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A Founding Tale: “Let Friendship Redeem the Republic”

red and blue chairs at table“…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.

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.

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.

“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, we hardly have the luxury to stop talking to each other.

________________

Liz Joyner is a co-founder and Executive Director of the Village Square. Please take a moment to read the piece that inspired this title, Dining with Jeff, by Patricia Nelson Limerick.



Their Normandy Beach, Our Higgins Boats

normandy-higgins-boatOn this day seventy-two years ago, young Americans were fighting and dying on the shores of Normandy France. The soldiers made their way onto the beach that June 6th in Higgins boats, unique high-walled boats that carried 25 men, sort of a “floating boxcar.”

Conservative author Peggy Noonan wrote about D-Day, and about the Higgins boats in the introduction of her book “Patriotic Grace: What it is and why we need it now.” Noonan tells of one soldier, his fate intricately woven with the fate of the other men in his Higgins Boat, heading in high seas to a conclusion unknown… “it took [his] five little boats four hours to cover the nine miles to the beach:”

They were the worst hours of our lives. It was pitch black, cold, and the rain was coming down in sheets, drenching us. The boats were being tossed in the waves, making all of us violently sick.

Noonan reflects in the remainder of Patriotic Grace on the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in as a people today, and of the rise of the partisan hate-filled din. Says Noonan “we fight as if we’ll never need each other,” yet our very fate may depend on one another.

And so I came to think this: What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace-a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we’re in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative. That admits affection and respect. That encourages them. That acknowledges that the small things that divide us are not worthy of the moment; that agrees that the things that can be done to ease the stresses we feel as a nation should be encouraged, while those that encourage our cohesion as a nation should be supported. I’ve come to think that this really is our Normandy Beach… the little, key area in which we have to prevail if the whole enterprise is to succeed. The challenge we must rise to… We are an armada. All sorts of Americans, wonderful people, all ages, faiths and colors, with different skills, fabulous skills, from a million different places, but all here with you, going forward.

Like it or not, we are in each others’ Higgins boats. Our fate, almost certainly shared.

Given that circumstance, perhaps we might use today to consider how we will best keep faith with those young Americans who left their lives that day on Omaha Beach. It’s something we ought to be doing right about now.

Photo credit: Chuck Holon



Liz Joyner: To honor their sacrifice

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As we continue to build our new Village Square community both in our hometowns and nationally, Memorial Day weekend, I think, is the right time to talk about the history of the “Threads of A Nation” quilt we occasionally use on our website (and we have in bumper stickers for sale). Many years ago, before I realized that if you spent 14 million hours on a project it was hard to sell it for a profit, I wanted to be a textile artist. I made my first “Threads of a Nation” quilt well before September 11th, as a tribute to my father, brother and grandfather who all served in the military, and to my father-in-law who died in Vietnam. The quilt incorporates a rubbing of his name off the Vietnam memorial. It’s 5 x 7 feet in size.

To get the rubbing, I bought a pad of nice paper and brought a fistful of pencils to the Mall in Washington one day. Other people visiting the wall, all of whom I suppose had some part of themselves etched in granite there, asked me if they could borrow paper and pencil to do their own rubbings. We stood at that wall, some ten or so strangers, connected briefly in common pursuit… leaning and rubbing. I left, short a few pencils and all out of paper, with my rubbing on a single piece of paper and the memory – another thread in the quilt, I suppose.

When I first imagined “Threads of A Nation,” I wanted it to depict the dreams and hopes, the principles, the struggle and heartbreak, the achievement that is woven into the fabric of America. I used ethnic and contrasting fabrics that, as the individuals who together make our country, strain against each other close up, but once assembled make a whole – one with more depth and richness than were all the pieces similar. Among the words printed on the fabric are passages from the Constitution and Gettysburg address which embody both the idea of what this new country could be and the bitter divisions that have strained our union, leaving the threads of our nation worn but not broken.

