The word politics derives the root “politeia,” which means “of the people.” It doesn’t mean “of the government,” or “of the political parties,” or “of a political class.” It means “of the people.” It’s not a spectator sport, or a game. It’s our collective participation in things that mean life or death to millions of people, and ultimately to the planet and the species itself.
Whenever I hear someone say, “I’m not into politics,” I’m reminded of an old French saying, “If you don’t do politics, politics will do you.” To me, politics is a natural extension of the effort to live a decent life. We’re living in a world where it’s impossible to be a responsible citizen and concern ourselves only with things that affect us directly.
Add to that, anything that’s a public issue will ultimately make its way to your private door. Irresponsible environmental policies will ultimately affect the air you breathe and the weather conditions you experience; bloated defense spending bleeds over into militarized domestic police forces; and the allowance of toxic chemicals in our food and water affect the health of our own children. Public policies aren’t abstract, but rather practical realities that touch millions of people’s live not only here, but around the world. They are the living consequences of our collective behavior as it is expressed in who we vote for, what we lobby for, and what we stand for day to day.
A meaningful distinction made by many these days – including by my interviewee Sam Daley-Harris in the video below – is between transactional and transformational politics. Transactional politics is like allopathic medicine; it is worldly strategy meant to suppress and eradicate the symptoms of our societal dysfunctions. Transformational politics is more like integrative medicine; it addresses the deeper causes of our problems, seeking not only to change what is going on externally but affecting us psychologically and emotionally as well.
Sam Daley-Harris is someone who has had a big impact on my life, introducing me to the important work of the RESULTS organization as well as Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank. It’s from Sam and his colleagues that I have learned the most about deep poverty in the world, and how much each of us can do to help eradicate it. He is a model of citizen activism of the highest order.
Someone once asked me, “What can I do to build more self-respect?” and I responded, “Do more things to earn it.” I learned from my upbringing, and from my spiritual journey, that we can’t feel good about ourselves if we’re only living for ourselves. I hope you’ll settle in for my conversation with Sam-Daley Harris, and look into the organizations he mentions through which you too can make a difference. We’ve listed and linked to them below.
Sam has been my friend for many years. He has made a difference in the lives of millions, and I think he’ll make a difference in yours as well.
I wrote a long essay about a pervasive feeling I have about the future. I do not think we are ready for the complex, existential challenges ahead. -Charlie Warzel
We are not ready.
On the climate crisis and other hyperobjects.
These days, I find increasingly myself caught between the worry that I’m being overly alarmist and the fear that I am stating the obvious.
I felt this most strongly in October 2020. Covid cases were surging; the presidential election was near; the far-right areas of the internet I kept an eye on were vibrating with a dark potential energy. All summer, I watched anxiously as people posted videos online of furious Americans taking to the streets. I listened in on walkie-talkie apps as so-called militia groups attempted to recruit and deploy members. News reports said sales of guns and ammo were surging.
I was seized by a deep, persistent dread that these anecdotal instances of civil conflict were a prelude to something bigger. I interviewed scholars who’ve studied revolutions and shared my fears.
Sept. 30th, 2020:
“Reading this exchange…it’s honestly very surprising to me the extent to which we haven’t seen more Kenosha like events already…”
I struggled — and ultimately failed — to put any of this into words at the time. I didn’t know how to convey these anecdotal stories into something that went beyond projecting my anxieties onto the world via the pages of the New York Times. I felt I lacked the language to proportionally describe my concern. I was legitimately worried about large-scale, sustained violent civil conflict across the United States but, if I’m being honest, I was afraid I’d come off as the extremely online, overly alarmist guy.
And yet, if you did occupy the same spaces as I did in October 2020, the specter of civil conflict would have felt just so incredibly obvious as to almost not be worth mentioning. The world was shut down, everyone was trapped inside and online, and more and more people were beginning to detach from reality. Everyone was miserable and scared and angry. Just look around!
This moment offers a window into the way that traditional conceptions and practices of journalism can break down in extraordinary times. I consider not writing this piece back in October a failure. I wrote plenty of columns around and tangential to this subject, yes. But my job is to look at the world through the lens of information and technology and to describe how those elements shape our culture and our politics. I saw something and I didn’t say all of what I thought, in part, because I couldn’t figure out how to talk about it proportionally. I was also pretty fucking scared: of being wrong, but also of being right.
Was I wrong or right? …Yes? There has not been a series of extended, mass casualty conflicts so far — no Civil War 2. But I also urge you watch this video reconstructing January 6th in full and tell me that my sleepless nights in October were a gross overreaction.
Even now, I struggle to find the adequate word to describe the moment. It makes sense: our 21st century existence is characterized by the repeated confrontation with sprawling, complex, even existential problems without straightforward or easily achievable solutions.
