Review: In the Hands of the People

In the Hands of the people

In the Hands of the PeopleJon Meacham. New York: Penguin Random House, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the sayings of Thomas Jefferson, reflecting his belief in the critical responsibility of the people to the health and growth of the new Republic, with commentary by the author.

Thomas Jefferson was the optimist to the pessimism of a John Adams. He once remarked in their correspondence: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” A significant reason for that was his belief in the citizens of the new nation, and in the government that they had formed.  It can be readily granted that Jefferson was a flawed individual. His university was a gentleman’s university. He owned slaves who had to be sold off after his death.  It was not his example, but the ideals of equality, of the consent of the governed, of an educated citizenry, of the important of religion and keeping the state out of it, of patriotism above partisanship, the value of immigration, and of compromise.

Historian Jon Meacham has collected the statements of Jefferson on all of these topics and more around the central idea of citizenship, how it may both be trusted, and how important the practice of good citizenship would be to the future of the Republic. He groups these under eleven topics, devoting a chapter to each. Meacham provides brief introductions in each chapter, followed by quotes from Jefferson, and others talking about Jefferson’s ideas.   The last two chapters are statements by an assorted group of others about Jefferson, and by other presidents on Jefferson.

Here are a few of those quotes:

On the right and responsibility to vote:

It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.

On the vitality of a free press:

But the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to.

On education:

It is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance. This last is the most dangerous state in which a nation can be.

On threats to the Republic:

I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom. And, to preserve their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.

One more, from the collection of presidential quotes on Jefferson, this one from Jimmy Carter:

Thomas Jefferson conceived our United States of America as no other nation had ever tried to be–dedicated to human fulfillment, where individual liberty was guaranteed. But Thomas Jefferson also founded a university, collected a national library, planned beautiful cities, mapped the wilderness, and being a farmer, he invented a better plow!

This book comes out at a time riven with controversy where we may be greatly tempted to fear for the future of the republic. Yet it strikes me that so many of our protests concern the disparity between our ideals of unalienable rights and the equality of all, and realities that fall short for some. Jefferson would challenge us all to patriotism above partisanship, and to the hard work of responsible citizenship that seeks the common good above our personal profit.

I could wish that all of us would buy a copy, and read it as we prepare to celebrate another July 4 and look ahead to national and local elections in November, as we consider what obligations we have to one another in time of pandemic. If ever there was a time for the renewal of an understanding of responsible citizenship and civic engagement, this is time. Jefferson offers guidance both about what we must value, and why we might hope.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

When We Cannot Reason Together


Raphael, The School of Athens

It seems to me that in many quarters of the United States, we’ve reached a dangerous place of no longer being able to reason together when we have differences–whether the aim is simply understanding one another, or arriving at some agreement of how we will live together with our differences, or how, without achieving perfect agreement, we can arrive at measures that we can agree on and implement that make things better for all. Whether it is in dysfunctional politics or the use of obstructive tactics to shut down speakers on a campus or violent confrontations on our streets, we seem to be becoming an increasingly angry society more concerned about our own rightness and power than the pursuit of the good,the true, and the beautiful, that, when I last checked, none of us has a corner on. It makes me quite concerned for our country.

I’ve seen it on social media. The most grievous is when I see people who don’t know each other attack one another’s character because they differ. I’ve seen it on my Facebook profile where two people I count as friends, but who don’t know each other, end up attacking each other, having no idea what a fantastic person the other individual is. And why is it that whenever one voices an opinion there are those who feel it is their mission in life to jump in, argue, rebut, or simply pronounce how wrong-headed and stupid you are? How refreshing it would be if someone were to say, “you seem an intelligent person, and you see things differently than I do. Would you tell me more about why you think that way?” It just doesn’t happen, sadly. Sometimes it tempts me to limit myself to posting cute memes and pretty pictures or uncontroversial articles–although that is an increasingly narrow category–it seems we have a difficult time talking civilly online about anything.

I really wrestle with what to do. I would love to have discussions with people who want to have genuine discussions that don’t reduce to “you’re wrong, we’re right.” But I’ve pretty nearly concluded that Facebook is not the place to do it. And frankly, I don’t have the time to dialogue with those who really aren’t interested genuine dialogue, but simply feel compelled to counter any point that they disagree with. And sooner or later on any issue of substance–someone makes a pronouncement with an implied (or explicit) put down of any who differ, ending any rational conversation. Over the years, that has come from different ends of the political spectrum, depending on the issue. Sometimes conversations end with battling pronouncements. On more than one occasion, I’ve just taken the whole thread down because it became toxic. But this bothers me–is that the end the commentators were striving for–to silence anyone who disagrees?