Today, these ideas seem somehow more real, more important, less theoretical than in the days when I first committed them to fabric. Today, we must take special care to remember the principles on which this country was founded. We must remember that a great insight of our Founders’ was that diversity of opinion could be a strength in governing a country. I believe we need to seek out this diversity to counteract the trends toward tribal division and building fury toward one another. We’ve spent a decade doing that at the Village Square and it really does change everything. Today, we must see how deeply we are all “threads” in the whole. It is these principles that the men and women who have lost their lives for our country were serving.

Today, Memorial Day, it is the day to remember – and honor – what those who fought and died gave for this country that they, like us, love.

_______________________

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



Happy Birthday Mr. Jefferson: A good excuse to re-run a great editorial

Jenkinson-outside The Village Square in Tallahassee hosted humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson on October 15th for a live audience taping of the nationally syndicated show The Thomas Jefferson Hour. To learn more about our program and listen to an audio of the program CLICK HERE. To look at pictures of the program CLICK HERE. The below piece by Mr. Jenkinson ran in ” Context Florida and the print edition of the Tallahassee Democrat.

As the 21st century finds its rhythm, and the 2016 presidential contest begins to take up most of our public space, it seems clear to me that we have two political parties in the United States, but they are both thoroughly Hamiltonian.We have what might be called the “greater Hamiltonian Party” and the “lesser Hamiltonian party.” The obscene dominance of money, political action committees, lobbyists, fundraisers, and unrestrained attack ads has essentially disenfranchised the vast majority of American citizens.

In a world where there is no longer any real accountability, our political discourse has spiraled down into the gutter. A citizen from Jupiter, or any rational American, forced to watch nothing but Fox and MSNBC 24 hours per day, would soon despair of the American experiment.

What is to be done?

My view is that we need a Jeffersonian party or (better yet) a Jeffersonian movement in America. Jefferson believed that a republic could not survive without a high level of civility. In his first inaugural address, after a hotly contested election, Jefferson wrote two passages that every American should stop to consider.

First he said, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Read all »



Race: An issue too wide to get our arms around

Screenshot 2016-03-19 15.04.44Byron Dobson, writing in the Tallahassee Democrat:

About an hour after attending an encouraging forum Thursday night on race relations, I skimmed through Facebook and was struck by reports of 78-year-old John McGraw punching a black protester as the man was being led out of a Donald Trump rally in Fayetteville, N.C.

Apparently unapologetic about his actions, McGraw, who is white, is quoted in the New York Daily News saying, “Next time we see him, we might have to kill him!”

Talk about experiencing fleeting moments of hope and despair.

Read the entire article online in the Tallahassee Democrat.



Community takes a spin through ‘civic speed dating’

Screenshot 2016-03-19 14.26.15Amanda Claire Curcio, writes in Tallahassee Democrat:

Come here often?

And with the most cliché of all pickup lines, the 2016 “Speed Date Your Local Leaders” began.

Local leaders went from table to table, sitting down with a handful of community members at each for 10-minute intervals. A bell chime signaled them to move and begin new conversations.

During the two-hour session of “civic speed dating,” held Thursday evening at St. John’s Episcopal Church, anything was up for discussion. Topics included having honest conversations about race, supporting micro-businesses, pets, the future of public schools and building more bicycle lanes and sidewalks.

Read the whole article online in the Tallahassee Democrat.

See photos of Speed Date online here.