Theorist Timothy Morton calls the larger issues undergirding these problems “hyperobjects,” a concept so all-encompassing that it resists specific description. You could make a case that the current state of political polarization and our reality crisis falls into this category. Same for democratic backsliding and the concurrent rise of authoritarian regimes. We understand the contours of the problem, can even articulate and tweet frantically about them, yet we constantly underestimate the likelihood of their consequences. It feels unthinkable that, say, the American political system as we’ve known it will actually crumble.
Climate change is a perfect example of a hyperobject. The change in degrees of warming feels so small and yet the scale of the destruction is so massive that it’s difficult to comprehend in full. Cause and effect is simple and clear at the macro level: the planet is warming, and weather gets more unpredictable. But on the micro level of weather patterns and events and social/political upheaval, individual cause and effect can feel a bit slippery. If you are a news reporter (as opposed to a meteorologist or scientist) the peer reviewed climate science might feel impenetrable. It’s easiest to adopt a cover-your-ass position of: It’s probably climate change but I don’t know if this particular weather event is climate change.
Hyperobjects scramble all our brains, especially journalists. Journalists don’t want to be wrong. They want to react proportionally to current events and to realistically frame future ones. Too often, these desires mean that they do not explicitly say what their reporting suggest. They just insinuate it. But insinuation is not always legible.
I understand these fears and I feel them myself, professionally and personally. I think anyone who says they don’t feel them is probably lying. In fact, these fears, in the right proportion, make for what we traditionally consider a “good journalist.”
After all, many of the best journalists understand how to balance and factor uncertainty into their work. I don’t want journalists to jump to lazy conclusions. I think a deeper embrace of nuance and uncertainty is necessary not just in reporting, but in all elements of mass media.
That embrace sounds good in theory but it’s much harder in practice. How do you talk about an impending, probable-but-not-certain emergency the *right way*? Can you even do that? Can you get people ready for an uncertain, perhaps unspeakably grim future? Is anyone ready?
These questions have re-entered my brain again as I’ve scrolled the news the last few weeks. In late May and early June, there were a rash of reports about Republican efforts to restrict voting rights and halt Democrats’ expansion efforts. There was lots of warranted handwringing about the ways that Republican state legislatures are poised to consolidate power at the local level that could threaten the legitimacy of future presidential elections. Congress was unable to agree to even investigate January 6th, prompting the New Yorker to run the headline, “American Democracy Isn’t Dead Yet, but It’s Getting There.”
The overwhelming message of these pieces was that the America was running out of time on its claim of having even a remotely functioning political system. Even more worrying was the tone, which seemed to suggest it might not feel bad right now, but it’s far worse than you think. “My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024,” one political scientist told Vox in late May. Cool, cool. My personal doom indicator was a Reuters/Ipsos poll from May, as in two months ago, which found that 53% of Republicans believe Trump is the “true president.”
There are so many dire elements in the forecast for our political future. It seems like a truly formidable challenge for a country to overcome.
Which is why one piece of reporting from this past month felt like a true gut punch. In the Times, Ben Smith wrote a media column about Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who remains a prolific source for political reporters in Washington, D.C. “Mr. Carlson’s comfortable place inside Washington media, many of the reporters who cover him say, has taken the edge off some of the coverage. It has also served as a kind of insurance policy, they say, protecting him from the marginalization that ended the Fox career of his predecessor, Glenn Beck,” Smith wrote. “‘If you open yourself up as a resource to mainstream media reporters, you don’t even have to ask them to go soft on you,’” a journalist told Smith in the piece.
I’ve reported on the far-right. I understand that the reporting process frequently brings you into contact with loathsome individuals and that, at times, these people can be quite helpful, because cynical political grifters love to turn on each other and gossip and vent just like everyone else. I’ve broken some stories, stories I’m proud of, off tips from true cretins — so take my pearl clutching with whatever grains of salt you wish.
Still, Smith’s column haunted me. You can argue Carlson is who he has always been, or that his Trump era project of (barely) laundering white nationalist talking points into mainstream political discourse is disingenuous, pandering to viewers for whom he has utter contempt. I don’t care. What I do care about is a political press that has a seemingly neutral or symbiotic relationship with a guy who beams this rhetoric into three million homes a night:
[Tucker Carlson soundbite; will not post. -dayle]
It’s worth noting that some of those same articles I read back in the fall, warning of democratic backsliding, single out Carlson as one of the animators of a dark grievance culture that threatens our social/political fabric. “The strongest factors are racial animosity, fear of becoming a white minority and the growth of white identity,” Virginia Gray, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina told the Times’ Tom Edsall, singling out a Carlson monologue from April.
It’s hard for me to square the Carlson source coziness with the host’s increasingly dangerous replacement theory and anti-vaxx rhetoric. The disconnect between the threat Carlson poses and the political media’s shrugging proximity to him fills me with a deep dread for my industry — and a very real concern that it will not be able to rise to the challenge of our moment (a shaky democratic foundation, increasingly fewer points of shared reality, a climate emergency, to name a few).
