What I Learned from Watching The Voice: I Think I Live in a Bubble

2016_TheVoice_S10_mdot_1Besides a few episodes of Disney Channel shows geared to middle schoolers in the 90s, I didn’t really watch TV growing up. I preferred to read books, having been raised on the general theory that television is bad for the brain.

My first foray into television was after college, when I discovered the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Insightful, biting, and well-researched, I used it as a news source and a sort of moral guide. Other than the Daily Show, I have seen the first several seasons of West Wing, and a few episodes each of Master of None and 30 Rock. I also love Sherlock.

I have never watched a reality show. I never watch mainstream news channels (I don’t own cable). I do not watch sports or dramas.

My biggest interactions with the media are indie films, Pandora radio, and news publications. I read the New York Times and The Boston Globe and a daily political digest called MASSter List, and articles posted by my friends on Facebook from sources like The Atlantic, Jezebel, The Guardian, VerySmartBrothas, and Salon. I think I am probably representative of a large segment of the young, liberal, elite-educated population. We think of ourselves as smart and well-informed and interesting and curious, and we get a lot of our information from each other and from the same news sources. We are in an echo-chamber of sorts, a Bubble.

Don’t get me wrong: the Bubble can be a beautiful place. Inclusive, diverse, and justice-oriented, not to mention intellectually stimulating, it keeps me on my toes and pushes me to think critically constantly. But I am a bit concerned that it’s a Bubble in the first place.

A few weeks ago I caught an awful fever that had me sprawled on the couch for three days straight. In my delirium, I began watching The Voice, recommended to me by a colleague who knows I love to sing. I was so enthralled by what I saw (and heard) that I am now following the whole season.

Watching The Voice has been eye opening for me, not the least of which included recognizing how ridiculously talented some people are at singing. But I’ve also learned some unexpected lessons:

1. I live in a Bubble of intellectual, critical, negative, and sarcastic commentary on the world. In this Bubble, people are respected for criticizing authority and systems, pointing out weakness and mistakes of people in authority, and discovering ways in which someone else’s way of thinking about the world is not inclusive enough. Life seems to be about accomplishing important things, making the correct criticisms about the world, being smart (using certain advanced vocabulary is key here), and having experiences that are unique and would be respected by others.

2. Outside of the Bubble, these things are not values. They are seen as negative and arrogant and obstructionist. Rather, values include: being nice to your mother, being grateful for what you’ve been given and loyal to your country, being warm and friendly, participating in community properly, living a good and humble life, being loyal to your spouse and loving to your children, and working hard at your job. Life seems to about relationships, home life, and fun experiences that you enjoy in the moment.

3. Outside of the Bubble, most people believe in God, and saying thank you to God will earn you applause, not derision.

4. Outside of the Bubble, people respect members of the American military personally. They don’t just talk about American foreign policy on an abstract level. The sacrifice of soldiers is personal, and is based on a deep love for America. If that love for America is questioned, then you are questioning the sacrifices and risks of real soldiers and making those soldiers out to be worthless.

5. Outside of the Bubble, story, character, and personality matter: how people come across personally, how their backgrounds are narrated, how they make you feel… these things affect a person’s popularity and status.

I don’t know that I can change who I am or who I’ve been educated to be, but I wonder if there are ways we can bust the Bubble. Can we abandon our sarcasm for story? Can we concern ourselves less with criticism and more with character? Can we expand our sources to include the voices of those outside the Bubble?

Or is this sort of accountability and questioning necessary for the advancement of justice? Are our sources legitimately better?

Is it a Bubble it all? Maybe I’m imagining things.

But as we watch the election against Trump near, I am wondering above all: how can we use our awareness of the values of people outside of the Bubble to achieve a better world for all people? Instead of deriding ‘them,’ can we bring a message to the non-Bubble-dwellers that respects and invites them in to our work?

Thoughts for the day.


The Hillary-Bernie Debates Part 3: The Dangers of Meme Politics

(It’s taken a while for me to pinpoint just why a progressive young person like me isn’t feeling the Bern [1]. This is the best explanation I have.)

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I know something about working in a job that everyone thinks they know how to do. I couldn’t count the number of times that I have told people I am a teacher only to find myself on the receiving end of advice about how to really interest my students, what assignments I should create, how charter schools really have it figured out, and have I thought about this restorative justice thing?  Teaching is a frustrating profession as it is, but having the general public assume they know how to do my job better than me only makes that frustration more acute, because I can assure you that– even if you’ve read a few articles and seen a few memes and spent your childhood in a classroom– if I put you in front of 30 teenage students, a third of them special needs, a fourth of them English language learners, and several of them heavy hitting behavior cases, you would not know how to do my job. (Honestly, there are days when I’m still learning how to do my job, and I’ve got a Master’s degree and several years of experience under my belt.)

As I’ve watched this election unfold through internet memes and Facebook newsfeeds, I have to admit, I feel nauseous sometimes, and weirdly compassionate for the candidates whose humanities we sacrifice in our frenzy. The sureness with which people declare judgment over politicians, the passion with which they proselytize and justify their own views, the cowing and pandering politicians have to do in order to keep their jobs, the frustration politicians must feel trying to strike a balance between good policymaking, which is complex and rarely easily explained, and the world of memes and sound bites, which loves everything clean, sleek, convenient, and in 140 words or less… I feel bad for anyone caught in it. It’s just a nagging suspicion, but I don’t think we the people know as much as we think we know.

This is my concern with Bernie Sanders. It’s why I can’t get behind what he is selling.

Bernie Sanders sells a meme-ready vision of America as a highly regulated, semi-socialist country. In his America, healthcare is universal and free, college educations are free, minimum wage is $15, and the big banks get cut to pieces.

The only problem is… that isn’t America. America’s strengths as a country are its innovation (a result of semi-unregulated economies, for example, the environment that created Uber), its financial industry (because we are the center of the world in terms of banking) and sheer wealth, the media and entertainment industry, our military power, our corporations’ brand name power, our commercialization of standardized and convenient food products, our obsession with variety and choice, and our population’s relative comfort with heterogeneity (which few other countries can even come close to. I’m sorry, but Finland is never going to be as diverse in race, language, and class background as America. There is nowhere in the world like New York City.).

They may not be likeable strengths, and there may be a lot of problems in the list I just made, but that is the country we’ve got. If we want to have Bernie’s vision (which legitimately would be awesome), he needs to not be running for president: he needs to write a series of constitutional amendments to fix our broken version of federalism.

Government infrastructure, and especially centralized infrastructure, is not one of our strengths. Funding public services and regulatory bodies consistently and effectively is definitely not one of our strengths (just look at the EPA and the SEC– regulatory bodies that Congress has slowly eviscerated through sheer lack of funding in each budget. For that matter, look at public defenders! One person serving as a lawyer to hundreds of defendants? Look at public education! Why do I teach 140 students? How is it even possible to do that well?). Having the government do jobs that private companies can do is definitely not one of our strengths: just look at how many contractors we hire to outsource everything from test-writing to military equipment manufacturing.

Federalism itself is constantly leading to confusions over jurisdiction. My public school district at the moment is caught in a nasty version of Tragedy of the Commons: Trying to Get Funding from Multiple Levels of Government Edition.

I think it’s deeply irresponsible for Bernie to be painting this semi-socialist picture of America, not because it isn’t a powerful and beautiful dream, but because it isn’t achievable through a presidency. Progressive disillusionment is almost as scary as other forms of backlash we are seeing this year, and I am afraid that Bernie is selling an impossible vision to a group of people who are dangerously close to permanent disengagement from American politics. His probable loss in this election is going to lead many of them to simply refuse to participate, which is exactly what we don’t need.

