find specific places to direct our energy, it will be important to be aware of each other, to understand how big our choir really is, to learn from each other, and to be connected on occasion . . . agreeing and disagreeing, benefiting from what my friend Peter Pennekamp has called “the dynamics of difference” – that is, working constructively across differences to find new solutions and new power.

««««««•»»»»»»

Photo notes

The banner image of waves comes from How-to-Geek <howtogeek.com>, “Ocean Waves Wallpaper Collection.”

Choir images here are details from images found online. I’m grateful to all the photographers.

References

1  This use of “Penny U” refers to two post-election conversations at Town Hall Seattle. Reports on both are posted on this site here, here, and here. A description of Penny U and its basic assumptions can be found here.

2  “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai, color woodblock, 1830–1833. Many impressions have been made of this print. This print is in the Library of Congress. The image of it here is from Wikipedia.

3  John Kenneth Galbraith, American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power, 1952.

4  Robert B. Reich, Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.


“So many ideas, so much to do! What next?”

So many ideas, so much to do

Building community in our new political reality

A post-election Penny U update

As it did for many people, the 2016 election sent me on a search to figure out how my life would change, or, more accurately, how I would adapt my life in response to new realities. What can I do?

Immediately after the election, I was grateful to have already planned a post-election Penny U conversation at Town Hall. Pulling the event together gave me a place to direct my energy and a way to feel that my action might be useful to others. It filled a void and gave me a sense of purpose. The large turnout that evening prompted my co-organizer, Edward Wolcher, and me to schedule a follow-up discussion two and a half weeks later.

We organized the second post-election Penny U around the main themes that emerged from the first one, and we also offered participants the chance to add topics not already on our list. Slightly over 100 people attended. We began, as Penny U’s do, with a short introduction giving some background, presenting the topics, and describing specifics of the process this time, which went like this: Topics were assigned to tables around the room. After the opening, everyone headed to the table topic of their choice. If groups got bigger than about 5-6, we encouraged breaking them up into smaller groups at one of the extra tables scattered around. We also asked someone at each table to take notes.

Topics focused on what we, individually and together, can do:

  • Hold the media accountable / understand the news we consume (2 groups)
  • Protect individual & civil rights / fight racism, sexism, homophobia (3 groups)
  • Build understanding & develop conversation with the “other side” (2 groups)
  • Review, revise, change the U.S. voting & election process
  • Communicate with current legislative bodies (1 group + an advance email)
  • Organize to change public policy from outside the current party structure
  • Educate ourselves / improve our education system
  • Hold face-to-face conversations within & between specific actions
  • Help coordinate many different efforts and a more cohesive movement
  • Resist cultural normalization of the way language has changed (added)

As after the November Penny U, we collected a substantial pile of notes. I continue to be impressed by how carefully and clearly most of the notes are prepared. In both Penny U sessions, my own were definitely the messiest notes and the hardest to decipher. This time, rather than try to summarize the wide range of topics and conversations, I’ve simply transcribed the notes “as is,” with a few minor adjustments for clarity.

You can find the complete set here. Because of its length you might want to just zero in on the topics that interest you the most.

So, what do we do next?

After I’d sent the notes to participants and now that I’ve posted them here, I’m thrown back to the question I faced immediately after the election, the one postponed by my focus on organizing the two Penny U’s. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Paul Krugman expressed a dilemma that feels real to my experience:

Personally, I’m still figuring out how to keep my anger simmering — letting it boil over won’t do any good, but it shouldn’t be allowed to cool. This election was an outrage, and we should never forget it.”      —  Paul Krugman1  

Opportunities to engage, to protest, express our anger and dissent, resist policy changes, and change our own behavior pour in every day, through email, the news, personal conversations and observations. In fact, so many come that they often feel overwhelming. Given that none of us can do everything, even though that’s my initial instinct, I ask myself again, “What can I best offer given who I am? What’s my piece of the puzzle?”

