Friday, December 17, 2010

Labels, Learning, and One More Story

I mentioned in my last post that I was going to watch the No Labels launch via webcast since I didn't make the trip to New York. It was impressive to see some major political and media figures express their support for an organization that won't be driven by hyper-partisanship. Anything that lessens name calling, misrepresentation, and pat answers is something I'm in favor of.

It was enlightening to watch the event and then read the response in the media. Some argued it was business as usual. Others said that it was simply Centrist Democrats trying to regain the position they held in the Clinton years. Others complained that by equating name calling on the extreme right (Hitler, socialists, etc.) with those name calling on the left (obstructionists, homophobes) that we weren't condemning bad behavior.

Here's what I've been reflecting on this week. First, there is no value in trying to prove that my behavior is not as extreme as my opponent. If there are assumed norms of proper behavior and I've crossed them in my caricature of the other side, it doesn't really matter HOW FAR I crossed the line. The truth that the other's behavior was more egregious isn't an excuse for my behavior. My response, as hard as it is, should be one of apology and repentance. I'd like to think that would bring about a reciprocal response from the other, but even if it doesn't it's the right thing to do. If I want to see civil behavior, the pressure is on my to demonstrate it. (Think of it as the Sermon on the Mount does Politics.)

Some observers of the No Labels launch recognized that the only Republican speakers participating were moderates, some of whom had been forced out by Tea Party challenges. I think that's a good critique and a movement committed to true engagement of issues must find ways of reaching out to all segments of the political spectrum. They may not want to come, but the invitation needs to be regularly made.

There were several media figures that participated in the event. In watching them, particularly as part of panel discussions, it clarified one of the major issues in cable news today. They think it's about them. On more than one occasion, media figures talked too much, for too long, and kept other voices from being heard. I remember Walter Cronkite as "the most trusted man in America" but I don't remember him as A Celebrity.

This leads me to something my daughter Niki shared with me today. A group called World Public Opinion conducted a study of what people knew about the recent campaign and where they got their information. Not surprisingly, they reported that the 2010 campaign was seen as more distorted than those in the past. Further, they show how much reliable data exists to dispute claims made in the election. Finally, they examined how the source of news correlated with certain incorrectly held views.

This last piece was instructive on several grounds. First, folks who watched Fox News every day were far more likely to hold a number of distorted views (this is correlation, so it could be that folks with distorted views just watch Fox more often). There were some other interesting patterns where people's views moved toward more correct positions (with the same correlation exception -- maybe rapid NPR listeners already know a lot of stuff).

But the amazing data to me was HOW LITTLE DIFFERENCE viewing patterns made. If I were a news executive, I'd be mortified. My best guess is that the media has so bought into the approach of "on the one hand we have A" and "on the other hand we have B" that people think that all data is suspect, that everybody lies, and that I can simply decide what I think is right and then find sources to back me up. This is a major challenge to democracy.  Like it or not,  FACTS EXIST. We may disagree as to what the policy reactions to those facts might be, but we don't get to treat facts as if we're at Old Country Buffet.

Media figures need to return to being humble newspeople making difficult situations easier to understand. If the CBO says that the Health Care Law will reduce the deficit over time, repeat this fact every time anyone says otherwise. Currently, the person doing this better than anyone else is Anderson Cooper. If more journalists would follow his lead, we'd be a healthier society. On the other hand, we have the stories of how Fox executives suggested particular wording in talking about policy in order to create a specific impression. Such behavior should be denounced by professional journalists everywhere.

Enough ranting about the media and how they not only don't understand a group like No Labels but seem to want to make Labels more rigid (makes their job easier). Maybe in this week where compromise actually happened we'll find some new descriptions of reality.

One more Story. It's The Story. Last time I commented on the Holiday Parade, Christian America, and the War on Christmas. I know there's no war on Christmas and having people say Happy Holidays is nothing more than a combination of secular society and consideration for Jews. But it is still interesting that the story of Jesus being born in a stable is part of our overall sense of the Christmas season. People who've never gone to church know about Angels and Shepherds and Magi. Maybe it all comes back to the moment when Linus asks for the lights to come on in the auditorium. But people know the story. They get it mixed up with acquisition and Santa Claus and once in Illinois we saw a pig in the creche (which isn't quite kosher). But the Story remains. Somehow it cuts through all the other stuff this time of year. It's a miracle, really.

To use another line we all know, God Bless Us Every One.

Next blog post in 2011. Have a Marvelous Christmas.

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Stories, Your Stories, and Our Stories

I like stories. They go a long way to remind us who we are, where we fit, and where we're going. I don't really mean stories we learned as children or fiction we read as adults or drama we watch on television.

I'm more focused lately on the stories that we use to define identity. This is a theme I've been trying to address over the past couple of months. Identity stories are often used to divide "us" from "them".

I finished a wonderful book over the weekend, Christian America and the Kingdom of God, by Richard Hughes of Messiah University. Richard is a wonderful person, a sweet spirit, and a deep Christian. Hughes describes the history of our civil democracy, explores the periods of activity attempting to define us as a Christian Nation, and contrasts the view of Christian Nationalism with a commitment to the Kingdom of God. He is persuasive in showing the connections between biblical inerrancy, dispensational theology, and political strategy.

