Now and then in upcoming months, you’ll see pieces I write tagged with the word “cartwheeling.” The series responds to a cluster of questions I’ve struggled with since the 2016 election. As I’ve puzzled over how I can best contribute in a changed and changing world, I’ve written essays with questions as titles: “What should a concerned citizen do?” “So many ideas, so much to do – what’s next?” and, “What’s my piece of the puzzle? Is resistance enough?” I’ve thought of these as my “puzzle pieces.” The Cartwheeling series is one way I’m answering these questions.
So why cartwheels?
As I’ve tried to figure out my role, I’ve had to accept as given my stubbornly positive disposition. This has been its own kind of stumbling block, which I explore in “Pollyanna?” As I wrote that piece, I realized that the sense of possibility I get from leaping into things feels akin to my 8-year-old granddaughter Livia’s cartwheeling spirit. I can learn from her. Livia can and does cartwheel anywhere, even on the way home from school in the winter while wearing her huge, flowered backpack.
“Cartwheeling” as a rubric works for me. I loved the feeling of doing cartwheels as a kid, though the idea of this 73-year-old trying it now is daunting, if not a little scary. Mentally though, I like the idea of cartwheeling as another way to carry on. After all, you have to turn upside down to do a cartwheel. And to find our way to a better future we need to turn many of our ideas and assumptions upside down, then right side up, and upside down again.
Cartwheeling isn’t just a solo act. It can be an exchange, a conversation. I ran across a news story from Washington DC about a “conversation” between a kid and a cop by cartwheel and backflip. The kid’s challenge came first. The cop followed in kind.
Cartwheeling can be done anywhere, in Westminster Abbey by a joyful clergyman after the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton and in Antarctica by a team of graduate students taking a break from McMurdo Station.
It can also be teamwork. We can learn to double cartwheel and everybody-all-at-once cartwheel.
Cartwheeling is moving by revolving. How many revolutions, or kinds of revolutions, will it take to get there, to get where we want to go? It’s not the fastest or the easiest way, but working together a Canadian team of ten doing cartwheels travelled 31 miles in a single 24-hour period to set a record.
The road can’t just be about efficiency and how fast we’re going. It also has to be about where we’re going and how we get there. The phrase “doing cartwheels,” after all, means to feel good about something. We might even get farther and accomplish more if we know where we’re heading and if we move with spirit and joy in the possibility of finding ways to get out of this mess.
I’ll use the Cartwheeling series to share stories about work done and action taken by friends and others who inspire me and give me hope. I have many examples already; more will come. Two follow here. “Honestly, you have been very patient with me” was originally posted as a comment on my “Pollyanna?” piece. Then, Boting Zhang writes, in “Beneath Partisan Politics,” of her shocked response to the 2016 election. Bo didn’t wait to take action. Born in China and raised with images of America as “Meiguo– the Beautiful Country,” she writes, “the America of my young imagination compelled me to facilitate a year-long conversation across the red-blue divide.” With Between Americans, a conversation that involved 12 people who voted for Clinton and 12 who voted for Trump, she wanted to understand and perhaps help bridge the polarization in this country. What she learned is not what she expected.
In Cartwheeling I’ll look for connecting threads, broad ideas or theories that tie the various stories together and add to their power. I’m finding books and other materials that may help. At the end of 2016, in “A bigger choir – a countervailing force,” I expressed my frustration with the, usually disapproving, expression, “You’re just speaking to the choir.” It’s one of the assumptions we need to turn upside down, a small one perhaps, but for me a beginning. At the time I suggested that instead of being critical of speaking to the choir, “We should work to expand the choir, build connections with other choirs, welcome different voices in our own, and allow for differences since dissonance is a powerful part of music.” I wondered whether we can create a force that incorporates the strengths of both our differences and what we share.
As we start to understand these connections and their potential power, we have to figure out how to move together with them. Cartwheels are all about movement, but backwards cartwheeling is nearly impossible. We can’t go back. We need new ways to understand where we are and, as importantly, we need to imagine how we want to move and where we want to go.