I’m not trying to dog reporters working in a shitty, gutted media ecosystem that mostly runs off algorithmic attention and online advertising that most people hate. There is no shortage of vital, journalism going on. But, structurally, there are still glaring problems with some traditional outdated journalistic norms and practices: management that still struggles to understand complex internet dynamics, a commitment to journalistic impartiality that does not work in an era where one political party has largely abandoned democracy and, in some cases, reality.
Over the last half decade, I watched political journalists and editors tie themselves in knots arguing over whether to call Trump a racist or whether the Republican party was really becoming anti-democratic or whether Trump’s election denial was a “coup.” In each instance there’s a side arguing that the other needs to calm down, that things are not as bad as they appear. I used to think these people had a lack of imagination.
Now, I see it as a strong normalcy bias. Writer Jonathan Katz calls this an ‘unthinkability’ that “pervades conversations about so many things in our moment.” Basically: we humans are good at repressing terrifying realities that feel unthinkable and steering them back into more acceptable bounds of conversation.
Climate coverage offers the clearest picture of this ‘unthinkability’ dynamic. In a clip from June 7th, CBS meteorologist Jeff Berardelli describes a heat wave stifling the east coast and the exceptional levels of draught in the West. His tone is urgent and the maps he’s gesturing to on the screen are alarming. He doesn’t mince words. “This is a climate emergency,” he tells one of the morning show anchors. It’s the kind of grim statement that you might imagine would evoke a bit of stunned silence.
Instead, the anchor smiles broadly and shakes his head in faux disbelief. “It’s very hot! I feel parched just talking about it!” he says in perfect, playful news cadence. Berardelli and the others on set offer up a classic morning show chuckle. Isn’t that something else! Banter! Onto the next segment.
[CBS warning of extreme heat soundbite.]
This is a particularly egregious example of a conventional form of media (in this case, the lighthearted morning show segment) that is woefully inadequate for the subject matter (the existential heating of the planet that will render large swaths of it hostile to human life in the near future).
In her excellent newsletter Heated, Emily Atkin has written about the systemic failureof the media to inform readers/viewers as to why it is so goddamn hot this summer. She cites the work of Colorado journalist Chase Woodruff, who surveyed recent reporting on the state’s recent heat wave and found that out of “149 local news stories written about the unprecedented hot temperatures…only 6 of those stories mentioned climate change.” The others, Atkin notes, “covered it as if it were an act of God.”
This behavior isn’t new. Back in 2018, Atkin wrote a story on the media’s failure to connect the dots on climate change. NPR’s science editor told her that “You don’t just want to be throwing around, ‘This is due to climate change, that is due to climate change.’” The editor required reporters to speak to a climate scientist before being allowed to attribute extreme temperatures to climate change. It’s an instance, Atkin argues, of “over-abundance of journalistic caution” — primarily attributable to fear. Fear of backlash from denialists, politicians, or other journalists — maybe even fear of being right.
In my mind, there’s an incredibly important distinction between embracing complexity and uncertainty in the world and what those Colorado publications, following the lead of so many others, did by not mentioning climate change — because, well, weather is complex and we don’t want to get yelled at so who’s to say?!! The problem isn’t legitimate nuance. It’s when decision makers in the media space use the existence of uncertainty as an excuse not to say what needs to be said.
Sometimes, though, mistakes aren’t nefarious. A missed or botched narrative is caused by a little bit of everything. A lot of the retroactive criticism around coronavirus coverage pre-March 2020 was that big media outlets downplayed pandemic fears because they relied heavily on credible expert sources who themselves were inclined not to be alarmists. Some in the media were doing their job just as intended and unwittingly providing false comfort. Others were providing false comfort because they didn’t want to be outliers. And another group mostly ignored the threat because platform or other media incentives directed their focus away from an unknown respiratory illness in China.
These scenarios are the product of living with and reporting on hyperobjects. The big picture — we’re losing our grip on what’s real; our political system is fraying and unsustainable; the planet is burning — is pretty clear and obvious. But many of the particulars (Is that specific hurricane climate change? Is this bill/piece of misinformation/person a threat to the democracy?) become skirmishes in the culture war.
I don’t particularly know what to do about any of this. One problem when facing down a hyperobject-sized crisis is that it overwhelms. In a recent piece, Sarah Miller articulated what it feels like to stare down existential dread on the subject of climate change. She argues that, after a certain point, traditional methods, like writing, feel futile:
“Let’s give the article…the absolute biggest benefit of the doubt and imagine that people read it and said, “Wow this is exactly how I feel, thanks for putting it into words.” What then? What would happen then? Would people be “more aware” about climate change? It’s 109 degrees in Portland right now. It’s been over 130 degrees in Baghdad several times. What kind of awareness quotient are we looking for? What more about climate change does anyone need to know? What else is there to say?
Miller’s questions ask us to consider and reconsider what our roles are right now. Yes, we have our jobs and the way we’ve been trained or conditioned or rewarded to do them and that’s all very fine and good. But what about now? Does that training hold up in remarkable, existential-feeling moments like the one we are in? Are these jobs, the way we’ve been taught to do them, important now? How do we prepare people for the uncertain, grim contours of the future? Can we do that?
