Lessons from History: Division

Our nation is divided. It’s not the first time. If we look to the past, there are some hints about how to handle it.

Yestersday, I made a pilgrimage with my family to the home of Thomas Jefferson. Next to the bed where he died, I told my children about his remarkable relationship with John Adams.

The second and third Presidents of the United States had a long relationship which soured into bitterness. First as delegates to the Continental Congress and later as diplomat in Europe, these two very different people became close friends. But in the years that followed, the business of running a nation exacerbated their differences of style and perspective. 

The presidential election of 1800 was nasty and personal. It was part of the emergence of political parties in our country, with the personal and political differences of Jefferson and Adams dividing people into Jeffersonians and Federalists. That rift persists today, with Republicans and Democrats differing on policy and persona; each accusing the other of bad faith and bad thinking.

The former friends, Jefferson and Adams, went radio silent for 12 years. Jefferson overturned a bunch of Adams’s legislation, and I’m sure that they thought they were through with each other.

But with some cooling off and the benefit of hindsight, these two wise men re-established contact. Tellingly, it was their former personal connection that provided a basis for intial contact. But their hurts were deep, and it wasn’t long before they were re-litigating their policy differences. By then, though, something had changed. They were growing old, and their peers from the revolutionary generation were dying off around them. Now, they were willing to listen to each other. 

Increasingly, they realized that they shared an experience greater than their differences. As these two imperfect but wise men approached death, they considered their legacies. And they found that their legacies were intertwined. They never ‘solved’ their policy differences, but they did forge a beautiful friendship. Though they never saw each other in person again, they died on the same day: July 4, 1826 – 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on which they had worked together. Adam’s last words, and maybe some of his last thoughts, were of Jefferson: “Thomas Jefferson still lives.”

What can we learn?

  1. The things we share are greater than our differences. Looking to those things will make us more open to hearing each other.
  2. Personal relationships can bridge political divides. Don’t start talking policy with someone before you spend some time hearing their story. If you don’t know anyone from the opposite party, check out Braver Angels. This fantastic group can introduce you to someone you disagree with, but whom you’ll probably like.
  3. How we handle ourselves will impact the legacy we leave behind. The comment you’re about to leave or the Tweet you’re about to send will become part of our national discourse, and part of the country we’re leaving for our children. Speak and write as if history is watching.

When you’re on your death bed, the political fades away and the personal remains. Live with your fellow citizens in a way that allows you to die with dignity and peace, leaving behind a country that’s better than the one you found.


Note: I’m not an historian, and I don’t claim inerrancy in my understanding or my facts. If you want to read more about these fascinating characters from history, I recommend a few books:

Leave a comment to share your thoughts or your favorite books about Jefferson and Adams!

What’s the solution to income inequality?

In December, Lisa and I visited the palace of Versailles, the residence of French royalty from Louis XIV to Louis XVI, or 1682 – 1789. It was awesome – and terrifying. The opulence on display was truly breathtaking. Marie Antoinette, it turns out, had an entire village built in the garden out back so she could cosplay as a commoner. (No, I’m not joking.)

But the entire site exists as a monument to hubris.

You see, at the same time we started listening to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Written 80 years after the French Revolution, Dickens’s descriptions of the grinding poverty found elsewhere in France while the palace was occupied by Marie Antoinette are striking. They paint a picture of income inequality that should terrify anyone who might be considered an economic elite.

The French Revolution illustrates conditions that can be considered an upward boundary on income inequality. Once inequality hits this boundary, social contracts fail and the laws that govern society unravel (or dissolve entirely).

Effort to reduce income inequality (or at least mask it) aren’t only for the poor – they also serve to protect economic elites from the fate of Louis XVI. The rich kids of Instagram have the opposite effect.

So if income inequality has some sort of practical upper boundary, what about conditions below that threshold? Is there a solution to income inequality?

I think of income inequality as a description or measurement, a bit like temperature. Is it ever the wrong temperature? No, because temperature is descriptive; it doesn’t have a moral dimension. But can it be too hot or cold for survival? Absolutely.