I’ve also considered one or a combination of these option

  • Deleting conversation stopping comments–but I don’t like cutting off my friends.
  • Deleting all comments–this has the effect of saying–“I just put this out there to think about” but precludes real dialogue.
  • Blocking people–in this case I might just as well unfriend them–tough when you do value them as friends.
  • Include a request that if people simply want to make pronouncements, they should do it on their own pages–except that those who do this tend to ignore such requests.

Probably my preferred option at this point is generally to stop making those posts. I don’t think they change minds and the virtual world seems to just foster either incivility or echo chambers and I don’t want to add to it. In the future, when you hear from me on Facebook, know that it is something that cuts pretty close to the bone.

What will I do? Here are a few thoughts, and I would love to hear from others who have wrestled with this:

  • I will keep blogging and reviewing books. Know that my blogs and reviews will reflect things I care about, and are consonant with the ethos of this blog–the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
  • I will work hard in my own online behavior to listen to understand before I write to respond. I can’t change others, but I can be the change I hope to see. Whether it works or not, at least I can live with myself.
  • I will look for ways to take real action in the real world about things I care about rather than talk in the virtual world.
  • I will find people who I can have face to face conversations with who are different from me–but committed to dialogue with civility.
  • I will vote for people who have track records of reasoning together with their political opponents to serve all their constituents. I will not vote for people who foster divisiveness. Sometimes, that may mean I will not vote for any candidate for a given office.
  • I will not expect politicians to implement ideologically pure policies or utopian solutions. I will not look for them to bring in the kingdom of God. I will expect them to legislate and lead in ways that serve not merely their “base” but to reach proximately good solutions that fairly serve all their constituents–in my school district, city, county, state, or the country.
  • I will also look to the role we can play in our participation in mediating institutions-churches, volunteer organizations, neighborhood groups, and other more local groups. When we put so much stake in the political arena, we give away the power and influence that may be exercised through these groups.

Perhaps what I’m realizing, even as I write this, is that online life is a poor substitute for real citizenship. I still believe that the online world can be a great place to learn, listen, and understand, and even change our minds if we are open to it. It doesn’t encourage deliberative argument, or careful, “longform” thinking between people. I don’t think that’s what it is made for. I, for one, will be looking for other ways to reason together.

I’m not sure I like this conclusion or feel I’ve reached a landing place that I’m content with. I’d really value your help!

Life After November 8

new-election-day-2016jpg-660x330Today is Election Day in the United States, although millions have already cast ballots in early or absentee voting in many states (including me due to being off my feet with foot surgery). I suspect many of us are breathing a sigh of relief that this particularly mean-spirited and contentious campaign is over. But I also suspect there are many who are fearful of what is to come. The partisans of each major candidate are fearful of apocalyptic outcomes if the other is elected. And I suspect there are many of us who don’t see good ahead for the nation no matter who is our next President. That has been my own sense for some time and the revelations of the last month about each candidate only deepen my sense of concern. I fear no matter who is elected a dysfunctional federal government and the further exercise of executive orders rather than deliberated legislation could be the rule of the day. It would not surprise me to see impeachment proceedings in the next four years, no matter who is elected.

I’ve said before that I do not talk about my voting choices. And I won’t do that here. What I want to think about is how as a people we might live if we are facing such a time. A few thoughts:

  • For those of us disturbed by the field of candidates we’ve had to choose from, we may want to ask what this says about us, and maybe allow this to drive us to our knees.
  • I wonder if we need to begin by taking a hard look at ourselves and the tendency in the last century to look to the federal government as our savior. I personally think there is only one Savior, and He doesn’t reside in Washington, DC. We have kept looking for government to do more and more for us, which inevitably means giving a centralized federal government more and more power over our lives. I do not think Lord Acton has always been right but his observations about the corrupting influence of power are worth attending to. Sooner or later, if we do not deliberately turn from this tendency, I believe we will create either a fascist or socialist tyranny.
  • We helped create the politics of this election when we accepted the inference that some people in this nation are more important than others and let politicians play the important (usually “us” in some form) off against “them” (the less important or problematic elements). Both candidates have done this and suggested a nation that would be better if some have less power, or are even deprived of power (or even presence in this country). In doing so we deny our highest ideals and the lessons learned from our history that each people who has come to our land has strengthened our union. We should communicate in the strongest terms that any candidate who uses such rhetoric is unfit for their office, whether on a local Board of Education or as President.
  • Given the twin dangers of tyranny and dysfunctionality, this is a time where we need to watch and work. I believe this is a time where we need to be increasingly watchful that we will not be deprived of constitutional liberties by politicians promising us safety, prosperity, or a more harmonious society in exchange for the various rights in our Bill of Rights. Both the political left and right are capable of doing this, albeit in different ways, perhaps saying they will protect a particular right while compromising another. I also think in light of the possibility of a dysfunctional federal government with a Congress and President unable to address issues of national concern together, there is the opportunity for local and state and private initiatives to work to reassert their role in public life, and perhaps to define the functions and limits of a national government.

