Category Archives: Politics and Culture

George Washington, Race, Greatness, and Me (and You)

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Members of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton (Chris Jackson as Washington, far right)

The other day I listened to an interview with Chris Jackson, who recently wrapped up his time playing George Washington in the musical Hamilton on Broadway. Robert and I were fortunate enough to see him in this role last month, and wow. Wow.

The depth of talent in New York is so deep that I have full confidence in Nicholas Christopher, the next Washington, but wow. Charisma for days.

Jackson was talking to Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch, a podcast about race and culture (and an indispensable one in my opinion). Demby asked Jackson about the experience of being an African-American man who is playing a slaveholder. Jackson has said in the past that he’s not interested in “reconciling” those parts of Washington’s character, and here’s part of how he explained that:

He owned people.
He owned people that looked like my father and that looked like me.

I’ve made a compromise with myself. I haven’t compromised my principles. But I told myself, “You have to portray somebody that was behind so many unlikely, breathtakingly genius ideas and who found a way to enact them.” But I’m not the guy to see him as a god. There’s always been a movement to deify [the Founders], and that has its place and is important in terms of educating the public on what we should strive for…

But to almost a person, they were under the mindset that someone who looked like me was not capable of pressing a thought, not capable of civilized behavior, or who had no aptitude for greatness.

And I’ll never make peace with that. But I don’t have to.

I’ve just been editing a section of my book in which I talk about improvisation as having a spirit of “And” rather than “But.” When we learn to improvise, we learn to receive whatever our partner offers onstage (Yes), and then to build on it (And). That doesn’t mean we go along passively with that offer, by the way. If they pull an improv gun on us, we don’t need to let ourselves get shot. But we at least need to agree that the thing they’re pointing at us is a gun, and not, say, a banana.

We have to agree on the reality before we can move forward. (Another post, perhaps, in this era of fake news.)

I hear Chris Jackson talking about approaching the Founders with a spirit of And rather than But.

Because here’s the problem with But. When we use But, we have to figure out which part of the statement is primary. Consider:

George Washington was a wise and discerning leader, but he owned slaves.
George Washington owned slaves, but he was a wise and discerning leader.

Each of these statements suggests a different starting point. Was he a great man, who oh-by-the-way had this terrible blind spot? Or was he at his core a racist, but despite this tragic flaw managed to lead our country with wisdom and strength?

A spirit of “And” means we don’t have to make that judgment, because ultimately we can’t. They are both part of who he was.

Zooming out a bit, in my reading about leadership, I’ve studied some polarity management (enough to be dangerous). My understanding of it is that most problems aren’t really solvable. Rather, it’s more important to manage the various competing concerns so they complement each other in a healthy, balanced way. We seem to have lost the ability to do that in the US, which is odd considering that, at least on the national level, we are basically a 50-50 country.

Yes, there are some ideals upon which we cannot budge an inch and still maintain our integrity. With a president-elect who is appointing white supremacists to his inner circle and talking of a registry of immigrants based on religion, I realize that “And” may sound like capitulation. I’m not willing to go along with actions which, I believe, compromise fundamental American values.

Still I wonder, is there any way to move past this zero-sum mentality in which our leaders (and we the people) seem to have gotten stuck? Are there any issues on which people can come together?

As one of my favorite Presidents, Josiah Bartlet, once said, “Every once in a while—every once in a while—there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country.” I’d like to see us find our way toward a bit more “And.”

Contradiction, polarity, “And,” whatever you want to call it–it’s been with us since the days of George Washington, patriot and slave-holder, slave-holder and patriot.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Why I Can’t Even with the Word “Dynasty”

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What this post is NOT about:

  • the “evils” of Hillary Clinton or her “weaknesses” as a candidate.
  • Bernie Sanders, the Democratic primary, the “scourge” that is superdelegates, or whether the whole thing was “rigged.” (It wasn’t.)
  • Benghazi, emails, or poor Vince Foster, may he rest in peace.

Comments on those topics will be deleted. Write your own blog post.

I’ve heard from various people a lot of discomfort (or disgust) over the Clinton “dynasty.” In a country of 300 million people, they say, must we continue to mine the same family to fulfill the nation’s highest office? It’s unseemly in a country that calls itself a democracy (or democratic republic), and yet another example of how we’ve devolved into oligarchy.

Google tells me the first definition of dynasty is “a line of hereditary rulers of a country.” Which the Clintons are surely not. Get back to me in 10-15 years when Chelsea Clinton runs for office.

The second definition of “dynasty” is “a succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in business, politics, or another field.” This one’s obviously on point. But I’m wanting to focus on dynasty as a disqualifier, or at least a pejorative, when it comes to Hillary Clinton.