And even if he is elected: if the majority of liberals in America were disillusioned with Obama after four years in, how on earth will Bernie supporters feel after four years of him getting pummeled and blocked at every corner? Are they going to turn their backs on him in disdain too?

Plus, even though his policies might make great memes, I honestly don’t think many of them make good federal laws in the country we currently have.

For example: a national $15 minimum wage. Interesting idea. Great meme. But far more complex in reality: it would certainly make the human capital costs to get small businesses started much higher, it would certainly raise the prices of certain products, and it would most likely increase the rate of inflation. I am betting it would add pressure on companies to outsource labor to other countries as well. How will we address these concerns? How will we protect small businesses and keep companies from outsourcing? What about the people who don’t get paid by hour, but by weight of food picked? How will we address the almost certain consequence of a resulting increase in undocumented labor abuse?

And does a higher minimum wage really address the issue Bernie cares about, expanding and securing the middle class? I’m not sure. I’m all for keeping the minimum wage at pace with inflation, and that’s fine. But (a) isn’t that a state issue? And (b) shouldn’t we be prioritizing not better minimum wage jobs, but rather more jobs that are better than minimum wage? We want more great jobs, not better shitty jobs.

This is just one of those moments when meme-politics make me skeptical. Maybe a $15 minimum wage would be amazing; I’m excited about cities that have tried it. Or maybe it would be disastrous. But it seems a lot more complicated than Bernie suggests.

And then there’s universal healthcare. I’ve had positive experiences with it in both India and Europe. But are we thinking about just how many jobs will be lost in the eradication of the highly lucrative insurance industry? And the backlash? Are we thinking about the tax money it’ll cost? Are we thinking about the sheer infrastructure required to make this happen? I work in a public profession, and I can tell you: it isn’t always pretty. Do we want our doctors to be unionizing? Do we want healthcare to be a bargaining chip between different levels of government who are arguing over funding? And is the public really ready to give up their freedom to choose their healthcare and have it when they want it? Are we ready for the wait times? I’m skeptical.

I know European countries can do it, and good for them. But they are smaller, their governments more centralized, their populations more homogeneous. And they are a bit better organized. Plus, half of their populations, generally speaking, are not trying to defund and abolish all public services at all times.

[And call me capitalist, but I sort of like Obamacare. It’s a very American compromise between socialism and capitalism: Yes, everyone needs to be insured and have access to healthcare, but we’ll offer a public version of insurance to cover those who can’t get it privately, while the private companies will still be able to do their thing, earn their money, employ their people.]

The only part of Bernie’s platform that I really want to fully get behind is campaign finance reform[2]. And that’s a big one, so it’s nothing to spit at. If he gets elected president, and that’s the one thing he manages to change, I would not be mad at him. That’s a battle worth fighting, and if won, it would have ripple effects on every other battle we fight.

But I don’t know if he really has a viable plan for fighting Citizens United from the Oval Office. (No– refusing to take donations from big banks who don’t want to donate to him anyhow is not a viable plan for fixing campaign finance reform. That’s just proving a point, and it’s likely not even going to get him the election, though I could be wrong). And that’s my concern with so much of Bernie’s platform: his ideas are too broad and too vague, and it seems to me that his supporters generally base their arguments on the premise that Bernie deserves the presidency because he is morally more righteous than everyone else in the game.

I just can’t remember the last time ‘being right’ got much of anything done on Capitol Hill.

Maybe I’ll be wrong. God willing, I’ll be wrong.

I think that Bernie correctly identifies some of the most problematic parts of our country. I think he has suggested some great infrastructure changes based on precedents in other countries. I think that the vision he has is beautiful, and it has led to enthusiasm from a huge part of the American public that has felt disappointed in our broken government up until this point.

But I don’t want him to be my president. Instead, I wish that he would us his position in Congress to actually fix our government constitutionally. I wish he would increase the number of seats in the House. I wish he would mandate that we develop a multiparty system. Perhaps most importantly, I wish that we would quit having a popularly elected president and instead move to a prime minister elected by Congress (then people would pay attention to the elections that really matter, and billions of dollars wouldn’t be spent on one that honestly, doesn’t. Plus, we would be guaranteed a less obstructed lawmaking body). I wish that he would rewrite the Amendments that dictate the rights of the states and the rights of the federal government to clearly delineate who is responsible for what is so we stop wasting government money on battles between different layers of government, or battles between parties arguing over these powers. I wish that he would constitutionally define who gets to vote and how much money is allowed in politics.

But he doesn’t need to be president to do that. He needs to be in Congress.

To Bernie fans: I love that you exist. Our country was founded by people like you. One can only hope it will be re-founded and revolutionized by people like you. Our government is deeply broken and needs to be re-done by people who have imaginations big enough to look past questions like “Is it possible?” to see a different way. We need people like you to counter old despairing codgers like me.

But if Bernie burns in this election, don’t abandon our country. You are the people we need. The system is broken. You are the ones we need to fix it.


1. Honestly, one of the biggest reasons I didn’t vote for Bernie is how his followers talk about Hillary. Bernie isn’t a god. He might be great in your estimation, and he might even end up being an awesome president. But he’s going to let you down. And the passionate Hillary-hating is nauseating, and it’s unfair; if you’re hating on Hillary personally, you need to hate on every single Democrat. The party took a series of calculated risks, because politics is like chess, and they were trying to gauge strategies for success. Hillary was a representative of a party trying to serve you in a world trying to take things from you. You may not like parties because you don’t want to get your hands dirty, and you may not appreciate the groundwork laid there, but there is a reason Bernie Sanders has declared himself a Democrat; he knows he can get something from affiliating with an organization that has such strategies. This is politics; half of the country disagrees with you about what should be done, so what are you going to do to get around that? For Bernie’s followers to take those chess moves out of context and place personal moral judgment on the pieces, I have to stand up with everyone else crying foul. Why should Hillary be crucified for decisions Democrats have made as a group? That is both illogical and unfair. Plus, she is perhaps the most actively apologetic politician I know; she– like all people– makes mistakes and sometimes poor choices of word or action. But better than the rest of them, she apologizes and rectifies. She takes criticism and suggestions pretty darn well for a politician. I am fine with Bernie running against Hillary. I am fine with him suggesting a new ideology for the Democratic party. I am even fine with him joining the Democratic Party now that it’s beneficial to him. But I am not fine with the special vitriol with which his followers are treating Hillary, as if she is the worst of all humankind. She actually isn’t. She’s just a Democratic politician who has lived through an era when the party moved to the center. Disagree with her, hold her accountable, fine. That’s your job. But the treatment I hear is straight up dehumanizing hatred, which is unfair–and really turns me off. Why would I join a group of people who do that to people on their own team? I didn’t even talk about Bush with that kind of hatred. Disdain and frustration, but never this sort of hatred. It’s alarming. (I am not going to get into sexism right now, but that’s also a real thing).

2. I get that Wall Street is incredibly problematic. Actually empowering the government to regulate what Dodd Frank outlines would be world-changing, literally. But it feels far too simple to direct the rage of the frustrated victims of a broken economy at the nebulous concept of “Wall Street” and “Income Inequality” because there isn’t a simple fix for it. Isn’t such scapegoating the same thing Trump does, except instead of using immigrants we’re using bankers? Wall Street itself is just far too complex for this sort of rhetoric. If in 2008, the government hadn’t stepped in, it wouldn’t have just been the banks that had failed. Our lives were bound up in those banks: our pensions and mortgages and family savings accounts, not to mention a ton of jobs. The banking industry, as problematic as it is, is one of the major sectors of our economy. We must regulate it without destroying it. We must regulate it without pushing it abroad to countries with friendlier corporate tax policies. I have a hunch that regulating Wall Street is going to take more than a stubborn president who scorns banks and refuses their money. There are deeper rooted problems.