All this arises for me out of the conviction that we, through our political parties and media surrogates, have given federal government too much sway in our attention and our aspirations. I know of some communities who have waited decades for federal government to “fix” them while other similarly challenged communities have brought together neighborhood, civic, and business leaders and bent their backs to the hard work of renewing their communities. They have decided that they are the people they have been waiting for rather than holding out hope for some political messiah.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if more of us dedicated ourselves to seeking the common good rather than our own individual good or a particular group’s good in our own communities. Would this lead us to demand higher standards of those we elect to serve us locally, at a state, and national level? Would it lead us to reject the politics of polarization? If we began to see how the lives of all the people in our own communities matter, not as a slogan or political abstraction, but as real people, might this lead us to different national conversations?

I hope this election represents a nadir of our national life, and that we won’t go lower. The sobering truth we learn from other countries in the world and in history is that it can. For believing people, I think it is a time for deep lament and prayer. For all of us, it is a time for engaged citizenship. Even if things turn out better than I expect, this will be a good thing.


What We Could Be Talking About

I wonder if you have noticed in this presidential election that most of what we hear about is his affairs and character, her emails and character, and what we most have to fear about the other. The truth is that all of this is unsettling and it makes me wonder what it says of us and our processes that after millions of dollars, primaries in most of our states, and lots of candidates and campaigning, this is the best we can come up with. But what has also disturbed me is that it has been very hard to get to substantive conversations about many important questions. At times one or the other candidate has tried, only to see the conversation be deflected back to emails and sex and outrageous statements.

Meanwhile our attention has been diverted from things like:

  • The genocide occurring in Aleppo–one of our third party candidates didn’t even know what Aleppo was!
  • Our burgeoning national debt, approaching $20 trillion, or over $61,000 per citizen. Mom and pop have been spending big time on the credit card and the kids will be paying the bill.
  • Our opiate epidemic that may well affect over 2 million people in this country and that contributes to much of the crime and gun violence in our cities. Various substance abuse problems also contribute to unemployment or under-employment of many who might otherwise contribute to our workforce and economy.
  • Deepening fault lines across race, ethnicity and gender. So much of our politics seems to pander only to particular groups in our country rather than serving all those who are or hope to be “citizens.” Our politics accentuate these divisions rather than uniting us in common aspirations across them.
  • The impacts of rising temperatures, cataclysmic weather events, and rising sea levels both on this country and others, particularly on the poor of the world in coastal regions and drought regions. We can debate whether humans have caused this or long term trends. But there are monumental changes occurring right now that mean this is not “business as usual.”

And these are just a few examples…

It also strikes me that there are a variety of local and regional issues that deserve greater attention. My city’s voters are being asked to approve a nearly $1 billion package of bond issues for various infrastructure and civic improvements. We’ve heard quite little about how these monies will be used, and how equitably they will be distributed through our community and how those decisions will be made. We are voting on local, appellate, and state supreme court judges. Most of us don’t appreciate the importance of their work until you sit on a jury. We vote on state and federal representatives. At a state level, these people exercise oversight over various state services, our universities and public education at every level, and state resources, among other things.

Emails and scandals are easy and ready diversions from these issues that take time and thought but profoundly shape our lives. It would seem that a responsible media would stop the feeding frenzy and focus on these questions. It seems that responsible candidates would declare a moratorium on “trash talk” and at least for the last weeks of the campaign, address matters of substance. And it seems that responsible citizenship requires that we not settle for the low level of discourse and substance we’ve seen but call for substantive discussions of the things that are really shaping our nation and world.