I don’t buy it. 

A husband and wife rising to the top levels of their field (or fields) is very different than the younger generation of a family following an older one into leadership or public service.

George and Jeb Bush, for example, grew up with politics and public service as part of the air they breathed. It afforded them advantages, access, and a ready-made network of connections. (Substitute the Kennedy family if you prefer.) Hillary Rodham, by contrast, grew up in a middle class family with a mother whose own parents abandoned her to her grandparents (who weren’t too thrilled about raising her either). Bill had a similarly modest upbringing. Remember “I still believe in a place called Hope”?

Did being the first lady of Arkansas open doors for Hillary Clinton? Undoubtedly. But her ability to leverage those opportunities came despite having had no nepotistic advantages from her youth. She walked through those doors herself (and became the first woman Senator from New York, Secretary of State, and the presumptive Democratic nominee for President in 2016). And although this is tangential to my point, she did so despite a multi-decade, borderline pathological assault on her family, her integrity, and yes, her womanhood. (Did the Clintons make serious mistakes and stumbles? Yes. Again–not about that. Write a blog post.)

I will also say–and this will bring out the pitchforks, I’m sure–that as much as we treasure our can-do, American, bootstraps, anti-elitist spirit, I don’t want just anyone to be President. It’s a position that anyone should aspire to, but hardly anyone has the chops to do well. In a country of 300 million, there are probably 25 people at any given time who have the skills, experience and temperament to do it. The fact that this year, one of those 25 people happens to be married to someone who’s done the job before isn’t some sign of ruin. (Though there are plenty of signs of ruin, this isn’t one of them.) It’s a testament to the fact that being President is freaking hard. Any leg-up that our next President may have, even if it’s having 8 years of pillow talk as the President’s spouse, is to be celebrated, not derided.

But here’s the bigger reason I can’t even with the hand-wringing over “dynasty.” It has to do with the decisions that families everywhere make about careers and children and priorities: Does the family have the bandwidth and desire for both spouses to go full-bore with their careers? If not, which spouse’s “advancement” will take priority? What are their financial resources? Will the couple have children? How many? What kind of childcare is available? How much support do they have from extended family and friends?

These decisions about who does what and when can be complicated and painful. In many families–we can probably still say “most” — the wife/mother slows (or stops) her career for some period of time to provide primary care for the children. This has long-term financial consequences; women who leave the workforce never really catch up in terms of earning potential. But one thing’s for sure: we need to be affirming of women at all levels who make the best decisions they’re able to make–not sneer that their second act is somehow emblematic of a “dynasty.” 

Because here’s the thing about Hillary Rodham. People who knew her as a young woman before, during, and after Wellesley believed she’d be President some day. She had the intelligence, the vision, the leadership skills, and a desire to serve, a product of her Wesleyan religious faith. (That’s not puff piece, that’s fact.) But her journey took her to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she followed Bill as he pursued his political career. Along the way she broke all kinds of barriers, including becoming the first female partner of the Rose Law Firm.

The various calculations and conversations that led the Clintons to focus primarily on his career are known fully only to them. And yes, society at the time didn’t know what to do with a strong, capable woman (and still doesn’t, honestly). In some ways it made sense to wait for the world to catch up. But who knows how far and how fast she could have risen, had Bill been the one to follow her?

It’s not dynasty. I don’t know what to call it, except “the way it still works for women across this country.”

We need better systems of support, so mothers who feel called to devote themselves to work outside the home can do so. We need affordable child care, better pay equity, and maternity policies that aren’t an absolute joke. And we need to erase social stigmas that paint fathers as emasculated oddities if they decided to decelerate their careers and take primary responsibility for child-rearing.

But until we have those things, can we at least cut it out with the dynasty talk?

When Your Woman Card Isn’t Working Right

My computer science husband sent me this link recently: “I had so many advantages, and I barely made it”: Pinterest engineer on Silicon Valley sexism.

How can an article be so unsurprising, yet so wholly dispiriting at the same time?

The author describes her early career in computer science, but the dynamics are common in many male-dominated fields:

At Stanford, I took two introductory computer science classes. I soon became convinced that I was much too behind my male classmates to ever catch up.

…My classmates bragged about finishing assignments in three hours. Listening to them chat, I felt mortified: the same work had taken me 15 hours of anguish at the keyboard to complete. They are quantifiably five times better than I am, I told myself.

So she was shocked when the professor asked her to TA the class. She agreed with great trepidation. But then she started grading the same assignments she’d previously found intimidating–and was shocked: the braggarts were not five times more competent. In fact, their work wasn’t nearly as good. There was a disconnect between the men’s level of confidence and their actual output.

