To understand the world knowledge is not enough, you must see it, touch it, live in its presence.
—Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe
The American Lie.
No. Not the election.
The big lie in the United States is racism only effects people of color.
Heather McGhee’s book is brilliant. She is brilliant. Her book is incredibly researched and synthesized. A must read book for every journalist, politician, policy creator, and student. Actually, you know what? Everyone should read Heather’s book. And she speaks like she writes, clearly, foundationally, and directly. We need to listen. -dayle
The heart of McGhee’s case is that racism is harmful to everyone, and thus we all have an interest in fighting it. Drawing on a wealth of economic data, she argues that when laws and practices have discriminated against African Americans, whites have also been harmed. When people unite across racial and ethnic lines, she argues, there’s a solidarity dividend that helps everyone.
Heather McGhee is the former president of the progressive think tank Demos, where she spent much of her career. She holds a BA in American Studies from Yale and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. She currently chairs the board of Color of Change, a nationwide online racial justice organization. Her new book is “The Sum Of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together.”
This to me is really the kind of parable at the heart of the book. It’s what’s illustrated on the cover. In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, the United States went on a building boom of these grand resort-style swimming pools. These were the kind that would hold hundreds, even thousands, of swimmers. And it was a real sort of Americanization project. It was to create a, like, bath-temperature melting pot of, you know, white ethnic immigrants and people in the community to come together. It was sort of a commitment by the government to a leisure-filled American dream standard of living. And in many of these public pools, the rule was that it was whites only, either officially or unofficially. And in the 1950s and ’60s when Black communities began to, understandably, say, hey, it’s our tax dollars that are helping to support this public good, we need to be allowed to swim, too, all over the country, particularly in the American South but in other places as well, white towns facing integration orders from the courts decided to drain their public swimming pools rather than let Black families swim, too.
Now, I went to Montgomery, Ala., where there used to be one of those grand resort-style pools and where effective January 1, 1959, not only did they back a truck up and pour dirt into the pool and pave it over, but they also sold off the animals in the municipal zoo. They closed down the entire parks and recreation department of Montgomery for a decade. It wasn’t until almost 1970 that they reopened the park system for the entire city. And I walked the grounds of Oak Park. Even after they reopened it, they never rebuilt the pool. And that, to me, felt like this just tangible symbol of the way that a population taught to distrust and disdain their neighbors of color will withdraw from public goods when they no longer see the public as good.
Interview with Dave Davies on NPR:
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
“The Sum of Us,” and underlines the importance of having honest conversations about past and present racism at a community level.
What ‘Drained-Pool’ Politics Costs America
I asked McGhee to join me on my podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show,” for a discussion about drained-pool politics, the zero-sum stories at the heart of American policymaking, how people define and understand their political interests, and the path forward. This is, in my view, a hopeful book, and a hopeful conversation. There are so many issues where the trade-offs are real, and binding. But in this space, there are vast “solidarity dividends” just waiting for us, if we are willing to stand with, rather than against, each other.
Also from the NYTimes.
The book That Should Change How Progressives Talk About Race
Heather McGhee writes that racism increases economic inequality for everyone.
by Michelle Goldberg
McGhee’s book is about the many ways racism has defeated efforts to create a more economically just America. Once the civil rights movement expanded America’s conception of “the public,” white America’s support for public goods collapsed. People of color have suffered the most from the resulting austerity, but it’s made life a lot worse for most white people, too. McGhee’s central metaphor is that of towns and cities that closed their public pools rather than share them with Black people, leaving everyone who couldn’t afford a private pool materially worse off.
One of the most fascinating things about “The Sum of Us” is how it challenges the assumptions of both white antiracism activists and progressives who just want to talk about class. McGhee argues that it’s futile to try to address decades of disinvestment in schools, infrastructure, health care and more without talking about racial resentment.
“Communicators have to be aware of the mental frameworks of their audience,” McGhee told me. “And for white Americans, the zero-sum is a profound, both deeply embedded and constantly reinforced one.”
This doesn’t mean that the concept of white privilege isn’t useful; obviously it describes something real. “What privilege awareness does, at its best, is reveal the systematic unfairness, and lift the blame from the victims of a corrupt system,” McGhee said. “However, I think at this point in our discourse — also when so many white people feel deeply unprivileged — it’s more important to talk about the world we want for everyone.”
Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Theologian Howard Thurman, from Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary .
Thurman takes what is personal and makes it universal. Walter Brueggemann calls this “the scandal of particularity.”  We “get it” in one ordinary, concrete moment and wrestle and fall in love with it there. It’s a scandal precisely because it’s so ordinary. What is true in one place finally ends up being true everywhere.