The question in the title comes from a friend, who asked me about it on Facebook. I’m going to reframe it thus: “What sort of economic policies should we pursue?” I have a few reasons for this. First, a measurement or description can’t be ‘solved’, in the same way that you’d never try to solve a temperature reading. Second, the real world needs solutions that are directional instead of idealistic. We should be informed by ideals, but policy should be able to take the real world and move it in the direction of those ideals.

The wisest economic policy prescription I’ve read come from the book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. This book describes societies from colonial America to the Soviet Union to North and South Korea. It spends a lot of time talking about societal elites who create extractive, oppressive political systems that create the sorts of injustices that led to the French Revolution.

The antidote to this is to focus economic policies on inclusivity. When everyone is able to participate in an economy (start a business, own property, buy things and sell them at a profit), you have the conditions for a more just society. When some are excluded from full economic participation (for example, not being able to own property because of gender or tribal affiliation), injustice follows. Embedded in this is the idea that economic participation requires political participation. People who can’t vote will find themselves excluded from full economic participation pretty quickly.

This is both achievable and realistic. It avoids the pitfalls of forced income redistribution, which leads to a stifling of innovation and an overall lower standard of living. It also avoids the pitfalls of an elite-driven system of monopolistic capitalism, which keeps people trapped and unable to be economically mobile.

This, then, is the basis for any economic policy I consider: does this policy move us toward or away from economic inclusivity?

Help me out, dear readers. Add to this conversation. What books have you read that helped your thinking in this area? What am I missing?

The Rise of AI: a 3-Way Reaction

We just finished watching the show Hello World on YouTube, hosted by journalist Ashlee Vance. This episode was entitled The Rise of AI, and was about the emergence of the artificial intelligence industry in Canada.

Below I’ll post some of my thoughts, along with written pieces by Liam and Clara, who watched the episode with me.

Clara’s Reaction

I just finished watching “The Rise Of AI” on Youtube. There were a couple of people who talked to the main person (Ashlee Vance, see below) about Artificial Intelligence (AI for short). It was very interesting. If you would like to watch it, click here. Here are the speakers (listed order of appearance).

Ashlee Vance

Ashlee Vance was born in 1977. He is currently 42. We follow him around Canada as he talks to the people listed below.

Jeffrey Hinton

Geoffrey Hinton has held onto the idea of neural networks for 40 years. In other words, making a computer think like a human. People call him the godfather of Artificial Intelligence. Geoffrey Hinton can’t sit down, otherwise, his disk comes out.

Suzanne Gildert

Suzanne Gildert started the company Kindred. At Kindred, they use trial and error to train their robots. She talked about her robots. My favorite was the cat robot. Hers is also the cat robot. In the video, there were robot pilots. You’ll have to watch the video to get the whole story.

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau is the current Prime Minister of Canada. He is mentioned three times in the video. He is married to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau who is currently 44. He was born December 25, 1971. He is currently 47 years old.

Richard Sutton

Richard Sutton was born in the US, but Canadian politics brought him over to Canada. He wanted to get away from difficult times in the US. He says in the video that he didn’t like that the United States was invading other countries and that he didn’t care for all that.
My favorite bot was Blueberry. He’s so cute! Watch the video to find out more. I think that AI could be good and bad. Ashlee Vance records some responses to his mom talking, and then he calls her. He used his responses to talk to her, then picks up the phone and actually talked to his mom. He asked her if that was scary. She said it would have been if it had been an emergency. Click HERE to go to that part in the video. Overall, I think this was a good video.

Liam’s Reaction

I just watched a YouTube video called The Rise of AI. It was an hour long documentary about the history of AI, what people are doing with it now, and where it might go. There are many different ways that AI could evolve. Humans could co-exist with AI, or AI could take over the world.

