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A Bastille Day Special: Let them eat (purple) cake

LET-THEM-EAT-PURPLE-CAKESeldom have four words ever brought such disastrous consequence to the person who uttered them, or so goes the legend of Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake,” and that nasty business of her public beheading.

While a visit to modern day France finds Versailles proper positively dripping with the wretched excess history has assigned it, Domaine de Marie-Antoinette, the private residence of the French queen, tells a somewhat different story. Rather than the gilded surroundings the king’s riches would surely have afforded her, she built a likeness of a quaint Austrian village, complete with working vineyards and livestock.

Could Marie-Antoinette – symbol the world over of condescending wealth – be misunderstood? My trip to France last summer had me scratching my head and returning home to learn more about the queen we love to hate.

Turns out the words we’ve put in poor Marie-Antoinette’s mouth may have been spoken – if spoken at all – by the wife of a different King Louis decades earlier. And even if the doomed queen had said it, a familiarity with French law regulating the price of bread suggests she would have probably meant “let them eat expensive bread with less flour in it for the same price,” a rather generous and common sense suggestion during a flour shortage.

We do know that Marie-Antoinette said “it is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.”


Apparently when vein-poppingly angry people pick up their pitchforks and roll out the guillotine, they’ve been known to get it wrong from time to time.

The Marie Antoniette Action Figure with Ejectable Head, will be given away as a door prize at a coming Village Square dinner!

The Marie Antoniette Action Figure with Ejectable Head, actual Village Square door prize!

As uber-partisanship and the culture war have opened a gulf between us, we have been toting our own pitchforks lately. We’ve created opposing custom-ordered villains a la Marie-Antoinette, complete with oft-repeated misquotes, half quotes, and an occasional story spun of whole cloth.

In Revolutionary France, misinformation about the queen was fueled by the libelles – venomous slander-filled booklets produced by political opponents. Besting the distribution of French libelles, America’s present day incarnation sends distortions by email clear across the universe tout de suite.

Even as Americans are called to other countries to handle the fallout of ideological hatred gone to seed, we have a homegrown and thankfully only verbal – version of what journalist John Marks calls “wars of absolute dichotomy” brewing, fueled in part by a lot that we’re getting plain wrong about each other.

John, assigned to cover Bosnia for U.S. News & World Report, has seen the danger of absolute dichotomy. He’s since teamed with college roommate filmmaker Craig Detweiler to make the film “Purple State of Mind,”a conversation between friends with different religious worldviews. John and Craig were our Village Square guests in Tallahassee in 2009 – see their program here.

John explains that shaking up partisan red and blue to make “purple” isn’t really about seeking homogenized agreement but “about taking ourselves and our concerns seriously enough to demand the utmost of ourselves and our political and cultural opponents, the utmost in moral and intellectual rigor, the utmost in compassion and decency.”

On the queen’s behalf, I’d add “the utmost in factual accuracy.”

If we’re going to bring the best of America to bear on the big problems ahead, we can ill afford the cartoon version of a civic dialog that neglects the real consequences of creating fictions rather than grasping facts. At another perilous time in our history, the Founding Fathers set a high bar for the debate because they couldn’t afford the luxury of getting it wrong.

Marie-Antoinette met her end at Place de la Concorde, Revolutionary France’s version of our televised public square, where her beheading earned the eighteenth century’s equivalent of high Nielsen ratings. Whether or not she had it coming, most of us would like to think our decision-making has grown to reflect a higher standard in the couple of centuries since, regardless of potential for market share.

As we begin writing the history of what happens next in America, perhaps we can start by at least getting the quotes right. To do that, we might occasionally put down our pitchforks long enough to break bread with someone who doesn’t see it our way. Or, maybe, in a hat tip to learning the lessons of history, we should eat cake instead.

Only this time, make it purple.


Liz Joyner is Executive Director of the Village Square

My state of mind will always be Purple.

I was reminded by my friend (and political opposite) Lea that this week marks the 6th anniversary of the Purple State of Mind duo visiting Tallahassee – a visit that inspired so very much. To mark the occasion of our anniversary with John and Craig, today seemed to be a wonderful occasion to re-run our tribute to them. John and Craig, we love you.