(Guest Post) The Hillary-Bernie Debates, Part 2: On Progress

This is a guest post by my friend, Jeremy Marion, who is a staunch Bernie supporter. You can find him on Facebook or email him at his name at gmail.com. (Read Part 1 HERE.)


On Leadership:

 “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Bernie Sanders, like Martin Luther King Jr. before him is leading a revolution. To doubt leaps in progress are achievable is to disregard history, and to instill that doubt in others is to aid in its defeat. Many people admire and understand the influence that King had on civil rights, but there is a big difference between knowing the facts of history and acquiring wisdom from history. The wisdom he spread (that is lost on even his most ardent admirers) comes from the ideals that made his movement successful.

When one understands and practices the values that King advocated, it becomes clear which candidate’s platform he would rally behind, and which candidate’s platform he would rally against. If there is anything that we should have learned from him, it is that we all need to fight for justice. Read his words for yourself and think about who he would support if he was alive today.

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who is not silent or dismissive about the things that matter most.

On Political Progress

In a democracy, even one as broken as ours, we the people have the ability to transform our dreams into reality, but only if we fight for it. I have no doubt that every successful progressive movement throughout history was marginalized by pessimism under the guise of realism, but the truth is that there is no such stance as realism. The definition of optimism and pessimism stem from that fact that our future is uncertain; they are simply qualitative descriptions of our predictions of future events. To label oneself as a realist is to misunderstand this concept. One can be an optimist, a pessimist, or uncertain. Only the future can reveal reality.

Certainly people can be so extreme in their optimism or pessimism that no reasonable person would view their ideas as realistic, but the ideals of the political revolution that Bernie Sanders is leading are not extreme. The idea that the richest country in the world can not afford to provide healthcare to all of its citizens or ensure that every full-time worker receives a living wage is pessimistic. Those ideas are mainstream and have ample public support. If we want these things to come to fruition, then we need to end the pessimism of our fellow progressives, because that pessimism is just as big of an obstacle as the right wing conservative agenda that we all want to defeat.

On progressives as people

The progressive movement is about more than politics. Before progress can be made as a society, we must make progress as individuals. We must strive to be the most virtuous version of ourselves. Specifically, there are five virtues that make up the foundation of progressives. Most if not all people possess these virtues to a certain extent, but it is the consistent use and application of these virtues that define our character.

1) Compassion is required because, without it, we would not be motivated to minimize the suffering and maximize the well-being of all conscious beings.

2) Reason is required to prevent errors of all kinds. It allows us to solve problems and realize our goals.

3) Honesty with oneself and with others is required to establish trust and credibility. A person who can not be trusted can hold a position of power, but they cannot lead.

4) Courage is required to overcome our fears. When we fear failure, or judgment, we don’t take action.

5) Self-awareness is required to realize when we are not living up to the virtues that we believe in. A lack of self-awareness can make honest men liars, turn geniuses into fools, and turn caring men and women cruel. It is the best defense against doublethink, the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. All others virtues are rendered useless if we are not aware of our own behavior.

These virtues must be valued more than anything else if we are to truly be virtuous. We must value them more than more than comfort, and more than God. If we value God most, then we are guilty of violating the last four virtues listed. To believe in a personal supernatural being requires a suspension of reason, a suspension of honesty with oneself, and a suspension of self-awareness, maybe due to the lack of courage to face our own mortality or the judgment from our friends and family.

It always is a dangerous game to suspend our virtues for the sake of comfort. Every time one does this, they become more and more susceptible to doing it again, maybe even to the point that they can no longer be classified as a progressive at all.

On Hillary Clinton’s values

 “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” — George Orwell

Hillary has consistently revealed herself to be of low moral character. She is an opportunist. I’m not saying she doesn’t care about people; I’m just saying she cares so much more about herself than humanity as a whole. She has compromised her values so many times in the pursuit of power that it is apparent that power is what she values most. The pragmatist narrative she is promoting is a cover. The real reason she can’t endorse progressive policies is because she has made backroom deals with more special interests than she can even remember.

The reason she can’t be transparent is because her record is damning. It would sink her campaign. That is why she give answers like this:

Clinton: “Let me say this, I am happy to release anything I have when everybody else does the same because every other candidate in this race has given speeches to private groups, including Senator Sanders,”

(Note: Sanders has gotten less than $2,000 from speaking fees, released video of his speech, and donated that money to charity. Since 2001, Hillary and Bill Clinton have received 153-MILLION dollars from speaking fees.)

Questioner: “How can we trust that this isn’t just more political rhetoric? Please just release those transcripts so that we know exactly where you stand,”

Clinton“Well you know where I stand because I’ve been in public standing there the whole time.”

The answer is just as bad as when she defended taking money from special interests by bringing up 9/11. If Hillary was the only one running, I’d justify her corruption. It is reasonable that she has to be corrupt to fight the Republicans who are even more corrupt. But Bernie has shown that the support for a political revolution is already here. If she really wanted to change the system, she would drop out and endorse him. But she doesn’t care to change the system; she just wants to be president. And that desire for power is actively preventing the progress we desperately need to make.

Progressives don’t spread the dogma that their dreams are not achievable, or that the system can’t be changed at any speed greater than a snail’s pace. Progressives lead in accordance with their values, not by what the polls show is popular at the time. A leader dictates what the polls say by molding a consensus

Bernie has not maliciously attacked Hillary even one time this campaign and he has had ample opportunity and just cause to do so. She is the one who knowingly lies about his record and insinuates his ideas are unrealistic. She even lies when she is telling the truth. No honest person accuses Sanders of voting to deregulate Wall Street while omitting the fact that he only did so because it was part of a must-pass bill to keep the government running. This is dishonest to its core and is something Sanders has never done. She has consistently stood on the wrong side of history and Bernie has consistently been on the right side of history.

And finally, Clinton absolutely can not defeat Trump. She has infuriated Sanders supporters so much with her dishonest campaign that much too many of them will not show up to vote for her. The hate she has garnered from them is on par with their hate of the Republican candidates. Too many will stay home or vote for Trump to watch the world burn.

Sanders on the other hand, does beat Trump according to the polls and Hillary supporters generally don’t have any problems with Sanders. This is because Sanders has done nothing to deserve anything less than the utmost respect of the people. He a true progressive, an independent thinker, and a man of uncompromising virtue. He is a once in a lifetime candidate that we desperately need to elect if we want change.

The Hillary-Bernie Debates, Part 1: Blood on My Hands

(This dialogue was first played out on Facebook. It has been re-posted here. During this series, I will be featuring my friend Jeremy Marion as a guest poster. He is a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter. I voted for Hillary in the primaries.)

DEM 2016 Debate
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)


I gave money to Bernie Sanders today.

I do not think Sanders is a viable president; I like some of his policies, but a lot of them seem irrelevant to the U.S. economy as it currently exists. I don’t think he can build consensus or really get much done. I don’t like his gun policies. I think he is often stubborn and unwilling to listen or reach out or compromise. Mostly, I’m really turned off by some of the stuff his supporters say (“You better vote for Bernie because I’m never voting for Hillary!”) and how delusional many progressives seem to be about how expensive his policies would be and how difficult they would be to pass. Though my heart is progressive, my mind is practical, and Hillary is my practical choice. She’s smart and tough. She knows how to work with people, prioritize, compromise, respond to the public, and get around Washington. She is a skillful and experienced politician who has consistently led and stood for the center-left’s policies (though, yes, those things have changed over time, with the public and our party). Overall, though, I’ve just been proud to be a Democrat throughout this debate season, and impressed by both of my candidate’s intellects and efforts.