I had trouble finding evidence for AI co-existing with us, because as they become as smart and then smarter than us, they might start to think of themselves as the dominant sentient beings, with a kind of Divine Right of Kings sort of belief. They might start to think that since they are smarter than us, it is their job to take care of us, or maybe they will see the damage we have done to the environment and decide that the planet as a whole would be better off without humans. There was a company mentioned in said video that is called Lyrebird. Lyrebird creates realistic artificial voices. In other words, they can clone your voice. Imagine if someone cloned the president’s voice and then made him say something that threatened the security of the country. Kindred AI is working on AI that can sort stuff such as clothing. It is a real possibility that robots could take over the world.

I know that I have been very negative about AI so far, but there is really no way that we can know what AI will do. Instead of eradicating us because of the way we treat the environment, they might help us fix it. Instead of affixing their dominance over us, they might decide to live with us. There is really no way to know which path AI will choose. That is why I am hoping for the best.

Andrew’s Reactions

AI is an endlessly fascinating topic. There are so many angles from which to approach it: the ethics of AI, a map of the realities of AI, the probable futures of AI, the people behind AI, the implications for future economies and governmental systems, what it means to be human in the age of AI, and more.

I’ve been reading about AI recently. I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Kai-Fu Lee’s AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, and Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Of the three, Lee does the best job of explaining how AI actually works. Tegmark lays out the most compelling explanations of possible AI futures.

Ashlee Vance (and the rest of the team behind Hello World) chose to focus on the unique contributions of Canada to artificial intelligence. He interviewed pioneering researchers in AI, did a decent job of explaining how the technology works, talked with a few startups commercializing AI, and talked briefly with AI skeptics about some of the possible future dangers.

The portrayal of Geoffrey Hinton was especially touching. Hinton is a computer science researcher at the University of Toronto who, along with academic collaborators, was the first to use a deep neural network approach to AI. He believed in the concept from the late 1980s until 2006, when data processing and data availability were able to prove his ideas valid. His triumph is a testament to both sheer stubborn will and the willingness of universities to employ academics for long periods of time without any evident fruit. It’s a perfect test case of the need to fund basic research.

Amara’s Law states that we overestimate the short-term impact of technology while underestimating the long-term impact of technology. I know the first part of this ‘law’ is true with AI: while startups like Lyrebird are a bit creepy, they don’t represent a Terminator-esque nightmare scenario. But I’m not sure if we’re underestimating the long-term impact of AI. When you read this in the future, you’ll have to leave a comment to let me know!

Why religion and politics shouldn’t mix

This is one of my favorite topics. I’ve been thinking about it and reading about it for some time now. I don’t have it figured out to my satisfaction, but I came to a new thought this morning, so I figured I should share.

I was pondering the nature of religion and the nature of politics, and I realized they have something inverse in common. The reason religion and politics should not mix is partly due to their relationship to compromise.

Religion in general and Protestant Christianity in particular should not compromise. The philosophical game of religion is played on the field of truth claims.  Negotiating or compromising on truth claims is like kicking field goals for your opponent.  It’s not a good idea.  This is the (very good) reason that people have died for their religious convictions throughout the centuries.

Politics, on the other hand, lives with an entirely different relationship to compromise.  For a politcian, compromise IS the game.  Legislature and governance is all about negotiating between competing interests.  If different interests didn’t exist, governments wouldn’t need to exist, either.  That’s why politics is so easy to criticize, fun to talk about (e.g. ‘Those idiots in [Washington, Sacramento, Madison, Dakar, etc.] wouldn’t know the right thing to do if it bit them on the hand!”), and so demanding of wisdom.  Compromise IS the task of government, and it’s not an easy one.

So every time a pastor asks his congregation to vote a particular way, he is speaking from one realm into another: he is speaking from a position that’s used to wielding divine authority to make absolute truth claims into a realm where issues always have different sides and a single voice bearing the best idea is not guaranteed to make headway.  In politics, strength of conviction falls subservient to the power of coalition.  That’s not a fault of politics; it’s just the nature of politics.  But this pastor is likely to create an unproductive voting bloc.  He’s likely to create or encourage a group of people to take a position they can’t back down from.  In the end, it makes for bad politics and bad blood.

