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.
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.
I was named after my two grandmothers, Alice Ross Crawford and Anne Bosworth Focke. My parents liked the sound of Alice Anne much better than Anne Alice, but Alice lived with us for most of my life through high school and having two Alices in the house would be confusing. Whenever my parents felt I needed a strong talking-to, they called out both names. And these were almost the only times I heard them together. So, except as warning or reprimand, I was Anne.
I developed strong attachments to literary and historical figures with each of these names, girls who led colorful, exciting lives. I was called Annie as a kid, and two Annies especially fascinated and influenced me. One was Annie Oakley, a famous sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and featured in Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun, which I heard as a girl at San Diego’s Starlight Opera. (Recalling this, Annie’s song, “Anything you can do, I can do better,” is now stuck in my head.) A second seminal Annie was Little Orphan Annie of the long-standing comic strip, who in the background had a protector, Daddy Warbucks, and who foiled evildoers by herself with her dog Sandy.
The most influential of my heroines, though, was probably Alice from Alice in Wonderland. She never seemed afraid and instead was simply curious. She followed the White Rabbit in a hurry and fell down a rabbit hole. She landed in a strange and magical place where she got larger and smaller, swam in a pool of tears, shook hands with a dodo bird, watched Father William balance an eel on his nose, conversed with a hookah-smoking caterpillar on a large mushroom, watched the smiling Cheshire Cat in a tree disappear, had tea with the Mad Hatter and Hare, tried to play croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog, and had to testify before the court of the fearsome Queen of Hearts.
I went on those adventures with her while my dad read the stories aloud. Her story and Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations provided beginning points for imaginations of my own Although Tenniel’s drawings are the source for my strongest visual memories of the story, I’m sure the characters in Walt Disney’s movie have a role in my memories as well.
Alice, Annie, and Annie taught me the special powers of imagination, believing in myself, and the thrill and adventure of catching evildoers.
My grandmother Alice died after I left for college. From my youngest brother Ross’s brief descriptions of her last years, I now assume she died with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Years later, my mother did also. Looking back on it all now, I’m saddened by how distant I was from gran’s death and in many respects from mom’s death as well. She died in 1997. My brothers Frank and Ross – especially Ross – were the true caretakers of my mom in her last years. They’ve become bright stars for me as I remember their caregiving role.
The few times I was with mom by myself toward the end of her life, I remember wondering how to enter her world of dementia. I felt I had to be carefully present-tense, consider things that were right in front of us, that we could see and touch, not things that happened yesterday or that might happen tomorrow. Being unable to remember yesterday or think about tomorrow made her feel bad or angry and just increased her confusion. I didn’t understand the disease well enough to know that if we’d jumped much further back in time, we might have opened up older, more enjoyable memories for her and for us both.
Perhaps influenced by my Alice-in-Wonderland past, I’ve always found it easy to jump beyond present circumstances, imagining ways of being that might be but aren’t yet. I wondered how I could see my mom’s and her mom’s dementia – perhaps my own in the future – as interesting or useful, or simply as another acceptable way of being. I thought about historical tales of the wise fool, the wisdom of the village idiot, the ancient oracles, or the mystic seer.
Today dementia is an evildoer. At a 2010 symposium of designers and developers of senior housing, a speaker referred to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as the biggest fear of aging boomers, a fear he urged his colleagues to acknowledge.1
What are we losing by not including in our lives – personally and societally – relationships with and insights from people who seem to exist in other realities? Are we losing their special powers in our super-rational world? How do we understand the edges dividing dementia and wisdom?
A year or two ago, I discovered a book by Dana Walrath, Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass.2
In Aliceheimer’s, Walrath, a medical anthropologist, graphic artist, and writer, tells the story of her mother Alice’s journey with Alzheimer’s, especially during the two years when Alice lived with Dana and her husband in their Vermont home. In the introduction, Walrath says that the biomedical story of dementia “is in desperate need of revision.”
The dominant narrative is a horror story. People with Alzheimer’s are perceived as zombies, bodies without minds, waiting for valiant researchers to find a cure. For Alice and me, the story was different. Alzheimer’s was a time of healing and magic. Of course, there is loss with dementia, but what matters is how we approach our losses and our gains. Reframing dementia as a different way of being, as a window into another reality, lets people living in that state be our teachers – useful, true humans who contribute to our collective good, instead of scary zombies.
Wow, I thought. I’ve been waiting for this. Perhaps this begins to show how to slay the evildoer.