The next steps for Penny U are still unclear. The focus that Edward and I gave the two post-election conversations responded to the circumstances of the moment. How could it now respond most effectively to current or future circumstances?

For guidance, I’ve paid close attention to responses we’ve received after the second Penny U. A friend, Warren Wilkins, wrote, thanking us for the platform “provided for those of us who were floundering around in our several states of incredulity/depression/etc. I suspect we’ll all head off on our own trajectories now.” But, he added, “I would guess your platform has shortened the launch window for many. It certainly did for me.” This reinforced my sense that Penny U isn’t itself a natural action-oriented organizing body, but might be a place where someone could find a specific way to engage their energy and their skills.

Mary Holscher, another participant, made this point even more clearly. She wrote:

I was in group 3, ‘Protect individual & civil rights / fight racism, sexism, homophobia.’ I came away from the afternoon feeling disturbed and agitated – so many ideas, so much to do, what next???  I found the conversation quite fragmented and not that enjoyable. I came out of it, though, knowing I didn’t want to just stay in my Phinney Ridge neighborhood, which is mostly progressive but also mostly white and middle class.

“That night (evidently as I slept) something seemed to have resolved itself, and I woke up with a clear sense of priorities and direction, clearly inspired by the comments in our group on working with immigrants and Muslims, on being proactive, rather than simply reactive; on assessing one’s own strengths. I chose to sign up as a volunteer for Young Women Empowered (Y-We),2 which I’d been considering in the very back of my mind for a few months but hadn’t taken any action on. A big reservation I’d had was that it was at El Centro de la Raza, which seemed too far away. Knowing that I need to get out of my mostly white neighborhood spurred me to action.

“Even though I found the afternoon quite agitating and wasn’t sure if it was helpful, I do think it spurred me to both clarity and action about my own direction. So thank you! Even if I never come to another Penny University, I’m very glad I came to this one.”

Mary’s story was satisfying for an organizer who badly wanted the conversations to be useful. But her message also guides and inspires me as I wrestle with this part of my original what-can-I-do? question:  How can Penny U best serve as a forum in the future?

A initial thought follows in the next post, “A bigger choir, a countervailing force.” Your suggestions, comments, and stories are welcome!

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1 Paul Krugman, “The Tainted Election,” The New York Times, op-ed, December 12, 2016.

2 Mary Holscher also wrote:   “What draws me to Y-We is that it is multi-generational, multi-racial, focused on young women’s empowerment, and has a joyful spirit (a joyful spirit turns out to be imperative for me right now).” And she shared a few excerpts from the organization’s website: youngwomenempowered.org:

“Y-We empowers young women from diverse backgrounds to step up as leaders in their schools, communities and the world. We do this through intergenerational mentorship, intercultural collaboration, and creative programs that equip girls with the confidence, resiliency, and leadership skills needed to achieve their goals and improve their communities.”

“We serve young women ages 13-18. Our youth and mentors come from of a wide range of backgrounds representing diversity in family, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, politics, and education. Currently, 70% of our youth are first generation immigrants to the US and 80% of the youth and 50% of the adults are women of color.”


What should a concerned citizen do? November 15, 2016

Penny University –  a week after the 2016 election

We need to connect. We need to talk together.
        —  a Penny U participant

Co-organizer Edward Wolcher and I have been hosting Penny U at Town Hall since fall 2014. We’ve generally had 20-30 people show up for the conversations that take place around small tables. Penny U has been a place to talk, not just listen. The discussion has been lively, and people leave energized. But, Town Hall sold over 250 tickets for the Penny U on November 15 when the topic was, “Post-election: What’s next?” Our retiring U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott was definitely a powerful draw. He helped set the stage with a few remarks during the introductory part of the program and received a standing ovation for his long service.

Among other things, Jim told us that we all have to speak out, and we have to organize. “If we don’t speak up for other people and take on these issues, the hate will continue to seep into our society.”