I was thrilled to find this letter from a friend as a comment on my piece, “Pollyanna?” Because online comments can easily get lost on a site like this, I moved it here with an OK from its author. I’ve also tagged it as part of my brand-new “Cartwheeling” series. The series is meant to be a place to share stories of places where I and others find hope in the face of the current state of the world. Many entries will be stories of extraordinary things that are already happening. My friend’s letter tells of his own quiet but extraordinary act, here in my own community. I’m grateful for it.
June 19, 2018
Tomorrow is the last day of detention school and I thought I would write a letter to the students. After reading your essay I felt a connection between our themes.
To My Students,
Thank you for all that you have taught me these last four months. I have become a better listener, a more patient, forgiving and fearless person. I came into the detention center not knowing what to expect. I made a few mistakes along the way, but each time I tried to correct my missteps. Honestly, you have been very patient with me.
I have been a teacher, tutor, and youth advocate for many years. I enjoy working with young adults. The detention center seemed like a place where my skills might be of some use. Now, I know that is true, and I know many of you have appreciated me being here, because you have told me so.
As the regular school year ends I would like you to consider two things:
First, keep practicing hearing your own, true voice. Your true voice can keep you out of trouble. Your true voice can keep you on the path of becoming a wise and happy person. And, your true voice will inspire you to love and help others.
Second, use every opportunity you are given to strengthen your education. The detention center is a great place to do this! The teachers here are dedicated to your success. Let them in—they have many wonderful gifts to give you.
I believe each one of you has so much to offer your families, your community, and the world. Most of you don’t know this yet! I didn’t know it when I was your age either. I believe the very best about you, and I will continue to work with you to bring that ‘bestness’ out.
As many of us did, after the 2016 election Boting Zhang asked herself, “What’s a plebian to do?” I’m inspired by how quickly she responded. Since her childhood in China, Bo had carried in mind a dream of America as meiguo, the Beautiful Country. In late 2016, this dream from her childhood compelled her to leap into the polarized space that divides much of this nation. To try to understand the divide and, if possible, help bridge it, she developed a year-long conversation – by phone and online – that engaged 12 people who voted for Clinton and 12 who voted for Trump. What she learned is not what she expected. Instead, as she says, “I learned a few things about our political climate today and a lot more about what it takes to live a fully connected life in our modern age.” In what follows, she tells this story and threads through it glimpses of her own and her family’s experience in China before coming to this country.
Destined for the Beautiful Country
I was born destined for the opportunity of America. As the only kid in daycare lucky enough to have parents studying in Meiguo – the Beautiful Country – I heard about it constantly. Meiguo sounded like an amazing place. I imagined Americans to be grinning all the time, just proud to belong to the nation that’s best at everything.
Months before my fifth birthday, my grandparents and I took the two-day train journey to Beijing. There, I boarded a plane alone for JFK. My parents would be waiting when the plane landed. I’d never see my grandmother again.
The American Dream tells us that success lives just on the other side of individual hard work and self-sufficiency. Three decades in, my family has lived that dream. But the proud and happy Americans that I’d expected to find on this side of the fairy tale? Turns out that we’re more complicated than that.
This is also a time when, around the world, cities and their surrounding countrysides find themselves at heated political odds. Many people seem resigned to the conclusion that their political opposites must be selfish, myopic idiots. Researchers and others have analyzed the causes of our political polarization, and I will neither rehash nor dispute these analyses. Our polarization has a complex history.
Through my year-long conversation I learned a few things about our political climate today and a lot more about what it takes to live a fully connected life in our modern age of individual ambition. My question about modern America now is this: How can we find the sense of belonging together that encourages people to work through their differences?
Twenty-four voters from around the country participated in the year-long conversation online. Half had supported the woman I’d voted for; the other half had chosen the man I didn’t understand. Most participants were strangers to each other, but all were introduced to me by people I know.
At the start, the project was called “Into the Schism.” Then, in a fit of hope, I changed its name to “Between Americans.”
At this time in American history, it takes a lot of hope and trust for people to even come together. My hope was that the year-long conversation would encourage greater mutual understanding. For most participants, the experiment didn’t succeed in the way they, or I, had hoped. It succeeded in a totally different way.