There are some people who change your life forever from the minute they walk into it. Hard to believe it was just four years ago since it happened with the partners in Purple State of Mind, John Marks and Craig Detweiler.

Before the holidays, the Purple pair announced that they’re calling it a day for their Purple State of Mind website, being the busy guys that they are with many new things on the horizon.

In John’s Farewell to Arms he reflected:

Lacking in the appropriate humility, perhaps, we thought we might bring a tone of moderation, conviviality and openness to a dialogue with someone whose views of the world we did not share and by extension to the national discourse. It’s an open question whether we succeeded at the former. We failed with epic grandeur at the latter. Rhetoric that was mean-spirited and intolerant seven years ago has become embittered, ferocious and increasingly violent today.

John couldn’t be more correct in his assessment that despite efforts like Purple, the national dialogue has gotten worse. But I’d like to suggest to John that he’s looking around instead of down. Looking down shows an entirely different reality.

John and Craig, over these years, have traveled America planting little Purple seeds. Like they did in Tallahassee, they came in, made lifelong friends and changed hearts. They planted possibilities that in some cases – in our case – has grown to reality.

There are daunting, overwhelming forces that are creating the rancor our nation is currently laboring under. Here’s a partial list: The internet, search algorithms on the internet, email chain letters, the fiscal crisis, unemployment, highly targeted marketing techniques, demographic and sociological trends, 24-hour news, talk radio, and – the big elephant in the room – human nature.

The only way anything will ever change is that crazy people with big ideas about what can be different plant seeds.

In his goodbye post, John called The Village Square a “real world vision of where the Purple idea can go.” We humbly accept that less as a current reality and more as an aspiration for what we might become. “Purple State of Mind” is a category on our blog. There are five pages of Purple graphics in my WordPress image library. There are 2,258 hits when I search my computer for “Purple.” There are 34 pages of Google hits for a “Purple State of Mind” search.

Because of John and Craig, I will forever capitalize a color, I think that pretty much says it all about what it is they did in one little corner of this big angry world. (And they even did it with their shirts on, see below…)

Everything we ever do will be tinted Purple. And that is a start.

1. Halloween is tomorrow 2. Our Purple friend John Marks

Two good reasons to tune into tonight’s Discovery Channel series Curiosity on the topic of “How Evil Are You?” John Marks of Purple State of Mind fame wrote and produced it. Read John’s description HERE and you’ll be hooked. (Please note that of course I’m not evil, it’s everyone else that’s the problem…)

What Stephen Kiernan taught me about loving America (and getting back to Kansas)

A few realizations hit like a ton of bricks. Then try as you might, there’s no going back to before you understood.

Spending a couple days with Stephen Kiernan, award-winning journalist and author of Authentic Patriotism: Restoring America’s Founding Ideals through Selfless Action (paperback release was just last week) was both personally delightful and a little unsettling in its conscience-pricking moments.

Turns out America’s new favorite pastime of screaming obscenities at each other from our easy chairs isn’t exactly what our founders had in mind when they kicked around that audacious notion of self-governance. Read all »

Florence Snyder: Poisoning the Press

This post is our regular weekly Purple State of Mind feature. Why not hop on over to Purple and read it there instead?

“Poisoning the Press” is a favorite fantasy of politicians caught in the crosshairs of a dogged investigative reporter. It’s also the title of a new book about Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.

The author is journalist turned media ethics professor Mark Feldstein. The storytelling skills Feldstein honed over years of Peabody and Emmy award winning reporting make Poisoning the Press a scholarly work wrapped in a rockin’ good beach-read. For Village Squares trying to understand how our political culture got so ugly, Feldstein cracks the code.

Using previously classified documents and interviews with folks who were there, the author shows how Nixon and Anderson fed off each other in a twisted, mongoose-and-cobra kind of way. Nixon was obsessed with the press. He spent countless hours talking about journalists, but hardly any time with them.

