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Liz Joyner: Reviving the town hall meeting

Published in the Tallahassee Democrat, February 15, 2012 There’s nothing more quintessentially American than a town hall meeting. It’s how the business of American community has gotten done from just about the moment the first disaffected European foot hit ground in the New World.

Even if you’ve never attended one, the town meeting is buried so deep in our country’s psyche that you can probably immediately call up its intimate details – rows of folding chairs, town council up front with only a school lunch table to define their status, a charmless but functional meeting room. Someone probably saw to it that there would be coffee and cookies. Overachievers might organize a potluck. Read all »

Liz Joyner: September 12th

The Star Spangled Banner played at the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace the morning of September 12, 2001. The same day, Le Monde blazed the headline across Europe” “Today We are All Americans.”

It would be months later before Africa’s Masai tribe learned of the tragedy when native son Kimeli Naiyomah “ in New York City on 9/11 where he had been sent to medical school to bring medicine to his people“ returned to Kenya. Speaking volumes across oceans and language and culture, the Masai then gave the most powerful nation on earth what was most precious to them: cows which they exchanged for beads to make the jewelry of the Masai to sell for aid to America.

In the days after the tragedy of September 11, in one searching conversation in a nation full of searching conversations, my brother told me he looked to the day that we captured Bin Laden, brought him back to the United States to stand trial, having given this man – who likely perpetrated the most grievous crime against America is our history an attorney to defend him. Read all »

Liz Joyner: An Obituary for the Ages

obit“You and I ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.”

So began the late-life correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers described in the HBO mini-series “John Adams” as “the north and south poles of our revolution.”

Once friends, differences in opinion and political competition had taken a toll.

They, like others in the founders’ generation, had deep philosophical disagreements. But as they went about the business of building a country, an endeavor that if unsuccessful would surely lead to their hanging, they hardly had the luxury to stop talking to each other.

So they agreed where they could, disagreed where they had to and kicked a lot down the road a bit (toward us, in fact).

Despite the differences between them and the odds against them, the founders managed to cobble together their opus – and ours – the Constitution, which despite all probability still guides this diverse group of people forward together.

But, alas, “politics ain’t beanbag” and two election cycles later, Jefferson and Adams had no tolerance for one another.

Fast-forward a couple of centuries and most of us are likely to relate to the fix Adams and Jefferson found themselves in. We, like they, have deep disagreement with – and sometimes little tolerance for – one another. Even our understanding of the founding document we all revere is riddled with fundamentally different viewpoints.

The two founders ultimately died friends, having given history the gift of their final correspondence. They died on the same day, July 4th, 50 years to the day after the nation they built was born. Not knowing that Jefferson had passed on just hours before, Adams last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives,” providing one of history’s most poignant lessons to us across the centuries.

If we continue to choose the path of this legacy – the uneasy yet unbreakable partnership of opposites that is our unique birthright – it will never be easy. Maybe a big part of our problem is that we’ve grown far too accustomed to easy.

“Whether you or I were right,” Adams had written to Jefferson, “posterity must judge. Yet I ask of you, who shall write the history of our revolution?”

The philosophical descendants of Jefferson and Adams are alive and well today in us, in this amazing American experiment “in the course of human events.”

And we are still writing the history of their revolution.

Like the founders before us, we hardly have the luxury to stop talking to each other.


Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. Contact her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org

Liz Joyner: Marry Your Enemy

mom & dadApparently there are tribes in Africa on to something that has eluded the people of the greatest nation on planet earth in the 21st century (so far, anyway).

These clans of African tribesmen, managing the sometimes tenuous relationships between clans, solved their civility problem by marrying into the other clan. This sociological pattern stabilized their society so that the normal conflicts involved in life – whether it’s life in Philly or in sub-Saharan Africa – didn’t escalate to unmanageable levels. With these marriages, people were then connected to each other in multiple ways. You might have a bone to pick with “them” because of tribal identity (maybe literally “a bone,” in tribal Africa) but since “they” were also your in-laws, there was only so far you were ever going to push the disagreement.