Fareed Zakaria: Centrists under seige



The Flying Pig Society: The art and science behind a Village Square program

Created-Equal-panel-black-and-white
Our panelists for Created Equal and Breathing Free on January 12, 2016

The Model

Almost a decade into our work at the Village Square, we’ve made a decision to become more intentional about sharing the theoretical and academic foundations behind our work product. We’re doing that because we think that our strategy isn’t always the most natural direction for those pursuing a more civil political environment, but we’re confident it’s the right one. It’s almost reflex to think that if only people had better information we’d be able to rationally navigate our way to statesmanship. That assumption then leads to the presumption that more facts, more analysis, and more technocratic wonky process needs to be applied to politics ASAP (a plodding policy-filled evening that draws an audience of about five, in our experience). Instead, we see the problem as fundamentally a relationship problem – we no longer have vital relationships with enough people who see the world differently than we do. Research supports the notion that people make decisions intuitively rather than rationally – people who share some bond are more likely to be able to find political common ground because they’ll intuitively “lean” toward each other. These (sometimes uneasy) relationships between people who disagree are foundational to functioning democracy. Bonus: it’s more fun to build relationships than write white papers (so we draw packed houses).

The development of our model has been strongly influenced by the groundbreaking work of NYU’s Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Here’s Jon on what we’re describing: “If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

The Program: Created Equal and Breathing Free

Our most recent dinner program is an example of this thinking played out programmatically. Much recent political struggle surrounds the straining founding ideals of freedom and equality – both societal goods that can conflict with each other (Hobby Lobby case, Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, etc). Rather than getting a panel of lawyers together to debate legal precedent and settle on a policy prescription, we set about to create a more empathetic view among liberals of the rising conservative concern that religious freedom is being threatened, and a parallel deeper understanding among conservatives of the foundational struggles of minority groups striving for full equality.

This thinking led us to invite two very unique human beings to our Created Equal and Breathing Free program – an openly gay performance artist who had established a well-known alternative theatre company and a young conservative Catholic priest who stylistically defies the usual stereotypes one might have of a Catholic priest. Each has a great sense of humor (a quality that helps substantially as we invite our audience to “lean” toward the “other”) and a truly accessible, warm humanity about them – yet they are in complete disagreement about issues about the topics of our conversation.

Find a lengthier discussion of the specific strategies and interventions we used during this program here.

The Results

We are fortunate enough to have the support of Dr. Haidt and his colleague Dr. Ravi Iyer in assessing the results of our programming, through their organization Civil Politics. Ravi assesses attitude change that occurred pre and post event here.

The primary attitude shift that appears to have occurred as a result of our programming is an increase in positive attitudes about conservatives among a more liberal-leaning audience. There was a smaller positive shift of conservatives toward liberals but there were fewer conservative responses, thus the result wasn’t statistically significant.

We didn’t appear to have moved the needle on our two issues, equality and freedom. We predicted that after the program (but before we saw the results) based on the fact that we just didn’t go deep enough into our topics to expect a shift (we were enjoying the human connections enough that we got a little waylaid).

Processing the Results

We think it’s possible we might consistently expect more favorable shifts in liberals’ view of conservatives based on Moral Foundations Theory. Where liberals show a consistent two-channel morality with a laser-like concern for care and fairness, conservatives show a much broader-based morality that encompasses care and fairness but also includes liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. If you are conservative you likely understand liberals when they focus on care and fairness. But if you are liberal if you see conservatives violate care and fairness in favor of liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity (things you don’t perceive as being moral goods), you likely develop a negative view of their moral compass. So it is at least possible that liberals begin interactions like this with a more dim view of conservative “goodness” and that if we can offer conflicting evidence, this may be one of the easiest high impact changes we can make.

A final observation is that anytime you are looking to complex human beings to achieve a sociological result in the course of 90 minutes, it’s more an art than a science. Sometimes our hopes for a panel are fulfilled and other times it doesn’t quite gel as we’d like it to. We can absolutely foresee the possibility that despite our best efforts a given program could negatively impact the view of the “other.” People (panelists, moderator, audience, executive director) can be unpredictable and we’ve been surprised a time or two. It’s worth noting that we accurately predicted the attitude shifts we’d likely see from this program with the team at CivilPolitics – after the program and before the results were calculated. We think it’s pretty easy to do once you see the event play out (human beings are, after all, intuitive). While certainly we believe we’ve still got lots to learn about how to apply the academic theory, we believe any failure to deliver results from a given program would be more likely due to the imperfect human-delivery-system we must employ, not a weakness in the moral foundations theory we follow. We have a lot of confidence we’re heading the right direction on the “compass”, but admit we’re probably still in kindergarten on the learning curve in how to apply it.