Alice in Wonderland seems to be as important to Walrath as it was to me. She uses Lewis Carroll’s book as an emotional frame for her book. “I found the story’s voice the day I cut up a cheap paperback copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, using the page fragments to make her bathrobe, Alice’s favorite garment.” Alice falls slowly down the rabbit hole of her memory loss and disappears gradually like the Cheshire Cat.
Walrath’s book is part of the Graphic Medicine series.3 She chose the graphic narrative form in the belief that it could reach someone with dementia. She writes, “Graphic storytelling captures the complexity of life and death, of sickness and health. Going back and forth between the subconscious and conscious, between the visual and the verbal, lets us tap into our collective memory, an essential element of storytelling.” It allows us to “better understand those who are hurting, to feel their stories, and redraw and renegotiate social boundaries.” She made her Alice drawings in part “to process my own grief after placing my mother in an Alzheimer’s residence…. But I was also drawing to remember the magic and laughter of that time.”
With a community of help that included pirates, good neighbors, a cast of characters from space-time travel, and my dead father hovering in the branches of the maple trees that surround our Vermont farmhouse, Aliceheimer’s let us write our own story daily – a story that, in turn, helps rewrite the dominant narrative of aging.
Most of the book alternates between graphic and written pages, each two-page spread telling of a day in Alice and Dana’s world.
“Dana, am I going crazy? You would tell me if I had lost my marbles, wouldn’t you?”
I’ve heard these questions many times. Repetition. Anyone who lives with Alzheimer’s knows from repetition. As her rudder, I always supplied Alice with the same steady answers. “No, you’re not crazy. You have Alzheimer’s disease so you can’t remember what just happened.”
“Oh. I forgot. What a lousy thing to have.”
One story, early in the book, tells of Alice losing her home. The accompanying drawings count Dana’s days with Alice. “Alice is disappearing. Soon there will be none.”
Often the “internal governor” of people with Alzheimer’s also disappears; they say exactly what’s on their mind. This disappearance lets new things appear. Alice found parts of herself that she had kept hidden, from her children anyway. She wished out loud that she had gone to medical school instead of becoming a biology teacher. Her years of pushing me in this direction and away from creative work made sense at last.”
One of the reasons Walrath moved Alice into her home was “our unfinished business of finding a good close.” They had never been close. In gentle, surprisingly direct ways, they found resolution, “at last.” After one quiet but deeply felt exchange of apology and forgiveness, Walrath writes, “I knew that if I wanted it, Alzheimer’s would let us have this conversation every single day.”
Alice remembers all the songs from The Music Man and countless others from her youth. The present is more elusive. These days she doesn’t remember that she has Alzheimer’s. But she used to. And she always sings.
One May morning, she stood by my dining room windows, looking out over the rolling field, and she sang this bit from Babes in Arms:
It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then,
But I can’t remember where or when.
The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore.
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then,
But I can’t remember where or when.
She stopped and she smiled and said, “That should be the Alzheimer’s theme song.”
As a medical anthropologist, Walrath’s broad, cultural and historical understanding of sickness and health reaches beyond the medical system that so dominates the understanding of health in the U.S. today. She writes in her introduction:
Biomedicine locates sickness in a specific place in an individual body: a headache, a stomachache, a torn knee, lung cancer. Medical anthropologists instead locate sickness and health in three interconnected bodies: the political, the social, and the physical.4 The prevailing political economy impacts the distribution of sickness and health in a society and the means available to heal those who are sick. …The social body constructs the meanings and experiences surrounding certain physical states.
Some cultures locate sickness not in individuals but instead in families or communities. As any caregiver knows, we live the sickness too. And while biomedicine can cure diseases, it flounders with permanent hurts, troubles of the mind, states present from birth or that are incurable or progressive. In biomedicine, these states are stigmatized and feared. We medical anthropologists have a term for this: social death.
The role of “social bodies” – that is, communities – in the health of individuals is being discovered and described more and more often. Alzheimer’s is one kind of “social death,” and British writer George Monbiot identifies another. Loneliness and isolation constitute a “disease of epidemic scale today,” he writes in Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis.5 “Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous.” Monbiot is constantly on the lookout for ways to combat this disease. He begins a recent column for The Guardian, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” this way: “It could, if the results stand up, be one of the most dramatic medical breakthroughs of recent decades. It could transform treatment regimes, save lives, and save health services a fortune. Is it a drug? A device? A surgical procedure? No, it’s a new-fangled intervention called community, as results from a trial in the Somerset town of Frome [England] show.6
Although Monbiot warned that the findings are based on what he termed “provisional data” – that is, not yet published by the academic press – he also wrote that “this shouldn’t stop us feeling a shiver of excitement about the implications.” Results of the Compassionate Frome project, begun five years ago, appears to show that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls dramatically. Sometimes the help took the form of handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs, lunch clubs, exercise groups, or writing workshops. The point was, he said, “to break a familiar cycle of misery: illness reduces people’s ability to socialize, which leads in turn to isolation and loneliness, which then exacerbates illness.”