This edifying story comes to us via Bill Bishop in his book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart” that describes the need for us to have “cross-cutting” relationships with each other. (This book is required reading and John Marks is most notably NOT exempt.) A healthy society has relationships where you change who is your “friend” and who is your “enemy” inside of different contexts. My husband might be my friend in most every way, but he is also my enemy when we root against each other’s alma mater in football or, in my parents’ case, when they reported dutifully every election day to cancel each others vote out.

Back in the day, mom and dad would nearly always joke about it as they both wheeled out of the driveway in the midst of their crazy-busy lives to cast their precious vote that meant exactly ZERO given their difference of opinion. (You’ve got to love this concept of democracy that makes otherwise sane people do such an insane thing in service of high principle when they could have just sat back in marital-collusion and had a glass of wine instead.)

Crosscutting connection is the same wisdom practiced by feuding European nations looking to make peace by offering up a son or daughter to an arranged marriage. Of course we know in hindsight it didn’t always work, but that’s a story for another day (and The Village Square gives them an “A” for effort).

Problem is, crosscutting relationships are so – well – yesterday. As we discussed last week, everything is trending in the direction that we find ourselves in groups of increasingly like-minded people. When the same “enemy” is always on the “other side,” the relationship is no longer crosscutting and doesn’t stabilize anything. Fact is, when relationships don’t cross- cut, given the distinctly imperfect nature of human beings, relationships can be pretty much incendiary. You get consistently and increasingly angry with the same people (ergo, fistfights and swastikas at town halls).

We live in a time when we look at Mary Matalin and James Carville and think that there is simply no explanation but that it is a loveless business-relationship-slash-publicity-stunt to get them booked on Meet the Press. (While I’m using them as a rhetorical tool here, you still can’t convince me they like each other in the slightest and the stunt has certainly worked on the MTP front.)

Bishop writes: “One of the tenets of democratic faith has been that direct, face-to-face contact between groups on different sides of an issue defines a self-governing people.” Perhaps if we agree on nothing else, we agree that we’re not doing so well on self-governing by this measure – unless “face-to-face” includes flinging Hitler posters to and fro.

So what can we make of this entrenched overwhelming division currently on America’s plate? Despite the complexity of the problem, the solution – potentially – is as simple as a few dinners out (at the “potato salad school of diplomacy”).


Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. Reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org

Liz Joyner: Unhinged partisanship gets schooled

school roomWhile your favorite explanation for the partisan divide might be that the folks who disagree with you are dumb-as-dirt, turns out our current political environment may be a nearly inevitable result of certain sociological and economic trends – stir in a helping of behavioral psychology and, tada, we’re attending town halls with fistfights and swastikas.

Rewind to the middle of last century (screen gets wavy, cue up appropriate piano riff and fade to black and white)… Generation Happy Days was pleasantly ensconced in the suburbs, becoming members of the PTA, joining bridge clubs and bowling leagues. We flipped on the evening news at night and turned the dial to a choice of three stations. (Yes, for the kiddos among us there was an actual dial and it was hard enough to turn that you needed a running start.) We grabbed our local paper off the door stoop every morning and on Sundays many of us trotted off to our neighborhood church, one of a handful of denominations that were close enough to be kissing cousins. (Forgive the absence of synagogues in my story; I’m painting with broad strokes.) While we were growing economically comfortable as a society, reverberations of the depression kept our basic gene pool constructively austere. In the lives we led, we spent plenty of time with people who didn’t see it our way politically – they were our friends, our neighbors, even our spouses. We were busy having a national conversation; very much in keeping with the founders’ vision of America – we had turned diversity into strength, a balance for excess and a creative force.