Feldstein’s forensic autopsy of Nixon and Anderson raises an intriguing possibility: What if Nixon had Liz Joyner and other advocates of civil discourse appealing to his better angels instead of a palace guard pandering to his paranoia? Might the two Navy veterans have come together over a burger and a baseball game? Would we have a healthier body politic today?

They would have had lots to talk about. Nixon and Anderson both grew up poor and worked like dogs for the success they craved.

The future president and the future Pulitzer Prize winner both arrived in Washington in 1947. Nixon was a newly-minted congressman and Anderson had landed a job as a legman for Drew Pearson, whose syndicated column, Washington-Merry-Go-Round, Anderson would eventually inherit.

Nixon became Bud Abbott to Anderson’s Lou Costello. With no moral compass in his inner circle, straight-man Nixon would take bribes; suborn perjury and stage overseas military coups. Anderson would merrily report all of it, in close to real time.

Nixon’s press paranoia grew as Anderson racked up scoop after scoop at his expense. He even toyed with the idea of having Anderson assassinated.

Feldstein concludes that Anderson’s coverage of Nixon and Nixon’s reaction to Anderson’s coverage “has tainted governance and public discourse ever since.”

The toxic legacy lives on in Florida. A recent Florida TaxWatch study found that the recession has yet to reach our state’s multimillion dollar public relations payroll. TaxWatch documented that communications people out-earn police, prison guards, and social workers who risk their lives to serve and protect.

Real communications people—also known as schoolteachers—are being laid off en masse while Florida’s public officials cling to their publicists like Linus to his security blanket.

Thanks to Mark Feldstein for reminding us why this worked badly for Nixon and to TaxWatch for shining a light on how his dark legacy still casts shadows in the Sunshine State.
Florence Snyder is a corporate and First Amendment lawyer. Contact her at lawyerflo@gmail.com. Find more posts by Florence HERE.

(Disclosures: Mark Feldstein interned for Jack Anderson in the 1970s. Florence Snyder represented Feldstein in what were his first libel suit and her first jury trial.)

Consider the lemon tree

Recently, as he promoted his “Restoring Courage” event in Jerusalem in August, Glenn Beck recalled the moving, meaningful and important movie Schindler’s List. His guests shared stories of courage in saving lives of Jews during WWII.

The safety and security of the Jewish people and the state of Israel is one near to American hearts for deeply human and compelling reasons, even if you sidestep the loaded topic of biblical history and prophecy that Beck is invoking.

Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree tells part of the history of the Jewish people during the establishment of the State of Israel and the central conflict in the Middle East through the very personal history one home in Ramallah, built by an Arab family who was later forced by events to leave it.

It tells the story of a Bulgarian Jewish family who fled Europe after the war to Israel with nothing but the dream of returning to their ancient homeland after the horror they had endured. In the tumult of politics, people and their imperfection, Jewish families were allowed to claim homes that had been left by fleeing Palestinians.

It tells of the lemon tree planted in the backyard of this home by the Arab family who had to leave it.

The adult daughter of the Jewish immigrants who had claimed the home would consider two histories of the land many years later after having been visited by the son of the family who had built the home: “I had to acknowledge that this is my childhood home, my parents lived here until they died, my memories are all here, but that this house was built by another family, and their memories are here. I had to acknowledge absolutely all of it.” The visit was the beginning of a difficult, challenging friendship between the two.

The son returned to be questioned by his family about his visit to the home they had not seen since being forced to leave:

Did the light still stream in through the south windows in the afternoon? Were the pillars on the gate still standing straight? Was the front gate still painted olive green? Was the paint chipping? If it still is, when you go back you can bring, a can of paint to make it new again; you can bring shears and cut the grass growing up along the stone lath. How is the lemon tree, does it look nice? Did you bring the fruit? Did you rub the leaves and smell them, did your fingers smell like fresh-cut lemons?

The tragedy of the Middle East is deep and wide. It has planted much hatred which has since gone to seed. The Jewish people and the Palestinian people know both the tragedy and the hatred. In time, the victim becomes the aggressor, and back again the victim in an endless spin of loss, heartache, blame, retribution, repeat.