And maybe if we did this, we wouldn’t be saying, “is this the best we can come up with?”

I’ve No Plans to Move to Canada

Flag_of_Canada.svgThis is not a statement about Canada, which I’ve always loved visiting. I have good friends who make their home there, and they love their country as much or more than I love mine. No anti-Canada rant here. No rant at all really.

Rather, it is a response to the number of posts I’ve seen recently saying, “if ‘______’ is elected president, I’m moving to Canada!” Depending on your politics, you might be inclined to say this for a various of the candidates currently on offer.

Now I suspect that some of this is overstated hyperbole, or just a form of venting frustration with what seems a bizarre political season to many. But I also wonder if it reveals some unsettling, at least to me, suppositions about the political order.

It seems that the assumption behind statements like the one above is that if such and such is elected the nation is going to go to hell in a hand-basket. Now I will totally agree that it is not an inconsequential thing to elect a president, or any other political office holder. I grew up in a city that was more or less a one party town and often elected those beholden to organized crime. And I live in a city, that while far from perfect, has enjoyed several generations of forward looking leadership.

What troubles me in the sentiment is that I feel it puts too much stock in a single area of our public life–the political. It seems that our discourse tends to turn the politicians we like into saviors, and those we don’t into demons. It’s kind of striking to me that believers and atheists both have something in common in this discourse–they talk about politicians as supernatural, or at least as super-human figures. At very least, it seems that something is out of proportion here. A few observations:

  • Under our system, political leaders derive their power from the governed. Even with the problems of campaign finance, we are still the people who put these people in office, or not.
  • At every level, we operate in a system that balances power between executive, legislative, and judicial functions. It’s inefficient, but it does provide mechanisms to check the excesses of a person or group.
  • I also wonder if we put too much stock in these people, perhaps in part because of the way the 24/7 news cycle distorts our view of reality. So many others are pursuing the common good, whether in starting companies, serving communities, creating works of beauty, and, of vital importance, raising the next generation.
  • One of the things this points to is that what makes a country good are not simply our leaders, but an engaged citizenry that is thinking not only of our own good but the common good. This raises the all-important issue of our character as a people, as David Brooks has so helpfully done on his “Road to Character” website.

This is why I’m not planning to move to Canada, or elsewhere. There is so much I love about the city, state, and nation I live in. I will not give away my own responsibility for fostering what is best about these to the political system. Nor will I lodge my hope in any political leader, nor allow their failings to dissuade me from seeking the common good of “the land that I love.”

This post actually began in church this past Sunday. We were singing these lyrics by Chris Tomlin:

You’re the God of this city
You’re the King of these people
You’re the Lord of this nation

What is disturbing to me is that many of those I’ve heard voicing sentiments about going to Canada are people of faith, and I suspect many have sung this song at some point. What I wonder is, do they believe God will still be sovereign over our nation if the person they disdain is elected? Some may chide me for making too much of a “careless” statement. But I wonder about our “care” for our city, state, and nation if we would talk about leaving it if someone we disapprove of is elected. What are we saying about our faith in God and our love for our place?

Something to think about. . .

Review: Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers

ImmigrationImmigration: Tough Questions, Direct AnswersDale Hanson Bourke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014

Summary: Third in “The Skeptics Guide Series” and like others in the series provides a concise overview of basic facts about immigration and discusses the challenges of immigration policy in the United States.

The United States is a land of immigrants. Most of us can trace our roots back to forebears who came to the United States either to escape persecution or simply to find a better life. And yet immigration is highly contentious, between those who appeal for others pursuing a dream of a better life, and those concerned to protect our borders and restrict the numbers of people who may enter. Immigration has always both enriched our life and economy as a nation, and posed challenges for how we relate to new cultures and ethnicities.

Dale Hanson Bourke’s guide is not written to advocate but to inform. She begins with defining terms including “immigrant”, “undocumented”, “out of status”, “refugee” and more. One helpful distinction she makes is that there are no “illegal” immigrants. Under our system of law, it is not illegal to be a person and all enjoy equal protection under the law. Persons may commit illegal acts. For those who either have entered the country illegally, they are “undocumented” or “out of status” if they have overstayed their visa. She then turns in Chapter 2 to larger issues beginning with citizenship. One of the interesting facts in this section is that unlike most European countries and many others in the world, the U.S. grants “birthright citizenship” or recognizes citizenship on the basis of jus solis (“right of the soil”) as well as jus sanguinis (“right of blood”). This provides a strong incentive to have a baby on American soil. In this chapter, she also looks at larger issues of immigration around the world including refugee issues, xenophobia, the use of national identity cards and other issues.