But soon enough, American prosperity brought into existence a highly mobile populace that had forgotten about the depression, was no longer primarily concerned with mere surviving and naturally turned their attention to the “pursuit of happiness” portion of the American dream. (Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with basic needs mostly met.) So naturally, we moved to cities with a center of gravity we liked and joined groups plum filled with people like – well – us. Old-fashioned neighborhood, and the diversity it brought, wasn’t quite as fun as the newfound made-to-fit.

While we were busy custom ordering our lives, there was an information explosion befitting our increased desire to “Have It Your Way.” Now we had choose-your-news sources that we could tune into to bathe in the warm waters of agreement and oh did we ever love the warm waters of agreement (and we told them we liked it in the ratings so they gave us more and more). Our mainline churches began breaking clean in half as people left to worship with the people they most agreed with. New churches representing every stripe of individualism sprung up all over the map.

Unbeknownst to us, we were busy sorting ourselves into tribes. Think Shia and Sunni. 100 years of social psychology experiments are amazingly consistent about what happens next, and it is not pretty: Likeminded groups consistently grow more extreme in the direction of the majority view. In them, the fascinating phenomenon of the “risky shift” plays out: A group of homogeneous people will make riskier choices as a group than any one individual makes inside that very same group. Likeminded groups are veritable breeding grounds for extremism.

Now here we sit in the United States of “Those People.“ We watch TV opinion news to experience what Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort” (required reading), calls the “righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.” We serve it up with a beer and munchies and the smug knowledge that everyone who isn’t on “our side” isn’t just wrong, they’re stupid and evil (and ugly to boot). It’s the mental equivalent of being a couch potato and leads directly to town halls run amuck.

(Photo credit.)


Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.

Liz Joyner: The Seesaw

tree-small.jpgNeither of my kids spent much time on the seesaw at the park in their younger days. If I had to guess why, it would be that it was a little too much work for a day at the park. It was rare when they got a seesaw partner who didn’t require serious weight and momentum adjustment—sliding forward or backward, pushing hard at the bottom to get your end back up in the air, or, as was more often the case with my slender little girls, perched suspended three feet up, pretty much unable to control a thing.

As my sixteen-year-old has grown into a young woman, she’s been exposed to many a political dinner table conversation from the perspective of my side of the political seesaw. But as much as she’s heard me yammer, I’ve only now just noticed that she’s suspended in mid air with her feet dangling, no where near solid ground. I’m afraid I’ve been responsible for providing her only half the argument in a country that requires citizens to understand the whole one.

Trying to give her a shove back down to terra firma, I’ve had a series of conversations with her about—ultimately—what I deeply believe. There’s been a bit of personal political archeology involved here, as, in the daily shuffle, there are times when I’m too immersed in the veneer to reach for the foundation. Here’s where I found my foundation: What lasts, what matters from all of our daily political struggles is what keeps America who we are. What matters is the two-party system that creates a tension of opposites, the left keeping the right from marching into fascism, the right keeping the left from slipping into communism. What lasts is the best ideas that rise to the top, the product of our endless, sometimes painfully difficult dialog. Were it not for the tension, the struggle, we wouldn’t be America.

When power concentrates on one side of this non-stop American seesaw, it’s time for the grown-ups to give it a firm shove on one side. I sense the American public is ready to give a firm parental shove right about now too. But there is risk in this weight adjustment when we’ve been so used to pushing hard and having nothing happen… we risk that we’ll send the other guy miles into the air. Okay, so I’ll admit it, right now that may not seem so bad, but pause for a moment to consider what happens after the other guy’s fanny lands back on the seesaw. I never took physics but I’m fairly sure that all that energy has to go someplace and it may not be pretty when it does.

So, here’s to keeping the big picture in mind as each “side” shoves to get more momentum… hoping there are enough grownups to keep the traffic on the seesaw well-behaved.


Liz Joyner is the cofounder of the Village Square. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.

**This post represents the genesis of the thinking that would ultimately become The Village Square. I first wrote “The Seesaw” in March of 2006, when the Democrats had no political power. Now they control both Congress and the presidency.

The seesaw works both ways, folks.