It's a great book and one can't argue with its logic. But I realized after reading it, and even e-mailed Richard to this effect, that those who make Christian America part of their narrative don't care about logic or the details of history. To them, being in Christian America is all tied up in who they are and how they function in the civil society. If they were to accept Richard's excellent analysis, they would be at a loss as to where they fit.

But the narrative they've tied their identity to not only isn't true historically, it's unsustainable in the present. It actually creates risk that their positions will not be taken seriously over the long run.

Let me illustrate with some recent examples; two from Oklahoma and one from California. The first illustration from Oklahoma relates to their recently passed referendum to ban Sharia law from being applied anywhere in the state. Statistics show that the total Muslim population of Oklahoma is less than half a percent. There has never been any conversation about introducing Sharia law into Oklahoma (or any other state for that matter). So what is the point? It appears to be a means of writing into law the privileged position of Christian Oklahomans.

The second example comes from Senator James Inhofe (the one who is sure global warming is a hoax). He has refused to participate in a Parade in Tulsa because it's called a "Holiday Parade." Inhofe explained to Fox and Friends that Christmas is about Christ's birth and that's what he wants to celebrate. First, Hughes' book makes clear that favoring Holiday over Christmas is not unlike Jefferson talking about The God of Nature. It is kind of religious (in a sociological sense) without being specifically Christian. That's a good thing in terms of both first amendment criteria and in creating a big tent that allows diversity. A simple Google search finds that about 1% of Oklahomans are Jewish and that the Christian population of the state (the 8th most religious) is only 65%. A Holiday parade seems to be something that would represent the breadth of folks who live in Oklahoma. So why is Inhofe offended?

The third example involved the Federal Appeals Court hearing regarding the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that amended the California constitution to define marriage as being between only one man and one woman. The initiative passed by a slim majority (52% to 48%) and was subsequently declared unconstitutional by a state judge. Today's hearing was the federal appeal of that action. Since it was televised on CSpan, I got to watch. The proponent for Prop 8 argued that a) the CA supreme court had invalidated heterosexual marriage, b) that two-parent marriage is best for children, and c) that marriage supports procreation. As I listened to his argument, particularly after reading Richard's book, I was amazed at the narrative he was clinging to. Why would he argue that his marriage was threatened? Why does he put so much weight on "the people's voice?" Where does childrearing fit into his story? I have read conservatives like David Brooks argue that society should favor committed relationships in any form. If the people's voice is sacrosanct, what happens if the next initiative fails? Where does divorce fit in? And what about the recent surveys saying that young people, especially those with less education, don't feel marriage is necessary for companionship or procreation?

What I'm recognizing is that these stories are mythic in character. It's not that they're related to evidence or logic. They speak to what people deeply feel.

But as I've written in earlier posts, the situation on the ground is changing. The percentage of folks, particularly younger folks, who claim no faith at all is increasing. Muslims, Hindus, Arabs, Persians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Ukrainian, and Latin American populations will not only continue to be part of America, they will be more mobile than they've been in the past and many will settle in Oklahoma. Some have significantly higher birth rates which has tremendous long-term demographic implications. The flip side of the recent terrible stories of gay teen suicides is that folks are "coming out" earlier and earlier. It will be very common for today's school children to go through their school years with at least one close friend who is gay.

So our past stories will become increasingly fragile. We can choose to fight to hold on to our story or we can figure out how to write new ones.

One book I return to on a regular basis is called Primal Leadership, written by the Emotional Intelligence psychologist Daniel Goleman and some business folks. It's a marvelous book. I've not always put it into practice as I'd like, but it provides some guidance to working with others and I keep trying. The authors talk about how four domains work together to inform leadership: self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management.

I haven't worked out all the connections yet, but I'm thinking that these four domains provide us with a means of working on civil discourse and the narrative style that requires. When are we feeling threatened and why? How do we remain open while considering other positions? How do our arguments impact others? How can we put the building of civil society ahead of simply how I want things to be?

Here's what I wish could happen. Senator Inhofe would be invited to the Holiday Parade. His first reaction would be discomfort that his Christmas Parade had been retitled. He would need to talk to leaders about why Christian components of the holiday season was important to him. But he would also need to be reminded that for many people in the parade, Hanukah might be significant and for others, simply celebrating family is enough. It might be possible then to see how a narrative could be created that brought all these differing views together as a celebration of community and what makes Oklahoman life so wonderful. (Maybe I'm pushing things, but I have friends in Oklahoma and giving the benefit of the doubt!)

What we need is a more vibrant, more versatile, and more variant approach to narrative. To truly go back to our founding as a country. This is where we find story. It's in what Alexis de Toucqueville found when he toured America in its early years -- a diverse people who were able to build a common story. Not by holding to the stories from the Old Country (well, a little bit, but that became hard to maintain) but by writing new story.

One more thing. Next Monday is the official launch of a group I've joined called NoLabels.Org. It is an effort by politicians, journalists, and civic leaders to return to a form of civil discourse that isn't defined by party or political labels. I'm excited to be a Founding Member. I wish I could go to New York for the big launch event (I looked into it but the schedule didn't work). But I'm hopeful that by working with those different from me we can craft the new narratives that have the resilience required for today's challenges.

Anyone else interested in delving in some Creative Writing?