Tag Archives: community

As Long As We’re Defining Terms….

One of the biggest problems Americans face in our (diminishing) attempts to debate policy in a civil and productive manner is that Americans often use the same words to mean different things–that is, when we aren’t simply using them as insulting labels devoid of discernible content (“libs” “socialists” “Nazis,” etc.)

Sunday, I considered the definition of infrastructure. Today, I’d really like to “poke a bear” and broaden the definition of what should count as religion.

As a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe recently noted, true believers are everywhere. They certainly aren’t confined to churches, synagogues and mosques; 
increasingly, the passions of faith are being expressed through politics and culture wars.

A Gallup poll last month  reported church membership at 47 percent. “For the first time ever, only a minority of American adults are affiliated with a church.” Jeff Jacoby, the columnist penning the cited column, bemoaned this statistic. He expressed his concern that the continuing disappearance of religion from American life is a negative occurrence.

I’m not so sure. Although there is, as Jacoby notes, a positive correlation between church attendance (note, attendance–not membership or religious belief) and physical, mental, and social health, more careful research studies attribute that correlation to the social support that comes from such gatherings of generally kindred folks–and many people get similar socialization from other, more secular groups.

Where Jacoby is right, however, is in the worrisome transfer of “religious” passion to politics.

A very different effect of religion’s disappearance is already all too visible: The unwavering faith and passion of true belief is increasingly being channeled not into religious observance but into identity politics and the culture wars.
“Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations,” remarks Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in The Atlantic. “This is what religion without religion looks like.”

On issue after issue, Americans increasingly treat political disagreement as blasphemy and dissenters as apostates. From climate change to immigration, from face masks to guns, debates take on the fervor of crusades, and true believers portray the stakes as all-or-nothing — a choice between salvation or damnation.
At its most extreme, this “religion without religion” is giving rise to dangerous political cults.

Jacoby says that “Religion without religion” is aggressive, intolerant, and scary. What he fails to acknowledge is that the same can be said for fundamentalist religions and their true believers.

Perhaps what we need is recognition that any belief system that is intransigent, intolerant and determined to impose itself on those holding differing values and beliefs merits being described as a religion.

To be fair, there is a truth buried in the hysteria of today’s culture warriors. In order for inhabitants of a country to function as at least a semi-coherent polity, a majority of citizens need to  share what sociologists call a “civic religion.” In the increasingly diverse United States, the only workable content of such a civic religion would seem to be devotion to the principles and aspirations of the country’s constituent documents: the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

 Of course, the same folks who “cherry pick” their biblical readings are also noticeably selective in their reading of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

And it would help if more Americans actually knew what was in those documents.

 

Let’s Talk About…Sea Shanties?

I am generally oblivious to popular culture. This is not a characteristic that has developed with age–unfortunately, I have never been “with it.” (My students came to recognize the blank look that was my response to musical references more recent than Dean Martin.)

This personal history is by way of explaining my confusion over recent references to the popularity of Sea Shanties. 

I consulted Dr. Google, and found that Sea Shanties are “unifying, survivalist songs,” designed to transform a large group of people into one collective body, all working together to keep the ship afloat. Their sudden resurgence of popularity has been attributed to the anomie of our time, and the fact that so many people are desperate for connection–evidently, the original goal of the Sea Shanty was to foster community, as sailors worked long hours aboard a ship.

That desire for connection has also manifested itself in current calls for national unity. In the case of the Trumpian “fellow travelers” in the Senate– Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and their ilk–those calls are deeply dishonest and self-serving, but others, including the incoming administration, seem genuinely committed to healing the deep rifts that separate ordinary Americans.

One question, of course, is whether healing and unity can ever be achieved in the absence of accountability. Another is the nature of unity in a radically diverse society. There is ample evidence that people are longing for connection, for community, for belonging–but connection to what? What defines the community we aspire to join? 

My entire research focus has been devoted to that question. How do very different people live productively together? What sort of governing arrangements can both function for everyone and still honor/respect individual and group differences?

My conclusion lies in what has been called America’s “civic religion”– allegiance to the overarching  values embodied in America’s constituent documents–values that are central to what I call the American Idea. During his inauguration speech, President Biden quoted St. Augustine for much the same sentiment–that a “people is a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”

In 2004, I wrote a column in which I listed what I saw as the values that define us as Americans–the values that should be the “common objects of our love.” These are the overarching principles that infuse the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and that, at least in my view, are absolutely central to what it means to be an American–hyphenated or not.

