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My Fellow Citizens,

Two priceless ideas undergird democracy—tyranny and freedom. Our ideas about freedom take center stage in all the merry-making and BBQ-eating over the Fourth of July weekend. We know how to do freedom, and we'll fight anyone who says we don't. 

I have a different proposition. Let's get that serious about standing up against tyranny.  

We seem to think that tyranny is an idea from our past. We kicked it out when we kicked the King out. Madison warned us about the tyranny of the majority but then fixed it for us. Tyranny isn't our problem anymore. 

Except that our understanding of tyranny might have everything to do with how well we practice democracy. 

In First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, Paul Woodruff wrote that clarity on both tyranny and freedom drove the Athenian pursuit of democracy. It's how they recovered from their uglier moments as a democratic mob and reclaimed their best practices. To remain free, Athenians had to be vigilant about tyranny even when they participated in it. Or, especially after they had participated in it. 

This year, more than ever, it seemed that many Fourth of July celebrations included both of these ideas. We gathered to celebrate freedom even as we wrestled with our tendencies towards tyranny: 

  • More outlets used social media to share Frederick Douglass's speech, "What to the slave is the Fourth of July?"
  • Many organizations and individuals paired their celebrations with charitable contributions to organizations supporting asylum seekers at our southern border. 
  • Some subset of citizens attended protests instead of parades, using the holiday to speak out against the inhumane conditions at detention centers.


Those of us who read the Declaration of the United States know that it serves as our original guide to good government. It shouted down tyranny in specific terms. It made clear that the logic of free government that will accept no compromise. The loudest case for freedom comes through the Americans' complaints against tyranny. 

Seeing efforts to include both these ideas in our public celebrations, I recalled another thought-provoking turn in First Democracy. The first characteristic of democracy and good government is not just "Freedom from Tyranny." In parentheses, Woodruff adds, "And from Being a Tyrant."

When reading the chapter's heading, I thought for just a minute, "oh, if only we were all so uncomfortable with being a tyrant." 

So many ideas about what a President should do, how a local government should solve a problem, or even what a Homeowners Association should require all reveal how comfortable we are with tyranny when we get to make the rules. Put on your Madisonian thinking caps for just a minute. We know well that this system of ours is as capable of producing tyranny as it is of producing freedom. The American public has the power to tip the scale between the two. 

Woodruff wrote, "Like a disease, tyranny is recognized by its symptoms." I've decided to present his list of symptoms in a familiar way:

You might be a tyrant if:

  • You're afraid of losing your position, and your decisions are affected by this fear.
  • You try to rise above the rule of law, though you may give lip service to the law.
  • You do not accept criticism.
  • You cannot be called to account for your actions.
  • You do not listen to advice from those who do not curry favor with you, even though they may be your friends.
  • You try to prevent those who disagree with you from participating in politics. 


The odds are that we're all thinking about someone else right now. We all have a family member, a co-worker, or a high-school friend who proudly puts their politics "out there." It's the sad state of our politics that our most partisan actors flaunt their comfort with tyrannical politics. They even encourage it from our office holders. 

None of us need to go up against a tyrant alone. Our project is to make it easier for others to see tyranny as a dangerous temptation. We need to make it an uncomfortable proposition. This might include sharing our list of symptoms but it also involves marking the path of a shared purpose. We can bridge policy divides to promote the democratic practices that will lead to good judgment on those questions.

We can come together to demand more of our politics and resist the cheap theater of tyranny. 

Happy to call out tyranny with you,

Shellee
 
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Questions of Civic Proportions


"This is freedom: To ask, ‘who has a good proposal
He wishes to introduce for public discussion?’
And one who responds gains fame, while one who wishes 
Not to is silent. What could be fairer than that in a city?”


—"Freedom from Tyranny (And from Being a Tyrant," First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea by Paul Woodruff


Join the Conversation

(share your answers in our Learning Studio)
 

How could speaking openly about our tyrannical tendencies change our public conversations?

 
We might start by asking better questions. Mitch McConnel made quick work of questions about reparations last month. Reporters asked because the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties had a specific agenda for Juneteenth. They scheduled a hearing on reparations. McConnell said no one alive today was involved with slavery. That was 150 years ago. 

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates appeared in front of the hearing and made quick work of McConnell’s comment. He showed us that McConnell is answering the wrong question:

 
“Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today.”

A powerful moment in Coates’s testimony comes when he said, “It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.” The corrective force of this ability to see two things at once also happens in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series, “When They See Us.” The director says she wanted to make it possible to see the story of these five men while also confronting the story of a wholly compromised criminal justice system. It is impossible to escape the consequences of a complicit public.