When [Alice] was certain that her own mother, who died in 1954, had just been sitting on the sofa in the living room and talking with her, she would say, “You see her, don’t you?” I’d say, “I can’t see her, but I’m sure you can. You have special powers. You can see things that we can’t.” For her that was enough.
What Walrath offered her mother was a way to break the familiar cycle of Alzheimer’s misery. And it’s telling, I think, that Dana and Alice’s “wonderland” – the community they made together – offered gifts to them both.
1 Robert Kramer, founder and president, National Investment Center for the Senior Housing and Care Industry, speaking at the Senior Housing Design and Development Symposium at the University of Maryland, 2010.
2 Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass, Dana Walrath, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.
3 Graphic Medicine book series, from the Pennsylvania State University Press. “Books in the series are curated by an editorial collective with scholarly, creative, and clinical expertise, and attest to a growing awareness of the value of comics as an important resource for communicating about a range of issues broadly termed ‘medical’.”
4 From Walrath’s introduction: For more on this see Nancy Scheper-Hughes and M. Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Medical Anthropology,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1, no. 1 (March 1987): 6-41.
5 George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, Verso Books, 2017.
The principle of [the United States] seems to be to make private interests harmonize with the general interest. A sort of refined and intelligent selfishness seems to be the pivot on which the whole machine turns…. But up to what extent can the two principles of individual well-being and the general good in fact be merged?…This is something which only the future will show.
— Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831
There’s a high likelihood Tocqueville’s question will never be settled definitively – not now, nearly 200 years into Toqueville’s “future,” and not two hundred years into our future. I can’t imagine a time when one group of human beings won’t be tugging another toward one of these principles and away from the other. It’s a tension that’s probably best not settled, one we should constantly question and struggle to answer in new ways.
I’ve borrowed the Toqueville quote from “Civil Society and Its Discontents,” an article by Bruce Sievers published in 2004 by Grantmakers in the Arts.1 At the time, I was co-editor of GIA’s periodical, the GIA Reader, and had the opportunity to work with Bruce on this and other pieces for the Reader. Working with him was the best introduction I could have had to the crucial role that civil society plays, or should play, in our world. Civil society, the common good, the commons, and many concepts and understandings spinning around these ideas continue to play a central role in my thinking.
The essays that Bruce wrote for GIA were among the precursors to his 2010 book, Civil Society, Philanthropy and the Fate of the Commons.2 As it was being published, the book provided the structure for a series of five conversations I organized with friends and colleagues Wier Harman, Carol Lewis, and Ted Lord. In mid-2010 after the five sessions were over, I considered “serializing” the notes so the ideas we wrestled with in conversation could be shared with others.
To try out my plan, I drafted a few pieces intended to provide a general context, without discussing the conversations. That would come next, I thought. I only got as far as three pieces before being swept up in other work, which has been a common fate of my writing over the years. Recently, I’ve gone back to the few I wrote and to my notes from the conversations themselves, knowing that a greater understanding of civil society is at least as important now as it was then. One piece follows here, and a second, ”Can we stay in the same room?” was posted on this site earlier.
Creative Tension Individual interests vs. the common good
One evening in the fall 2004, a notice slid under my apartment’s front door notifying residents that the board of my condo association had just fired the building’s live-in managers, a couple who had shared responsibility for managing and maintaining this 80-unit residential building for about ten years. They were already out of a job and a home. That day, the notice read, had been their last.
In addition, the board had decided to change the association’s long-time practice of hiring resident managers. Instead we would now contract with a commercial property management firm and, in fact, a particular company had already been selected. A central argument for the change seemed to be, in essence, “keeping up with the Joneses.” Other condominiums in our neighborhood used commercial firms; resident managers were simply unprofessional, the board’s argument went, and was probably devaluing our individual investments.
Many of us who were owners were stunned. The managers had received no notice and the board gave them ten days to move out. (Activist owners managed to extend the allotted time to a month.)