We cannot afford to look at the situation from a comfortable vantage point — one that starts the story from the transgression that most favors “our side” and pretends that what came before doesn’t exist; ignoring facts along the way that don’t confirm our righteousness. This is not a comfortable story if you tell it truly. Telling comfortable stories only serve ultimately to accelerate tragedy.

In his presentation Beck warned, as he is prone to do, not to blur the line between good and evil. A world view that places all evil over there (whether “there” is across the street, across the aisle or across the Israeli West Bank barrier) while all goodness resides here is self-deceiving, self-serving, belies the teachings of faith and only serves to pour gasoline on what is already well beyond combustible.

And what connects us? The same thing that separates us. This land.

“Our enemy,” the Jewish daughter said softly, “is the only partner we have.”

This is usually true in epic, entrenched conflict… if you look closely enough to see the lemon tree.

Our Crossroads, Mr. Franklin

I spent last night into the wee hours editing the video of The Big Sort from our February visit from Bill Bishop. It could have been exhaustion from the tedious process of video editing but I ended the evening with an even more onerous feeling about the importance of where we turn from here in our life as a country. I was struck with the heavy realization that what Bill describes and documents in his must-read book may be the beginnings of our form of government gone to seed.

“A Republic, if you can keep it” were Franklin’s haunting words. If we are half the patriots we like to say we are, times a wasting for the actions required to do so.

A “government by and for the people”, by definition, requires that we engage in the conversation of governance. “Us” doesn’t have to mean you and me literally, but at the very least it means the people we elected to govern for us. In case you haven’t noticed, they aren’t. They’re only partly to blame though because when they hold their fingers in the political wind – as they are apt to do – they know that we don’t exactly want them to. Read all »

My Purple Post: The Village Square">My Purple Post: The Village Square

Why not hop on over to visit with our Purple State of Mind friends John & Craig to read this there. And while you’re there, check out the latest Purple Interview.

I had a wonderful meeting last week with a member of my board who parenthetically commented that he loved the name “The Village Square”. For him, it conjured up an experience from his travels to a small Italian village. At night, the people – from all walks of life, young and old – would find themselves congregating in the town square. They’d talk about their day, their life, their dreams. This struck me with particular force because in our meeting was the intern he had randomly assigned to help us who – through some lucky stroke of small world chance – happened to be a lovely young woman who was one of my daughter’s best friends as a child. It made the meeting and the image of his “Village Square” unusually hauntingly beautiful. I just couldn’t shake it as I went about the rest of my day that was distinctly lacking in another similar experience.

At the end of my day, I came home to my family in the suburbs. I was thinking about what it might be like if instead of gathering in the living room and pulling out our laptops, we ambled down to the local town square. There I would find my family and my neighbors families, completely unexpected conversations, a food vendor or two, a few kids kicking around soccer balls, pets following behind. The connections that naturally exist in the town square form a natural support for the civil society (including civic and political decisions) that must rest on it.

A town square at sunset becomes a melting pot, its humanity stirred into a swirl of colors and directions and ideas. In it is an implied compromise: I walk away just a bit from “me” to become “us.” Yet this is so vanilla compared to the bold individual colors we’ve become used to painting with in our lives. The uber-individualization of our times encourages us to boldly pick the direction of our own lives, down to an exact compass degree. Just to our left and our right in the spinning of our lives are other people existing just one degree off our path who we don’t necessarily feel compelled to make into an “us.”

With all of the wonderful individual muscles we flex in service of our own unique life goals, I think we know we have lost something profound, that we know in our very core that we need more people in our lives, even if they’re people infuriatingly unlike us.

My friend Lea just sent me a blog post that made this same point from a Christian perspective. But for my rhetorical purposes, I’ll borrow just a snip from author Donald Miller about the biology of our need for people:

What is most important to heart health, according to [extensive research performed by heart surgeon Dean] Ornish, is community. That’s right…other people. Patients who suffered from a heart attack were more likely to recover if they had a dog, and also if they were in a good marriage, and then also if they were part of a close-knit community. They could also take medicine, but the medicine helped about as much as the community, Ornish found.