And every time a governmental leader speaks toward the realm of religion, it’s natural (but altogether inappropritate) that he should ask for compromise and ecumenism.  He, who is used to compromise as a way of doing business, naturally expects this from the realm of religion.  And he’s dead wrong.  Religion thrives on truth claims, and asking religious people to deny what they know as truth for some greater good is like asking religion to drink poison.

There are many outworkings of this continued tension between church and state, and they’re likely to be messy.  I can’t claim any kind of special ability to negotiate such perilous waters just because I understand the larger principle.  But I can offer one guiding question for discussion: what can we do to build up a HEALTHY wall of separation ‘twixt the two very important areas?

Political research in the internet age

I’ve always been interested in politics.  As a young child, one of my main questions (that was never satisfactorily answered) was this: ‘How do you do political research?’  I come from a family that highly values informed civic participation.  But I knew that people make all kind of political claims.  I came to learn that you could find out about politics by reading the newspaper or by looking at voting guides put out by everyone from the California Teacher’s Associaton to the National Association of Evangelicals.  That last voting guide was distributed from time to time in our church bulletin.

But both of these sources of political information were filtered; they came from secondary sources: interest groups that focused heavily on this issue or that.  Of course, you could watch the presidential debates if you happened to have the television on for one of the several evenings they occurred.  Or you could hear the candidates speak once if you were lucky enough to be in a town on the campaign trail.  I still remember the hoopla when Dan Quayle visited my home town of Lodi, Calif.  But these were still limited, one-time opportunities.  Candidates, if they were slippery enough, could couple together a few area-relevant soundbytes and curry favor with voters everywhere they went.  The epitome of this was Hillary Clinton’s claim that she was both a lifelong New York Mets fan and a lifelong New York Yankees fan when she spoke at two different events.  But the ubiquity of today’s news media made that kind of campaign-trail stumping less effective, and Hillary (still a product of old-tyme politics) got burned.  24-hour news and a proliferation of news channels changed the world of politics.

The internet has further changed today’s political landscape.

Did you happen to miss the presidential debates (or are you part of the increasingly large population that doesn’t watch television anymore in favor of internet-delivered content)?  No problem.  You can still watch the debates on Youtube (www.youtube.com/youchoose), who co-sponsored the debates this year.  Incidentally, those videos will still be available after the election is over.  If a candidate made a campaign promise, the world will be able to look back at that promise and hold the candidate accountable after he (or she) is elected.

Would you like to know about a candidate’s stance on a particular issue?  Go to John McCain’s Issues page: www.johnmccain.com/Informing/Issues or Barack Obama’s analogue: www.barackobama.com/issues.  There’s a lot of information there; more than you can shake a stick at.  Not that you’re the type to shake sticks at web pages, but you get my drift.

Would you like to read comprehensive campaign coverage?  No problem.  Go to everyone’s favorite news aggregator, Google News, at http://news.google.com/?topic=el.  In my opinion, there’s a pretty high signal-to-noise ratio there, but it’s still a legitimate source of coverage.

Blogging took off first in two worlds: the technology world, where every geek seems to be publishing stuff (…ahem…) and the political world, where every wonk (and Wonkette) has their own lane in the information superhighway.  Here’s a search on Google blog searches for ‘2008 presidential election‘.

With so much information out there, it’s more important than ever that you trust your information gatekeepers.  That’s why we here at andrewandlisa.org are running for ….. um ….nothing.  Sorry, I guess I got a little carried away with all the political commentary.

But seriously, folks, in today’s internet age, where it easier than ever to be informed and easier than ever to engage in thoughtful dialogue, we should be using the internet to make us more informed citizens.  Maybe, just maybe, we’ll see a more informed race.  I think the quality, peculiarity and non-polarity of our two presidential candidates is already a result of and testament to this great world-changing new media.

Book Report: Mexifornia

What a book!  This one, written by Victor Davis Hanson, was alternately hard to read and fascinating.  It wasn’t hard to read in terms of reading level, though that may make the ideas in the book accessible to fewer people.  it was hard to read because of the raw honesty with which Hanson talks about issues of race and immigration.