Rancor and strife erupted and prevailed openly for months. Charges of secrecy, calls for due process, accusations of inappropriate use of power were countered by claims that it was all for our own good and, besides, it was a personnel matter that had to be confidential. Concerns for maintaining the value of the property clashed with concerns for open process and justice for the managers as human beings. In one way of understanding it, upper floors (with larger apartments, higher property values, and votes that counted more) seemed pitted against we on the lower floors. Some decried the loss of democratic process and of community and shared values. The imbroglio was intense and exhausting, and the bruises continue under the surface today, six years later.
This very local turmoil in my building played out in tandem with the 2004 national presidential campaign, then in high gear – on the radio, TV, and internet, in newspapers and in discussions at work and among friends. Angry debates about the Iraq War (barely a year old), the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the PATRIOT Act, and the voting controversies and irregularities of four years earlier – all colored the campaigns. Strident claims seemed barely connected to fact.
For a few days, with the Republican convention on my kitchen radio and meetings of a rump group of disaffected condo owners in the apartment next door, I retreated to my home office to meet a publishing deadline. At the time, I was executive director of Grantmakers in the Arts and co-editor of its periodical, the GIA Reader. Much of my role as editor was essentially interactive, communicating with writers and thinkers whose ideas subsequently reached GIA members and others through the publication. Aspects of the editorial work, though, required concentration and focus; the space and time for this was often easier to find outside the office.
One of the essays I worked on at home that fall, with the backdrop of both local and national dramas, was “Civil Society and Its Discontents: Philanthropy’s Civic Mission,” by Bruce Sievers.
Sievers’ piece opened with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville (Sing Sing, 1831):
The principle of the republics of antiquity was to sacrifice private interests to the general good. In that sense one could say that they were virtuous. The principle of [the United States] seems to be to make private interests harmonize with the general interest. A sort of refined and intelligent selfishness seems to be the pivot on which the whole machine turns…. But up to what extent can the two principles of individual well-being and the general good in fact be merged?…This is something which only the future will show.
Later in the essay, Sievers describes what characterizes civil society and distinguishes it from both commerce and government:
[The world] we inhabit when we are acting in civil society is very different from those of other spheres of social life: the economy and the state. Each of these three worlds has its set of goals, expectations, norms, and incentives. In the economic world, we think and act as producers, consumers, and investors; in the political world, we play the roles of voters, lawmakers, and public administrators. In the world of civil society, we become community members, volunteers, and civic actors.
What particularly characterizes [civil society] is pluralism, distinctive social values, and a creative tension between individual interests and the commons. It is the sphere in which private visions of the public good play out in interaction with one another to shape the social agenda. Participating in civil society involves the pursuit of a mixture of public and private goals, of social problem-solving and individual expression.
Yikes! “Creative tension” hardly states it strongly enough. The words in the essay and the worlds I inhabited beyond my desk began to get mixed up with each other. Sievers, for instance, referred to looking within civil society “for the sources of a familiar institutional gridlock in which it becomes easy to obstruct actions aimed at achieving public purposes but extremely difficult to take positive steps forward to accomplish them.” It doesn’t take more of an institution than a small condo association to see that gridlock in action.
Later in the essay Sievers writes:
It is…the erosion of essential civic values – the steep decline in public trust, diminishing belief in the efficacy of civic action, increasing fractiousness of public debate, and diminishing bonds of common civic identity – that poses the fundamental threat and that prevents the solution of large social problems. We are back to Tocqueville and his worry about reconciling the principles of “individual well-being and the general good” in the American experiment.
Although Sievers focused on the specific role that philanthropy can play in strengthening civil society, I paid as much attention to what the essay taught me about democracy and the principles of civil society. I was struck by the thought that somehow these abstractly philosophical ideas had an essential relevance to both the immediately local and the far-reaching national debates unfolding around me. But it was as though each of the three worlds – the local, national, and theoretical – existed on parallel planes that didn’t overlap in ways I could get my mind around in a practical way.
Big ideas – like those of Tocqueville and Sievers on civil society – help me adjust my understanding of what happens on the ground where I live, but they leave me unsettled until I figure out how to adjust my actions in response to them.
The “erosion of essential civic values” that Sievers mentions seems to be occurring at an ever faster rate. Daily…hourly…we are urged to write this congressman, show up for that action, resist another dreadful bill, proposed legislation, or executive decision. Given the rise of ever-more powerful individual interests, how do we also begin to shore up public trust, dilute the fractiousness of our public debate, and strengthen a common sense of civic identity? Without it, we stand to lose the creative tension between private interests and the general good that Tocqueville called the “pivot on which the whole machine turns.”