From Barbara Holmes and her lecture Race and the Cosmos, unpublished Living School curriculum.
As I considered it, the truth of the matter was that we were living within an old story; and a new story needed to be told, but we didn’t have the language for it.
The old story was of victimization, marginalization, oppression, oppressors; and the new story would see all of us evolving, self-expanding, and finding a new place in this wonderful cosmology that is a reality we have not paid attention to. So, in order to get to that point—and here is where my transformation begins—I had to reconsider what I thought about people, because I had hardened my view of others and who they were and what they meant. I had spent my time raising two little African American boys who had to be taught how to survive in society. In doing that, I taught them to view the world in only one way; and I myself was hardened into a position that either you were with me or you were against me or us.
All of that had to change. I had to begin to think of us as spiritual beings having a human experience, and not bodily, embodied folks without spirit or soul. . . . That’s a very limited view of humankind, and I wanted to expand the story. . . .
The physics and cosmology revolution that is 100 years old has not been translated into the ordinary world of any of us, and specifically not in communities of color. The world that scientists describe now is so different than the world that I grew up in or even imagined. According to physicists, this is what the world is like: it is a universe permeated with movement and energy that vibrates and pulses with access to many dimensions. . . . We are all interconnected, not just spiritually or imaginally, but actually . . . and the explicate [or manifested] order that’s all around us makes us think that we’re separate. Finally, I learned that ideas of dominance are predicated on a Newtonian clockwork universe. So, like dominoes, you push one and they all fall down, and everything is in order. But quantum physics tells us that the world is completely different. Particles burst into existence in unpredictable ways, observations affect the observed, and dreams of order and rationality are not the building blocks of the universe.
A compilation piece: 2-part documentary on PBS, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, from executive producer, host, and writer Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
It traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, all the way down to its bedrock role as the site of African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power.
It is now available online.
Cicely Tyson December 19, 1924 – January 28, 2021
Kennedy Center Honors, December 2015.
George Washington in his farewell address, Saturday, September 17, 1796:
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
I’ve wanted to see this documentary since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, winning the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary. I’m grateful that I was finally able to stream it this evening, at the end of a week shrouded in deep despair after Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s untimely passing and a nomination to the Supreme Court that will mostly likely undue 50 years of RBG’s tireless human rights and gender rights pursuits. Boys State has given me a glimmer, a moment, of hope, showing a microcosm of our general great political process, and those young voices and minds who are poised, and want, to lead this country.
I don’t believe the United States is truly a democracy…not any more. Maybe what we’re trying to steer, and salvage, at this point is a fractured political process, once guided by a constitution that, although not guaranteeing protection, has given us a frame to serve the people…we the people…with accepted norms, practices, and behaviors of those we elected into office. Now, it’s seemingly only about power, and greed, and ‘winning’, at all costs.
Boys State is a documentary about a high-school civics conference where every year, more than 1,000 young men, age 16 or 17, meet at the Texas State Capitol to participate in a mock government. They section off into the Federalist and Nationalist parties to elect various political positions and vie for the highest position—governor.
Hope is not a word that comes easily to me now, yet this film shares, while holding a mirror to our divided country, a glimpse of hope, possibility, and passion for what America could once again aspire to be.
I suggest coupling the film with a podcast that gives explanation and history to where we’ve landed, detailing the risks…the perfect storm…we are facing in this national election.
From host Ezra Klein at VOX:
‘The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just weeks before a presidential election, leaves us in dangerous waters. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the election outcome is contested by one side and is ultimately determined by a Supreme Court with the deciding vote cast by Trump’s recent appointee. Indeed, both Sen. Ted Cruz and President Donald Trump have named this scenario as driving their urgency to replace Ginsburg. At that point, a legitimacy crisis looms.
Suzanne Mettler is the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions at Cornell University. Her work has focused on trust between citizens and their governments, but recently, she’s co-written, with Robert Lieberman, a book that is tailor-made for this moment:
Its thesis is a dark one: America’s most dangerous political crises have been driven by four kinds of threat:
- political polarization
- democratic exclusion
- economic inequality
- executive power.
But this is the first time all four threats are present simultaneously.
“It may be tempting to think that we have weathered severe threats before and that the Constitution protected us,” they write. “But that would be a misreading of history, which instead reveals that democracy is indeed fragile, and that surviving threats to it is by no means guaranteed.”
We discuss where Ginsburg’s passing leaves us, what 2020 election scenarios we should be most worried about, what the tumultuous election of 1800 can teach us about today, how this moment could foster exactly the democratic reckoning this country needs, whether court packing and filibuster elimination will save American democracy or destroy it, when people know they’re benefiting from government programs and when they don’t, and more.’