The so-called “confidence gap” between men and women has gotten a lot of airplay lately. This confidence drops off among girls in the middle school years, especially in technical subjects — and we’re seeing a bit of that in our own household.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement grows out of the awareness that women underplay their abilities relative to men, for a variety of reasons. It’s been famously reported that men will apply for a job when the meet only 60% of the criteria, whereas women only tend to apply if they are a 100% fit. Women are also reticent to negotiate higher salaries for themselves.

This disparity has bothered me for a long time, though probably not in the way you think. I agree with the diagnosis, but not the prescription. Too often–that is, almost 100% of the time–the problem is framed as a deficiency for the women, a character flaw that the women must fix somehow. Women need to lean in! Be confident! Fake it ’til you make it!

OK. I can accept that. And what about the men? Where is their need for change?

Take the example of the men who bragged about completing the programming assignment in three hours. At best, their bragging shows a startling lack of self awareness of their own competence. At worst, these men are aware of their limitations and are outright lying to cement their status in the pecking order. How messed up is that?

So sure, maybe women have some work to do to feel empowered to apply for jobs even if they don’t meet every last qualification. But we should also be teaching men to do an honest self-assessment of their gifts and skills. Is applying for a job when you only meet a little more than half the qualifications a good thing? Is that something I’m supposed to aspire to?

Sometimes it works out, I suppose. Other times you end up with a grossly underqualified [man] in the job, whose primary gift is the art of bulls***ting. (Hey, they call it the Peter Principle, not the Patricia Principle!)

And yes, there’s a certain amount of “fake it ’til you make it” required to get along in the world. But shouldn’t we be critiquing a culture in which men are socialized to misrepresent themselves in order to gain status? Why is it the women who must do the changing, adjusting, and conforming?

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 7.19.41 PM“If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, maybe there wouldn’t have been a global financial crisis.” Many have quipped this, and at least one person has asserted it in all seriousness. I believe strongly in increasing women’s presence in historically underrepresented fields. And that representation will bring its own cultural shifts. But I grow weary of the framing that women must contort themselves to the default (male).

Meanwhile we have Donald Trump saying that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get 5% of the vote if she were a man. Yes, many of us are excited at breaking that highest glass ceiling. But it’s cute that the Donald thinks Clinton’s gender is a net positive to the tune of 50 percentage points in the presidential race.

As Sady Doyle argued a few months ago, “America loves women like Hillary Clinton–as long as they’re not asking for a promotion.” Clinton’s approval ratings as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State were quite high. She’s consistently ranked one of the most admired women in the world. But now that she’s asking for our presidential votes, her disapproval ratings have predictably increased.

Setting aside the particularities of Hillary Clinton, the broader point stands: we judge women harshly when they come across as too assertive. What’s going to change that dynamic? Women getting better at the game? Frankly, I doubt it. What’s going to change the dynamic is men learning skills in collaboration, self-awareness, and authenticity. Once the typical corporate alpha male ceases to be the default marker of success, we’ll see real change.

A Curriculum for Radicalization

A Curriculum for Radicalization

“Radicalization” is the buzzword of the day.

We’re hearing that the couple who killed fourteen people San Bernardino were “radicalized” before they even met and married. Many are wondering what exactly makes someone become similarly radicalized. Others are anticipating that Donald Trump’s inflammatory proposals would not make us safer, but in fact give a great boost to ISIS’s effort to radicalize recruits to their cause.

Doubtless there’s a technical definition for radicalization in the literature on terrorism. But I wish they’d settled on a different word. Because the thing about fundamentalists and extremists—whether bomb-wearing terrorists, or a university president urging students to start packing heat, or a political candidate with fascist ideology—is not that they’re radical. It’s that they’re really not radical at all. They may dominate the news, and strike fear in our hearts, and inspire vehement denunciations on our part. But they are still playing by the rules of the world, and there’s nothing radical about that.

There’s nothing radical about using violence to make a point.
There’s nothing radical about rank tribalism that pits people against one another.
There’s nothing radical about whipping up fear and intimidation to get your way.
Such has been the way of the world for a long, long time. It may not always be cloaked in the language of holy war, but “I’m right and you’re dead” is an all too familiar refrain in human history.

Such violent acts are better labeled not as radical, but as the antonym of radical, which is superficial. Shooting up a room full of defenseless people is a cheap and shallow attempt to advance an agenda. And demonizing an entire religion of people because of the actions of a minuscule few is similarly cheap.