Here is that list.

Americans believe in justice and civil liberties—in equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their life choices.

We believe that no one is above the law—and that includes those who run our government.

We believe that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. Those who care about America enough to speak out against policies they believe to be wrong or corrupt are not only exercising their rights as citizens, they are discharging sacred civic responsibilities.

We believe that playing to the worst of our fears and prejudices, using “wedge issues” to marginalize gays or Blacks or Muslims or “east coast liberals” (a time-honored code word for Jews) in the pursuit of political advantage is un-American and immoral.

We believe, as Garry Wills once wrote, in “critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.”

We believe, to use the language of the nation’s Founders, in “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” (even non-American mankind).

We believe in the true heartland of this country, which is anywhere where people struggle to provide for their families, dig deep into their pockets to help the less fortunate, and understand their religions to require goodwill and loving kindness rather than legal or cultural dominance.

We believe that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness.

We really do believe that the way you play the game is more important, in the end, than whether you win or lose. We really do believe that the ends don’t justify the means.

It’s true that America’s aspirational values have never been wholly realized, but pursuing them is what unifies us. They are our Sea Shanties.

Healing and unity will require that Americans committed to those values reclaim the vocabulary of patriotism from those who have hijacked the language in service of something very different. 

 

 

The End Won’t Be Televised…Or Reported

In January, the New Yorker ran an article focusing on one of the (many) issues that keep me awake at night–the disappearance of local news media.The title was: “What Happens When the News is Gone?”

I’ve shared the statistics before, and they’re grim–and getting grimmer. Last Tuesday, Axios  reported 155 layoffs at Vice, 80 at Quartz, 90 at the Economist, and 100 at Condé Nast , with furloughs at others. And that’s just at national publications, which continue to be comparatively healthy.

Cities and towns, however, continue to bleed the sources of information that are absolutely essential to local self-governance and the sense of community. The linked article begins with an anecdote that is all too telling: at a public meeting in the small town of Pollocksville, North Carolina, the subject was a proposed flood-damage ordinance. The mayor asked if anyone in the audience would like to comment on it.

Alice Strayhorn, a hairdresser in her late sixties who has lived in Pollocksville most of her adult life, raised her hand. “This flood-damage-prevention order,” she said. “How are we supposed to know about that? You can’t make a comment on something you don’t know about.”

Pollocksville’s newspaper was one of the estimated 25% of newspapers America has lost in the past few years, so the mayor had posted a notice in the New Bern Sun Journal, based in a neighboring county. Few people in Pollocksville read it. Surrounding counties with newspapers that do continue to publish–there are three around Pollocksville–are what the article called “ghost papers,” owned by the Gannett Company. Gannett (which also publishes what is left of the Indianapolis Star) controls more than two hundred publications nationwide.

The remainder of the New Yorker article focused upon the consequences of that news desert in Pollocksville, and the various attitudes about that lack of journalism expressed by the locals. (The mayor wasn’t exactly a fan of what we call “investigative journalism,” and tended to dismiss his constituents’ complaints about the difficulty of finding out what local government was doing.)

It would be difficult to overstate the effects of the last quarter-century’s dramatic changes to the way Americans get their information. The ability to occupy “filter bubbles” in which we consume only news that feeds our pre-existing prejudices–and the corresponding lack of trust in outlets reporting things we don’t want to know or believe–is only the most obvious of those consequences. The current media environment increases political polarization, exacerbates class and regional conflicts, and makes negotiation and compromise–essential for workable governance–incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Those consequences are broadly recognized.

Less well understood is the way that the absence of common sources of information have fractured local communities and eroded the ability of city and town governments to function properly.

The problem isn’t the lack of information, exactly–it’s the fragmented nature of the sources of that information. Bubbles aren’t just an online phenomenon.

In Indianapolis, people who want to know what’s happening in education go to Chalkbeat; people who live downtown access the Urban Times; African-Americans subscribe to the Recorder; businesspeople and professionals read the Indianapolis Business Journal. There are several other specialized sources–papers for various neighborhoods and ethnic groups, websites devoted to the arts, etc. A great deal of information is available–to interested parties willing and able to seek it out.

The effect of this fragmentation– on politics, on government’s ability to communicate effectively with constituents, to any sense of community– is anything but positive.