Beyond chalking instances where we fail to achieve attitude shift to “you win some, you lose some,” we believe there is a real shift that occurs through our ongoing efforts to create relationship – there’s even academic work that supports our thinking in the contact hypothesis and the extended contact effect. We host about 20 events a year that are quite broad in their focus in order to build a strong ecosystem of relationships inside our community, the web of connectedness between our events and between people in our community where our impact has the potential to grow exponentially. Many programs are intentionally focused on community issues that have nothing to do with political partisanship in order to grow “bonding social capital.” This focus leverages the relationships that form when people are on the same “team” at least some of the time, which creates a common bond that allows them to be on a different team when the circumstance shifts. (These are called cross-cutting relationships – a strategy often used by European monarchs who intermarried their children to keep their countries from going to war).

Our Theory of Change

Democratic societies function properly for the common good if strong geographic communities exist within that society – where a robust social fabric bonds diverse citizens, where crosscutting relationships thrive and result in high levels of civic trust, and where human beings routinely stay highly engaged over the inevitable disagreements that arise. It is by nurturing these relationships – exercising a civic “muscle” despite disagreement – that people develop empathy for others, then strive to reciprocate kindnesses, leading to the best behavior of man toward our fellow man. It is ultimately only through these relationships that opinions shift, consensus is reached, good decisions are made, and problems are solved.

Useful Links

CivilPolitics pre and post event analysis.

Created Equal and Breathing Free event page.

Photos from event.

Strategies used in this program.



On darkness and light on this day

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Photo credit.)



Richard Sheffield: Racial Preferences and productive debate

Take a look at this smart piece by Richard Sheffield in the Deseret News on how the Supreme Court can become a role model for the kind of discussions we ought to be having about our disagreements. Here’s a snip:

While anticipating the court’s decision, I wonder how we can better handle disagreement and tension between the two sides of tough issues. Also, the recent racial tumult at the University of Missouri has spread to the Ivy League and beyond, increasing the focus on competing racial issues and the related on-campus arguments.

What amount of ugly rhetoric should be allowed as free speech, even though offensive? Should race still be considered in admissions to increase diversity in campus debates? When do volleys shot between two sides become counterproductive?

Ironically, I think the Supreme Court justices themselves can serve as a model for fruitful interaction on highly charged issues — whether on campuses, in Congress or City Hall, or even at Christmas dinner.

Read the entire piece by Mr. Sheffield online at the Deseret News.



Something to Consider: America’s Dirtiest Secret: We Agree On a Lot of Stuff

The below guest post is from Something to Consider, a Bridge Alliance organization (The Village Square is a member). The material is from the book Wedged.

Americans have this very popular notion that we really don’t agree on anything politically.

Such a notion is so pervasive that to suggest otherwise seems like a bit of a fairy tale. Americans of each party look upon the other with ever-increasing antipathy – so much so that almost ⅓ of party voters see the other party as a threat to the nation.

antipathy

Congress also shows real evidence of no longer agreeing on anything at all:

congress

 

All this looks incredibly dire. The most tempting conclusion to draw, of course, is that Americans disagree on more than they ever have before. In each party, we’re very much encouraged to propagate such a belief.

But America has a dirty secret that party leaders and media outlets don’t want you to know: as a country, we have broad agreement among issues that seem intractable and completely split. Let’s look at a few of the most seemingly-polarized examples: abortion and guns.