He went on to say:

We all want a nice quiet life; we don’t want to get involved in all this. But, folks, there’s no way out of this, you don’t have a choice. The fact that you came out tonight means that you can be a choir that goes out and tells the rest of the city. We have to come together as a community around the issue of the common good. What’s good for Jim McDermott and his family has got to be good for everybody else in this whole city, and in this whole state, and this whole country. But it has to start somewhere and it can start with something like this Town Hall. We each have a responsibility to do our part. 250 people are a lot of people to be out there, churning and stirring people up. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If we don’t stick together, we will hang separately.”

He also quoted Frodo from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”

While many people in the hall came specifically to hear Jim speak, at least 200 people stayed for the conversations that followed. After Jim left to catch a red-eye back to the other Washington (something he hadn’t done for years, but did to be with us), we all moved downstairs from the Great Hall and began talking together around small tables or in small circles of chairs in all parts of the lobby.

From the Great Hall stage Edward and I had posed two questions to prompt conversation:

  • Was this election a symptom of something fundamentally broken in U.S. politics, in our economy, in our basic social structures?
  • Now that the election is over: what should concerned, engaged citizens do?

Most conversations were among four to six people, a few tables held more. As part of his opening remarks, Edward encouraged everyone to sit with people they didn’t know. From a quick glance around the lobby, I noticed that couples I knew had indeed split up and sat at different tables. Generations mixed. One person in each group volunteered to take notes.

The energy around the tables was palpable, and many people told me afterward how grateful they were to have had this chance to talk. One man said, “This isn’t what I expected, but sign me up.” Scattered through the notes, I found comments like, “It’s time to stand up and engage physically.” Or, “This is new to me, I want to be helping more.” “Complacency must end!” “We need to re-energize; it’s time to become an activist again.” “We can’t get used to this!” The chance to connect, face-to-face, mattered.

Summary report

We collected over 30 sets of notes from the conversation. In addition to being surprised at how legible and long most of them were, I was struck by the fact that, with a few exceptions, the focus was on the second question, not the first – on what we should do. Because interest was so high, Edward, Town Hall, and I scheduled another Penny U for early December to build on the desire to to find practical steps that we, as individuals and as a community, can take to organize around the concerns that surfaced. (see “So many ideas. So much to do!” for more about the December meeting.)

Following is a report on what happened at Penny U in November. There is no way to adequately summarize all the observations, insights, and ideas that were captured in over 60 pages of hand-written notes. The report feels like a shorthand outline that only skims the surface. In most cases, comments are direct transcriptions from the notes.  (If you’d rather read the summary as a pdf, it’s available here.)

In part because the upcoming Penny U focuses on practical steps we can take, the summary sticks primarily to the question of what we should do. Our aim is that the summary will provide a useful beginning point for the small groups that will form that day. Comments have been grouped in two ways: specific areas of focus for our action and the kinds of actions we can take regardless of the specific focus. None of them are insignificant, they all matter. It’s also important to understand that no single one of us can cover all the bases. Many comments in the notes echoed this one: “Pick one issue and do it really hard.” Or, as Barbara Kingsolver has said,

Trump changed everything. Now everything counts.*


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Penny U summary: table conversations
What should a concerned citizen do?

AREAS OF FOCUS / SPHERES OF ACTION

Hold the media accountable / understand the news we consume

  • Use difference sources of news, “choose your news”
  • Get outside own technological bubble; read The Big Sort, learn how much we’re “sorted”
  • Figure out how to fight inaccurate/false information, fight fake news
  • Identify biases in news sources
  • Learn how money and advertising control the news
  • Support nonprofit journalism, support free media, subscribe to a paper
  • Don’t let media “normalize” Trump, it’s unacceptable
  • Learn what’s going on internationally
  • Be aware of how social media filters the news
  • Get after media to broadcast positive messages & education
  • How can we change the national conversation?