A recent study of court transcribers even suggests that courtroom testimony doesn’t add up to one clear account of what is true. Check out: Testifying while black can have dire consequences in the courtroom.

 


Would talking honestly about tyranny make it easier to speak honestly about other threats to our collective well-being?


California’s Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris is leading a campaign to understand how childhood trauma causes long-term damage. These childhood experiences add up to the health risks we have seen increasing over time across communities. Burke urges us to ask how we can respond with strategies for healing.

Harris's suggestion would require re-thinking how we evaluate our effectiveness in responding to trauma. On a related note, Anika Neklason recently published "Economics is Broken" in The Atlantic. She wants us to use dignity instead of GDP to measure our economic success. Adopting such an approach would undoubtedly open up a different conversation over responding to these “Five reasons why income inequality has become a major political issue.” 
 


Would a collective effort to call out tyranny as tyranny help us make it too difficult for bad ideas to masquerade as something innocent?


Writing for The New Yorker in 2017, Michelle Nijhuis reminded us all that humans are pretty good at detecting BS. She walks us through applying our skillset to questions of Big Data and ends up a providing a guide to wading through the lies and misinformation of overwhelming our political lives.

The first bullet point reads:
 
“Recognize that bullshitters are different from liars, and be alert for both. To paraphrase the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, the liar knows the truth and leads others away from it; the bullshitter either doesn’t know the truth or doesn’t care about it, and is most interested in showing off his or her advantages.”

This also seems like a fair way to approach what we can expect from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s new “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” Some members on the task force are already on record making the case for allowing foreign governments more flexibility in how they define human rights. 
 
The Learning Studio is where we work to keep the conversation going. You don't have to dodge cat memes or endure eery advertising. It's free and just takes a minute to request an invite.  
Join the Learning Studio
🤓 Another debate as old as our founding appeared in this Up for Conversation post. On these holidays where we celebrate our American identity, should we be thinking of ourselves as farmers and country folk or urbanites and city dwellers? There's some fun to be had in picking up Hamilton and Jefferson's debate in 2019. 

🇺🇸 Let's talk about Article II. No, really. It's like President Trump read our minds this time! Join us this month as we read The Oath and the Office: A Guide for Future Presidents by Corey Brettschneider. Sign up here to follow along and get an invitation to our discussion of the text on August 8th.

🥳  We will soon celebrate a whole year of Questions of Civic Proportions. Check out our questions in the Learning Studio. If you recall having good conversation over a question or idea you found in one of these emails, reply to this email and share the story with us.

🎉 And, one more thing, help us celebrate by sharing today's newsletter with a colleague or friend you met this summer. It will work as a small act of appreciation for us and bring new voices into the conversations we have planned for the months ahead. 

Good Work: Treasuring Zines, Solidarity and Representation

(Image by Philipp Messner, Creative Commons)
 

"At their roots, zines are a way of disseminating information and narratives that mainstream channels have rejected."


--Rosie Knight, "How Zine Libraries Are Highlighting Marginalized Voices,"
BuzzFeed News

Students at Barnard College and Columbia University have access to an unusual library. This collection of over 10,000 zines also represents a significant trend. Libraries across the country have built their own zine collections, creating "an accessible record of alternative historical narratives." 

These collections are no sideshow. The librarians leading these efforts to collect and archive zines say this work is, "especially important in a society where entire communities are marginalized and written out of history." Jenna Freedman started the collection at Barnard College in 2003 after studying library science at the University of South Florida. While completing her studies, she met Celia C. Pérez, a Latinx, punk scene "zinester." Freedman describes the zine Pérez gave her as a "truly lovely blend of personal and political." That zine inspired Freedman's career and the Barnard Zine Library where students can find work that "focuses heavily on material created by marginalized communities, with topics as varied as mothers and daughters documenting holidays together to searing political collections about racism in punk rock."

"How Zine Libraries Are Highlighting Marginalized Voices" by BuzzFeed News lists zine collections in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Madison, Wisconsin. The Long Beach Main Library has its own small collection of 1,000 titles. They focus on "identity, self-care, and mental health, in ways that aren't usually addressed in the library's traditional catalog." Zines provide a channel for stories that would never get picked up by sales-driven marketers and a predominantly white publishing industry. 

These libraries become powerful finds for zine creators too. The diverse collections of eclectic perspectives serve us all by preserving the marginalized voices of the past. They also lift the voices and communities we need to hear today. Zine creator Zahra Swanzy reminds us:
 

"Creating zines is a radical act… People create zines to provide an outlet for their inner voice in a raw way. That should be treasured." 

If one of your tyranny fighting friends forwarded you this email, use this button to make sure you get your own copy next time. 

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