As a small-town farmer and now university professor, he blasts what he terms the race industry for their tactics, which he claims serve only to further alienate those who are already aliens in California.  He waxes a bit nostalgic about his growing-up years and the approach to racial integration demonstrated by his early teachers.  But he also claims that the usually-ugly specter of modern lowest-common-denominator culture holds much promise for racial integration, even despite it’s otherwise putrid pallor.

As a classicist, Hanson offers a fascinating solution set, complete with alternate futures.  He’s wise enough to predict several outcomes, and because of this will probably be seen by history as prescient.

I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to debate or understand our public policy options with regard to illegal immigration.  At 150 pages, it’s almost short enough to be considered a long pamphlet.

Even if you judge this book by its cover, it still garners high marks.  The presentation and cover art are visually pleasing.

My two critiques:

  1. I think the writing style puts this book and its important message out of the grasp of some people.  The issues to debate will need all our minds and wills, and I’d hate to see these important thoughts lost because of the form they take.
  2. I’d like to see the author’s preferred solution set fleshed out a little more.  I guess this isn’t a policy platform, but a powerful discussion-starter.  I know that it goes a long way toward giving my future policy stance on illegal immigration a firm footing.

What am I thinking!?

Hi, Shinnfans. I know what you’re wondering. I know because I subtly implanted the question in your minds using the title of this blog post. You want to know what I’m thinking. If this was a play, here’s how the dialogue would pan out:

You (internally, maybe even a fleeting thought): “Andrew hasn’t been writing much lately. All he’s been doing is posting images and stupid little videos with internet babble or pictures that move too fast to be seen well.”

Me (Andrew): “Huh. Good point.” (Hangs mouth open, looking kind of dumb. Realizes audience is watching and quickly snaps into a brow-furrowing, hard-thinking expression.)

You: “Come on, why don’t you get right on that, do some thinking and reading, create some meaningful content, and give us something to either chew on, disagree with, or totally walk away from because it would require us to think too much.”

Me (Andrew): “Um, I’m kind of busy right now. Can I do that later?” (For a moment, that dumb look comes back.)

You: “No, we’re a demanding internet audience with short attention spans. If you don’t post good content at least once a day, we stop visiting. In fact, even this is getting kind of long. Can you wrap it up, please?”

Me: “Okay, how about a compromise? Can I tell you what I’m reading so you know what’s coming down the pike?”

You: “Hurry it up. Half of us stopped reading before your last line. The rest of us thought the phrase was, ‘What’s coming down the pipe.’ ”

Me: “You thought wrong, and I get to say so because it’s my blog. Pike in that usage refers to the old term for a road. Here’s my recent reading list, with comments:” </imaginary meta dialogue>

  • Mexifornia: A State of Becoming by Victor Davis Hanson. Really riveting reading. Tackles the question of how to approach illegal Mexican immigration. Heavily criticizes what Hanson terms the race industry. Hanson is a classicist, a professor at Fresno State, and a guy who grew up on a family farm in Selma, California, where he still lives.
  • Inside Today’s Mormonism by Richard Abanes. A little boring, this volume delves into the claims of Mormonism in pretty technical detail. I suppose the level of technical detail is necessary for the book to be authoritative.
  • In The Name of God: Understanding the Mindset of Terrorism by Timothy Demy and Gary P. Stewart. I just started this, and it seems like a pretty generic American defense of the War On Terror â„¢ and The Justness of Our Cause (also tm). Honestly, it takes a lot to impress me these days in a book about terrorism. I read the (dry) 9/11 Commission Report cover-to-cover. I’ve just started this, so it might end up better than it started. If it does, I’ll let you know. Both authors are military chaplains, and one (Timothy Demy) is an officer with whom I served in the Coast Guard.
  • The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. Speaking of impressive (see previous paragraph), this book blows me away. I’m listening to the audio book form, but it’s a great tome on the long history of Al Qaeda’s major players and the conditions (both personal and political) that gave rise to the organization. Reading this book feels like taking a Master’s-level course in Middle Eastern politics. I briefly considered buying a copy on Amazon.com and sending it to the CIA. Our government needs the level of understanding displayed in this book. The research is thorough and extensive, while the retelling of the story seems journalistic in nature with very little editorial content and a refreshing lack of a discernible agenda. I highly recommend this book.