That being said, I was deeply disappointed by Hillary’s AIPAC speech, and it was the last in several moments over the last few weeks that made me uneasy. I do not expect politicians to always be 100% truthful with the public (I am not 100% truthful with my students– that would be unprofessional, and national security isn’t at stake in my daily work), and I expect in many ways for them to say what people want them to hear. In some ways, this is what we pay them to do: comfort us, tell us we believe the right things, tell us that things are stable while they take care of the hard parts for us, behind the scenes. But Hillary has presented herself as a continuation of the Obama era, and one of the things Obama has developed is a foreign policy that is less imperialistic and more peace-focused. He has avoided starting a wholesale war in Syria the way we jumped into Iraq. He has insisted in several cases that other countries’ problems are their problems. He has opened his hand to Iran and to Cuba. He has urged peace and reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I would never be surprised that a speech at an AIPAC event would be pro-Israel in some way. But I do not like the ease with which Hillary suggested that more weapons were the answer, or the way she offered my country’s overwhelming power to bully “enemies” by violence as protection that Israel can count on. There were other ways to write that speech, which acknowledged the U.S.’s historic friendship with Israel and the realities of anti-semitism while also acknowledging that the best of friends help us to do what is right, even when it is hard. We all know that the U.S. giving Israel more weapons is too easy, is not right, and is not going to lead to more peace for either Israelis or Palestinians.

I want my students to grow up into a world with fewer guns at home and fewer weapons abroad. Many of them will go from harsh urban streets to harsher foreign deployments, and these policies and attitudes will affect them. It may cost some of them their lives. And if I have voted for someone whose policies lead to violence, the blood is on my hands too.

I want our next president to be a leader of peace, not someone who offers weapons-and-violence-by-the-U.S. cheaply, without agonizing over the lives such a gift package could cost.

I wish Bernie would stand up to guns at home. I wish Hillary would not so freely offer violence and weapons abroad. I wish. I wish. I wish.



Well said. I still disagree with some of these points but I am happy you are open to hearing new arguments and forming new opinions. The things I disagree with are as follows…

1) “I do not think Sanders is a viable president.”

I think he is plenty viable. I think if people understood his positions, he would beat her in a popular vote assuming everyone voted. He has the disadvantage of the mainstream media being against him and at the same time for Hillary. FOX hates Hillary more than Sanders, but CNN and MSNBC and even the Daily Show have been against Sanders from the start. Sometimes it is blatantly obvious and other times it is subtle.

He also has the disadvantage of terrible voting laws like closed primaries, no same day registration, and more of the like.

Finally, he beats the republicans by bigger margins than Hillary in almost every poll.

Even if he is not viable, I think it is up to progressives to make him viable. Bernie and his supporters must mold the consensus if it is not there yet.

2) “I like some of his policies, but a lot of them seem irrelevant to the U.S. economy as it currently exists.”

Not sure which ones you are referring to.

3) “I don’t like his gun policies.”

I’m not sure which policies you are referring to here either. From what I know, his views are sensible. He was against the Brady Bill only because it would allow people to sue mom and pop gun store owners if a gun they sold was used to hurt someone. I’m all for allowing people to sue the manufacturers for failing to improve safety features, but a mom and pop store should not be liable if someone uses a hunting rifle to kill someone.

Perhaps there is a different issue you are referring to, but I’m not sure.

4) “I think he is often stubborn and unwilling to listen or reach out or compromise.”

There are certain things that we should not compromise on. But he has shown he is willing to compromise. He is known as the “Amendment King” for his effectiveness for getting things passed and working with others. He has also voted on many bills he did not support because it was better than the alternative. Sanders will make compromises if they improve the conditions of the middle class.

5) “Mostly, I’m really turned off by some of the stuff his supporters say (“You better vote for Bernie because I’m never voting for Hillary!”)”

I get it, but I hope you understand why they say that. I have held that same position before. It was mostly out of rage. The dirty tactics that Hillary has used throughout her campaign have been infuriating. Enough to make me curse at the television. When the reality of a Trump presidency kicks in, most of them will change their tune like I have.

6) “…and how delusional many progressives seem to be about how expensive his policies would be and how difficult they would be to pass.”

He has proposed ways to pay for everything. Also, it is ok if his plans don’t pass as they are now. Like I said before, he will compromise as long as the final deal is better than the way things are now. This election is about more than policies, it is a much-needed political revolution. The only way to make progress is to fight for it and I know for a fact he will fight harder for the people than Hillary will.

7) “Though my heart is progressive, my mind is practical, and Hillary is my practical choice.”

Robert Reich said it best. “I’ve known Hillary Clinton since she was 19 years old, and have nothing but respect for her. In my view, she’s the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have.

“But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change.”

I am not ok with the system we have now. The amount of death and suffering caused by our current system, directly or indirectly is a moral tragedy. The time for this political revolution was a few decades ago and only Sanders is fighting for it.

8) “She’s smart and tough.”

I’m sure she is smarter than the average person, but the amount of blunders she makes is concerning. She has consistently shown she lacks the wisdom required to make the right decisions the first time. I feel like a large part of her campaign is about “evolving” on the issues she was wrong about in the first place. Sanders record shows he is a wise independent thinker who bases his decisions on reason and compassion.

9) “She knows how to work with people, prioritize, compromise, respond to the public, and get around Washington. She is a skillful and experienced politician who has consistently led and stood for the center-left’s policies…”

She will not be able to work with the republicans. They hate her as much or maybe even more than Obama. They may disagree with Sanders, but I don’t think they hate him.

I don’t see how she prioritizes well. The two most pressing issues we face is climate change and campaign finance reform. Sanders is stronger on both. Campaign finance reform is probably the top priority. If we can’t fix that first, then we can’t fix anything else.

I don’t think she knows how to respond to the public either. There is a reason she has such a high disapproval rating. There is a reason why so many Sanders supporters say they won’t vote for her. You are a supporter of hers and she has even managed to rub you the wrong way. Her campaign has been a series of blunders that require damage control to keep it afloat.

I don’t think she has consistently led. Her political career has been marked by her penchant for being on the wrong side of history only to evolve after the polls show it is safe.

10) “I do not expect politicians to always be 100% truthful with the public (I am not 100% truthful with my students– that would be unprofessional, and national security isn’t at stake in my daily work), and I expect in many ways for them to say what people want them to hear.”

I agree with this. The problem is that Hillary doesn’t lie in the good way you are referring to. She lies in the worst way, for her own political gain. There are dozens of examples, but I’ll just use one.

Remember when she claimed to have landed in Bosnia under sniper fire?


It was hard to watch someone try to wiggle out of such a blatant lie only to later say she “misspoke” due to sleep deprivation. This lie was on par with the lie that Brian Williams was suspended for. I don’t know a single person in real life who lies as consistently and as maliciously as she does.



I’ll answer #2 later (longer post– but in short, I don’t think the US is going to be a small semi socialist European country any time soon), but the Brady Bill is literally the best we’ve got. It’s the best organization out there, it does the best research and advocacy. You and I both know that his reasons for not supporting gun regulations have mostly to do with his voter base in rural VT and little to do with the bill itself. That justification is silly, and you know that. Even if such a case went to court, nothing would happen– that line of the bill is meant to hold stores accountable for upholding the law which is necessary. And yes, stores should absolutely be held accountable… We hold them accountable for selling cigarettes, poisonous food. Guns aren’t so different. This is what I mean by compromise, right? No law is perfect.