I think these are the questions journalists have to be asking ourselves at every moment right now. But not just journalists. Hyperobject-sized problems impact everyone. That’s why they’re hyperobjects. And I don’t think any of us are ready. The pandemic showed us how difficult it is, at a societal level, to grasp complex ideas like, say exponential growth. And there are examples everywhere of our human inability to think longterm or pay big costs upfront to avoid catastrophe later (See: this haunting interview about the Miami condo collapse).
But not being ready isn’t quite the same as being doomed to a foregone conclusion. There’s the way we’ve done things and the way we need to do things now. How do we make up the difference between those two notions? We must be probabalistic in our predictions and understanding when they fall short. We need all need to learn to work and think on different levels, holding steadfastly to what is not up for debate, and not dividing ourselves needlessly over what is.
As good as that might sound, I feel foolish writing it. I’m not all that certain any human being can hold such conflicting notions in their head all the time. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying.
Living with hyperobjects is hard. I don’t think we’re ready for any of what is to come. I feel alarmist saying this. But it also feels incredibly obvious.
I had a little free time last week waiting for the mixes to come back for Man in the Maroon. After six months of the meticulous layering and brushwork that is recording a studio album, I really needed to do something live and warty. This is that.
“What the World Needs Now” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in 1962. I don’t know when I first heard it. A long time ago.
I made this recording because, well first because I like the melody and the chords and the way they fall under your hands with simple voicings. But it’s the philosophy of the song that grabs me most.
What the world needs now is love, sweet actual clear-eyed humble love.
Love as in, forgiveness, tolerance, a little humility, maybe some gratitude, some brotherly or sisterly encouragement. I’m talking about the harder love. Bible verse love. The one about loving your enemy.
Maybe it’s better to substitute enemy for “they who do not think like you.”
Politics are really important to people right now. Fine. It’s an inevitable aspect of the organization of messy humans that we won’t all agree, that some people want more or fewer boundaries or taxes or genders or wild places. But the political appendage is a forked tongue. Division is basic to its nature. Add to the age old tension a current climate rife with bad faith actors and institutional agendas and you have, well you have a pretty tough moment to live in.
I have my own thoughts on how I think society should be arranged, but it’s not where I live. Life is too short, too mysterious to spend it hating my neighbor.
Ideas are what make me excited about being alive. Ideas in books, in history, in the collective repository of recorded human experience, and ideas in the daily realtime interactions I have with the people around me, some of whom think very differently from me. That I can count among my friends conservative churchgoers and transgendered singersongwriters is one of the great joys of my life. I love these people, not in spite of how they think, but because of how they think. Does that make sense?
The day Justice Ginsburg died, I watched that documentary on her life. One moment that glittered like wet grass was when the judge’s colleague expressed her complete incomprehension at Ginsburg’s friendship with fellow Justice, the conservative Antonin Scalia. I thought, and think, Why is that so hard to understand? They both enjoy opera. They respect one another. They are experts at the top of their game.
It’s a bigger essay than this one that could adequately unpack what led us to this, our zeitgeist of universal distrust. But I have a few small things I want to say about it, about the culture of contempt for the Other Side, on both sides.
Contempt is a particularly malevolent form of pride. If I have contempt for you, if I call you evil or stupid, then I am spared the annoying difficulty of actually considering what you have to say. But not only is it a cheap move, it corrodes the gears and anvils and hammers that have for centuries kept the delicate machinery of a free society in working order. Beneath the smug self-assured vitriol of righteous indignation, often expressed in the safe company of the like-minded, who can be counted on to support the statement with likes and RTs, is perhaps a fear throbbing like a tumor that the speaker might not be as right as he thinks he is.
It’s a situation familiar to relationship counselors that a marriage can recover from almost anything, save contempt. Where contempt grows, relationships die. It’s the most pernicious form of social corrosion, whether that’s between two people or two hundred million.
A corollary thought: I was fortunate to grow up in an environment that encouraged critical thinking. Which means, among other things, not to be too sure you know what think you know. I fall short of this all the time, but when I encounter someone who has an idea I think I disagree with, I try to listen to him or her. To actually listen. I try to hear what he has to say and I make an effort in good faith to understand. I think: there is a reason why this person thinks the way he does. He might actually have something valuable to tell me.
Even if I’m not swayed by the argument, my own perspective is likely strengthened, or even slightly modified, from the challenge. Either way I’m better for it, I’m richer for it, and hopefully I come away from the exchange with a deeper understanding of the world and the many different ways people choose to see it.
This kind of exchange has shaped the cultural and intellectual development of the West since at least Plato’s time. It’s rather elegantly described in a little philosophical nugget called the Hegelian dialectic. Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis.
Across the porch from me is a pumpkin, glowing bright orange in the afternoon sunlight. I now invite it to participate in my quick illustration of the Hegelian dialectic.
Thesis: “Carving pumpkins is a stupid waste of time.”
