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My Fellow Citizens,

I bet you know the name Marcus Aurelius. You might even be familiar with the Roman emporer’s quote:

“The impediment to action advances action. 
What stands in the way becomes the way.”

As the commentary stacked up this week (or four) about how fragile democratic government is, I kept thinking about this quote and the work of constitution-makers. James Madison knew there were no limits to the horrors partisan-thinking could bring down upon us.

He knew the news we're watching today would come even if we feel a little surprised by it. We have been lucky enough to live through a long period of stability, but today it sounds like the whole system might crumble around us. 

What did James Madison do?

He used these weaknesses to build a resillient constitutional system. To fortify the system against our vulnerabilities, he required multiple majorities across the voting public, between two chambers of Congress and across time when our representatives seek re-election. Madison showed us how to make the “obstacle” work FOR the system instead of against it. 

Contemporary author Ryan Holiday picked up Marcus Aurelius’s wisdom in his book, “The Obstacle is the Way.”  He explains that moving through, around, over or above an apparent obstcale, requires a particular kind of logic. 

“It’s not just: How can I think this is not so bad? No, it is how to will yourself to see that this must be good—an opportunity to gain a new foothold, move forward, or go in a better direction. Not to ‘be positive’ but learn to be ceaselessly creative and opportunistic.”

Perhaps this explains a Texas congressman picking up the charge to fight against “the wall.” Or a would-be Senator using Facebook Live to show a walk to dinner through the safe streets of El Paso. And maybe we have more Americans today who know more about life at our southern border than they did last year. 

That’s the work of politics, right? Let’s all be ceaselessly creative and keep asking how we can make this good.

Let's think together soon,

Questions of Civic Proportions

What can these obstacles and disruptions teach us about our democracy if we let them?
Join the Conversation

(share your answers in our learning community)

That what you see was more likely made to manipulate than to inform.

You don’t need me to tell you anything else about what REALLY happened on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. While it was easy to stay busy interpreting videos from every angle, the bigger story might have been how easy it is for fake social media accounts to get us all going. Some analysts turned to discussing pseudo-events (via a classic book from 1962) or how viral videos work to fool us just like faked photos.

These aren't questions about staying informed. They are proof that we have all have to be quicker to spot manipulation.

Also informative on broader questions, The Boston Globe took up the question of “how the smirk works” and a powerful essay in The Nation makes it impossible to ignore a glaring disparity. The author shows how the privilege of these young white men compares to the daily realities of our young black men. And, from the Style pages, an interesting look at how the MAGA hat has become an “inflammatory declaration of identity.” 

That the institutions of US government will not go quietly. We have had four weeks to put together useful charts and graphs about the history of shutdowns and how other impasses ended. One of the smartest reads of this shutdown, however, came from The Washington Post, “Bluster, bombast, backing down: What happens when someone says no to Trump?

The article walks through President Trump’s two ideas of himself—on the personal level and the presidential. It tells the story of two co-equal branches of government getting reacquainted with one another through “Pelosi’s perogative.” It’s a story where the will of the President runs up against the will of Congress. Despite the non-stop coverage of who “caved” first, most observers believe the shutdown will have little public consequence. Let’s hope the historical questions linger long enough to give us pause the next time. What caused the first shutdown?  A showdown over the rights of black voters in 1879. Who thought it was a good idea to make it illegal for unpaid government employees to walk off the job? The Taft-Harley Act of 1947 intended to keep government employees out of the business of creating work stoppages to cripple the government.

The Taft-Harley bill seems to have worked for us these last few weeks but it brought with it discussion of another historical artifact, “involuntary servitude.”

That a free press might be a cause we've already lost.

CNN reported about that journalism lost  “about 1,000 jobs nationwide this week." The reach of these layoffs pulls “digital first” outlets into the downward spiral that has already claimed local newspapers. There is a deeply vital question about the beats that will go uncovered, and I highly recommend this long read that attempts to put it all into historical context

For our purposes, however, this quote from Alan Rusbridger seems to cut to the point. He served as editor-in-chief for The Guardian for twenty years: 
"We are, for the first time in modern history, facing the prospect of how societies would exist without reliable news."

From Rusbridger's book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now
*The "join the conversation" link above will take you to Politicolor's online learning studio where you will need to be a member to access the content. It's free so request an invite when you see that option.
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Black History Month: Reading Meaning with W. E. B. Du Bois

This year, Politicolor is leading a deep dive into W. E. B. Du Bois's book The Souls of Black Folk, originally published in 1903. We will be pairing those powerful essays with thought provoking visualizations from W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. One email, once a week, throughout February, we will deliver a whole universe of questions to make Black History Month matter.

[Sign up to join us here]

"When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings."

--W. E. B. Du Bois

Good Work: “Map Twins” from photographer Tonika Jones’s Folded Map

Tonika Jones learned a lot on her commute to school. She lived on the South Side of Chicago and attended a magnet school on the North Side. Too many of our cities follow a pattern similar to what Jones saw in those fifteen miles between her home and her school on the “wealthier, better-funded and whiter” North Side. She now uses her art to make an opportunity out of that gap between residents.

Jones's Folded Map project brings people together who have the same address on different sides of the city. Residents meet one another, learn about a neighborhood that’s often new to them and share their unique Chicago experiences. You might see stark differences in the photographs of places but the conversations between residents quickly turns to what they have in common.

 For example, Jones introduces the South Side resident in Englewood to her North Side “map twin” in Edgewater. Wade Wilson, from Edgewater, reflects on how an invitation like this one can have a big impact:
“I’ve always had these thoughts in the back of my head about how I spent so little time in the part of Chicago that is actually the majority of Chicago, in a geographic sense and a demographic sense… Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing you as an individual can do to change [segregation] to a significant degree, so when Tonika came along and introduced my wife and I to the project, we thought, ‘This is a small way to bridge that gap.’"

One of my favorite moments comes by way of this short video of two residents meeting for the first time. This pair of map twins have an important message:

“We may look different but we want the same things.”

See something that a friend would appreciate? Please forward this newsletter to your most civic-minded friend.

If you're that ceaselessly creative and civic-minded friend, this button is for you. 
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