Through mistakes that I made and through what participants shared with me at the end of the year, the project helped me see that political dialogue is hollow if it doesn’t address the creeping loneliness and floundering sense of purpose that lie under our nation’s polished surface.
America the lonely
Underneath a veneer of pearly-white smiles, modern Americans are lonely. Even a former Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, has rung alarm bells about our epidemic of loneliness. He wrote, “The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart.” Although “loneliness” implies being alone, my conversations with participants surprised me by making it clear that busy Americans with lively social networks can also be intimately familiar with the feeling.
What’s more, this loneliness, this underlying stress to our collective whole, may be driven in no small part by our own restless individual aspirations for success. We’re industrious, ingenious, and interconnected, but these traits also lead to conditions that keep us apart: an extreme busyness, no room for serendipity, a craving for certainty and simple answers, and a crowded Internet.
The Between Americans conversation began in January 2017. Here’s what a few people wrote early in the project.
Immediately after the election, I felt like I needed to get more involved in the political process…. I kept coming back to the idea that I wanted to have a dialogue with people who think differently from myself.” — Participant A
I’ve never seen our country as polarized as it is right now. I don’t think that supporters of either major candidate in the last election are as blinkered as social media memes would suggest. One way to bridge the divide is conversation. So, let the conversation begin!” — Participant B
The project planned to use a combination of online writing and phone calls among small groups of participants. Almost immediately, participants and facilitators found themselves swept back into the urgency of everyday life. We only managed to schedule one small-group call with just five participants before everyone became too busy.
Yet, many participants didn’t lose interest. They still believed in the idea and wanted to continue – they just hadn’t expected to be so busy. This led me to wonder about the phenomenon of American busyness itself.
Our nation is home to two kinds of busyness. The first is a busyness of scarcity; many people are still working hard for survival in a nation of abundance. But graduating from scarcity often only brings Americans into a different busyness of abundance. The busyness of each participant seemed essential: responding to family needs or unexpected events in the context of overwhelmingly busy jobs. But in the aggregate, it formed a striking pattern. Something is wrong with our collective capacity for a functioning togetherness. This is a catastrophe that warrants deeper exploration.
To give you an idea of how hard modern Americans work, we forfeited 206 million vacation days in 2016. If an average worker works for 45 years, that’s over 12,500 lifetimes of paid leisure, thrown away in just one year.2
I certainly relate to busyness. Workaholism is in my DNA. My dad grew up in a farming community where poverty and hunger were well-known. Especially in the famine years of his childhood, the purpose and meaning of life was fairly straightforward: to survive, and to help others survive if you can.
Loneliness was impossible. It was an environment that could only be survived together. His community pooled resources to help my dad become their first college student, to leave poverty behind. After she and my dad moved to this country, my mom cleaned houses and packaged chicken eggs as the two of them worked their way through grad school in Connecticut. That is how, layer by layer, our family made its way into the American Dream.
The opportunities of reaching the Dream present an entirely different challenge: not to survive, but to remain fully connected in community. In the world of the American Dream, neighbors each have separate lawn mowers and kitchen stand mixers. Friends respect each other’s busyness and avoid asking for big favors. We buy insurance policies. We avoid surprises. The farther we move up in the social classes of the ever-less-burdened and more self-reliant, the harder it becomes to see our vital contributions to each other’s survival. But the less immediately necessary we feel, the more deeply we succumb to the stresses of uneasy belonging.
We humans go crazy in solitary confinement. We’re like single cells that shrivel up and wither away when separated from the larger organism of community. To the extent that humans have a baked-in desire beyond survival and sex, that desire is to belong together.
No room for serendipity
Shortly after college, I worked for two years in a guesthouse in a sparsely populated Japanese mountain village. My parents were bewildered at why I’d be so eager for the rural poverty that my elders had labored to leave behind. How to explain that I was enchanted by the serendipity of shared humanity that arises from moments of idleness and curiosity?
“Mornin’, Bo-chan!” I heard one early morning, faintly in the distance, as I picked my way downhill through the lingering darkness to our log-cabin office. My eyes searched the empty road and fields until I finally spotted our 76-year-old neighbor, cheerily hanging from the upper trunk of one of his Japanese cypresses, chainsaw in hand.
