A House Divided: Announcing New Conversation Materials on Political Division

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend is a time that many devote to public acts — serving their broader community, raising their voice about issues, talking together about current events, and more. This year features a shut-down government, a rancorous stalemate in Congress over myriad issues, and uncertainty over the future.

All this at a time when American public life is highly divided and people find it more and more difficult to talk to one another. Not only are there deep disagreements over specific issues, but people increasingly lament division per se. They are concerned about how we as a nation can self-govern.

I am pleased to announce publication today of the most recent National Issues Forums issue guide, A House Divided: What Would We Have to Give Up to Get the Political System We Want?

From our announcement:

New Issue Guide Released: A House Divided: What Would We Have to Give Up to Get the Political System We Want?

Many people are deeply disturbed by the state of American politics today. Trust in our national institutions and in the media has plummeted. Fewer bother to vote or participate in public life. Action on pressing issues is repeatedly kicked down the road. Perhaps most disturbing is that we find it harder and harder to even talk to each other. We often seem instead to shout at one another. There have even been recent acts of political violence. What should we do to get the political system that we want? How should we begin to work together to solve our most urgent problems?

This issue guide presents three options for deliberation, along with their drawbacks. Each option offers advantages as well as risks. If we regulate what people can say online, will we end up silencing voices we need to hear? Should we push politicians to compromise more often even if it means they must bend on their principles? Should we focus more power locally, or would that result in an unmanageable patchwork of conflicting rules governing many important areas of our lives?

Option One: Reduce dangerous, toxic talk.
Option Two: Make fairer rules for politics and follow them.
Option Three: Take control and make decisions closer to home.

Both an issue guide and a shorter issue advisory are available, as well as a video introduction. The advisory is also available in Spanish.

The issue guide is available here at NIF (free download). There is also a video companion to the guide. See the trailer here.

Please let me know if you use these materials and, if you do, what happens.

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I serve as executive editor of issue guides at the Kettering Foundation. We develop these nonpartisan materials to support deliberation on difficult public issues, and make them available for publication by the National Issues Forums Institute. The NIF network is comprised of all sorts of organizations who use the guides in their own ways, holding conversations in which people deliberate together about what we ought to do.

A Personal Mission of Agency

Each year-end I look back and reflect. I look at all areas of my life: family, professional, personal, spiritual, physical, financial.

Across all of the major areas of my life, this has been a pivotal year of conceptual progress for me. I developed great clarity on my personal mission. And three ideas that began to gel for me in 2017 continued to gather strength.

Thinking about 2018, it is fair to say that this mission and corresponding three ideas have revolutionized how I approach almost all of my interactions.

My mission: To spread personal agency. This is true in my professional life (where I explore ways that people can develop their own sense of democratic power) but also across my personal life — where I see my role as creating the conditions in which others can see the power and ability they already have.

Three principles have increasingly governed how I think about this mission:

1. I increasingly see propagation as the key means by which personal agency spreads. This recognition must be passed on from person to person to person. Through direct contact. I am convinced that as an individual my highest and best use is in fostering this spread. More and more, I am trying to organize all of my work with attention to how it might later propagate – not just from me to someone else, but from them to yet another. This is a kind of intentional “viral” strategy.

2. I have come increasingly to place learning at the center of all of my interactions. This is the central consequence of the above point. All progress, whether personal or collective, starts with a mindset change. That means that my task is not just to convey “knowledge” but a way of thinking. It must be learned, not taught. I try to interact in ways that encourages others to discover for themselves.

3. More and more I try to act through attraction. If propagation is the means by which personal agency spreads, and if learning is fundamental to that, then the nature of my interactions changes. When interacting with people, my task is to invite and interest them.

The future may always bring more change and upheaval, for me and for others, so I hesitate to say this is all set in stone. But looking back it is remarkable to me how powerful these ideas have been in my inner life over the past twelve months. I am looking forward to seeing how they further take root in 2019.