Anti-thesis: “Okay, but look at this pumpkin. My six year old daughter carved it with me last weekend. She ate a pumpkin seed and barfed on the porch and then laughed about it and it made me laugh too and while we were both laughing the neighbor dog came and licked it up which made us both laugh even harder. And now every time I see the pumpkin I think of that memory. It makes me smile.”
Synthesis: “Okay I get that. Perhaps I could say that carving pumpkins is a stupid waste of time unless undertaken with one’s daughter, in which case its prospect improves considerably.”
Not a scintillating illustration but then again it’s just a pumpkin. My point is, that kind of co-evolving exchange has gone into a wintry hibernation. So many people are very sure of what they know these days, and that’s the part I don’t understand.
It seems to me an intellectually flimsy way to face a world of actual, complicated problems. Unless I am willing to sharpen myself against the whetstone of a different perspective, my confidence is going to break upon contact with the first hard object it encounters. And my argument won’t fare much better. If I can’t bear to listen to a new idea because its very expression represents a threat to my personal safety, I’m destined to live inside a cage of my own making, interacting only with people who think the way I do. Brittleness follows.
What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It needs good faith. It needs people brave enough to listen to someone who thinks differently, without calling her a name. I’m not telling you what to do or how to feel or who to vote for. Maybe I’m inviting you to look into your heart, when no one else is around, and see what’s actually in there. What it tells you.
I look in my own heart and I wonder: to what extent am I culpable for the problems in the world, in my country, neighborhood, family? In my own small way, what can I do about it?
What kind of world do I want to live in? Or at the very least, what kind of person do I want to be in the world in which I live? Am I being him?
I don’t think this was my best piece of writing but I just wanted to get something off my chest. Mostly I just want to lean toward forgiveness and tolerance and civility as much as is possible. I’ve travelled all over the world and I can’t help but love it here. It’s my home. And you want peace in your home.
‘This restoration of a climate of relative sanity is perhaps more important than specific decisions regarding the morality of this or that strategy, this or that pragmatic policy.’
-Seeds of Destruction
An outspoken proponent of the antiwar and civil rights movements, Thomas Merton was both hailed as a prophet and castigated for his social criticism. He was also unique among religious leaders in his embrace of Eastern mysticism, positing it as complementary to the Western sacred tradition.
‘The real violence exerted by propaganda is this: by means of apparent truth and apparent reason, it induces us to surrender our freedom and self-possession. It predetermines us to certain conclusions, and does so in such a way that we imagine that we are fully free in reaching them by our own judgment and our own thought. Propaganda makes up our mindfor us, but in such a way that it leaves us the sense of pride and satisfaction of men who have made up their own minds. And, in the last analysis, propaganda achieves this effect because we want it to. This is one of the few real pleasures left to modern man: this illusion that he is thinking for himself when, in fact, someone else is doing his thinking for him. And this someone else is not a personal authority, the great mind of a genial thinker, it is the mass mind, the general “they,” the anonymous whole. One is left, therefore, not only with the sense that one has thought things out for himself, but that he has also reached the correct answer without difficulty – the answer which is shown to be correct because it is the answer of everybody. Since it is at once my answer and the answer of everybody, how should I resist it?’
My name is Patrick and I’m politically illiterate. You are too.
Talking politics often feels like a personal health hazard. Unless we can learn to understand our own roles in a dysfunctional system, there’s no chance of fixing it. Come learn with me.
“Let’s start with the term “politics”. I like the definitions of British political theorist Bernard Crick, who asserts that “politics is not merely a struggle for power among groups whose aim is to control the state”.Instead, Crick identifies three parts in politics: deciding who gets what, when and how; the exercise of power; and ensuring the welfare of whole communities.
On to “political illiteracy”. By this, in my case, I mean the flawed state of my political knowledge and the political behaviours which are its consequence. My definition of illiteracy, in other words, is not just about how I think politically; it’s about what I do and how I act in everyday life.
I was shocked. I wondered: how could world-leading “democracies” dodge the climate question at no political cost?
Too often, talking politics – whether it’s elections, or ending poverty, climate crisis, or a hundred other things besides – feels like a personal health hazard. Do you know that feeling?
In this series for The Correspondent, I will question the causes of our shared political illiteracy and explore potential remedies. Is better literacy in fact learnable? How might it transform the way we talk and do politics? That doing part will mean trying to plug the gaps in both our knowledge and our emotional skills.
On my office wall is a calligraphy that reads: “Peace in oneself, peace in the world”.
Until we can better understand how politics works, including our own parts in its dysfunction, there’s no chance fixing it. No one escapes here – not from its causes, nor its effects – though many suffer more than others.”
Patrick Chalmers is a journalist and film maker focused on making political structures truly democratic. He worked at Reuters for 11 years then wrote Fraudcast News (2012). He directs All Hands On, a short-documentary series on ordinary people doing radical democracy.