“Morning, Omo-san!” I yelled back.
“What are you up to today? More emails?” It seemed to always astonish him that there could be so many emails.
Later that day, he stopped by for a visit. Irritated by the interruption, I served tea anyway and paused for a long chat, having learned the hard way that busyness isn’t an acceptable excuse anywhere in this village, and certainly not for Omo. After all, he’s spent entire afternoons showing us how to better tend to our potatoes and eggplants.
Ten years later, these memories are bittersweet when I recognize that I don’t spare that kind of time or curiosity for strangers at home.
We’ve created this culture where there’s no spaciousness in people’s lives to energetically take time, reach out, connect, have community with people outside their immediate philosophical, political, socioeconomic groups.” — Participant E
In moments of spaciousness, people are almost reliably surprising. In busyness, people rarely are. Thread by thread, busyness tugs away at the serendipity of community until, collectively, we reach a threadbare state of diseased loneliness. Busyness crowds out surprise.
A craving for certainty and single answers
At the beginning of the Between Americans project, I’d imagined my facilitating role to be something like that of an engineer helping shape a river. I wanted to help the conversation land on the right balance of conflict and harmony—not so much conflict that the water becomes turbulent, not so much harmony that the water stagnates.
But it turns out that dialogue doesn’t need such careful physics. Dialogue simply requires the spaciousness of uncertainty and vulnerability.
One of the strongest personal characteristics that any person can have is the ability to be vulnerable. And it’s one of the things that I think as Americans we’re the worst at. We all put on this suit of armor that protects us. And when we talk about politics and community and growth and unity, those suits of armor actually protect us from solving the problems that we have. And I guess with my personal history of poverty as a child, and homelessness…that vulnerability and those experiences, those are strengths.” — Participant F
I once worked in an office where our leaders never agreed on anything. It was a running joke. But our team thrived on these disagreements. Unless something was on fire, we didn’t feel compelled to end every conversation with a resolution. Our disagreements forced us to reckon with the competing paradoxes of efficiency, quality, cost, creativity, relationships, and so forth. Difficult conversations challenged us to find a higher synthesis that could resolve competing needs.
But in the trap of political punditry, ideas are either right or wrong; there is no higher synthesis. When I buy into this trap, I fail to see the point of a conversation that won’t easily end in agreement or a meaningful insight. This also helps the schism grow.
I hate political discussions…. Even when someone sides on ‘your side’, it seems like they still argue with you on hair-splitting issues, just to be argumentative…. It almost makes me afraid to have an opinion on anything.” — Participant G
Communication lets us borrow each other’s brains so that we can think together. When politics becomes reduced to trading answers back and forth, we lose the full potential of dialogue. We each respond to conflict in our own ways, and each response can hold a piece of the truth. It’s in the very incompleteness of our individual truths that we can reach a wiser togetherness. Having all the answers would be terribly lonely.
By the end of the year, I was learning to be more comfortable with the honest unknowingness of true conversation. In that open space, the conversation made some progress. Along with uncomfortable moments, the river of dialogue began to find its natural flow. Participants shared some daring truths, displaying trust even if understanding was shaky. I was beginning to feel a larger kind of American belonging that I wasn’t finding anywhere else in the political landscape.
A crowded Internet
From the beginning, I knew that phone calls were different from online discussion, but I was surprised at how much more I connected with each Between Americans participant in hour-long telephone exit interviews than in the entire year-long online conversation.
A short excerpt from the online conversation earlier in the year was about environmental issues:
So I have posted some stuff that’s environmental. And there was actually a lot of thought that went behind that…. I would agonize over what I should post … like, what is something that I [can] talk about meaningfully, without getting too emotional to the point where I can’t talk about it anymore.” — Participant A
Referencing the same conversation in an exit interview, another woman reflected:
I remember there was one, that someone had written about the environment…. I saved part of the post in my notes and I got back to it later…. And I got a very thoughtful response back…. And then I dropped the ball – I think it was the Fourth of July – and I never wrote back. And I was like, ‘Damn … I lost an opportunity to really keep this conversation going and learn about something that I don’t know a lot about.’” — Participant I
Before these phone calls, I’d forgotten how much of our human complexity remains below the surface of the Internet. When we type, our backspaces and pauses – the vulnerable hesitations that connect us as humans – disappear as unwritten words. And what’s more, the Internet often acts like a crowd, and crowds carry their own distortion.