Brad’s White Bread Recipe

I originally wrote this in 2003, when my kids were young and we were a small, growing family. I edited the text below slightly to make it more contemporary and take into account that it is now nearing the end of 2018.

If you want to feel like Super Dad, just bake a loaf of bread for the family. Your home will fill with the sweet smell of a bakery, and will feel especially inviting.

This bread recipe is a slight modification of “Neil’s Harbor White Bread” by Christa Bauman. Neil’s Harbor is in Nova Scotia, and once I discovered this recipe I developed a fascination with the place. I have yet to visit, but I have traveled there many times in my mind. I imagine it to be a small, harbor village with fishermen and children and dogs all running about.

This recipe increases the sugar and butter slightly. It’s really the most basic white sandwich bread you can imagine, everything that Wonder bread should be and isn’t. I used to make 3 loaves every Sunday using a mixer, but you can make it a loaf at a time just using a bowl and a spoon (the directions below are for one loaf). Can you believe it, growing up my kids actually liked this better than store-bought. And, my dad used to come over every Sunday for his loaf.

One Loaf

2/3C Lukewarm Water (110 to 115 degrees F)
1/3C Milk
4T Butter, Melted in the microwave
3T Sugar and 1T Sugar
1T Yeast – Active Dry or “Bread Machine”
1t Salt – Kosher
3C Flour

Three Loaves

2C Lukewarm Water
1C Milk
½C Butter, Melted
½C Sugar and 1T Sugar
2T Yeast
1 1/2T Salt – Kosher
9C Flour

In a large, warm bowl, stir 1T of the sugar into the milk and water until it dissolves. Sprinkle the yeast over the top and let it sit for five to seven minutes. Once the yeast has dissolved and is beginning to bubble, mix in the sugar, salt and butter until you have a sort of soup.

Stir in one cup of the flour. Once it’s mixed together, stir in another. Continue adding a cup of flour at a time – don’t add too much at once. Once there are about twice the number of cups of flour as there are liquid, it will be hard to stir. (If you are making three loaves, you should be using a big mixer, and switch to the dough hook after about five or six cups). Keep adding flour until there are three cups flour to every one cup water. Then, you may need to add more flour at the end– it should be a little sticky but not too wet. Knead it for ten to fifteen minutes. Once it’s elastic and feels like a damp, deflated football half filled with water, roll it into a ball. One loaf will be about the size of a softball; three will be the size of a cantaloupe.

With olive oil (use vegetable or canola oil if you don’t have olive oil), coat the sides of a large bowl and put the ball in. Flip it once or twice so it’s covered with oil. Cover it with a dishtowel and set it aside in a warm spot away from drafts.

In anywhere from 40 minutes to 1-1/2 hours, the dough will have risen to about double its original size. It will feel moister, and won’t be as dense. Flip it out onto a hard surface (coat the surface with a bit of flour so the dough won’t stick to it) and punch the dough down until it’s flat. Then, roll it into a loaf, about the diameter of a soda can or slightly smaller.

Now, turn on the oven and preheat it to 400 degrees.

Oil the inside of a large loaf pan (Pam will work fine) and put the shaped loaf into it. If the dough has a “seam,” put it on the bottom. Cover the loaf with a dishtowel and let it rise again. It should grow to about double size again, so the dough is just about an inch below the top of the loaf pan. This second rise will take anywhere from 40 minutes to 1-1/2 hours as well. It all depends on your climate, the ingredients, and luck.

Once the loaf is up to about an inch or so below the top of the loaf pan, bake it for 18 minutes at 400 degrees. It will puff up nicely, and turn golden brown. When it’s ready, take it out of the oven and turn it out of the pan. It will sound hollow when you thump it. Let it cool on a rack if you have one or on a wooden cutting board.

D48F3A52-F65F-499B-9A8D-A8AAD98D5548Now, go get your family and give them some fresh, warm bread with butter spread all over it!