“Join nearly 50,000 others from around the world and get Wake Up To Politics in your inbox every weekday morning. Wake Up To Politics offers a non-partisan, comprehensive yet understandable briefing on the latest news from the White House, Congress, the courts, elections, and more.”
‘To learn more about Gabe, listen to Gabe on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” St. Louis Public Radio, the Political Junkie podcast, Princeton University’s “Politics and Polls” podcast, and on StoryCorps. Watch Gabe on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” NowThis News, MSNBC’s “Up with Steve Kornacki.” Read about Gabe in the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post, Independent Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Salon, Microsoft’s News Center, St. Louis Magazine, the Globe, and the St. Louis Jewish Light.’
Follow Gabe on Twitter and like Gabe on Facebook.
Interview with Joshua Johnson from St. Louis.
“Gabe Fleisher is helping readers wake up on the right side of the news. The `6-year-old from St. Louis is the creator of “Wake Up To Politics,” a daily political newsletter that reaches nearly 50,000 people each morning. His first subscriber? His mom.”
Fostering a robust democracy in America requires that we create a truly democratic school culture.
‘Generations of young people growing up in the United States have witnessed a sustained institutional disregard for equal rights, freedom of speech, voting rights, and access to decent housing. Young people in this era are particularly disillusioned about a democracy in which Twitter wars at the federal level become an acceptable substitute for dialogue and debate about substantive matters.
Many schools have failed to prepare our youngest citizens to become stewards of democracy, possessing the knowledge and skills required for active and engaged citizenship. Statistics demonstrating this failure are plentiful: Only one-third of Americans can name all branches of government, and one-third cannot name any at all. 37 percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed in the first amendment. And perhaps the most worrisome statistic: Only 33 percent of Americans born after 1980 consider democracy essential, while 24 percent of young people consider democracy a bad way to govern a country.
Today’s nationwide toxic environment provides an impetus for articulating a more inspiring and citizen-centric vision for our public schools. This new vision includes re-imagining schools as laboratories of democracy, enlisting young people as co-collaborators with educators and local community members as partners in constructing the democracy our country both needs and deserves. Rather than exhorting young people to understand a staid conceptualization of democracy that reduces their own agency in the ever-changing American narrative, there is an opportunity for schools to engage our youth as legitimate political actors who can help us re-envision the very practice and values associated with democracy.
We can transform schools into beacons of democracy by ensuring that schools focus on centering education in the communities in which they are located, by constructing classes that are relevant to students’ lives, and by creating a democratic culture within school walls.
The process begins with a greater respect for the community in which school are situated. Students need to understand that the community is a place where citizens make their wants and needs known, and work together to solve communal challenges. Community members need to see the success of young people as relevant to the success of the community. Elected officials can learn to recognize students as purveyors of important local civic knowledge, capable of informing the most complex policy debates. Young people have a place in the community’s discourse and action, and it is important for them to experience the messiness and the satisfaction alike of the democratic process.
Our democracy may indeed be at risk, but an appreciation for our unprecedented times opens up unprecedented possibilities. A foundational reorientation of the purpose of public education can enable our youngest generation to not only understand democracy but also participate in creating a better version of it. We may have not yet created a democracy stable enough for future generations. But young people can help to create a better one.‘
How our current tax laws prohibit the nation’s best leaders from fully confronting mass incarceration
[And other social/political issues.]
by, Shaun King
“But let me make it even more personal for the world I operate in. At last count, we have over 70,000 black churches in America. It is the most consistent and influential institution in black communities from coast to coast, but the leaders of those churches, because of various tax laws, are not allowed to use their buildings or pulpits for explicit political endorsements. They can’t email it to you either. They can’t do it anywhere on church property or with church equipment. Even though those churches and those communities are ravaged by mass incarceration, they aren’t allowed to really get into the fight to inform people of what to do and who to vote for that will change the system. So, what we end up having are 2,400 District Attorneys in power, often fighting against the health and well-being of black communities, with 70,000+ pastors who cannot freely campaign for alternatives. I’m not even saying we should remove this prohibition — I just need you to know it’s there — and for black communities — this is problem is heightened — because the primary leaders in the community can’t get very specific about criminal justice reform.
It goes much deeper than that.
Because of tax laws governing charities, including almost every single civil rights organization you’ve ever heard of, including the NAACP, the Urban League, the ACLU, and others, those organizations are not allowed to endorse political candidates or use their resources in political campaigns of any kind. They can skirt around the issue. They can host forums with every candidate. And that stuff helps, but not enough. They can’t tell you which sheriff and jailer and DA is corrupt or violent or horrible. They can’t tell you who needs to be replaced and who you should replace them with.
The same is true for most fraternities and sororities — who have deep influence around the country. It even includes hardcore justice organizations that do amazing work — organizations that I love and respect — but would lose their non-profit status if they actually endorsed a political candidate.
So guess what they say when it comes time to vote?
That’s about it. If they say much more than that, it could truly jam them up legally. So all they can tell people, is “go vote.” That’s it.
Can I be frank?