Chapter 3 considers how we are indeed a nation of immigrants, how immigrants enter, different kinds of visas, “green cards” or Legal Permanent Residency, naturalization including our citizenship oath (quite interesting!) and even some of the vagaries of what defines a U.S. citizen–a question that has come up in presidential elections since the U.S. president must be a natural born U.S. citizen–the question being what constitutes “natural born”. Chapter 4 looks at the current issues surrounding immigration, particularly the numbers living here illegally (approximately 11.7 million in September of 2013) the problems of crime and drugs–most undocumented immigrants actually avoid crimes because this is cause for immediate deportation. I found out that U.S citizens are under no obligation to report those in the country illegally and that doing so might place one in legal jeopardy in certain circumstances. One of the challenges is how long the “line” is to enter the country legally–20 years for people in some countries.

While immigrants, including concentrations of undocumented immigrants in some states, do place added burdens on the system, they contribute immensely as well. One interesting fact in Chapter 5 was that 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies were started by an immigrant or child of an immigrant. Google, eBay, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, and Intel are a few examples. Equally, remittances from immigrants equal global foreign aid and so play a huge role in assisting the economies of the countries from which immigrants come. Many of those in the U.S. illegally are paying taxes and contributing to Social Security and Medicare without the opportunity to benefit from these programs.

Chapter 6 focuses on who the immigrants are and how many come into the U.S. under different categories and in what states the most immigrants are living (California, New York, Texas and Florida are the top 4 and account for over 55 percent of the immigrant population). Chapter 7 concludes the book considering the need for immigration reform. Fundamentally, our immigration system is a highly confusing system of sometimes self-contradictory laws that require an immigration attorney to sort through–something many immigrants cannot easily afford. It is a system that does not necessarily protect our borders from those who would do harm, and often fails to show mercy to separated family members. Furthermore, it makes it very hard to retain highly trained talent from other countries who would be willing to work for American companies and universities.

The value of this book is that it replaces misinformation with good information. It may not tell us the polices for which we should advocate, but it helps us cut through the misinformation we are fed in our public discourse, sometimes from those who are charged with making that policy. And it does this in a book of under 150 pages, written clearly and attractively with illustrations, charts, and images.

Whence Civility?

Driving on one of our main thoroughfares, we were stopped behind a car with a bumper sticker that was such a vulgar slam against our President that I will not repeat it here. There was a time when we wouldn’t speak of the county dog-catcher in such terms. And yet this is increasingly commonplace.

So often we act like this is just harmless good fun. But I think this is like children who don’t realize that playing with matches can burn down the house until it does. We attack the character of our office holders until any self-respecting person is unwilling to endure such treatment.  We engage in ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with us, not realizing that we might in the process turn fellow-citizens with whom we share much in common and with whom we differ on some things into intractable enemies. We reject the time honored arts of compromise in which reasonable people find ways to arrive at the best approximation to agreement on what will serve the public good.  And in the process, we convince the more volatile among us that violence and force rather than reasoned discourse are the only way to get things done.

What is most troubling to me is that it seems that we easily forget that those with whom we differ and those they represent are also citizens and that we all share the rights, responsibilities and considerable benefits of living in this country. Why must we be attacked as a country to remember this? Why must we identify some greater enemy to stop treating each other as enemies? And why do we forget that the idea behind e pluribus unum is that our diversity coupled with our common citizenship (we are all Americans) is what makes us strong as a nation.

For those who are Christians, we believe that the diverse members of our one body are like diverse parts of a single body. Eliminating our diversity is like cutting off a part of our own body. Can we determine that while we will engage in vigorous and principled argument about what best makes for a good society, that we will refuse to attack the character of those with whom we disagree, because to do so is to attack our very selves?

If we value those with whom we disagree, we might even listen to them and try to figure out why they disagree with us and how they could think the way they do. A civil discussion engages what a person is really saying, not our caricature of what they are saying.

Above all, civility is rooted in the idea of treating others as we’d like to be treated. We don’t want our own character to be impugned. We consider our own ideas rational and well thought out.  We want others to carefully listen to us and to engage us in terms of what we are actually saying. This is the Golden Rule principle, and for good reason–the practice of this rule is precious, and sadly, all too rare.