[To listen, follow the link.]
“If you want to bring in different perspectives, you’ll have a different culture & different environment that will lead you to make different decisions.”
James Bennet, recently resigned opinion editor for the NYTimes, representing collective White privilege patriarchy…father, Douglas Bennet, former NPR Director/Wesleyan University president and part of both the Carter & Clinton administrations, and brother, Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator and former U.S. Presidential candidate. -dayle
A copy of the December 23, 2018, edition of the New York Times.Robert Alexander/Getty Images
America is changing, and so is the media
The media has gone through painful periods of change before. But this time is different
There have always been boundaries around acceptable discourse, and the media has always been involved, in a complex and often unacknowledged way, in both enforcing and contesting them. In 1986, the media historian Daniel Hallin argued that journalists treat ideas as belonging to three spheres, each of which is governed by different rules of coverage. There’s the “sphere of consensus,” in which agreement is assumed. There’s the “sphere of deviance,” in which a view is considered universally repugnant, and it need not be entertained. And then, in the middle, is the “sphere of legitimate controversy,” wherein journalists are expected to cover all sides, and op-ed pages to represent all points of view.
The media’s week of reckoning
Last week, the New York Times op-ed section solicited and published an article by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) arguing that the US military should be deployed to “restore order to our streets.” The piece set off an internal revolt at the Times, with staffers coordinating pushback across Twitter, and led to the resignation of James Bennet, the editor of the op-ed section, and the reassignment of Jim Dao, the deputy editor.
That same week, Stan Wischnowski, the top editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, resigned after publishing an article by the paper’s architecture critic titled “Buildings Matter, Too.” David Boardman, the chair of the board that controls the Inquirer, said Wischnowski had done “remarkable” work but “leaves behind some decades-old, deep-seated and vitally important issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, issues that were not of his creation but that will likely benefit from a fresh approach.”
One interpretation of these events, favored by frustrated conservatives, is that a generation of young, woke journalists want to see the media remade along activist lines, while an older generation believes it must cover the news without fear and favor, and reflect, at the very least, the full range of views held by those in power.
“The New York Times motto is ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’” wrote the Times’s Bari Weiss. “One group emphasizes the word ‘all.’ The other, the word ‘fit.’”
Another interpretation is that the range of acceptable views isn’t narrowing so much as it’s shifting. Two decades ago, an article like Cotton’s could easily be published, an essay arguing for abolishing prisons or police would languish in the submissions pile, and a slogan like “Black Lives Matter” would be controversial. Today, Black Lives Matter is in the sphere of consensus, abolishing prisons is in legitimate controversy, and there’s a fight to move Cotton’s proposal to deploy troops against US citizens into deviance. The idea space is just as large as it’s been in the past — perhaps larger — but it is in flux, and the fight to define its boundaries is more visible.
“Those are political decisions,” says Charles Whitaker, dean of the Medill School of Journalism. “They are absolutely governed by politics — either our desire to highlight certain political views or not highlight them, or to create this impression that we’re just a marketplace of ideas.”
The media is changing because the world is changing
- First, business models built around secure local advertising monopolies collapsed into the all-against-all war for national, even global, attention that defines digital media.
- Second, the nationalization of news has changed the nature of the audience. The local business model was predicated on dominating coverage of a certain place; the national business model is about securing the loyalties of a certain kind of person.
- Third, America is in a moment of rapid demographic and generational change. Millennials are now the largest generation, and they are far more diverse and liberal than the generations that preceded them.
- Fourth, the rise of social media empowered not just the audience but, crucially, individual journalists, who now have the capacity to question their employer publicly, and alchemize staff and public discontent into a public crisis that publishers can’t ignore.
The media prefers to change in private. Now it’s changing in public.
The news media likes to pretend that it simply holds up a mirror to America as it is. We don’t want to be seen as actors crafting the political debate, agents who make decisions that shape the boundaries of the national discourse. We are, of course. We always have been.
“When you think in terms of these three spheres — sphere of consensus, of legitimate debate, and of deviancy — a new way of describing the role for journalism emerges, which is: They police what goes in which sphere,” says Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU. “That’s an ideological action they never took responsibility for, never really admitted they did, never had a language for talking about.”
“Organizations that have embraced the mantra that they need to diversify have not as quickly realized that diversifying means they have to be a fundamentally different place,” says Jelani Cobb, the Ira A. Lipman professor at the Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer at the New Yorker. “If you want to bring in different perspectives, you’ll have a different culture and different environment that will lead you to make different decisions.”