“Go vote” is not enough. And the proof is the very system itself.
If “go vote” was enough, our 2,400 prosecutors would look and feel and act very differently.
If “go vote” was enough, Republicans would not control the House, Senate, Presidency, Supreme Court, and the majority of governorships and state legislatures right now.
“Go vote” is a not a political strategy. It’s hardly a slogan. Hell, it’s not even a good tweet. It lacks the specificity and nuance that people to know who to vote for and against. It lacks the detail needed to actually change the system.
So what happens is people go vote, normally down a single party line, often voting for complete strangers, often choosing random names from among Democrats, hoping they are great. Often, they aren’t. Some of the worst DA’s and judges in America are Democrats. Good people run against them, but the leaders people know and trust can’t tell you that. I can tell you 20 cities off the top of my head where this is the case right now.
What I am about to say pains me. I am not pointing at you. I am owning it.
We got where we are right now because we’ve been out-organized.
People who mean us great harm are in power right now because they have out-organized us.
Yes, they’ve often gerrymandered their way into success, but even that was them out-organizing us.”
“There is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” -Hunter S. Thompson
So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.
If you consider the great journalists in history, you don’t see too many objective journalists on that list. H. L. Mencken was not objective. Mike Royko, who just died. I. F. Stone was not objective. Mark Twain was not objective. I don’t quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.
Not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. But it is. They are addicts, and they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal — like all junkies. And when they get in a frenzy, they will sacrifice anything and anybody to feed their cruel and stupid habit, and there is no cure for it. That is addictive thinking. That is politics — especially in presidential campaigns. That is when the addicts seize the high ground. They care about nothing else. They are salmon, and they must spawn. They are addicts.
No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.
By Neal Gabler/November 10th, 2016
America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.
W.H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939
“Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”
We all knew these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. That civility finally is gone. In its absence, we may realize just how imperative that politesse was. It is the way we managed to coexist.
Retiring conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes complained that after years of bashing from the right wing, the mainstream media no longer could perform their function as reporters, observers, fact dispensers, and even truth tellers, and he said we needed them. Like Goebbels before them, conservatives understood that they had to create their own facts, their own truths, their own reality. They have done so, and in so doing effectively destroyed the very idea of objectivity. Trump can lie constantly only because white America has accepted an Orwellian sense of truth — the truth pulled inside out.
With Trump’s election, I think that the ideal of an objective, truthful journalism is dead, never to be revived.
But the disempowered media may have one more role to fill: They must bear witness. Many years from now, future generations will need to know what happened to us and how it happened. They will need to know how disgruntled white Americans, full of self-righteous indignation, found a way to take back a country they felt they were entitled to and which they believed had been lost. They will need to know about the ugliness and evil that destroyed us as a nation after great men like Lincoln and Roosevelt guided us through previous crises and kept our values intact. They will need to know, and they will need a vigorous, engaged, moral media to tell them. They will also need us.
We are not living for ourselves anymore in this country. Now we are living for history.
A few years ago, my wife and I spent a week hiking on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, returning to a comfortable room at the lodge each night for what I fondly call “roughing it.” As we set out on our day hikes, we’d often see kids messing around at the edge of the Canyon where it would be easy to slip, fall, and die. If their parents were watching, they weren’t saying anything, and the kids responded to our warnings with the gimlet eye.
When we met a park ranger on the trail, I told him I was baffled by this parental neglect. He shook his head and said:
I’m not sure it’s outright neglect. A surprising number of folks think of the Canyon as a theme park, a fantasy land that may look dangerous but isn’t, where hidden nets will save you from injury or death. Every day I have to remind some people that the Canyon is real, and so are the consequences of a fall of hundreds of feet. I guess some people prefer illusions to reality — even though illusions can kill you.
The ranger named a problem larger and more pervasive than the fantasy that the Grand Canyon is Arizona’s Disneyland. We Americans prefer illusions to realityat every level of our common life, even though illusions can kill us. Why? Because indulging our illusions comforts us — especially when they’re supported by a culture that loves to play “let’s pretend.”
That culture goes back at least as far as 1776 when America proclaimed the “self-evident” truth that all people are created equal — then proceeded to disenfranchise women, commit genocide against Native Americans, and build an economy on the backs of enslaved human beings. Today, our culture of illusions threatens to take us over the edge, not only on basic issues of justice but in critical sectors of our society like education, religion, and politics.
Let’s start with education. Educating a child is a challenging job, especially when we get real about the world in which kids live. It’s a world where nearly one fourth of our children live in food-insufficient homes and come to school too hungry to learn; where public schools are starved for resources as the push to privatize K-12 education continues apace; where many kids need help with heartbreaking personal problems while schools can’t afford to hire counselors.
Truly educating a child would mean adapting to the circumstances of the children in our care, including such “extracurricular” services as providing morning nutrition for those who need it. We must teach core subjects, of course, and hold teachers accountable for results — but we also need to teach life skills like emotional intelligence, relational trust, and problem-solving. Put it all together, and truly educating a child is complex and costly, though not nearly as costly as failing to do so.