1 “Civil Society and its Discontents,” Bruce R. Sievers, GIA Reader, Autumn 2004.
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.
How far can we stretch a legal form? Or, how can we operate within one in nontraditional ways? Or, can we imagine a parallel but equally defining creative form?
Is it possible to create an organizational form that fosters and embodies values of rigor, experimentation, responsiveness, difference in all its forms, difficult ideas, ground-level work, open communication, listening, collective action, transparency in governance and decision-making, and new forms of equity and power?
These are only a few words and phrases pulled from a longer statement of the core values of Common Field,1 an organizing network that connects experimental, artist-run and artist-centered spaces, organizers, and initiatives nationally.
Common Field began about two years ago, but its roots go back at least as far as the early 2000s. The Warhol Initiative (1999-2012) not only funded small arts organizations but convened them every three years. Sparked at those convenings, the desire for a network coalesced further in 2011 with a conference in Chicago – “Hand in Glove.” This was followed in 2013 by a retreat organized by the network’s five founders and attended by its first founding members. Public membership in Common Field was announced at a Hand in Glove convening in Minneapolis in late 2015.
Until now, Common Field has operated as a program of one of its members. More recently though, it became clear that it was time to be independent, especially in light of the growth of its membership, annual convening, programs, and budget. I’m a member of Common Field’s Council and of the governance team charged with overseeing this process.
Creating a legal structure may not sound sexy or contentious, but Common Field was guided by deeply principled founding members who wanted an organizational structure grounded in the values they believe in, values that the current Council continues to share. I wasn’t a founder and didn’t participate in early discussions, but, as I understand it, there was a justifiable fear that in adopting an institutional form Common Field would also adopt the power dynamics, inequities, and closed hierarchical structure that we see too often in the world around us, whether in for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental institutions. The governance team took this charge head on.
Common Field’s 2017 summer “Field Notes,” put one of our conclusions this way: We are in agreement that, while becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization is imperative, it is just as imperative to evolve as a healthy and dynamic example of this organizational form. Martha Wilson – artist, founder/director of Franklin Furnace, and a fellow Council and governance team member with me – gave us wise counsel that we kept repeating in our discussions:
We can’t change the structure of a nonprofit, but we can change how we operate within this legal framework.
The work of the governance team was done with great support from legal consultants and Common Field’s staff and by using such tools as conference calls, shared online documents, and email. At one point in the governance team’s work, we were debating some of the fine points in the proposed bylaws. Perhaps buffered by distance, I took a philosophical side trip in my email response, citing artists Wendell Berry, Martha Graham, and Pauline Oliveros. My email message follows.
Note: My 20-year-old friends find it hard to believe that I actually write this way in an email message. In truth, the original didn’t include footnotes.
A form beyond legal structures
From: Anne Focke
Re: 501: Updated Bylaws
July 3, 2017 at 11:11 pm
Hi fellow governance folks,
I really appreciate the level of attention that you, Nat and Courtney, are giving this. Common Field will be stronger for your clear thinking. However, I want to take a little side trip before weighing in on the specifics here. (Apologies…I realize, now that I’m done, that this isn’t exactly a “little” side trip. It’s actually kinda long.)
It strikes me that, as important as they are, the legalities are only one way we might define or express the form we want Common Field to take. A second, complementary, maybe even necessary, way to express its form would take advantage of the power of imagination that we bring to it as artists. The words of artists helped me come to this suggestion.
Some of the words come from a book of essays2 by Wendell Berry that, coincidentally, I began reading while attending a NAAO3 conference years ago (mid-1980s, I think, at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago). In one essay, “People, Land, and Community,” Berry describes the faulty assumption that we can ever become smart enough to control the “demons at large.” He wrote:
The evidence is overwhelming that knowledge does not solve the “human problem.”
For our purposes here, I’d replace “knowledge” with facts or rules or legalities. A little later Berry says, “It is simply true that we do not and cannot know enough to make any important decision.” He applies this to marriage, farming, and community. I suspect that, for Common Field, it’s also true that, to clumsily paraphrase him, “No legal form can ever solve our human problem.” What I take from this is that, as hard as it is to make a decision the first time, the real work of making it a good decision comes after that, in continuing to understand and adapt it and to make the decision work in the real world.
