American Anthem: More Crosswicks less Crosswise

I was watching a documentary on the life of Charles Krauthammer today and was surprised that he was once a speechwriter for Walter Mondale.  This leader of Neo-con Republicanism once wrote speeches to elect the most traditional Democrat that ever existed, Walter Mondale.  And as I watched, I asked how this nation devolved into an us versus them mentality.

It was not always that way.  We once had civil discourse and the social intermediaries (clubs, little league, community centers, and other institutions) that brought us together.  Listening to Charles’ life, I have to agree with Charles when he said, “Of course we are shaped by our milieu. But the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.”

We have gotten extreme, but it was not always that way. We did not always launch ourselves into the opposing sides of Twitter feeds at the drop of a hat, but rather listened to the opposing sides of people we respected in our community. We sought out the commonalities that brought us together and the spark of humanity that resides in each one of us.   We listened to one another and learned from one another at the PTAs, Little Leagues, Community Centers and institutions of everyday life.  We need to return to these social institutions and turn away from the emptiness of social media.

The best example of a community of sharing and caring is the town that I grew up in Crosswicks.  My town’s main claim to fame was it was the launchpad of the revolution – the Battle of Trenton that won us a country and a nation.  In that town of Crosswicks, we had a mix of liberals and conservatives that all got along and progressed for the betterment of our country and our community.  Thinking about my hometown, I started thinking how did our nation – the collective Crosswicks – become so Crosswise?  What caused the demise of the democracy?  Simply this.  When you cross the wicks (Crosswicks) of a candle, the light burns brighter.  But when you get cross wise, the fire of freedom becomes extinguished.

Picture of Crosswicks

So tonight, I will ruminate on what made our little hamlet of Crosswicks bring people together instead of pulling them apart.  And the answer is quite simple – it was community organizations not affiliated with governments, Facebook, or corporate organizations.  It was organizations by the people, for the people and run by the people.  Let me talk about three of them:

  1. Little League – Back before the day of club Soccer run by professionals, we had Little League. It was run by volunteers who wanted to teach kids a sport and bring communities together.  I am now 55 and can still remember every moment of every Chesterfield Red Sox versus Chesterfield Black Sox game.  The whole community came together to watch the teams compete.  There may have been some arguments on the fields of friendly strife, but what I remember the most was being with my friends, learning from my father and other parents, and sharing fun with the community.  I am not trying to cut down club soccer which is still a unifying organization.  But there is something different learning from the people of your community instead of professionals that are getting paid.
  2. Scouts – I cannot talk to Girl Scouts, but I can talk to Cub and Boy Scouts. These institutions brought together people from all walks of life for fellowship and fun.  Both my mother as a Den Mother and my Father as a Cubmaster were involved.  We got to learn how to compete fairly in the Pinewood Derby and Rocket races.  We also learned how to develop our skills and help one another with our various badges.  As part of a Den, Pack or Troop, you learned how to cooperate and care for those in your group.  You also learned about how through differences and diversity, you create strength.  I will never forget how our Boy Scout troop was able to take the disparate talents and succeed in a weekend campout.
  3. Community Center and Library – The heart of Crosswicks was the community center and library.  In the summer program at both institutions, I first fell in love with books, learned how to draw a cartoon dog and cat, and participated in parties on Halloween and Christmas.  It did not matter the color of your skin, your political institution, or your religion.  All the people in Crosswicks were brought together to share in fellowship and learn new skills.  In the end, it is really what you learn and apply rather than what you earn and deny that makes a mark on the world.

These are just three of the intermediary institutions that brought us together in Crosswicks.  I will never forget the friends that I made. And, even 40 years later, when my friends from Crosswicks express their disparate views, some quite different from my own, I listen and learn.  Never underestimate the power of Crosswicks and intermediary institutions to bring people together.  Let us all as a nation, cross wicks and make the light of our common humanity shine brighter!

Ms. Jordan’s Lessons on Civil Discourse

Many of you who pass through Austin have seen the statue of the airport’s namesake, Barbara Jordan shown below. I have on my desk with the same image and her words – “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.” The statue captures the essence of Miss Jordan – a towering intellect, the epitome of integrity, and a hero to all Texans. She also encapsulated in one person both the power of diversity and the spark and spirit which binds us together.

Barbara-Jordan-statue-at-airport-photo-by-Joshua-Tang-October-2012

There is no more improbable and meteoric rise in politics as the one accomplished by Barbara Jordan. She was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress in Texas. Later in life, she became disabled and was confined to a wheelchair. Instead of this being an obstacle, this disability allowed her to gain perspective on issues facing those with a disability. Miss Jordan’s diverse background and experiences provided her both an unmatched perspective on issues facing minority groups and a unique ability to bring disparate groups together. Her differences and how she articulated them brought people together instead of driving them apart.

She is known as one of the great orators in American history. She came to prominence during Watergate as a member of the House Judiciary committee where her speech before congress is still cataloged in many lists as one of the top ten speeches in American History. In fact, the first time I came into contact with Miss Jordan was at Speech Class, a mandatory course at West Point. In Speech class, we were required to review a video of her speech along with those of JFK, Martin Luther King and others to learn the art of persuasive argument.
What I noticed in that speech were three elements that define the art of civil discourse, leveraged her unique experiences from disparate groups, and made her an American Icon.

1. She understood all angles of an issue. In particular, she could articulate the opposing views perspective often better than they could themselves.
2. She would then clarify were she agreed with their perspective to emphasize where there was common ground.
3. Only then would she respectfully bring up where she differed from the group or person’s perspective with concise arguments based on her view of the facts.

I became very familiar with this approach and had the opportunity to practice it myself with her while attending graduate school. I had the profound privilege of attending two Ethics in Government classes with Professor Jordan, my favorite teacher of all time. I also had the distinct honor of assisting her from the wheel chair to the table before each class.

We looked a bit like the odd couple if you looked only at the surface. Newly departed from the military, I still sported a buzz cut and was thought to be conservative for the LBJ School at the University of Texas. I reveled in her class, the lessons she taught, and the debates we had. Each week she would give us 500 or more pages to read from a diverse set of opinions.  We then would have class debate following Professor Jordan’s three lessons of civil debate quoted above. Unbeknownst to her, I often agreed with her but took the opposite line of argument just to match wits with her brilliant intellect and learn more. I sometimes exasperated her because I had not yet learned her three rules of civil discourse to find commonalities. Professor Jordan was known to have a deep sonorous voice – I called it the voice of God. On one occasion, when I was making one of my points a bit too spiritedly in the impossible effort to rattle her, she said with a twinkle in her eye “Don Grier, I am not sure I can take you three times a week in my class.”

The last vignette serves to show how Professor Jordan brought people together upon common ground. Each year, West Point awards the Thayer award to the person that best epitomizes its motto – Duty, Honor, and Country. It is usually given to a General or President but in 1995, three months prior to her death, it was given to my hero and mentor Barbara Jordan. An icon, her integrity, dedication to service, and ability to bring others together was honored by one of the most conservative institutions of our country. Here is a link to her remarkable acceptance speech and a picture.

http://www.blackpast.org/1995-barbara-jordan-s-acceptance-speech-sylvanus-thayer-award-united-states-military-academy-west-po
To end, I try to live Miss Jordan’s rules of civil discourse each day even though sometimes I fall short.

1. Know the other side’s view at least as well as they do
2. Seek first commonalities and build on them to establish a relationship
3. Then and only then; civilly and with respect explain any differing viewpoints