And for the record, I give away 10% of my income to various organizations that are doing the work I think is important in the world and right now, my rotation includes $100 each month to the Brady foundation. My students are asked to write dystopian stories at the end of tenth grade each year. As we go through the problems our world faces and the possible futures ahead of us, they say that what they wish more than anything is that there would be no more guns. So that matters to me. No “just”s about it.

Other than that point, I think this piece did a nice job of explaining some of my thoughts.

I know you have a rebuttal for everything, JJ. At this point, we both have voted and only can wait it out.

I’ll be with either of them, and I will play their strengths, and I will support them.



I honestly do not know much at all about the Brady foundation. I took Bernie at his word when he gave his reason why he voted against it. I do think defending the mom and pop stores is a valid reason though. I feel like it would be similar to suing a gas station for selling you cigarettes after you get lung cancer. I think the manufacturer should be held liable instead of the store owners. I have not read the bill myself so perhaps you are right about it being a non issue and that line is only meant to make sure they are following the law.

I love that you donate 10 percent of your income to charity. I hope I didn’t come off as demeaning in my argument above. I hold you in pretty high regard which is why I like to engage with you in the first place.



Not at all! It is a great treasure in life to have friends who will argue ideas with you. I’m excited for the rest of our series.

How do we change the world? Part II: A Treatise on Human Nature

Scale of Goodness

Click Here for Full Sized Graphic

A Treatise on Human Nature

No human is fundamentally, inherently, completely evil. While we all have our personality differences, and we all probably have self-interested, competitive, lazy, or ignorant tendencies, the actual completion of evil action that hurts others doesn’t come naturally to us. As much as we have instincts to protect ourselves, we also have instincts of compassion and the desire to please others.

This is why the question of evil is such a fascinating one. Arguably, all that is wrong with the world is the fault of humans. Yet humans aren’t born monsters. Human nature doesn’t work like that; someone whom we call “evil” is someone who has acted in an evil way enough times to develop a habit of evil, at which point it is a character trait. But evil isn’t a personality. We don’t put it on our driver’s licenses like our eye color or our height. And you might even find that it changes situationally. Humans who do evil things become that way because they are hurt, broken, ignorant, or put into situations that somehow bring out the worst in them.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have choices. But, unfortunately, choice-making is not actually one of our strengths. Humans are pretty terrible at thinking through our actions, words, and lives, and for the most part we live dumbly and uncritically—following habits and expectations laid out for us.

Nor does this mean that we are born in a vacuum. On the contrary, each of us is born into a position of either privilege or disadvantage, usually related to class, nationality, skin color, education, language/culture, or gender. As we make choices within our positions of power, we move up and down the scale of human goodness. If we make a choice to hurt people in our own self-interest, we move towards evil. If we make a choice to do good for people against our own self-interest, we move towards good. If we have little power in the world, our actions affect few others, so we stay near the middle of the scale. If we have great power in the world, our actions have huge repercussions for others, so we swing about wildly.

Many people would say that the more power you have, the harder it is to do good. This is why we are so impressed by people in power whom we admire; they’ve kept their heads and their hearts together. I’m not sure if I agree. I think the question is really who you are listening to. Are the people, systems, and institutions around you reminding you of your principles and purpose? Are they expecting you to do good? Are they giving you regular feedback about your character and its importance to them? Or are they encouraging you to win money at all cost? Are they encouraging you to protect your own interests? Are they encouraging you to ignore the needs of the wider world?

This is why systems and institutions and communities are so important: they either help us become better humans or make us worse humans.

One of my friends from college, Tim (name changed for this) and I met in a summer sublet. He was tall, smart, and goofy. Our first conversation together was 8 hours long. We discussed urban education, the nature of evil, the ways cities are structured, what causes we most care about, our families, our friends, and so much more. He wanted a comfortable life for his family, for the most part. He didn’t need to do anything heroic. But he would be willing to donate or share or help out if one of his friends asked. And he cared.

Three years later, I ran into Tim in Boston, where we both now live and work. He had become a consultant, and he was with some of his friends from work. We were excited to see each other. I joined them all for dinner and we made conversation. A few things quickly became clear: (1) they had zero interest in, or respect for, my job as an urban public school teacher, and (2) Tim had become obsessed with earning money. He and one of his colleagues spent much of the evening bemoaning the fact that they went to school for the wrong thing and if they had only started out at X they would be now earning so and so.

At the end of the night, I wished him well as I hopped onto the city bus to take me home. I haven’t seen him since, though I’m curious if he’s changed again.

Tim’s concept of success had been completely reshaped in the little bubble in which he was living. There was no sign left of the fascinating guy I had met in college, who cared so much about the world and was so interested in how it worked, who only wanted a comfortable family life. All that was left was a cookie-cutter Wall Street craving for more money and the perfect American life: 1 suburban home, 2.5 children, and enough vacation time to make it all pleasant. At least, that was what was being exhibited in our conversation with his coworkers.

I don’t think Tim is an evil person. However, I don’t think he is consciously making choices to be a force for good in the world either, and as a result, because of his situation and actions, he’s drifting down the scale. Then I wonder– if I asked him to donate to my classroom, would he be relieved to have the opportunity to do good? If I asked for his help, would he come in and volunteer? How much of doing good is merely the opportunity?

A few cautions about this graphic. I agonized over whether to create a separate category between 8 and 9 for people who at least keep themselves informed about issues, desire to change the wider world and do good, and like to have conversations about how to make the world a better place. I eventually decided this didn’t merit its own category. For all of us, our beliefs lead to action in some way, and the ways we exhibit our goodness are our own. If you are having conversations about the world, then you may in fact be a leader in some way, because you’re helping shape other people’s ideas and drive the conversation. And if you keep it on your to do list forever but never do anything, then your actions aren’t doing good for the world, so I am not sure you should get credit for it.

Lastly, I know that most of us want to be in one category but are actually in another, or we drift between two depending on what situation we are in, or we evaluate ourselves in different ways at different stages in our lives. This is by no means intended to be comprehensive, judgmental, or final. It’s a thought experiment that’s meant to start a conversation about human nature. No one’s pointing fingers.

From Robert Mugabe to Mother Theresa, Cheney to Obama, your mother to your best friend, we all fit somewhere on the scale. Where are you? Would you draw the scale differently? What values and principles guide the categories you create?

Especially for world changers, I think it’s worthwhile to think about the other people making up the world, how to mobilize or cater to them, or how to set up systems and institutions for them to be able to do better. And for all the other 7s and 8s trying to be 9s… I’m with you!

Reparations Convert

This piece is technically in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “A Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic), which is a long but important and compelling read. But it’s also sort of in response to his most recent piece, and so many of my friends’ recent facebook posts, and it’s sort of an extension of my previous post.

– – – –

rep·a·ra·tion –  repəˈrāSH(ə)n/


  1. the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.
  2. the compensation for war damage paid by a defeated state.

I’m not sure when I started to believe in reparations. Or, perhaps I should say, when I started to realize that reparations were what I believed in.