As our human connection goes high tech and twitter, our loss may be incalculable.

I think conservatives understand this intuitively better than liberals do. And conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, have more “town squares” in their lives than a typical liberal. Maybe that’s part of what intuitively concerns conservative Americans – that the fabric is coming unraveled. And, as Jonathan Haidt astutely observes in his Ted.com lecture on the differences between liberals and conservatives, conservatives know that order is so much harder to build than it is to destroy.

It’s simply an unalterable fact that our new town square is partly online. We’ll strive to humanize it, we’ll probably even succeed now and again, like at Purple State of Mind. But unless we can find an occasional evening in our lives to venture out into the village square, we’ll be forever poorer for it – possibly in ways too profound to fully grasp.

(Photo credit: Paolo Margari)

Purple State of Mind: Jon Stewarts’ “Restoring Sanity”">Purple State of Mind: Jon Stewarts’ “Restoring Sanity”

Find the latest in Purple News HERE.

My Purple Post: Fire and Water in Florida">My Purple Post: Fire and Water in Florida

(Please click on over to Purple State of Mind to read this post and so much more…)

Fire came one sunny September morning to America nine years ago tomorrow. It was bright and blinding and so unexpected that even these many years later we can barely look directly at it.

Fire spreads.

When radical Islamists chose to set fire to America, the consequences – human nature being what it is – were probably to some extent predetermined: There would be more fire.

Former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong writes in The Battle for God that extremism of one ilk exists because extremism of the other does. Extreme action on one side provokes an equal and opposite extreme reaction on the other. And so it goes, with many flavors of homegrown extremism having taken center stage since the 9/11 attack. Tomorrow’s installment of extremism, straight from central casting, was to be a ceremonial Quran burning. (At this writing it’s been suspended but it is not yet clear if “suspended” really means canceled in what has inexplicably become a Muslim/Christian he said/he said. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Outside of burning California hillsides, fighting fire with fire doesn’t really work. Most people with a stake is seeing a fire put out use water instead.

In the days after 9/11, in one of the innumerable searching conversations happening in the American family, my brother (a military man well acquainted with “fire”) imagined how he wanted America’s reaction to play out: We’d capture Bin Laden alive, then bring him back to New York City, get him a good lawyer and put him on trial. Then, in the darkest and least civilized corners of the world, that America would ensure such a man a fair trial in our abiding commitment to the rule of law would shine a light so bright that the forces in the world that build would irrevocably trump the forces that destroy.

My brother was describing water.

That conversation – and more generally the tragedy of 9/11 – were no small part the genesis of what would eventually become our Tallahassee Florida go at dousing the fire with water by building The Village Square.

But fire is flammable and demands attention and 50 members of a congregation a couple hours south of us has been getting international news coverage by pouring gasoline on it (by using water, The Village Square is lucky if we get covered in local briefs). Fire is hot, fire sells newspapers.

When asked to speak about The Village Square, I’ve been known to lament that we’d be a national mass movement by now if our events involved statements of outrageous fury instead of thoughtful moderation. It’s simply the elemental difference between fire and water. This week Terry Jones and his Gainesville church have proven my theory as even the Vatican weighed in on their intemperance.

Other efforts at extinguishing fire with water get equally short shrift compared to the fire starters, such as this group of national religious leaders who got a big yawn from the media as they tried to advance moderation in the face of the planned event in Gainesville.

America is – at her best – the perfect solution to fire, both at home and elsewhere in the world. Our founders were students of human nature and prescribed an effective system to balance extremism. It’s tragic when we can’t rise to the call of our birthright because we’re stuck in an equal and opposite reaction to the horrible extremism of that day nine years ago. We may not quite know it, but we are in a unique position to shine that light my brother described all around the world in multitudes of ways that dampen the fires. Maybe welcoming a mosque near ground zero is just such a moment when a country with a really Big Idea shines a really big light?