This bread freezes well; just wait until it’s cooled to room temperature before you put it in a plastic bag and toss it in the freezer. Since it has some fat content, this bread will keep up to about four days once it’s sliced. Don’t throw away the heels and old pieces; it makes great French Toast.

My Dreamscape

There is a city I visit repeatedly in my dreams. Rather, a place in a city, and a route to that city.

The place. It is a transport station, elevated in a sort of castle-like building on a point. It reminds me of the Flatiron building if it were a castle. Along one side it follows a river road.

This city is somewhat timeless. It sometimes is archaic, with only foot traffic. Shakespearean. Sometimes early 20th century, cars and trains. Other times contemporary.

The approach. For some reason the city is approachable only through a steep, lengthy, harrowing trip down steep mountains. I often have dreams in which I am careening — seemingly forever — down mountainsides on my way to this city. Somehow I know that his my destination. Sometimes I am ridin something like a sled, sliding down forested hills. Sometimes I am on a train. But it is always frightening, and always goes on and on.

Other times, my dreams involve my trying to reach this central station from somewhere in the city. It kind of pops up as a concept within whatever else may be happening in the dream. Sometimes it is a destination so I can escape from some conflict, sometimes it is my sought-for point of departure to seek something else I want. But it is always a central destination.

One night recently I had my first dream where the focus was my experience inside this station. It reminded me of the interior of Los Angeles’s Union Station. I was escaping someone or, more properly, skulking and hiding from someone. There was a flea market and I spent time at a sock table. In my dream, Neil Patrick Harris was also in the group of people at the table. We interacted somehow, and he ended the conversation by allowing all of us to take a selfie. He pulled out his own phone for this, and said, “OK, everyone, time for the selfie.”

In the dream he had a lumberjack-style beard.

Three Problems of Modern Life

Public life is beset by three problems. Each is an extreme expression of a fundamentally human trait, exacerbated and amplified by some aspect of modernity.

  1. Anonymous Atomization. It is a normal aspect of the human condition that we struggle to really take others into account as anything more than actors in our own dramas. Our modern society has amplified this to the extent that we have, each on an individual level, lost most of our sense of connection with others. We live in separate bubbles and the more our lives become driven by free choice, the less we see other people as “real.”
  2. The Promethean Impulse. We want definitive answers and certain results, and we have built system upon system to make us more efficient. We live in a world of interlocking institutional mechanisms. The desire for assurance is natural. The myth of Prometheus is about humans’ yearning for technical power. Today’s scale has made this the only sort of knowledge. This has squeezed out our fundamental human abilities to manipulate our environment through small-group, collective behavior. When faced with a problem, our first thought is to search for an institutional or organizational response. This creates a bias toward ever more mechanistic responses.
  3. Hyper-tribal-polarization. Humans naturally form groups and identify with them. Our most fundamental evolutionary piece of learning is that survival is collective and therefore our membership in a group is our one of our chief imperatives. This group identification is a double edged sword, and can create conflict between groups where they compete for some perceived or actual power or resource. Yet if survival is collective, then problems are best solved with others. In today’s environment, first two problems above have intertwined to create a hyperpolarized world of conflict in which our group identification is so strong, and our denial of out-group people’s humanity is also so strong — that we hate, and we even proclaim it as a mark of our allegiance. We hate to the extent that we cannot solve collective problems, we cannot interact individually with members of other groups, and indeed we ostracize those in our group who dare to behave moderately.

Are these the only three problems? No. But they are ones I have been thinking about the most over my career.

The good news is that the remedy in each case is within each individual person’s control. All by myself, without needing outside help, I can try to see other people as human beings, look to my immediate companions for problem-solving, and behave in more loving ways to my so-perceived enemies in other groups.

prometheus-1930-2017-ss-4.jpg
José Clemente Orozco, Prometheus, 1930, Fresco, Pomona College, Claremont, CA.