Then, in another essay, “Poetry and Marriage,” which is more explicitly about form, Berry wrote this:
Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties…are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect…Writing in a set form, rightly understood, is anything but force and predetermination. One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it.
Maybe that’s what we’re doing now, writing the first line of Common Field’s pattern (a little corny, but…oh well). And we have to trust that life and our actions together are abundant enough to fill out the pattern that we begin.
This same essay includes other memorable sentences: “It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course.” And another…“The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
A living form, like an organizational structure, will constantly need tending, will constantly find new obstacles in its way. An insight from Martha Graham picks up this thought in an exchange recorded by Agnes de Mille in her memoir, Dance to the Piper. De Mille wrote:
The greatest thing [Martha] ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy….
I said, “When I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”
“No artist is pleased.”
“But then is there no satisfaction?”
“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and more alive than the others.”
All this is meant to offer an expanded context for our struggle to write these bylaws, while maybe removing some of the pressure to get them exactly right, right now. And it sets up a question: In addition to putting in place the legal framework that Common Field needs simply to work in the world today, can we approach Common Field as a creative form? Can we create a larger form — that is, beyond the legal structure — a form begun and continually renewed by a restless desire for something always alive and always better, a container for imagination and aspirations held together by commitment and trust that can take us past the obstructions that baffle us now and through the many obstacles that will undoubtedly baffle us in the future?
The kind of form I’m imagining needs more than legal bonds to hold it together and to release all the possibility inherent in this field. To my mind, the legalities are secondary to the real form we need. This larger form may, of course, partly be expressed in the “non-governing documents” we’ll be drafting next. And these will certainly be important. But perhaps we can also create an image or an action or a text that Common Field could re-stage or renew at its annual convening every year, a kind of ritual maybe. Or it might be something completely different. Perhaps it could begin at the convening this year, maybe something simple that could be adapted over time.
One example, though I’m not suggesting it for Common Field, comes from a 1980s conference about “creative support for creative artists” that closed with a piece by composer/performer Pauline Oliveros. In a bright dining room at lunch time (that is, no soft lights, no candles), Pauline directed us in humming together in an easy-to-follow pattern. That simple act, in unison, seemed to set us up to leave the conference with a larger sense of ourselves as a whole. The experience stays with me still.
The culture we live in today, even more than in Graham and de Mille’s or even Berry’s time, is caught up in, or to my mind trapped by, “metrics,” measurements, and the rational. It’s easy to forget that that’s only one aspect of being human, only one side of what defines our relationships with each other. It would be amazing if, over time, Common Field could find a way to express its non-rational form. It would go a long way to helping it be the singing stream in Berry’s essay.
Whew! I promise to be concise and rational in my next email.
A big hug to you all!
About the image
I was happy to find this image . . . it’s layered, both simple and complex, conveying a clear sense of structure that’s natural and pliable, but guided by clear underlying principles – bubbles, that look as though they’re in the process of shifting slowly.
The full statement of “Core Values” can be found on Common Field’s “About” page on its website here:
Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry, published by North Point Press, 1983.
NAAO, or the National Association of Artists’ Organizations, was founded in 1982 and held its last conference, I think, in 2000 in Brooklyn, New York. It served many of the same purposes that Common Field has been formed to meet.
These words describe big ideas that matter. Once you start paying attention to them, they seem to show up everywhere. But sometimes the ideas they encompass are so big or so complicated, or are used in so many ways by people with such wildly divergent views that they lose their meaning or make it hard to tell where they hit the ground in our real, every-day world.
In a group conversation about where the concept of the commons can be found in our daily lives, Wier Harman, a hero of mine who has managed to keep Town Hall Seattle hopping each year with between 350 and 400 events across a wide spectrum of ideas and culture, first thought of groups that form around pre-schools.
But then he focused on what, given the general direction of his politics, he called the “unlikely,” emotional impact of standing at a Rotary meeting with a roomful of Rotarians wholeheartedly singing patriotic songs together at the start of their meeting. He noted that at work he puts a lot of time and energy into arguing for Town Hall as a space that allows for profound differences.
With his Rotary singing as a backdrop, he added, “We must find a way to stay in the same room.”
• • •
These words retain the quiet power today that they had for me in 2011. I hang on to the aspiration they express at least as tightly now as I did then. I keep my notes from that conversation handy and find I’m pulling them out more and more often.
The question of how we do it continues to haunt and provoke me.
“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.