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My Fellow Citizens,

Leonard Cohen kept coming at me this week. I'm not his biggest fan, but I've figured out that he has something to teach us, something that's important to hear right now.

Cohen's song, "Democracy," has always played in the background of the National Academy for Civics and Government*. It fits the work of that persistently hopeful project. We are a community of people hoping to find the "crack in the wall," where democratic thought will break through and flood the USA. 

Cohen first appeared to me when New Yorker magazine posted an animated version of his last interview. He reflects on being ready to die and accepting that several half-finished songs will remain unfinished. 

The interview is a powerful rumination on being finished, at the end of one's life, and of accepting things that will never be finished, his half-written songs. Just as soon as you lean into that tension, he brushes it all away with the last line, "And maybe I'll get a second wind. I don't know."

That's when I remembered reading about the verses that didn't make it into "Democracy." Interviewing Cohen for his book Songwriters on Songwriting, Paul Zollo asked why he left out some particularly dark verses. Cohen answered:  

"I didn't want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense."

We sit on the verge of four years of weekend protests and social newsfeeds full of calls-to-arms. What would all that look like if our aim was this "revelation in the heart?" I had never heard the hopefulness in "Democracy," but now I know it's there:

It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the USA.

Cohen understands something about democracy. It's something that's easy for us to lose sight of, and he has it wrapped up in a single phrase, "the cradle of the best and of the worst." That sounds like us. That's who we are and who we have always been. 

What else is true? Perhaps we also have "the range and the machinery for change." Let's talk about how to open the heart "in a fundamental way." 

There's an influential educator and activist who has written about democracy, the heart, and wholeness. In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer asks how "We the People" can call American politics "back to health." He offers five crucial habits of the heart, but Cohen seems to be pointing us to one in particular. 

Parker advocates we develop "an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways." He advises us that contradictions can either "shut us down and take us out of action" or "expand our hearts… to new understandings of ourselves and our world." Coping with tension and resisting the want to shut down is part of our daily news cycle. Is there anyone who isn't feeling that right now?

The creative potential of this tension is where Cohen and Parker collide. They both want us to remember that democracy is a working hypothesis. 

Parker describes American democracy as a "non-stop experiment in the strengths and weaknesses of our political institutions, local communities, and the human heart." In the interview about songwriting, Cohen wants us to see "Democracy" the way he does:

"I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song. It's not an ironic song. It's a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding… This is the real laboratory of democracy."

And this video from PEN America is the perfect way to reconnect with the majesty in this mess that is today's laboratory. Neil Gaiman reads Cohen's lyrics while watercolors and symbols dance across the page. 

Give yourself three minutes away from depositions, testimonies, and transcripts. Listen to "Democracy" and imagine that there is magic within us. And, yes, madness too. 

That's the way democracy makes its way in the USA. 


* Will Harris is a superfan. His love for Leonard Cohen and this song always makes me laugh. Even while writing this. 😁

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Questions of Civic Proportions
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"The experience of democracy is like the experience of life itself—always changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having been tested in adversity."

—President Jimmy Carter

Turbulent politics means helping on another stay focused on principles.

The best thing I've read on the impeachment so far was written before this week's hearings started. Lawfare published "So You Want to Impeach the President" in late September, and it's an excellent guide to what to listen for during the hearings. The article takes on the question of what the articles of impeachment should include (and what they should avoid).

Sticking with Lawfare, their podcast has included Bonus Edition episodes this week with titles like, "George Kent and Bill Taylor vs. The Committee with No Bull." They're cutting out "all the bickering, all the speechifying, and all the procedural maneuvering to bring you just the testimony that you need to hear." There's also the very helpful summary, "The Story the Impeachment Depositions Tell." 

What sources are helping you sift through the headlines now that the public impeachment hearings have started?

If you're following "all things impeachment" carefully, you might also be interested in reading Neal Katyal's new book— Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump. We're making plans to read it together. Pre-orders will arrive on November 26. We'll share a reading plan as soon as we get the book and add discussion questions to the Learning Studio so we can think through it together.

The values we learn by persisting in principles and believing in puppets.

Tim Kaine's interview with Radio Atlantic will restore your faith in American politics. Listen to the episode, "Virginia Hates Tyrants." Whatever your political stripes, you will appreciate Kaine's persistent thoughtfulness in response to the usual questions framing politics as warfare. You can imagine Kaine throwing a familiar cardigan around his shoulders as he says, "I've been thinking a lot about the book of Job lately." 

Pair that interview with a couple of fun takes on Sesame Street's 50th Anniversary, and you'll be able to believe to marvel in the possibilities again too. Writing for Forward, Tayla Zax shows us how Oscar the Grouch's love for trash harkens to the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty. Another essay points to the important work Sesame Street is doing with a current episode that focuses on the "forgotten skill" of failing

Occasionally we pick up these questions and the topics they present in our Learning Studio. Look for deeper inquiries in this closed online community where the focus is on following the conversation. 

The Learning Studio requires a membership but it's free. 

A 2019 List for the Civic-Minded

The time has come. We're going to be inundated with lists. Things to buy. Books to read. Movies and TV shows to binge-watch over the holidays. If you were putting some money into a gift for a civic-minded person like yourself, what would you recommend?

Add your suggestions to the post in the Learning Studio or reply to this email.

Let's look back at the books we've read, the subscriptions we've picked up, and the movies we've seen. What has kept that flame of civic thinking burning this year? What discovery has inspired you or kept your hopes up? 

Let's make that a list we can share in December.
Join the Studio

Good Work: We March to End Slavery!

They marched for two days across 26 miles and celebrated in the Tremé neighborhood's Congo Square. Hundreds of re-enactors joined artist Dread Scott and brought the Slave Rebellion Reenactment to New Orleans this November. 

As they marched, they carried weapons and sang in Creole. They were bringing the German Coast Uprising of 1811 back to life. Watch the videos of the event, and you'll hear cries of "freedom or death!" and "Those who wish to die free, ride with me!" 

One re-enactor leading the chants says participating in the project included connecting with others and "embodying the spirit of freedom and emancipation." This spirit is what artist Dread Scott wanted to bring back to life with the project.   

He wanted to focus on the "liberatory" aspects of the revolt rather than the oppression and violence that ended what is believed to be the largest slave revolt in the United States. The project's website explains what this perspective shift will help us see:
"Their rebellion is a profound "what if?" story. It had a small but real chance of succeeding—what would that have meant for US and world history? Understanding that the past was not predetermined opens the ability for people to dream "what if?" for the future. "

The Slave Rebellion Reenactment that marched into New Orleans shed light on a dark past and made it possible to see the hopefulness that persisted at the same time. 

The enslaved people who participated in the 1811 uprising were not just fighting for their freedom. They fought and died to end slavery. 
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