Protect individual and civil rights/fight racism, sexism, LGBTQ bashing, and more

  • Help people feel safe
  • Stand up for/with people of color, LGBTQ
  • How do we address prejudice & hatred? How do we respond to bullies?
  • Protest against policies that promote hate & violate rights
  • Fight white supremacy
  • Address anti-choice movement
  • Daily acts of kindness to people who look different from you.
  • How do we have meaningful conversation about race with all sides heard & respected?
  • Can we use our privilege to give others a place at the table?
  • Share truths & articles on racism
  • Intentionally engage diverse people
  • Provide sponsorship & funding to immigrants
  • Fight misogyny, classism
  • Create a venue for people’s anger
  • Speak up whenever there’s a hate crime
  • Speak up if someone is being harassed

Build understanding & develop conversation with the “other side”

  • Build relationships with people, not just around politics
  • Bridge gap between eastern and western Washington, reach out, ask their views
  • Speak about our values, find empathy
  • Read books written for “the other side.” Connect with family/fiscal conservatives. How?
  • How can we engage people who voted for Trump? Read The Art of the Deal
  • Don’t demonize Trump supporters, target his team/administration.
  • Make ourselves open to the “other side,” allow ourselves to be uncomfortable
  • Can we have non-emotional conversations, with people holding opposite opinions?
  • Listen deeply, not to advance own agenda but to understand
  • What are culturally relevant ways to approach them?
  • Hold as many of these conversations face-to-face as possible
  • Understand the role of economics, and the needs of the economically disenfranchised; since the 1980s there has been mass impoverishment
  • Listen to other viewpoints, have conversations with people you wouldn’t usually speak to
  • Onus is on us to start the conversation. Listen to labor
  • Learn source of the fear that defined this election, learn about their pain, anger, mistrust
  • Ask “why?” We need to have these discussions.
  • Understand the “enemy” – the fear, disenfranchisement, longing for the way things were.
  • Understand the root causes of fear. Share your fear for what may happen.
  • Volunteering time can often further understanding better than direct, abrupt conversation
  • Connect across all lines, identify common ground, get out of our bubble. How?
  • Work against class divisions
  • Get a pen pal in a red state, tell your story

Review, revise, change the U.S. voting & election process

  • Work to change the electoral college system. It is a big part of the problem.
  • Change the electoral college process at a state level
  • Why don’t more people vote? Work to get more people to vote next time. Recruit youth
  • Fight gerrymandering. The 2018 election is crucial for redistricting.
  • The National Popular Vote needs to pass
  • Increase understanding of our political & electoral process–example, ex-cons can vote
  • Hold forums for candidates to express views
  • Advocate for rank voting
  • Fight Citizens United
  • Ask, are we still a democracy? Audit our system.
  • Set term limits
  • Fight for voters’ rights

Bolster the Democratic Party and communicate with current legislative bodies

  • Support & communicate with our own officials, representatives
  • Become active in the local Democratic Party to refocus on labor rights, access to education, economic opportunity, tax fairness; attend district meetings
  • Reshape the Democratic Party, co-opt the party’s need to rebrand itself
  • Crowdsource the research that politicians need.
  • We need a dynamic “change” candidate
  • Advocate for legislation to reduce economic inequality & to improve access to education
  • Write your member of congress, personally
  • Talk to state legislators, call and write. Do we want them to stalemate on specific issues?
  • Run for office
  • Support Democrats’ efforts to raise minimum wage
  • Work on the NEXT election in two years.
  • We need to transform Congress

Organize to change public policy from outside the current party structure

  • Traditional political action alone is not sufficient.
  • Two-party system is tribal. It doesn’t facilitate coalition-building
  • The two-party system silences anyone not part of the system
  • Why do we have essentially only two parties? Consider third parties.