As I have brooded about this, I’ve come up with an analogy: imagine that you live in a city with roughly equal numbers of citizens speaking fifty different languages, where each language group communicates primarily, if not exclusively, with others in that group, and where a third of the population doesn’t speak at all.

How do you communicate across those barriers? How do you connect to the others with whom you share an urban space?

Even in its heyday, The Indianapolis Star was hardly a symbol of great journalism; if we’re honest, we have to admit it was never a particularly good newspaper. It was, however, far, far better than it is under Gannett (it actually had reporters)–and the mere fact that it provided a common source of information to a significant proportion of the population was incredibly important–more important than most of us understood.

We once occupied a common information environment. Now, we don’t.

We were, as Mayor Bill Hudnut used to say, “citizens of no mean city.” Now, we just occupy adjacent real estate.

 

Civic Saturdays

It’s hard to ignore the cynicism and even despair that so many Americans express about the country’s current governance and future prospects. Partisan polarization, social media manipulation, filter bubbles…the list of impediments to genuine democratic deliberation is daunting.

An intriguing new initiative is hoping to avoid those impediments. It’s called “Civic Saturdays,” and in Indianapolis, it will be sponsored by Spirit and Place, a well-regarded community-building initiative that is part of the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, in partnership with the League of Women Voters and the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library.

It will be adamantly non-partisan–an effort to bridge political differences by revisiting shared civic aspirations.

Civic Saturdays are described as an effort to create “a shared sense of moral and civic purpose across all publics.” It’s the brainchild of Citizen University, a national organization that works to foster responsible and empowered citizenship. Civic Saturdays are best understood as brief dialogues–they last only one hour–  that invite citizens to reconnect with each other and with America’s foundational principles and documents.

Indianapolis is now one of 19 cities that host Civic Saturdays, and the first session will take place on April 28 at 10:30 a.m. at the Glendale Branch Library, 6101 N. Keystone Ave.

The flyers that have been produced to invite participation explain the concept.

In a time of deep political divide, we must create new approaches to fostering a shared sense of moral and civic purpose. Civic Saturday seeks to bring friends and strangers together to nurture our civic spirit.

Civic Saturday is a civic analogue to a faith gathering. But it’s not about, nor does it aim to replace, faith traditions. It’s about American civic religion—the creed of liberty, equality, and self-government that truly unites us (even as we argue over it).

We’ll hear poetry, sing songs, read great and provocative American texts, and listen to a civic “sermon.” We’ll also gather in Civic Circles to share thoughts and ideas on how we can show up and support each other in public life.

Civic Saturdays are one of several promising efforts popping up around the country that are trying to penetrate the “filter bubbles” and other tribal enclaves within which too many of us reside. The goal is to build community among people who may not agree on the preferred solutions to the issues confronting us, but who do agree on the rules and behaviors that enable civil, productive debates.

America won’t solve its problems if we don’t talk to each other, and those conversations are likely to be illuminated by reminders of our foundational aspirations.

If you live in or around Indianapolis, consider attending.

 

The Center Will Not Hold

I attended a conference on Media Reform last weekend, and came back pretty depressed. Although there were several thousand people in attendance who were determined to save journalism–not necessarily newspapers, or broadcast news, but the essential watchdog function that led our Founders to give Constitutional status to the press–it’s abundantly clear that right now, no one has a clue how to provide the public with the news democratic societies require.

In place of widely-read, credible news media serving the general public, we have “niche news” tailored to our personal prejudices and politics. Thanks to consolidation and corporate ownership focused on the bottom line to the exclusion of journalism’s social mission, we have more “human interest” and “self-help” stories and less real news; more “opinion” and less fact-checking. That we have ever-more dysfunctional government is not a coincidence.

In fact, America seems to be actively dismantling the institutions that create unum from our pluribus: those places in our society that knit individuals into a public.

I’ve written here often about our diminished constitutional literacy, and the likely consequences of that in a diverse country that depends for its very identity upon a common understanding of our form of government.

Add to that constitutional illiteracy the utterly ferocious attacks on public education we are experiencing. Whatever the defects in our public schools, they are and have been the institution that–as Benjamin Barber eloquently put it–is constitutive of a public. When we privatize education, we treat it as if it is a consumer good–skills we are “buying” so that our children can compete economically. But public education should be more than that; it should respect our diverse private identities while providing a common social umbrella.

When we no longer know our common history or political structure, when we no longer meet each other in public schools, when each of us gets our news from different sources operating out of different political and social realities, what will Americans have in common? What will make us a public?