I went to the grocery store this afternoon. As I was walking in I heard a woman yell to me from her car. I walked over and found an elderly woman and her husband. She cracked her window open a bit more, and explained to me nearly in tears that they are afraid to go in the store.
Afraid to get sick as they are in their 80’s and hear that the novel coronavirus is affecting older people disproportionately. And that they don’t have family around to help them out. Through the crack in the window she handed me a $100 bill and a grocery list, and asked if I would be willing to buy her groceries.
I bought the groceries and placed them in her trunk, and gave her back the change. She told me she had been sitting in the car for nearly 45 min before I had arrived, waiting to ask the right person for help.
I know it’s a time of hysteria and nerves, but offer to help anyone you can. Not everyone has people to turn to.
by Ezra Klein
Social distancing is crucial to slow the coronavirus.
But it’s going to cause a “social recession”: a collapse in social contact that will hit the elderly and people with disabilities particularly hard.
Loneliness can be lethal. We need to help them.
Make no mistake: The rapid implementation of social distancing is necessary to flatten the coronavirus curve and prevent the current pandemic from worsening. But just as the coronavirus fallout threatens to cause an economic recession, it’s also going to cause what we might call a “social recession”: a collapse in social contact that is particularly hard on the populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness — older adults and people with disabilities or preexisting health conditions.
“We’re now officially in a pandemic,” says Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist who has studied the way social isolation leaves older Americans vulnerable in emergencies. “But we’ve also entered a new period of social pain. There’s going to be a level of social suffering related to isolation and the cost of social distancing that very few people are discussing yet.”
Congress and the administration are, even now, debating the best tools to deploy in fighting the coronavirus’s economic effects. Washington is deep in a debate over payroll tax cuts, industry bailouts, and paid sick leave. But there are fewer policy tools to fight a social recession. What all the experts I spoke to agreed on was this: Just as it’s incumbent on those of us least affected by coronavirus to take precautions to limit its spread, it’s also important that we reach out to limit its social damage.
“The brunt of Covid-19 will be borne by the poor, elderly, and sick,” says former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, “and it is up to us to ensure they are not left behind.”
“Social isolation has been associated with a significantly increased risk of premature mortality from all causes,” the report found, including a “50 percent increased risk of developing dementia,” a “29 percent increased risk of incident coronary heart disease,” a “25 percent increased risk for cancer mortality,” a “59 percent increased risk of functional decline,” and a “32 percent increased risk of stroke.” The mental health risks are also profound. The researchers reviewed dozens of studies and found a consistent relationship between social isolation and depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
“A lot of my work is premised on the idea that extreme situations like the one we’re in now allow us to see conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive,” Klinenberg says. “We’re going to learn a lot about who we are and what we value in the next few months.”
10 ways to deal with coronavirus-related stress and anxiety
1. Practice self-awareness
According to Sydney Ey, a professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, the first step to dealing with stress and the anxiety it causes is to be aware of how you are dealing with it.
When Ey works with people suffering from anxiety, she said, “I have them identify what’s a sign when they are feeling stressed, where do they feel it in their body.”
We all have habits that we engage in when we’re feeling stressed, she said. Maybe it’s hitting the fast-food drive-thru or disappearing into our phones. Be aware of your signs, Ey said. Notice when you fall back on them. Notice when you feel your body tensing. That is when you take action.
2. Focus on your body
Once you recognize that you are anxious, try to calm your body.
“If you can calm your body down, and release some of the stress hormones,” Ey said, “then your mind will follow.”
Her number one recommendation? Exercise.
“I really encourage people on a daily basis to find some way of moving,” Ey said, even if it’s just going for a walk.
Another way to help your body relax, Ey said, is by practicing it. “Maybe a couple times during the day,” she said, “take a couple moments to relax.”
3. Don’t forget to eat, sleep and drink water
It’s also incredibly important to not neglect your body’s basic needs, Ey said.
“It’s really important to continue prioritizing sleep,” she said. “Still eat and hydrate. If you’re not feeling well stay home and take a break.”
4. Stay connected
“The most important thing is for people to remain connected,” Rev. Bill Sinkford, the Senior Minister at Portland’s First Unitarian Church, told us. “The great danger here is isolation.”
Even though his church has opted to cancel Sunday services, they are looking for more ways to help people engage with one another. Social distancing may mean not meeting up in person, but he recommends email, Facebook groups and even the old fashion phone tree.
“The longer this crisis lasts, the more intense that sense of isolation is likely to be,” he said. “Connecting emotionally or spiritually is what we need to focus on most.”
5. Set meaningful, positive goals
Whether you are at work or at home, Ey suggests trying to do some meaningful, positive, productive things.