Just for fun, here are some past posts that cover my reactions to several dimensions of the subject of terrorism:

Hijacked primaries?

This post is courtesy of Jon Shinn. The experience was his, and the letter below was sent to the National Voter Protection Center and the LA County Registrar of Voters. As an educated, influential bunch, I trust that all you Shinnfans will be aware of such cases, raise a stink with your registrars of voters, and try to keep our representative democracy on track. Please help raise awareness of this issue and take action! From Jon:

I feel very passionately about my right and duty to vote. In the weeks leading up to the election, I confirmed via phone (LA County Registrar of Voters), internet (www.lavote.net), and by way of receipt of a voter registration card received in the mail (voter ID ******708) that I was, in fact registered to vote. I verified my polling place via the same methods mentioned above. Upon appearing at my polling place, I was notified that I was not on the roster, and would need to fill out a provisional ballot. I have been left feeling disenfranchised and like my vote does not matter for tonight’s returns. The same was true for my wife. We are both registered as “Decline to State” voters (i.e. independents), and both of our votes were for Barack Obama. We are extremely upset, and feel that if we, as conscientious, meticulous, highly educated, highly aware voters were left out of the process, it stands to reason that there were many others who were excluded as well. The precinct worker mentioned that ours was the “story of the day.” This does NOT inspire confidence in our voting process. A confirmation or acknowledgment of this message would be greatly appreciated.
Sincerely and Regretfully,
Jonathan Shinn
Long Beach, California

Did you have this same experience? Know someone who did? Want to suggest a course of action we can all take? Sound off in the comments.

Ed. note: The exact same scenario played out for Rachel Shinn, Ricky Newton, and Sarah Newton. 

Searching for our nation’s soul

Why is it that my thoughts are so oft drawn to the intersection between religion and politics? I’ve been reading (more accurately listening to) Joseph J. Ellis’s book on the post-revolutionary founding of the United States: Founding Brothers. As I scan the historic countenances of our national forefathers, I’m always watching for evidence in their writing to indicate their true religious convictions. Truly, men of such deep and far-reaching thought must occasionally turn their minds to their personal destinies beyond death. And I’m not disappointed:

John Adams was known to his contemporaries for his strong Christian convictions. Most of his peers appear, in the sheen of history, silently annoyed by the professions of faith and morality that sounded so much like the New England puritan that, in fact, he was.

George Washington hasn’t fully emerged from the mists of time to tell me of his deepest inclinations. Known to be a Mason, he displayed firm character in battle, reservation in politics, and a vexing willingness to hold his tongue in the 1790 debates on slavery. His faith appears to be deep. So deep, in fact, that remaining evidences of it emerge mostly from speculation, it seems.

Thomas Jefferson had a quirky, murky inner life. He seemed to hold very true to the deistic Masonic belief in a god. He was known to have edited the gospels (with scissors!) to bring them more into line with his own beliefs. He once said, “I tremble for my country when I consider that god is a just god, and that his justice cannot sleep forever.” He was referring to the coming blight of slavery, which he seemingly abhorred just slightly less than the idea of a rift in the Union, and it’s not clear whether he was referring to Virginia or the United States of America when he referred to his country. His approach to religion seems best summed up by the following quote from the 1995 movie, “The Usual Suspects“: “I don’t believe in God, but I fear him.”

Benjamin Franklin, though born in Boston to puritan parents, started his life as a committed Atheist. He seems to have lost his faith in Atheism as he matured and saw more of the world than most in his generation. But that doesn’t mean he actually converted wholesale to bible-believing Christianity. He, too, seems to line up more with Jeffersonian deism. At one point, he actually edited the Lord’s Prayer for grammar, brevity, and better adherence to his own views. Later in life, he would attend and listen to the preaching of George Whitefield. He appreciated the preacher’s effects on him to such an extent that his later visits to the man’s meetings saw him carrying only that sum of money he was willing to part with in the collection. But he stopped just short of a wholesale conversion, probably thinking himself too tempered and measured to let his emotions decide such matters for him.