I recall thinking when I was younger that reparations seemed like a crazy idea. How could you even count how much to pay, or navigate who to pay back, for damage done so long ago? And who is to say that whoever you give money to now really needs that money? You can’t just write a check to people based on their skin color and claimed history; how will you prove things? How will you prevent cheating? Is money even going to make up for damage done? Doesn’t that elevate money itself to a level that it doesn’t deserve? Plus, who ever heard of the government giving people checks based on who they were at birth? It’s a ridiculous idea, barely worth pondering. And no one would ever vote for it. The number of people who would call out ‘unfair!’ is overwhelming to think about, like a kindergarten class gone wrong.

But my idea of reparations was too small.

Reparations could be a check given to a certain set of people. It’s not a bad idea necessarily. Research on programs like GiveDirectly show that giving cash to people– one year’s income, no stipulations, and no corruption– goes a long way to helping alleviate suffering and helping alleviate poverty. But that’s a tough sell, and tougher to implement.

But maybe there are other forms of reparations.

Reparations could also mean providing 1.5x the school funding to a child whose great grandparents were forbidden to read by the state, providing an extra stipend for books to a child whose father has a greater likelihood to be behind bars, and providing extra childcare support to children whose parents in general are less likely to earn enough money because of state policies. These are not hard things to calculate, and they don’t even need to be done individually– they can be done by zipcode (sadly). Reparations is deciding to build monuments and memorials for important events and people in Black History (**Please note: pretty much everything in this blog post could be said about the native American community as well, and prisoners of American internment camps, not to mention victims of foreign imperialist tendencies. I’m only focusing on the black community as a continuation of my previous post). Reparations is the government stepping in to keep an extra eye on police departments and hold them accountable for inter-race relations. Reparations is food stamps, job programs, anti-recidivism re-entry programs, drug rehabilitation programs, health care, and homelessness support– anything made to give a leg up and help families and communities recover from government policies that have done them damage. Reparations is having counselors, financial advisors, and support systems available to people who have suffered psychological trauma historically and have never had access to stable financial management tactics before. Reparations is (as in India’s case, for example) sometimes having quotas for leadership positions with seats from the oppressed community.

Reparations is also providing financial damages compensation to families who have suffered from wrong done by an unjust criminal justice system. Reparations is providing an accessible legal avenue to fair damages compensation for families whose homes, property, and livelihoods have been taken from them for no legitimate cause in the last 3-5 generations, as records can be uncovered.

Reparations is protecting voting rights. It’s also protecting running rights- making sure that anyone who has an interest in running for government office also has the financial ability to try.

Reparations is rewriting the national narrative, and our children’s history textbooks. Reparations is saying sorry.

Reparations is so that my students whose parents can’t read, who now have special needs, still have a way to give a better life, better education, and better abilities to their children. And reparations is so that my Yale classmates, future leaders of this country, understand that wrongdoing and injustice has a cost, and even our people and our government will be held accountable for paying that price. We need the people at the bottom of the food chain a chance to move up and the people at the top to better understand the consequences of their choices.

I started this post by anticipating there will be cries of ‘that’s not fair!’ as soon as any reparations program is suggested. (Of course, there are many minorly implemented reparations programs already in place in many cities and states across the country, some of which can become replicable models.) But I suppose the truth is that I’ve come to believe that a set of nation-wide well-implemented reparations programs is in fact the only fair thing.

Reparations gives us a clear rationale for doing the right thing. I can imagine the conversation: Why social welfare programs? How could that be American? In a country where all people are born equal, why are some people getting treated differently? Well, because of history. Because we are a country who deeply understands equality and fairness and because we know well the disadvantages and unfair treatment of the past, and we are willing to fix that through proper legal avenues and a fair trial system. We are willing to face our history and all of its violence and damage and we are willing to pay to make tomorrow better. And we know whatever the cost, it will be worth it to all of us, because then we will be a country that actually has values, that honestly gives all people a fair chance, and that can stand unashamed and unhidden from its past mistakes. We are a country of justice and equality: this is what it means to be America. Plus, it’s practical. Reparations would help nurture strong families, communities, and inner city economic ecosystems. It would make our schools better, our national image better, and our communities much safer. America is falling rapidly in the international rankings of respect and power. Now is the time to step in.

Any reparations program would be both complicated and expensive. It would require commitment, good leadership, and a whole lot of government time and money. But it is long overdue, and I fear the alternative will be far more costly. If we let the generational damage of government-endorsed mistreatment of people in the past to continue to fester, our country will become weaker — economically, morally, educationally, and in terms of community and family structures. We are letting people’s pasts & ancestry dictate their futures; the exact opposite of what the movement for race-blindness intended.

Plus, we tried a reparations program once before, and it worked brilliantly (though no one ever seems to remember the first few years of Reconstruction). I think it’s worth trying again.

And I know I’m focusing a lot on Black Americans right now, but I think that we owe reparations much more widely. Native Americans should be on the list, as should any interned Japanese people during WWII, perhaps others I haven’t thought of. I don’t know that reparations is the right term for the VA situation, but I’m also pretty concerned about veterans too. In all these cases, government policies and programs actively did damage to people, which is the essence of reparations. I don’t know what we owe the wider world, but I suspect if we got that far, our national debt to citizens of other countries would grow heavier with shame and apologies. These questions will need to be solved.

But I’m still not sure how we can avoid the backlash. Who needs the KKK when you have Donald Trump’s homophobic, xenophobic, racist rhetoric? Such fear wins votes. That is, after all, how Hoover came to power.

So someone else is going to have to take care of the branding. And w’ll need to set clear standards for the programs to ensure that they are provided only to the people who merit and need them. Because there will be such strong opposition, the programs will need to be clean, efficient, effective, and well-marketed. There will be no room for mistakes.

But those implementation questions are for another day.
I’m just saying that I have come around. Ta-Nehisi Coates, you got one.

ON POLITICS, Part 2: Design Thinking & American Society Across Changing Generations

I Voted

I recently read an education philanthropist’s piece about how American education is in crisis. Perhaps you will make me out to be a terrible person for this, but whenever people tell me there is a ‘crisis’ in education and that they are shocked by some new situation of injustice in America, I am dubious– and a bit perplexed. Do you not know American history? I want to ask. What’s new?

I wonder if they understand what ‘crisis’ means. A crisis is an immediate, urgent problem that suddenly appeared. When exactly did this education crisis appear? Was it when the first slave child was born in America and denied access to literacy? Was it when reconstruction schools were shut down and lost their financing in the 1870s? Was it when children of color all across our country were denied access to strong schools, acceptable resources, and self-esteem for over a century? Was it when our government decided to fund schools based on local property taxes instead of state taxes? Or did this ‘crisis’ appear when someone wrote an article about charter schools in the New York Times three years ago? Maybe these people who say that education is in crisis just didn’t realize that for the last ten generations, about half of our country’s children were experiencing a ‘crisis’ in education. Which seems to me to delegitimize the use of the word ‘crisis.’

There is nothing surprising about our education system or our government. Both are designed to privilege and provide for certain groups, and if we want to improve the justice they provide, we should use this knowledge of their design to determine our actions. Though our instinct may lead us to react with fiery passion, the response to a sudden removal of justice should be very different than the response to something designed for injustice, and it’s very important to know which one you are dealing with. One response is to fight angrily and violently against your attacker, no matter how much they resist. The other is to change the design, which almost certainly necessitates educating rather than attacking your opponent.


I left off in my last post in the series arguing that we need to remove the pressures of moral imperatives and group acceptance from our politics. A freer conversation should greatly aid our ability to problem-solve effectively around current policy issues. As citizens, we all can try to hold ourselves more accountable to thinking for ourselves and conversing freely across the aisle (and not raining down on our enemies with a firestorm of demonization).