Moving towards goals, she said, is one way to stay present in the face of anxiety and unrest.
“Find ways to be effective,” Ey said. “Do things that are meaningful.”
6. Be informed, take precautions, but limit your exposure to the news
Neither Ey nor Sinkford recommends ignoring the news or pretending we aren’t in the middle of a crisis.
“Be informed,” Ey said, “but limit how much time you’re spending reading about this if it’s really causing you a lot of stress.”
“Anxiety is justified,” Sinkford said. “There is a real risk and real danger.”
But, he added, “There’s a whole series of things each of us can do to minimize the risks to ourselves and our families.”
Don’t forget those basic practices, he said, like washing hands and covering coughs. And employ bigger changes too, like no more handshakes and practice social distancing.
7. Find uplifting moments
“Pay attention to what is positive and uplifting,” Ey said. Flowers are blooming, babies are blissfully unaware of what’s happening, you are connected to your body and your community. Even in these chaotic moments, those beautiful things are still happening. Notice them.
8. Remember your strength
Almost every one of us has been through adversity before. Ey suggests remembering that, and focusing on the strengths you’ve used before.
“I often ask people to think about another difficult time in their life when they dealt with uncertainty,” she said. “What were the strengths they drew on? How can they learn from that and apply it now?”
9. Play it out
Another exercise Ey suggests is actually diving into your anxiety and playing out the worst-case scenario in your mind. What does that look like, and how would you overcome it? Remember that strength from number seven? How would you use it if the absolute worst thing were to happen? How would you survive?
Now turn it around. Ask yourself, what’s the best thing that could come out of this?
10. Seek help if you need it
There is no shame in asking for help.
“If people are finding they can’t stop worrying,” Ey said, “it might be helpful for them to talk to a counselor short term worries.”
— Lizzy Acker
Infections Diseases Show Societies Who They Really Are
‘Communicable disease has haunted humanity for all of history. As such, the responses to coronavirus in our midst have a grimly timeless quality. In fact, to one scholar, epidemics are a great lens for peering into the values, temperament, infrastructures and moral structures of the societies they attack. Frank M. Snowden is a professor emeritus of the history of medicine at Yale and author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. An epidemic, he writes, “holds a mirror” to the civilization in which it occurs. He talks to Bob about what we can learn about ourselves from the infectious diseases we’ve faced, from the bubonic plague in the 14th century to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 to COVID-19 today.’
To listen to the podcast follow the link:
Message of hope spreading in Italy. Tour guide in Venice: ‘It’s human to be scared, but I don’t see panicking, nor acts of selfishness.’ Italian journalist: ‘After a moment of panic in the population, there is now a new solidarity.’
“Difficult problems are rarely solved immediately, and sometimes they’re not solved the way we might have imagined, but with effort, they often yield.” Seth Godin
“Someone made a really good point–many Americans are all about their “self-rights” rather than thinking of others. Look at vaccine fiasco. A wealthy family in St. Louis that was suppose to quarantine went to dad-daughter dance , shopping, and nail salon.” Ed Fuller, Associate Professor at Penn State
Epidemiologists call this strategy of preventing a huge spike in cases “flattening the curve,” and it looks like this:
According to infectious disease epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch at Harvard, it’s “plausible” that 20 to 60 percent of adults will be infected with Covid-19 disease. So far, 80 percent of cases globally have been mild, but if the case fatality rate is around 1 percent (which several experts say it may be), a scenario is possible of tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths in the US alone.
On Thursday, the CDC posted new guidance for people over age 60 and people with chronic medical conditions — the two groups considered most vulnerable to severe pneumonia from Covid-19 — to “avoid crowds as much as possible.”
At this point, with the virus spreading in America, the top priority is making sure the health care system avoids being flooded with very sick patients who need ventilators and intensive care.
But one thing people can do to help is stay home if they are feeling unwell and especially if they received a formal Covid-19 diagnosis and advice to self-quarantine. That way, the US health care system can focus on the patients who really need it during this outbreak.
“Two weeks of delay can mean the difference between success and failure. Public health experts learned this in 1918 when the Spanish flu killed 50 million to 100 million people around the globe. If we fail to take action, we will watch our health-care system be overwhelmed.
Because children are not among the groups most vulnerable to coronavirus, schools should be closed in an effort to reduce community transmission and to protect the children’s parents and grandparents. How long? Epidemiologists suggest eight weeks might be needed to arrest this outbreak.”
The United States and other liberal societies must mount a significant, coordinated response with public buy-in.