Confronted with hard realities, we’ve given up on educating children. Instead, we’ve become obsessed with non-stop high-stakes testing, driven by the illusion that passing standardized exams equals getting an education. One way or another, the test scores must go up — even if that means “teaching to the test,” or getting rid of “irrelevant” subjects like music and art that aren’t easily tested, or telling adults to alter kids’ answers if they are wrong.
Surely most of us know that being able to pass tests is a far cry from being educated. But in the face of education’s real challenges, we are too comforted by our illusions to mind the difference. In fact, we double down on our illusions by passing legislation (e.g., “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top”) that multiplies the damage done to our kids, their teachers, and our schools.
Who’s the “we” behind all this? You and I and all who make up “We the People” — we who have allowed our legislators to give the “testing illusion” the power of law and have voted down the tax hikes that real education requires.
The world of organized religion is another place where we often favor illusion over reality. No, I’m not about to argue that faith is fantasy. As a person of faith, I believe we have two eyes: the eye of the mind and the eye of the heart. With one we see the empirical world as known to science and reason. With the other we see invisible realities as known in the great spiritual traditions, including secular humanism. Only when our eyes work together can we see life steadily and see it whole, or so I believe.
The problem is that too many lay people in the Christian churches — the only form of organized religion I know personally, as an insider — have embraced the illusion that we can avoid spiritual challenges by hiring clerical proxies. As long as we’re in the pews on Sunday and there’s a clergyperson up front reading the Scriptures and preaching the Word, we can pretend we’re making a personal spiritual journey. In truth, we’re on a bus touring the Holy Land, while an ordained driver speaks into a mic, telling us what we’re seeing and what it means.
The sadness is that “real church” — where lay people as well as clergy do inner spiritual work — can make a difference in the real world. Need evidence? See the Civil Rights Movement, where the “habits of the heart” nurtured in the black church by generations of African Americans flowered in the nonviolent movement that advanced racial justice in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, there are many clergy who want the church to reclaim that kind of reality. They work hard to encourage the ministry of the laity in places like the family, the workplace, and civil society, and to transform passive parishioners into active communities of support for such ministries.
But woe be to the clergyperson who pursues that vision too vigorously. More than a few have been pushed out by lay people who insist on having paid professional who will “do their religion” for them. The notion that a person can have a spiritual life by proxy is as illusory as the notion that good test scores equal being educated. This kind of religious unreality is one of the reasons many have left the church in search of spiritual nourishment: illusions are thin soup.
Then there’s politics, a field so rife with illusions it’s hard to know where to begin. But there’s one persistent American illusion that leaps out at me: “exceptionalism,” the claim that “the United States is the greatest nation on earth.” That’s a claim that frequently takes us beyond the virtue of national pride and into the sin of national arrogance.
If America’s founders were to come back to check things out — having had a lot of time to contemplate and do penance for their own mortal sins — I don’t believe they’d buy the idea that our task in 2016 is to make America great again. After Googling “Trail of Tears,” “Civil War,” “the Great Depression,” “Japanese internment camps,” and “Vietnam,” to name just a few, they’d ask us to choose a period in U.S. history of which it could truly be said, “Back then, we were great!”
Next, the founders would remind us that, as early as 1787, they knew that the truly great American task would never be to reclaim a mythical utopian era. Instead, it would be to work forever on forging “a more perfect Union” — and the founders gave us a suite of political institutions brilliantly designed to do exactly that. It’s not their fault that “We the People” have allowed our leaders to lay waste to those institutions in recent years.
I believe that most Americans want to take on the real problems bedeviling this country. Doing so demands that we dismantle the culture of illusions that blinds us to reality. Culture change is neither quick nor easy — it will take a long time to find our way through the smoke and mirrors. But all long journeys begin with one small step, so here’s a modest proposal: let’s reclaim “disillusionment” as a word that names a blessing rather than a curse.
When a friend says, “I’m so disillusioned!” about this or that, why do we say, “I’m so sorry! How can I help?” We ought to say, “Congratulations! You’ve just lost an illusion! That means you’ve moved that much closer to reality, the only place where it’s safe to stand!”
Right now we’re hip-deep in an election year that offers us a rare opportunity to become seriously disillusioned and more grounded in reality — not only about the state of the nation but of education and religion as well. When fact vs. fiction becomes a non-issue in politics, might it be because in school millions of us were taught to pass tests, but not to challenge claims, ask questions, do research, and think for ourselves? When millions of us find racism, bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia no barrier to high office, might it be because in church we let someone else “do religion” for us, allowing our unexamined inner lives to be polluted by a toxic fear of “otherness?”
As we lose our illusions, we’ll see reality more clearly and develop better solutions to our most pressing problems. As we embrace the fact that we don’t live in a theme park but on the rim of the Grand Canyon, we’ll understand the urgent need to walk ourselves and our kids back from the edge of the abyss onto solid ground.