But increasing the quality of debate will only do so much. Unfortunately, we cannot count on a connection between elevated debate and more sensible voting. We need to use design thinking to understand how the system we have built actually works, and that necessitates analyzing the roots of people’s choices. People’s political decisions, much like their economic ones, do not make sense. People vote based on their feelings and their principles, and then they justify these decisions with reason retroactively. You can ask any economics professor if the principles of supply and demand are always perfectly executed and he’d (or she’d) be the first to tell you that humans do all kinds of things that are unpredictable and make no sense. It’s the same in politics.

Several years ago the New York Times published a small piece highlighting the fact that the people in America most opposed to government benefits seem also to be the most dependent on them. And Jon Stewart did a segment recently on Kansas with a similar jibe: even as Kansas enacts laws to shame and restrict its state welfare recipients, Kansas is accepting federal aid itself. For anyone who is looking for logical sense in politics, these moments of hypocrisy would seem impossible to fight. How on earth can you convince poor and middle class white Republicans to stop voting for tax cuts for the wealthy and against government programs that actually help them? And on the other side, how can you convince Democrats to be reasonable about the limitations of the federal budget?

The first step is to accept and understand that Americans do not vote in their own interests. Americans vote based on feelings, beliefs, and principles. It would be simple if Americans simply voted for what they wanted, needed, and used. If Jon and Sally use Earned Income Credits and Susan uses the commuter rail, then there should be 2 votes to keep EIC and 1 vote to keep the commuter rail subsidy. Instead, Americans vote for a distant ideal they think should exist. Jon is voting to get rid of EIC because he thinks Americans shouldn’t need help, and Sally has a dad who used to run a train company and he always told her that the government can’t run anything effectively so she votes against the commuter rail, and Susan is voting to keep EIC because she was always told that the government should help the poor.

This morality sway extends to a million issues today. We develop feelings about issues that come from social pressure and media propaganda and a false sense of our own expertise (because we read an article somewhere about the topic). We can justify our side in an argument, but internally, we have placed a moral value on our side of the issue. We have an irrational feeling that we should vote for this because it is the ‘right’ thing to do. People feel like GMOs are ‘bad’ (but how many of you actually have the biological agricultural expertise to decide that?). People feel like the government is an ineffective institution and should therefore not be allowed to run anything. People feel like government has no right to limit businesses. People feel like the environment should be cared for. People feel like charter schools are good and teachers unions are bad. People feel like only non-felons should vote, or only law-abiding English speaking people should vote. People feel like healthcare will be provided better in this way or that way, and people feel like wealth should be distributed this way or that way. But people’s feelings are very inaccurate problem solvers.

For better or for worse, this is the psychology of the political process that shapes our lives. And once we accept that voting is a process based on feelings, we can begin to consider where those feelings come from, which is a far more interesting question.


The beginning of a new country always holds a unique kind of promise. With the language of mission and vision, and with the hope that comes with power, the creators of a country can imagine an ideally functioning society and governing body. They see what has gone wrong before, what needs they are facing now, and they problem-solve.

I truly believe that the founding fathers of the United States had this same hope and imagination as they created our country. They saw legitimate problems in previous governing structures they had faced, and hoped that their creation could solve those problems. They had seen a government rocked by reckless policy change, so they created a government with checks and balances. They had seen how nobility excluded newcomers and fought for the legitimacy of wealthy men who had earned their way to power, rather than being born into it. They recognized both the powers and failures of republics, of taxation, of various economic policies and tried to enact solutions. I think they were very excited about the ways they solved the problems they faced. I think people were excited about voting for such a responsive government.

Of course, that group of men were solving problems they faced. They lived in a world almost wholly stratified by race, class, religion, and gender, and they interacted solely within the bounds in which they stood. They saw the problems of their own time period; they were not envisioning the problems of the future.

Despite our tendency to insist that “liberty, equality, and democracy” means our country was made for liberal policies, the founding fathers were not acting on a progressive agenda from which we have since regressed. Any such nostalgia for a lost vision of equality in America is false; it’s a misinterpretation of the founding documents of our country. Our country was created by wealthy white Christian men for wealthy white Christian men. Liberty, equality, and democracy under God were words that applied to these men. The masses—the uneducated, the poor, the laborers, the marginalized, the women, the natives, the immigrants, the slaves— would simply have to adapt to whatever happened.

I think this is crucial to understand. Today, our government’s policies must apply to and provide for all these people groups, but our original government did not do any such thing. Our government now leads an exponentially larger and more diverse population than the founding fathers could have even conceived. Though our personal concepts of justice and logic may indicate what our government obviously should be doing for these people and how our society should function, there is a missing step. We cannot simply expect our government to do what it is not designed to do, without our active participation in its redesign. So we need to figure out what has changed in our society, why it has changed, and how our government should be changing in response. This vision of our society– and our unity to support it– is what is driving how people feel, and how they vote.


“Who is an American?” is perhaps the most essential, unsaid question we face in politics today. There is no question that is so important to understand if we want to clarify both policy creation and voting patterns. Those who “count” as “American” are the ones who define what “American” means. They are the ones who get a say in the government. They are the ones who benefit from the government.

At its founding, the United States considered white landowning men to be Americans, with few other exceptions. Americans were soldiers who fought in wars. Americans were hard working, independent, a bit rough around the edges. Not noble or royal by birth. They were problem-solvers. They were involved in their own governance. Then the middle class began expanding. Pioneers set out. They too became “American.” If people have a nostalgia for this America, they have a nostalgia for its simplicity: in a government that claimed freedom of religion and equality of all men, the society was overwhelmingly homogeneous. There were no significant conflicts about who counted as an American.

The first real conflict exploded in the mid-1800s, as the black petition for membership and acceptance boiled over into the Civil War. This would be a huge change in society; a people group on whose oppression our economy actively depended wanted to be seen not as a chattel labor product but as human members of society. At the end of the bloodiest war in our history, Blacks were finally allowed some nominal ownership over the country. And— though few people remember this now— for a few years, it seemed all was going well: Blacks served as political figures, civil servants, and seemed on track to be fully accepted as “Americans.” During the first years of Reconstruction, in a shift that has never been repeated since (we could argue these years were our governments only legitimate attempts at reparations, and they were wildly successful at first glance), Blacks moved toward economic independence, got access to education and property ownership, and were leaders in society. But it was short-lived. Too many southern whites agreed that such acceptance wasn’t part of their vision of their society, so, with the help of the KKK, a violent backlash threw the South into a spiral of racist exclusion. Because southerners did not adjust their concept of America to match a new, more diverse society, the Jim Crow era began.

But history has other moments to teach us too. A huge influx of European immigrants began to fill American cities around the turn of the 20th century. Like today, it was controversial. How many people should we be letting in? Are they really American or are they changing America? Are they good for our country or ruining our country? America’s foremost reaction was seen in its education policies. Schools became the front lines of an assimilation battle. To be “American” meant speaking English, behaving in a certain way, preparing for a job in the American economy. It meant being white– which at first meant not Irish and not Eastern European and certainly not Jewish; at that time, to be white meant to be of Western European protestant descent.

But society actually shifted to accommodate many of these types of white people. Perhaps because the diversity of immigrants increased, and general society wanted to exclude Asians and Latin Americans and Blacks even more (see the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example), they began to feel that they could relate to these ‘pretty much white’ folks. So over the following decades, more and more groups— including Eastern Europeans and Irish people— were allowed to belong to this ‘American’ label. As long as they conformed and fit in and helped defend the prominent vision of white America, they belonged. This reached a height in the 1950s, when the government began actively promoting the detailed interactions of an “American” white suburban life (See a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyEo6hHnoq4). So even as immigration had altered American society, the concept of an “American” was solidified in defense. Being American meant being polite, popular, pretty, cool, and social. It meant not being communist. It meant being middle class or wealthy. And it definitely meant being white.