As the coronavirus shifts from containment to mitigation, I am finally able to engage my two superpowers — social distancing and self-quarantine. -Cynthia Sewell, Investigative Reporter for the Idaho Statesman
“The intersection of a complex, unexpected health crisis causing an unusual form of recession is exactly the kind of thing Elizabeth Warren would’ve been unusually good at handling.” -Journalist Ezra Klein
‘If a man has to be pleasing to me, conforming, reassuring, before I can love him, then I cannot truly love him. Not that love cannot console or reassure! But if I demand first to be reassured, I will never dare to begin loving. If a man has to be a Jew or a Christian before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If he has to be black or white before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If he has to belong to my political party or social group before I can love him, if he has to wear any kind of uniform, then my love is no longer love because it is not free: it is dictated by something outside itself. It is dominated by an appetite other than love. I love not the person but his classification, and in that event I love him not as a person but as a thing. In this way I remain at the mercy of forces outside myself, and those who seem to me to be neighbors are indeed strangers; for I am, first of all, a stranger to myself.’
-Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration, 1965
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith on the purpose and power of poetry
The two-time American poet laureate joins The Ezra Klein Show for a powerful conversation on love, language, and more.
‘It’s the rare podcast conversation on The Ezra Klein Show where, as it’s happening, I’m making notes to go back and listen again so I can fully absorb what I heard. But this is that kind of episode.
Tracy K. Smith is the chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and was the two-time poet laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. But I’ll be honest: she was an intimidating interview for me. I often find myself frustrated by poetry, yearning for it to simply tell me what it wants to say, aggravated that I can’t seem to crack its code.
Preparing for this conversation, and even more so, talking to Smith, was a revelation. Poetry, she argues, is about expressing “the feelings that defy language.” The struggle is part of the point: you’re going where language stumbles, where literalism fails. Developing a comfort and ease in those spaces isn’t something we’re taught to do, but it’s something we need to do. And so, on one level, this conversation is simply about poetry: what it is, what it does, how to read it.
But on another level, this conversation is also about the ideas and tensions that Smith uses poetry to capture: what it means to be a descendent of slaves, a human in love, a nation divided. Laced through our conversation is readings of poems from her most recent book Wade in the Water, and discussions of some of the hardest questions in the American, and even human, canon. Hearing Smith read her erasure poem, “Declaration” is, without doubt, one of the most powerful moments I’ve had on the podcast.
There is more to this conversation than I can capture here, but to say it simply: this isn’t one to miss, and that’s particularly true if, like me, poetry intimidates you.’
I want to utter you. I want to portray you
not with lapis or gold, but with colors made of apple bark.
There is no image I could invent
that your presence would not eclipse.
Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, but Republicans Don’t
Polarization has changed the two parties — just not in the same way.
By Ezra Klein
Mr. Klein is the author of “Why We’re Polarized.
American politics has been dominated by the Democratic and Republican Parties since the Civil War. That gives us the illusion of stability — that today’s political divisions cut roughly the same lines as yesteryear.
But in recent decades, the two parties have been changing, and fast. Those changes are ideological — the Democratic Party has moved left, and the Republican Party has moved right. But more fundamentally, those changes are compositional: Democrats have become more diverse, urban, young and secular, and the Republican Party has turned itself into a vehicle for whiter, older, more Christian and more rural voters.
This is the root cause of intensifying polarization: Our differences, both ideological and demographic, map onto our party divisions today in ways they didn’t in the past. But the changes have not affected the parties symmetrically.
Put simply, Democrats can’t win running the kinds of campaigns and deploying the kinds of tactics that succeed for Republicans. They can move to the left — and they are — but they can’t abandon the center or, given the geography of American politics, the center-right, and still hold power. Democrats are modestly, but importantly, restrained by diversity and democracy. Republicans are not.
Let’s start with diversity. Over the past 50 years, the Democratic and Republican coalitions have sorted by ideology, race, religion, geography and psychology. Not all sorting is the same. Sorting has made Democrats more diverse and Republicans more homogeneous. This is often played as a political weakness for Democrats. They’re a collection of interest groups, a party of list makers, an endless roll call. But diversity has played a crucial role in moderating the party’s response to polarization.
Appealing to Democrats requires appealing to a lot of different kinds of people with different interests. Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on white voters. Democrats are a coalition of liberal whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and mixed-race voters. Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on Christian voters. Democrats are a coalition of liberal and nonwhite Christians, Jews, Muslims, New Agers, agnostics, Buddhists and so on. Three-quarters of Republicans identify as conservative, while only half of Democrats call themselves liberals — and for Democrats, that’s a historically high level.
