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My Fellow Citizens,

I haven’t been able to get my bearings on events in northern Syria this week. There’s a book I keep within reach for moments like these. One of the most pragmatic skills of all lies in the study of history and politics.

We practice that skill without giving it a name. We know its value but rarely make a case for it. Writing in 1986, Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May called it “Thinking in Time.”

I wish an earlier version of me had thought to start a note inside the front cover to track what world events push me to revisit their book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by Richard E. Neustadt. With every update from Turkey, Syria, and Russia, I ask myself what I know about the causes and effects of events there. I tread the same tired path without uncovering anything new. That’s when I heard an excellent exercise of Neustadt and May’s thinking in time. 

Michael Barbaro used his New York Times podcast, The Daily, to talk to Ben Hubbard, a reporter who has worked in the region for decades. They traced today’s situation back to our invasion of Iraq in 2003, and then to 9/11. Then they asked if we shouldn’t go as far back as the first Iraq war in 1990. And let’s not forget that the Kurdish people were promised land to call their own at the end of World War I. 

Just as the expanse of that reality came into view and looked like too much to bear, we started celebrating the life and legacy of U.S. Congressman Elijah Cummings. He started his career in Congress with a 46-word poem about having only a minute.

A minute he didn’t choose. A minute he couldn’t waste or abuse. A minute he would have to account for and use, “Only a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.”
His minute provided the perfect antidote to feeling overwhelmed and powerless. I had often contemplated the power of the experience Cummings and other civil rights leaders brought to Congress with them. Having witnessed the very worst of what we’re capable of doing, he never lost faith that we could do better. We have been made better by their belief in us.

Now I understand that they carry time with them. 

Today, that 46-word poem works to connect us to a powerful beginning in Congress and a long career of service. That minute Representative Cummings marked on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives came through the words of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, a “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father” to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Mays served as the President of Morehouse College for 27 years. He challenged students there with Tuesday morning chapel services, and Dr. King had been a student who attended them. Mays’ parents had been born into slavery. They were freed when the Civil War was won.

That one minute had a lot to say about who we had been. When Congressman Cummings brought those words to Congress with him, they put us all on notice about who we must become.

This, too, is thinking in time. Neustadt and Mays tell us that “thinking of time as a stream need not induce discouragement about the future.” That’s where I was stuck with Syria.

Thinking in “time-streams” asks us all to visualize a “desired future in realistic turns” so that we can figure out “step by step, detail by detail, what ‘then’ requires all the way back to ‘now,’ or conversely how ‘now’ might be turned by stages into something approaching ‘then.’”

Then and now, of today and the future, all turn on what we do with our minute. There’s no time for thinking there’s nothing we can do. 

Let's keep thinking in time together,

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"The further backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see."

—Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister 1940-1945

Thinking in time requires more than simply using this past. We have to ask questions to bridge the gap to today.

Mark Zuckerberg tried his hand at constitutional interpretation this week. You may have heard that he took a stand for free expression. Read the full text of his speech here. It might sound more like a platform for free enterprise. He sprinkled his remarks with images of the Civil Rights Movement.

If he had written a speech defending his decision to prioritize profit over civic responsiblity, he may have avoided getting into so much trouble for his (mis-)use of history. Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund writes:
"The civil rights movement was not fought to vindicate free speech rights under the First Amendment. It was a fight to fulfill the promise of full citizenship and human dignity guaranteed to black people by the 14th Amendment. To use the struggle of those extraordinary heroes as a rationale for protecting Facebook users who seek to incite the same kind of division and violence those heroes faced turns that history on its head."


Thinking in time makes it more difficult to overlook those problems that we continue to carry forward from our past.

If you've been watching the democratic debates, you probably have more than a few opinions on the questions that are being asked as well as those that keep getting overlooked. Climate change is the most obvious oversight, but we're also failing to talk about voting rights. A massive voter purge of 235,000 citizens in Ohio got the math wrong in 20% of those cases. It was up to the state's League of Women Voters to figure out the error. 

The Brennan Center for Justice has a report showing how purges like these can more effectively suppress the vote than Voter ID Laws. They also have a six-part "pro-voter agenda" that's worth reviewing. Pay attention to this temporary injunction that's the latest episode in Florida's voting rights saga. Voting rights activists and the Florida Governor are all claiming the decision supports their position.
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. 

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Good Work: #1619 Project Casts Black Americans as the Perfecters of America

In her essay introducing the #1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones shares that her dad proudly flew an American flag outside their home every day. She admits that she didn't understand his commitment to a country that treated him and other black men like him so poorly. The flag even embarrassed her.

Read Nikole Hannah-Jones: Our democracy's founding ideas were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.

This essay introduces a project that seeks to help us better see our past. It asks us to come together and consider a better future. Hannah-Jones writes:
"Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people's contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us…

But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country's history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy."

That's what I see when Congressman John Lewis leads a sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. That's what I see in images like this one of Congressman Elijah Cummings taking to the streets of Baltimore after Freddie Gray's death in police custody.

Understanding this work to be the mark of "the perfecters" is a powerful proposition.

Men like Congressman Cummings carried forward a vision of our future. He could see that so many still suffered under a burden from our past, but he always believed that we could do better. That we will do better.
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