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Weekly Reader: Seeing with bifocals

This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.

I considered the special nature of bifocals — seeing things up close and as part of a pattern — as I was reading historian Ed Ayers most recent essay in Medium. In the tale of his life’s scholarship, I began to see similar relationships between being grounded in place and yet being global in scope beyond the study of history. As we look and work locally, it is easy to get caught up in the minutia and forget the larger picture. There is also the temptation to see patterns in data and global actions and lose sight of the connections to the intimate, the local. We can, however, be guided by the saying, “Think globally, act locally.” As Ed suggests, we have to use our bifocals and try to see — and work within — both. Let’s take a look at how this plays out in this week’s articles.


We will begin with Ed’s piece: All History Is Local. But it can’t stop there.

I’ve come to the inconvenient conclusion that we need to see history with bifocals — up close and as part of a pattern.

Just as all history is local, so is all history regional, national, and international. Every county is unique, but every county is part of a pattern. It’s the interplay between those two truths that make the most use of local research, archives, and passion. And it’s the interplay among those patterns that we can now see in new and exciting ways.

Local history, then, serves us best when it is woven into the larger patterns of history. 

Ed takes the reader through his evolution as a historian and speaks eloquently about how history is grounded in place. “I was quite interested in cultural history,” he writes, “but couldn’t abandon the idea that history is best explained in the lives of people confronting challenges in real time and real place.”

And the essential tools for this work? Empathy and imagination.


When the founder of the iconic San Francisco book store City Lights Books died recently at age 101, it reminds us that there was a real person, grounded in place, who had impacts across the world. Gabe Meline of station KQED, curated a series of photos from the impromptu vigil that was held in honor of beat poet, book store owner, and defender of the First Amendment Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As if to prove the point about connecting local people with large patterns and effects, I came across PHOTOS: Lawrence Ferlinghetti Sidewalk Memorial at City Lights Books while reading the Chapter 16 newsletter from the Tennessee Humanities Foundation. The editor wrote that she included this story because as “a young bookish person growing up in Tennessee, City Lights was a sort of mythical place to me — in my mind, an extraordinary place where the bookish, the radical, and the weird were welcome.”


These next articles show both the local detail and the national pattern in the fight over voting rights, and why Republicans — in places where they are beginning to lose statewide elections to Democrats — are working overtime to suppress votes from citizens they don’t want to vote in local, state, and national elections.

  • First the local. Steve Inskeep from National Public Radio examines cases in Georgia and Arizona, among others, in the story Why Republicans Are Moving To Fix Elections That Weren’t Broken. The short answer is, they don’t like the outcome. Rather than change their policies to fall in line with what’s popular with the majority of their citizens, they work to keep those who don’t look and think like them from voting.
  • In Why We Should Rethink Voting Rights from the Ground Up, Amel Ahmed argues in the Washington Monthly that we should push to think of voting as an affirmative right. Taking the great work of Stacey Abrams in Georgia (there’s that local again) as an example, Ahmed asserts that “it is time to shift the frame. While the prevention of discrimination is worthy and noble, it cannot limit our political imagination, especially with so many increasing challenges to voting access by those claiming irregularities and fraud. Right now, our best defense is a more robust offense.”
  • And if you want to go down a very deep rabbit hole on this question, check out the Brennan Center for Justice‘s Annotated Guide to the For the People Act of 2021 which is the Democratic majority’s national response to these local and statewide challenges to voting rights.

We have a problem with cynicism in America. Locally and globally. As Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic, From Tucker Carlson to ‘Cancel Culture,’ Cynicism Is Winning.

Cynicism is, among other things, a habit of disordered vision: It looks at friends and sees foes. It looks at truth and sees deceit. Cynicism, at scale, makes democracy’s most basic demand—seeing one another as we are—impossible. And America, at the moment, is saturated with it. Cynicism makes daily appearances on Fox (and on Newsmax, and on One America News Network). It was the molten core of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the only real message Rush Limbaugh had to give. It lurks in the language of QAnon. It lives in the Big Lie. It seethed in the violence of the Capitol insurrection. It has made suspicion an easy sell. “From falsehood, anything follows,” posits a law of classical logic. It is called the principle of explosion.

Cynicism is easy. Hope is hard. Yet as Teri Kanefield recently wrote on her blog, everyone has to Hold on to Your Ideals to save democracy. Think globally. Work very hard locally.


And to end on the brightest of notes about someone who is very much grounded in a local place but who is loved worldwide, here is a story of our national treasure getting her COVID vaccine in Dolly Parton gets Moderna coronavirus vaccine.

As Herman Wong writes in The Washington Post, Parton — who famously donated $1 million early in the search for a vaccine against the coronavirus — didn’t jump line to get her shot. Because that’s who she is.

“On Tuesday, it was Parton’s turn, and she had a message for others.

“I just want to say to all of you cowards out there, don’t be such a chicken squat. Get out there and get your shot,” the 75-year-old said in the video.

How can you not love this woman? She acts local yet thinks global.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Image by Printeboek from Pixabay

by

I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

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