As a result, winning the Democratic primary means winning liberal whites in New Hampshire and traditionalist blacks in South Carolina. It means talking to Irish Catholics in Boston and atheists in San Francisco. It means inspiring liberals without arousing the fears of moderates. It’s important preparation for the difficult, pluralistic work of governing, in which the needs and concerns of many different groups must be balanced against one another.
The Democratic Party is not just more diverse in who it represents; it’s also more diverse in whom it listens to. A new Pew survey tested Democratic and Republican trust in 30 different media sources, ranging from left to right. Democrats trusted 22 of the 30 sources, including center-right outlets like The Wall Street Journal. Republicans trusted only seven of the 30 sources, with PBS, the BBC and The Wall Street Journal the only mainstream outlets with significant trust. (The other trusted sources, in case you were wondering, were Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart.)
Fox News, in particular, holds a unique centrality in Republican media: Sixty-five percent of Republicans say they trust it, more than twice as many as trust any other outlet, and 60 percent of Republicans said they relied on Fox News in the previous week — again, more than twice the proportion who relied on any other news brand. Among Democrats, by contrast, the most-trusted and frequently consulted outlet was CNN.
The Democratic Party’s informational ecosystem combines mainstream sources that seek objectivity, liberal sources that push partiality and even some center-right sources with excellent reputations. On any given question, liberals trust in sources that pull them left and sources that pull them toward the center, in sources oriented toward escalation and sources oriented toward moderation, in sources that root their identity in a political movement and in sources that carefully tend a reputation for being antagonistic toward political movements.
There is no similar diversity in the Republican Party’s trusted informational ecosystem, which is heavily built around self-consciously conservative news sources. There should be a check on this sort of epistemic closure. A party that narrows the sources it listens to is also narrowing the voters it can speak to. And political parties ultimately want to win elections. Lose enough of them, enough times, and even the most stubborn ideologues will accept reform. Democracy, in other words, should discipline parties that close their informational ecosystems. But America isn’t a democracy.
Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the Supreme Court and a majority of governorships. Only the House is under Democratic control. And yet Democrats haven’t just won more votes in the House elections. They won more votes over the last three Senate elections, too. They won more votes in both the 2016 and 2000 presidential elections. But America’s political system counts states and districts rather than people, and the G.O.P.’s more rural coalition has a geographic advantage that offsets its popular disadvantage.
To win power, Democrats don’t just need to appeal to the voter in the middle. They need to appeal to voters to the right of the middle. When Democrats compete for the Senate, they are forced to appeal to an electorate that is far more conservative than the country as a whole. Similarly, gerrymandering and geography means that Democrats need to win a substantial majority in the House popular vote to take the gavel. And a recent study by Michael Geruso, Dean Spears and Ishaana Talesara calculates that the Republican Party’s Electoral College advantage means “Republicans should be expected to win 65 percent of presidential contests in which they narrowly lose the popular vote.”
The Republican Party, by contrast, can run campaigns aimed at a voter well to the right of the median American. Republicans have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. If they’d also lost six of the last seven presidential elections, they most likely would have overhauled their message and agenda. If Trump had lost in 2016, he — and the political style he represents — would have been discredited for blowing a winnable election. The Republican moderates who’d counseled more outreach to black and Hispanic voters would have been strengthened.
Instead, Republicans are trapped in a dangerous place: They represent a shrinking constituency that holds vast political power. That has injected an almost manic urgency into their strategy. Behind the party’s tactical extremism lurks an apocalyptic sense of political stakes. This was popularized in the infamous “Flight 93 Election” essay arguing that conservatives needed to embrace Trump, because if he failed, “death is certain.” You could hear its echoes in Attorney General William P. Barr’s recent speech, in which he argued that “the force, fervor and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion” poses a threat unlike any America has faced in the past. “This is not decay,” he warned, “it is organized destruction.”
This is why one of the few real hopes for depolarizing American politics is democratization. If Republicans couldn’t fall back on the distortions of the Electoral College, the geography of the United States Senate and the gerrymandering of House seats — if they had, in other words, to win over a majority of Americans — they would become a more moderate and diverse party. This is not a hypothetical: The country’s most popular governors are Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland. Both are Republicans governing, with majority support, in blue states.
We could do away with the Electoral College and gerrymandering; pass proportional representation and campaign finance reform; make voter registration automatic and give Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve. But precisely because the Republican Party sees deepening democracy as a threat to its future, it will use the power it holds to block any moves in that direction.
The alternative to democratizing America is scarier than mere polarization: It is, eventually, a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.
It is not difficult to envision an America where Republicans consistently win the presidency despite rarely winning the popular vote, where they typically control both the House and the Senate despite rarely winning more votes than the Democrats, where their dominance of the Supreme Court is unquestioned and where all this power is used to buttress a system of partisan gerrymandering, pro-corporate campaign finance laws, strict voter identification requirements and anti-union legislation that further weakens Democrats’ electoral performance. Down that road lies true political crisis.