At the start of the Cultural Revolution, when my mom was 11 years old, she watched from a crowded plaza as student leaders on the stage kicked, hit, and bit her dad’s colleagues in order to force public confessions of academic privilege and oppression. The crowd chanted slogans in support of class struggle.
When my grandfather took his own turn on stage, my mom slipped away from the square. She avoided future “struggle sessions.” Away from the crowd, she got used to feeling alone. Only decades later did she begin to hear how uncomfortable others had also been in these public meetings.
What my mom saw – the people, the emotions, the chants – had been real. As she witnessed, crowds readily amplify extremism. This is the landscape of mass communication. Not only can written conversations filter away our humanity, but the crowded Internet also suffers under the simplifying distortions of crowds. When we forget the limitations of the Internet terrain, when we allow it to draw our attention away from the real people right next to us, we filter out our true complexity, and our loneliness grows. When I forget that we are deeper than the Internet, I conclude, wrongly, that everyone has gone crazy.
Beneath partisan politics
Between Americans was started as a way to understand and perhaps help bridge the polarization that was so apparent in the 2016 election. What I found instead, beneath partisan politics, is a shared struggle to be fully seen through the haze of each other’s busyness, ready answers, and hyper-connected networks. In my exit interviews especially, I glimpsed a tender layer of our nation that wants to know itself better, but that feels stuck, stuck in our polarization. It’s lonely and frustrating to be in a conversation that’s stuck, and yet, we Americans have together created a polarized, disconnected outcome that few of us want..
In Tribe: On homecoming and belonging, Sebastian Junger writes, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.” Modern ideals of self-sufficiency have gone a little too far.
In this modern world of bewildered belonging, political warfare offers a rare gift – an experience of shared purpose with other people. As Junger also says, in addition to all its destruction, “war inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty, and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them.”
But belonging is a heavy load for politics to carry. Political conversations often echo strains of an exasperated belonging that can’t be solved through politics.
I think we’re actually damaging the structure that allows people to be individuals, because now they have to associate with these labels. Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Are you a feminist or not a feminist? And they don’t even come close to touching on the complexity of the actual human…. I think this creates a sense of isolation and loneliness because here you can name all these containers, but you’re not really known. Nobody actually really knows you.” — Participant N
As our democracy matures, the very qualities that brought us this close to success – our busyness, our conviction, our production-line innovations – could be the very things that hinder us from moving forward.
Looking back from the future, I hope we’ll see this time in history not as a struggle between competing ideologies, but rather as an awakening to the complexity of our problems and a gradual rejection of ideological answers. Generative, inclusive disagreement isn’t something we need to remember how to do. It’s something we’re learning for the very first time.
My conviction for bridging divides is not about finding peace and harmony, or even common ground. Rather, I believe in talking more so that we can begin to become, perhaps for the first time in American history since colonization, a whole that’s truly greater than the sum of our parts.
Boting Zhang works at The Bramble Project, “joyful and conscientious urban development.” Of her work she says, “I work to support collective wisdom and agency in the complex civic and social dynamics surrounding urban change and belonging. I offer ideas for how our polarized society can heal itself in a parallel essay, ‘Our Political Polarization: Heartbreak and healing,’ on the Bramble Project blog.”
Between Americans began as a commitment to remember how the 2016 election felt. Since art is the only way I could think of to record an emotional time capsule, I committed to an art piece about that election night. My commitment was a seed that grew into this year-long conversation. To see and hear the full art piece telling the story of the year’s project, please go to: Between Americans Timeline. I invented the format you’ll see as a way to display the conversation. Among other things, it includes about three hours of audio. Scroll to the bottom of the page for links if you’d rather listen to it as a podcast.
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 do anything? 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?
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?”
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.
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 19-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 1975.1 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 a 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.
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.
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…
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:
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
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.
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.
“Wait a minute!” I said. “Iam 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.
• • • • •
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.
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
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.
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.