These examples highlight the importance of our subconscious imaginations in political struggle. People have an understanding of the society they belong to and what it should be like, and that feeling deeply affects how our government functions. If we want people to vote more effectively, we must do the necessary work to alter our internal vision of our country and create a new language and imagination of what it means to be “American.”

If when I think of America, I imagine nothing short of a Disney Channel movie—wealthy white families with token diverse characters sprinkled throughout the suburban, all-English, heterosexual love story, then that is the image I will expect on the news and on my streets every morning. When I am faced with realities that don’t fit into this vision— poor and minority enclaves; other languages; economic failure, other lifestyles that make me feel uncomfortable and less at home— I will become angry and defensive. My expectations aren’t being met. Someone is at fault. Things have ‘changed.’

This is what people will feel, even if the narrative they hold is totally false. The narrative for many people in this country is that our country was doing just great, everyone had access to education, middle class suburban life was widely available, people were moral and faithful to God, and people got along. And then it all went downhill. Now there’s violence in cities, our borders are overrun, immigrants are stealing our jobs, white people are under attack, English is under attack, people have no social skills any more, religion is losing its place in society, etc. So we must blame someone. There must be a reason America has ‘changed.’

As a U.S. history teacher, I wonder how much our U.S. history classes are to blame for this. Children are taught the Civil War, industrialization, immigration, the roaring twenties, more wars, and the protests of the 50s and 60s. But this history is wildly unhelpful when we are trying to define the society and struggles we face today. It leaves out the history of a huge part of our population. Only 64% of our census population is white (non-hispanic). And if you assume that a good portion of those whites are impoverished, even fewer match our concept of suburban America from the 1950s. Being generous, perhaps our narrative tells the story of half of our country. Only half.

We desperately need a better narrative and a better vision.


Part of our struggle is that U.S. history classes haven’t caught on to what happened in the 1960s, so neither have our kids— or their parents. Two crucial changes occurred in the mid-sixties that altered our country’s makeup: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. In my (admittedly few) years of studying, teaching, and talking about American history, no one seems to realize what these laws collectively did or just how earth-shattering they were. The Civil Rights Act is usually taught as the successful end of the Civil Rights struggle; it is not taught as a cause. And the Immigration Act is not taught at all. But no two pieces of policy change have altered the makeup and culture of recent American society or have as much impact today as much as these two pieces of legislation.

These two acts, passed within two years of each other, redefined who counted as “American.” They forever altered the privilege of 1950s suburban white families and wealthy capitalists to have more of a claim over America and its government than other groups. The Civil Rights Act declared that the government really was for all the people— especially blacks and minorities. And the Immigration Act said that people of all races and nationalities had an equal right to join this country and become ‘Americans.’ It is crucial to understand that these acts, combined with Brown v. Board and the Voting Rights act of 1965 and a number of similar decisions, were the beginning of an entirely new way to understand the American government. Before this, the government didn’t function on the principle that it was obligated to not-in-power people groups. But now our white male Christian government from the 1780s would be for everyone else too. [I might argue that the New Deal was the first step in this direction (the government was forced to provide for the poor because most of its previously ‘legitimate’ citizens were now poor), but that is a longer exploration than we have time for.]

So a generation or two later, we face a completely new society, and a completely new concept of government. Our demographics are changing, and our expectations of government are changing. Women, Black Americans, disabled Americans, Latino-Americans, poor Americans, first, second, and third-generation immigrants from all countries are claiming they have legitimate rights and demands on this country’s government, that they legitimately belong to our society and should not be excluded.

We need to understand the gravity and magnitude of this change. It cannot be changed back, so everyone needs to accept it, progressive or not.

Our country since 1965 is a completely different beast than it was pre-1965. We can’t let the old design work for a new problem. We have a country set up to take care of the middle-class and wealthy, to provide legitimate membership to whites who speak fluent formal English. We have a country based on the idea that assimilation is possible. We were given a vision of America based on suburbia, homogeneity, two parent households, soccer moms and car ownership and vacations abroad, patriotism when we are winning world wars, newly paved roads and manufacturing companies and an education system that culminates in Ivy League schools. We expect everyone to have a job, we expect to understand and be understood anywhere we go. We expect that the ultimate American myth will be true for us: if you work hard enough, then you too can make it.

But that is not a true picture of America anymore. A true picture of America would include plenty of people who don’t speak English, who aren’t white, who have never owned a car or a house or even been to a suburb. It would include vast swathes of unemployed and disabled people. It would include meth addicts and pot smokers. It would include refugees from abroad, and immigrants. It would include the incarcerated population and the trailer park population. It would include black fear of the police and white privilege. It would include the complexities of young adulthood and old age. It would include the diversity of what parenthood, neighborhoods, culture, family, and experience could look like. It would include gangs and crumbling infrastructure. It would include admitting that the job market isn’t providing for all people, that it isn’t true that everyone has fair opportunities, and that making it in America is a matter of luck and privilege as much as hard work. It would include admitting that there is no single American Ideal left to assimilate to.

That is not a simple vision to understand, and it is a hard one to sell with hope and positivity. But I think it’s a conversation worth having. Whatever we change our vision of America to be, we cannot keep the old one.


I wonder if changing this concept of America is in fact our primary task today, especially with the current right wing bloc of American voters. We dedicate far too little time today to developing the uniting rhetoric that defines our country, but never has it been more important. To too many people in America, the old vision of America lives on in their head. They are oblivious to what changed in 1964 and 1965 and how their world was going to alter as a result. They developed no sense of pride over what America chose in those years; only a sense of crisis as they saw their world changing around them in the years that followed. They didn’t know why. They panicked.

It’s going to be a hard sell. There are a lot of barriers to developing a new language about America, not the least of which is many Americans’ distaste for anything resembling patriotic rhetoric. But it’s my hope that we can recapture some sense of that idealistic promise on which our country was started if we take the time to redefine America’s purpose post-1965 together. Sometimes we just need a starting point to recognize a new narrative. So what could it mean to be a New American now? Couldn’t this be a conversation we have across parties?

Maybe it will mean a massive, globally entrenched military or a completely deregulated capitalist economy spinning toward irreparable income inequality. I fear it will mean a culture of selfishness and unjustified arrogance. I’m worried it will mean ineffective leadership, incorrigible governance, and a constant slide toward gun violence and test-based education. But perhaps it could mean a deep commitment to care for refugees. Perhaps it means to be an economic leader. Perhaps it means to be the center of creative and intellectual thought in the world. Perhaps it means to have an authentically multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-religious society. Perhaps someday being American will imply being multi-lingual. Perhaps American could aim for being the leader in human rights and opportunity (that would take some serious policy change). Or maybe we will be known for the high quality of policy debate in our government. What else could it mean? Maybe it will mean being non-judgmental and inclusive? Maybe it will mean being educated? Could it mean being peaceful? Would it be possible to have a highly functional infrastructure?

It seems silly, but I think vision-making might be more important than we think it is. At the end of the day, we don’t face a moral problem. We don’t face a set of enemies. We didn’t lose something. We merely face a societal design issue that people seem not to have noticed. In this case, the design is in how we narrate our history and identify ourselves in what is essentially a new country. We need an ideal to reach for, a belief to be proud of, a vision to unite us. People need something to feel strongly when they vote. People need a sense of purpose.

And we really need to consider changing how we teach the history of the American people.