I don’t know whether our generation’s challenges are tougher than those of past generations. But I know the next several decades will test us in profound ways. Right now it’s the demonization of Muslims in the United States, despite the fact that they’re better educated than the general public, are largely accepting of gender equality despite stereotypes to the contrary, and have rooted out more terror suspects than U.S. government investigations. (Read more here.) But pick your issue: wealth inequality, racism, a broken political system. Global climate change may be the most looming challenge, with ripple effects in the areas of health, ecology, justice, economics, and yes, security and terrorism.

What we need are people who are truly radicalized—who don’t accept the rules of the game we’ve been conditioned to play… who care more about doing right than being safe and comfortable. Who are ready for bold, maybe sacrificial action when the moment presents itself. (Radicals will not sit quietly by while a Muslim woman is spit on and abused on a city bus, for example.)

As a follower of Jesus, he’s the one I look to for inspiration and guidance, but there are many places people might turn for such inspiration. Regardless of our various religious or philosophical perspectives, people of good will need to suit up.

It’s good to be kind, to give to the food pantry, to pay for the Starbucks order of the person behind you. But those actions, too, are rather superficial—and remember, the opposite of radical is superficial. That’s not the game-changer we’re after. So what does it meant to be radical, right where we live and work and play and serve?

I’ve been pondering that question a lot. I’m thinking we need a curriculum for radicals, but I need your help. Here’s what I offer as the most basic starting point for such a curriculum. What should we add?

Learn how to say “peace be with you” in at least five languages. I suggest two of them be Arabic and Farsi. Use them when the situation arises.

Intentionally seek out places where you are in the minority. As tribal people, we are most comfortable with people who look, think and act like us, and when we’re not, our lizard brain can kick in and we can feel threatened. But as our society gets more and more diverse, we (especially those of us who are white) need to be able to seek out different voices and see diversity as a strength.

Find beauty even in terrible circumstances. Being a radical for goodness will be long, grueling work, with more defeats than victories. We need the vision to see beauty even amidst struggle.

Catechesis for radicals: What are the stories we need to be steeping in as radicals? I nominate Eyes on the Prize, the documentary about the civil rights movement. In high school, my government teacher arranged for us to watch it after school, and if we made it through all fourteen hours, he gave us two extra points on our final grade—not our grade on the final exam, our grade for the semester. That’s how important it is.

All right, fellow radicals—what am I missing?

~

Image: metro_radical by Frederick Dennstedt, creative commons license

Trevor Noah: There’s a New Court Jester in Town

 

 

 

A New Court Jester in Town

I’ve written a lot about Stephen Colbert and how much I appreciate someone with such a strong yet progressive Christian faith, reaching the audience he does. I listened to an interview with Trevor Noah of The Daily Show recently, and I find myself equally appreciative to have his voice in our cultural conversation.

Noah grew up in Mandela-era South Africa–and he grew up “very very poor” in Soweto. His background gives him a very different perspective, and it’s a welcome one. (If you haven’t seen his bit about how Donald Trump is an African president, check it out now.)

Noah has talked about how bizarre it is to be as dirt poor as he was, now navigating fame and fortune. Here’s one exchange between Noah and Linda Holmes, the interviewer:

I was going to the Emmys and someone suggested I get a stylist. I inquired as to how much a stylist cost. And I was told anywhere between 5 and 25 thousand dollars.

Per what?

Per styling!

Per individual event?

No, I thought it was to buy the person as well! But it’s not. This is what people are paying! I couldn’t bring myself to do it. In fact I said I would rather take the money, buy one outfit myself, take a chance on that red carpet, have it out with the fashion police, and then take the rest of the money and give it to charity… and at least I know every time I’m on the worst dressed list, there’s a bunch of kids cheering, because they know they got the money I would have spent looking good.

He also addressed head-on the good intentions of people who say, “I want diversity in hiring—this position is open to absolutely anyone,” but then do nothing to ensure that people of color or women even hear about the position. We rely on our own networks to find people, Noah says—it’s an understandable impulse, but when our networks are comprised of people who look and think like we do, it doesn’t get the job done. For example, when The Daily Show put out a call for correspondents, they plugged into the network of agents and managers, and got something like 1,000 applicants… four of whom were black people. He thought “Well, maybe black people don’t like the Daily Show.” Then he was in a comedy club and met up with a table full of black comics, one of whom said, “Hey, if you need anybody for The Daily Show, I’d like to try for it.” Turns out none of the people around the table had heard about the casting call because none of them had agents or managers. Diversity is work, Noah concluded, but it’s worthwhile work… and if you put out a call to your usual networks and do nothing else, you haven’t done the work.

Jon Stewart often saw himself as the court jester for the media. They were his target, and he was at his best when battling their excesses and biases. Trevor may end up being the court jester for the privileged. Which could be very interesting to watch—especially if he can do it with a smile and a laugh. I’m interested to see where the show ends up.