My daughter is a junior at the University of Florida. She says there is a rumor going around campus that the football game being played tomorrow in Gainesville (91,000 people in “The Swamp”) is the target of a bomb threat. News yesterday was that the FBI says there are credible retaliatory threats. And so it goes: Extremism begets extremism.

General Petraeus knows fire and water and equal and opposite reactions. He said of the plan to burn Qurans: “We’re concerned that the images from the burning of a Quran would be used in the same way that extremists used images from Abu Ghraib — that they would in a sense be indelible.”

Indelible is a good word for what people do with fire.

Please note that we are waiting for a statement of support for The Village Square from the Vatican.

(Fire photo credit. Water photo credit: Raymond Larose)

Purple State of Mind with filmmaker John Marks">3 weeks from today: Screen Purple State of Mind with filmmaker John Marks

Get details on the FREE screening and reserve your seat HERE.

Purple Interview of the US Senate Chaplain">Don’t miss this fascinating Purple Interview of the US Senate Chaplain

You should really ever miss any Purple Interviews, but especially not this one. Rear Admiral Barry C. Black:

…the issues that are debated in the Chamber usually have elements of truth in both sides of the issue. If the issue would happen to be blatantly wrong, most people would see that we should do the opposite. But there are pro and con arguments for both sides. That’s when you deal with right vs right. What might be right for the short term, might be wrong for the long term.

Read the whole thing HERE.

Purple Post: Real men (and women) pick their battles wisely.">My Purple Post: Real men (and women) pick their battles wisely.

(Be sure to visit our friends Purple State of Mind often… and whatever you do, don’t miss John Marks in his Tallahassee travels on August 16th. Details soon, sign up for our monthly newsletter to be sure you don’t miss it.)

First there was the War on Drugs.

Then there was the War on Poverty.

And finally there is the granddaddy of them all, the War on Terror.

All mere skirmishes when compared to the most successful war of our time… The War on Context.

At a time when we have breathtaking access to information relative to our parents before us, we have become a people who don’t really give a gosh darn about understanding the vast, rich and multi-dimensional context that surrounds nearly everything in this complicated world we occupy.

This lands us clueless in actually understanding any problem we seek to address.

Does anybody remember researching papers using the Readers’ Guide? The lucky youth at Purple State should know we had to look up our topic in an index with itty bitty print, hope we found it, get a volume and page number and pick up another book, flip through pages, either write down what we found or copy the pages… yes, we did have copiers (although don’t even get me started on mimeograph machines and the smell of the ink I remember like it was yesterday)…

All this work made you appreciate that little nugget of good information you managed to find after a whole day at the library (which we had to walk to in the snow even here in Florida, uphill both ways).

Relatively speaking, our information today comes at such a low effort cost to us. The whole world is at our fingertips while we sit on our couch with a beer in our hand. In this environment it’s probably inevitable that information becomes so easily is devalued. Supply is far outstripping demand.

Instead we’re all about pelting “them” with an info-blip, turned weapon du jour, that we think proves we’re right and they’re wrong. Partisans are so eager to find the next object to pelt the enemy with, sometimes they can’t even be bothered to read the whole sentence around the quote they’re using to invoke the damage. And there are fleets of people engaging in this twerp-ish behavior daily. (Please note this is not attractive. Plus, if Johnny jumped off a cliff would you follow him? And your face might just get stuck with that ugly scowl on it.)

Today’s motto seems to be who needs subtlety when we can die on that hill?

Maybe somewhere in this phenomena is a quaint yearning for simplicity as we are forced to navigate an insane amount of data, coming at us from all directions at all times at a million miles an hour. We can make it go away if we unilaterally proclaim what we believe to be true, is true, damn the pesky facts. Tah dah!

Unlike the other multi-generational wars, the outcome of the War on Context was a lock before the first spitwad launched: We lose.

We all lose. If you’re yearning for simplicity, there is it. Give that some thought next time you find yourself about to lob one.

If we can’t learn this the easy way, perhaps we’re going to have to start sending people to the principal’s office to turn the mimeograph machine drum over and over and over…

(Photo credit.)