In the meantime, though, it’s important to recognize the truth about our system: Both parties have polarized, but in very different ways, and with very different consequences for American politics.
Too few named journalists have a thorough and deep knowledge of American history, even brilliant contemporary journalists, like Ezra Klein, which he acknowledges in this important podcast with Jill Lapore.
Jill Lapore’s new book, These Truths, A History of the United States , is a one volume tomb far more complex and contemporarily contextualized study of American History than Howard Zinn’s well-known and beloved A People’s History of the United States . Recommending this book and podcast.
Jill Lepore is a Harvard historian, a New Yorker contributor, and the author of These Truths, a dazzling one-volume synthesis of American history. She’s the kind of history teacher everyone wishes they’d had, able to effortlessly connect the events and themes of American history to make sense of our past and clarify our present.
“The American Revolution did not begin in 1775 and it didn’t end when the war was over,” Lepore writes. This is a conversation about those revolutions. But more than that, it’s a conversation about who we are as a country, and how that self-definition is always contested and constantly in flux.
And beyond all that, Lepore is just damn fun to talk to. Every answer she gives has something worth chewing over for weeks. You’ll enjoy this one.
Fear Itself by Ira Katznelson
A Godly Hero by Michael Kazin
The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.”
Dear Mr. President:
I have been privileged to serve as our country’s 26th Secretary of Defense which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the Department in defense of our citizens and our ideals.
I am proud of the progress that has been made over the past two years on some of the key goals articulated in our National Defense Strategy: putting the Department on a more sound budgetary footing, improving readiness and lethality in our forces, and reforming the Department’s business practices for greater performance. Our troops continue to provide the capabilities needed to prevail in conflict and sustain strong U.S. global influence.
One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.
Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.
My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.
Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. The end date for my tenure is February 28, 2019, a date that should allow sufficient time for a successor to be nominated and confirmed as well as to make sure the Department’s interests are properly articulated and protected at upcoming events to include Congressional posture hearings and the NATO Defense Ministerial meeting in February. Further, that a full transition to a new Secretary of Defense occurs well in advance of the transition of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September in order to ensure stability within the Department.
I pledge my full effort to a smooth transition that ensures the needs and interests of the 2.15 million Service Members and 732,079 DoD civilians receive undistracted attention of the Department at all times so that they can fulfill their critical, round-the-clock mission to protect the American people.
I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry reacts to Defense Secretary James Mattis’ resignation letters after DT announces U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria on ‘The 11th Hour with Brian Williams.’
Kerry believes Trump’s move to pull troops out of Syria is a gift for Vladimir Putin.
“This is the continuation of a crisis that too many people have been too content to live with…”
A Conversation with John Kerry’ at The Community Library in Sun Valley, Idaho (Ketchum)…Saturday, December 22nd, 4 pm. [live-streamed]
Fmr. Secretary of State John Kerry explains what it’s like to watch President Trump on the world stage and discusses current threats to the fabric of American democracy with Chris Hayes on #WITHpod.
“Thursday wasn’t just Trump’s “day of chaos.” It was the Republican Congress’s day of enabling him, as every day is. The ongoing disaster roiling American governance is the Republican Congress’s fault, and they need to be held accountable for it.”
Our system of government was built by men who predicted and feared an out-of-control president. So they built another, more powerful branch of government able and expected to check a raging executive. Congress, not the president, comes first in the Constitution. In focusing so much on Trump, we focus too little on Congress’s Republican leadership, and the job they are failing to do.
So what will Senate Republicans do now? Are they going to ask Mattis to testify on how Trump really runs his foreign policy? Are they going to refuse to confirm anyone they think is less independent than Mattis to replace him? Or are they just going to send some distressed tweets and move on? The answer, I fear, is obvious.
Let me ask one other question: What would Senate Republicans do if they held the majority and this chaos was engulfing a Democratic White House?
The real story of this era is not Trump’s behavior. We can’t fault Trump for being Trump. As the lesson of his favorite parable goes, we knew damn well he was a snake when we took him in. But we can fault Republicans in Congress who are failing to do their jobs, and making a mockery of the constitutional system they claim to revere in the process.
[Ezra Klein is the editor-at-large and founder of Vox. Before that, he was columnist and editor at the Washington Post, a policy analyst at MSNBC, and a contributor to Bloomberg. He’s written for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and appeared on Face the Nation, Real Time with Bill Maher, The McLaughlin Report, the Daily Show, and many more.]