All posts filed under: The Times We Live In

Addressing the challenges of our polarized times

American Exceptionalism

The term “American exceptionalism” has been bandied about by politicians, pundits, historians, and others with increasing frequency. Attempting to catch up on the latest atrocities against democracy and the rule of law, I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the term: how it was used throughout history and how it has become weaponized in our divided political culture. The phrase may have originated in the 1830s with the first great observer of American life, the French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, but the meaning has changed over time. Some people simply see America as “better” than other countries; that our experiences, products, and lifestyle choices are all “the best.”  Those who take this simplistic approach in claiming American exceptionalism clearly have not seen: Modern Japanese toilets* Healthcare in just about any developed country other than the U.S. High-speed train travel in Japan, Germany, and yes, even Spain, which makes us look like a third-world country** Infrastructure in most modern countries vs. the crumbling infrastructure of the U.S. (recently given a D+ grade) The statistics …

The American Equation

It was an easy call as to which Washington region July 4th celebration to attend in 2019. I’ve been writing about the July 4th parade in nearby Takoma Park for the past decade, and each year has featured a different spin on wackiness. In 2012, it was the precision grill team (with signs of cherry pie and the tag line: “You want a piece of this?!”) along with Mitt Romney’s poor dog Seamus, of the famous car top ride to Canada. Elvis made one of his frequent appearances in 2014, as did the Takoma Park Kinetic Sculpture Racing Team. Last  year was a well-received appearance by the Mad Dog PAC featuring their MAGA (Mobsters Are Governing America) float and stickers. Admittedly, it will be difficult to match the antics of the “Salute to America” — featuring “your favorite president, me!” — on the National Mall this afternoon, but in looking for the real spirit of America, I know I can find an important piece of it here in the region’s only nuclear free zone. We …

Honor Our Children

“Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them.” This Abraham Lincoln quote, from a letter he wrote prior to his election, was part of my Presidents Day post two years ago. It came back to me as I read today’s news reports about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in this country’s immigration detention centers. In those subhuman camps, degradation of our fellow travelers appears to be not only the result of our actions but the actual policy objective. If immigrating to the U.S. is seen as difficult, the thinking goes, perhaps fewer will attempt the journey. We may say, “We’re better than this.” But at the moment, this is what we are as a country. Our institutions are under attack, not only in spirit but at the very core of their existence. We have purported leaders who only want to elevate people who look, think, and act like themselves, conveniently forgetting the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal.” As they …

Judgement and Forgiveness

Why do we find it so easy to judge and so hard to forgive? Part of the answer might lie in the fact that holding grudges and passing judgement can seem so satisfying. As Tim Herrera wrote in a recent New York Times article, we may actually like them, as we “tend to them as little pets.” Anne Lamott, writing in her inimitable (some would say snarky) style in Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, captures the same push-pull attraction when she says, “Kindness towards others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all. Do you want this, or do you want to be right? Well, can I get back to you on that?” In our time of extreme political polarization, it may be difficult to identify the humanity amidst the ideology. The more we see religion, politics and life as a winner-take-all battle full of zero-sum calculations, forgiveness seems quaint — a lost art or forgotten concept. This was on my mind as …

Our Country is Like a Really Old House

With instant communication and connections, one can travel the globe and still face issues from home.  We may try to block them out, but they come up in conversations in other countries. In feeds on social media. During sermons.* Even in a toy display in a store window! I’ve been reminded again during my travels that in today’s global world, there are many national issues with international ramifications. Thomas Fingar — the Shorenstein APARC Fellow in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, and former Assistant Secretary of State — lectured on the Japan / Korea / China / United States relationships during the Asian portion of my current trip.  Fingar provided a realistic and sometimes sobering assessment of future difficulties (many self-inflicted) as we were visiting sites of great beauty and centuries-old history. A few days later I arrived in the U.K. as Prime Minister Theresa May was resigning and the airways were filled with commentary (some from the current resident of the White …

History is a Teacher

Why do we care about history? Writer and philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Mark Twain took a more humorous approach with, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  Over the weekend, I saw a bumper sticker that read “Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”  Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman—co-host of the history podcast BackStory and author of The Field of Blood:  Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War—says simply that “History doesn’t repeat, but it teaches.” My executive assistant (a former Capitol guide) recommended The Field of Blood, and for the past week or more I have been absorbed in the riveting tales of mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests…and that’s just on the floor of Congress! During the turbulent and violent three decades leading up to the Civil War, bowie knives and pistols were regularly drawn on members by other members.  Duels happened with alarming frequency, including one that led to the death of one …

History is Not What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago; It is a Story About What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago*

Last week, a colleague shared an article that pushed me to think about how different generations view the world. I come at this question from various perspectives—as a baby boomer responsible for staff from multiple generational groups, a father of two millennials, a son of parents of the “greatest generation,” and so on.  You get the point. Since I’m in the history business, my thinking focused on the major episodes of the past that have influenced generations I’ve known.  Both my parents grew up in the Depression and were greatly affected by the New Deal, Pearl Harbor and WWII.  My generation grew up during the expanding economic cycles of the 1950s and 60s with the rise of the middle class, but also experienced the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, not to mention Vietnam.  Two of my siblings grew up in the Reagan era, with its attacks on the New Deal and government.  For my children, their early and teenage years were shaped in part …