When I admiringly examine these men, who have become heroes to me for various reasons, I am sometimes tempted to despair. Taken collectively, their views seem to merge into the sort of ‘publick religion’ argued for by John Meacham in his fascinating book, “American Gospel“. They don’t seem at all the sort of Christian men I’ve heard described in debates on school prayer and abortion law. Some have told me that linguistic differences account for this phenomenon. They say that when these men use words like ‘Providence’, they were obliquely referencing such concepts as ‘a saving knowledge of and personal relationship with Jesus Christ’. I’m willing to partially concede this point, as linguistics have changed. But not fully.

My reasoning stems from the words and example of another man, their contemporary. He was a little-known Quaker who never signed the declaration of independence or graced the world’s stage in any meaningful way. But he did keep a journal, his version of a blog, if you will.

John Woolman died in 1774, before the American States earned their independence with blood, cleverness, and some darn good diplomacy. He started his working life as a shop clerk and eventually became a traveling speaker amongst the Society of the Friends, or the Quakers. His message was that of emancipation of slaves, and his appeal (like his journal) was entirely spiritual. He refers directly to Christ as his saviour and God as his heavenly Father. His understanding of his own sin is very personal, unlike Jefferson’s references to god’s wrath against his nation’s injustices. A man of such humility that he seems to intentionally play down his own importance in world events around him, he stands in this regard in direct comparison with Franklin, who, for all his wisdom, seldom denied his ego or his libido. Woolman’s faith seems to resonate through the pages of history with the mystical faith of Paul of Tarsus (who wrote several letters with which you may be familiar).

The Quakers were pacifists who largely sat out the American revolution. It’s worth noting that they brought the issue of slavery to the forefront of the national consciousness in 1790, three years after the U.S. Constitution was signed, by petitioning congress for the end of the detestable practice. Congress’s first reaction? In so many words, “What credibility have these pacifists who refused to shed their own blood to the secure the freedom with which they now speak?” That’s a refrain that echoes still today, even in my neighborhood. But their message against slavery was a clarion call that emanated from their own consciences, and in the back of their minds they surely heard the unadulterated voice of John Woolman urging them to obey their God.

References:

Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis

The First American, The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin (unfinished work)

1776 by David McCullough

John Adams by David McCullough

American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by John Meacham

The Journal of John Woolman taken from the Harvard Classics (my copy published 1909)

The Depths of My Own Murky Mind by Andrew Shinn

What to do about Immigration?

Note on the text: This is an old post that I never finished. The deficit of my attention-economy makes it likely that I never will. I’m publishing it for what little it’s worth. – AJS

Someone was talking generally about politics Sunday and complaining that many people are willing to criticize without offering solutions. I certainly don’t want to fall into that camp with regard to immigration. Thus far I’ve only pointed to both sides and delcared what we shouldn’t be doing. You can read those posts here and here. I’d like to start discussing solutions with you, my fair readers. But first, a few words about tone and context:

The immigration debates have fallen victim to one of the chief ills of our political system today: polarization. Any issue seems to be reduced to two sides that have positions of sound-byte depth. Each side will establish their position, then proceed to fill the air with the shouting of the aforementioned sound-bytes, never stopping to listen to dissenting voices. Those who do stop to listen hear nothing but their opponents shouting with vigor equal to their own, albeit with different talking points. Our challenge as those who seek to be informed citizens and change agents is to take a position that falls into neither of the poles, but with a depth of analysis and a solution set that will appeal to both of them.

The factor that separates this debate is the drawing of the lines between those two poles. The immigration debate is producing unlikely bed-fellows, like Big Business and the ACLU. The uncertainty over where the lines are drawn allows us a great opportunity to be the signal in the noise that breaks the polarization cycle.