Abortion:

When polled whether they are “pro life” or “pro choice,” Americans have been split nearly 50-50 for 20 years.

abortion-agree

But it turns out these distinctions, while not totally meaningless, tell us very little about one’s political positions on abortion.

abortion

For example, when we ask Americans to state their political preferences about abortion restriction timelines, 85% are willing to choose either 20 or 24 weeks as a cut-off. Only 8% insisted that abortion should be always or never legal, regardless of timeline.

We also know from repeated polling that consistently, over 80% of Americans want abortion to be legal but with some restrictions. It’s about 10% each that never want any restrictions at all, and about 10% that never want to allow abortion at all. Between is a wide spectrum of varied and often conflicting views about timetables, exceptions, parental notifications, etc.

This spectrum and nuance allows for discussion and an attempt to seek understanding, where the labels of “pro life” and “pro choice”–which seem to have very little to do with one’s policy preferences at all–do not.

Guns:
We see a similar seemingly wide gap between “gun control” advocates and “gun freedom” advocates when we ask broad questions about guns. In this case, about 50% of Americans consistently want stricter gun control laws, and about 50% either want them kept as they are or scaled back.

gun-opinions

Such a question paints us as fiercely pitted against each other, but it is deceptive. Within the incredible complexity of what the many gun control laws entail, how many people are really going to be simply “for more” or “for less?”

It turns out that when you ask people about specific policy questions, not only do their views become more nuanced, but we can see a broad amount of agreement among Americans.

gun-control

For the majority of these common gun control concepts, Americans have 80% or more agreement. On other questions like high-capacity clips, we have the potential for a productive discussion if we put aside our “pro gun control” or “pro gun freedom” labels.

Why the discord?
There are a lot of policy questions about which Americans have a lot of different ideas. In this way, disagreement is a great thing: it means many ideas come to the table to “duke it out” in the hearts and minds of the country.

But why do we think that some disagreement means we have little or nothing in common with people of the other party?

There are folks that have a strong interest in you believing you have nothing to agree on with the other party: namely, politicians.

The most consistent and reliable voters are those who are most consistently conservative or liberal. So politicians running for election actually have a political incentive in order to transform us from being more moderate to being more extreme, as we become more valuable to them.

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They’ve gotten good at it.

These incentives are very powerful and can’t be fixed by pleas or demands for bipartisanship or civility. We have to undermine these forces at their root.
In the “illuminating” and “powerful” new book Wedged, Erik Fogg and Nathaniel Greene uncover these forces and provide concrete steps for Americans to identify when they are being manipulated into supporting partisan extremes, and how to help themselves and others fight back.



Tallahassee Democrat: Seven projects picked for Knight Foundation grants

Seven projects will get a share of $174,400 in grants from the Knight Foundation Fund via the Community Foundation of North Florida. Selected from more than 40 applications, the winning projects were picked for how well they aligned with the target goals of the Knight Foundation, which endeavors to enhance communities through unique partnerships and efforts.

Here are the 2015 winners:

The Village Square – Group strives to foster civic engagement and conversation on local, state and national issues, despite political affiliations and perspectives.

Read the rest of the article at Tallahassee.com.



The Jewish Observer: On Syrian Refugees

Rabbi Jack Romberg writes about the decision we will make on whether to accept Syrian refugees:

I say it directly, without hesitation, with a slight bit of fear, which I am determined to overcome. Let the Syrian refugees come to America. Let them find the safety, the succor, that they cannot possibly receive in any other country. No, we cannot take them all, but we should at least follow the lead of Germany – which is ironic given the comparisons floating around between the plight of the Syrian refugees and the Jewish refugees of the late 1930’s.

I say this without condemnation of most of those who argue we should not let them in. I think I understand those feelings. They are expressed (by most I think) not out of hatred, but out of concern for the impact on our country. Rather than condemn the motives of those who think differently than I do, I would rather address their concerns directly, out of simple respect for my fellow Americans. And then I would hope that at least some might see a path to changing their minds.

Read the entire piece online at The Jewish Observer. Please do feel free to submit alternative perspectives, argued with respect and civility.