Educate ourselves/improve our education system

  • Understand U.S. politics first
  • Engage young people in high school
  • “Democracy is only as good as an educated citizenry”
  • Broaden our historical narrative
  • Increase education on policy and politics
  • Learn how to politely debate around difficult conversations
  • Also educate elders and parents
  • Make presentations at schools, and provide resources to teachers
  • Teach children about tolerance, to be tolerant
  • Bring back civics as a required course

Be part of actions around specific issues. Many causes are interconnected.

  • Protect the environment, address climate change
  • Environmental degradation is an assault on human rights
  • Immigration
  • Abortion rights

Hold face-to-face conversations within & between specific efforts

  • Talk with each other. “If we can’t talk to each other, nothing can get accomplished”
  • Stoke the fire with like-minded individuals. Host political meet-ups, Swedish “study circle.” Include young children. Bring dialogue back to America.
  • Help “move fear into political courage”
  • Get “offline” conversations going, create safe spaces for dissent
  • Engage in nuanced conversations
  • Have facilitated conversations with people on the other side of the aisle
  • Our fundamental values & institutions will decay if we can’t have discourse

Help coordinate many different efforts and a more cohesive movement

  • Develop overall coordination of many different efforts
  • Expand the choir, bring more people to activism, we need action on multiple fronts
  • “Politicize” liberals rather than convert Trump supporters
  • Figure out how to have a more cohesive movement
  • How do we make this movement “smarter”? and more disciplined
  • How do we engage as many people as possible & still maintain cohesion?
  • What are the big ideas that could be shared?
  • We haven’t developed a message. We need to be consistent. Focus & sharpen?
  • Learn basic strategies of movement building
  • Name the commonalities; tension among us is not pathological
  • Could this be a time of optimism?
  • How can a progressive umbrella be inclusive going forward?
  • We need goals & vision, we need more critical thinking and respectful deliberation
  • Keep attending events like this, keep hosting them, bring young people to them
  • Create a digest or resource for “what to do”
  • We should learn how the 30-year-long, right-wing, conservative movement got strong; it was a long-term, disciplined, multi-pronged strategy.
  • Expect this to be a 15-year fight
  • Engage in Transformational Activism”
  • Rebuild the public sector / civil society / sense of the common good.

KINDS OF ACTION regardless of the specific focus or sphere of action

Protest – In one form or another, this was mentioned a lot

  • Demonstrations, boycotts, rallies, songs
  • Piggy-back on existing forms of congregation (churches, schools, etc.)
  • Peacefully make it known that hate is not acceptable
  • Turn a march into a message
  • Show up, just show up, bring friends
  • Speak up
  • Backup protestors in simple ways (I’ll bail you out, feed your cat)
  • Boycott companies that support Trump (list by Shawn King)
  • Movements, like Occupy, need to be more organized
  • Pete Seeger

DonateCame up over and over as a response

  • “When in doubt, donate”
  • Donate to organizations and causes we believe in
  • Host events to raise money for groups that are helping people
  • Host a “booth fair” for these organizations.

VolunteerVolunteering came up repeatedly as a way to respond

  • Find one cause/fight, and put yourself behind it. (said in various ways)
  • We each need to focus on our cause.

Organize – at neighborhood level, at national level, internationally

  • Such as, in neighborhoods meet neighbors, organize block watches, coordinate donations, politicize little libraries

Take personal actionMany items under specific causes are also personal actions

  • Question your previous assumptions
  • Protect your online identity
  • Put a family member on your bank account in case you’re arrested protesting
  • Look at our own “shadow self,” “what is my inner D Trump?”
  • Take little actions, something small and doable
  • Don’t slide back into complacency
  • Become activist again
  • Fuel yourself with positive, accurate information. Confrontation is not the answer.
  • Watch your conversations online; there’s no anonymity there
  • Vote, participate
  • We can’t feel it’s so bad that we can give up.
  • Stay focused, fight personal sense of hopelessness.
  • Figure out what will sustain you in your activism

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* Barbara Kingsolver, “Donald Trump Changed Everything. Now Everything Counts,” The Guardian, November 23, 2016.

 


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