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                                                     In memory of            
                                        Christina Taylor Green (2001-2011)
                                           Addie Mae Collins (1949-1963)
                                              Denise McNair (1951-1963)
                                            Carole Robertson (1949-1963)
                                             Cynthia Wesley (1949-1963)

     Christina died when an assassin in Tucson, Arizona, opened fired at a public event hosted by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously wounded.  Addie Mae, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia died when violent racists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
     When we forget that politics is about weaving a fabric of compassion and justice on which everyone can depend, the first to suffer are the most vulnerable among us - our children, the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, and the homeless.  As they suffer, so does the integrity of our democracy.
     May the heartbreaking deaths of these children - and the hope and promise that was in their young lives - help us find the courage to create a politics of the human spirit.

Those words appear as the frontispiece of a remarkable book by a remarkable man.   Let me tell you a bit about him.

Parker Palmer is one of the most important thinkers in America:  he was picked as a visionary thinker by Utne.  Many know him from books like The Courage To Teach and Let Your Life Speak.  I consider the former perhaps the most important book on teaching I have ever read, which is why I have given it to student teachers and mentees, and have written about it online, for example here and here.  Shortly after I wrote the latter piece, I had the opportunity to finally meet Palmer, who had been someone I had admired for a number of years, and am now proud to consider him a friend.

Palmer was, like our President, a community organizer at one point.  He was the director of studies at Pendle Hill, the Quaker study and retreat center in suburban Philadelphia.  His work can be seen in the ongoing effort of The Center for Courage & Renewal.

That provides you the reader with some background before I begin to discuss below the fold his powerful new book, the complete title of which is Healing the Heart of Democracy:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.   I invite you to keep reading as I discuss this important volume,

This is not an easy book to properly review.  It is very personal - Palmer begins his prelude by talking about himself, his own history of depression (a malady I share and about which I have written here at Daily Kos in the past).  He sets the stage for that by acknowledging the impact of turning 65 in 2004 had upon him especially in the aftermath of the events of a sunny September morning 3 years earlier.  In his first chapter, titled "The Politics of the Brokenhearted" he starts with a quote from Theodore Roethke - "In a dark time, the eye begins to see" - and then offers these words:  

I began this book in a season of heartbreak - personal and political heartbreak - that soon descended into a dark night of the soul.  It took months to find my way back to the light and six years to complete the book.  But as I fumbled in the dark, the poet Roethke's words proved true time and again: my eyes were opened to new insights, and my heart was opened to new life.  The evidence will, I hope, come clear as this book unfolds.
 Later in the Prelude Palmer writes "When things we care about fall apart, heartbreak happens."  A few pages later he opines
The politics of our time is the "politics of the brokenhearted" - an expression that will not be found in the analytical vocabulary of political science or in the strategic rhetoric of political organizing.  Instead, it is an expression from the language of human wholeness. . . .  If we cannot talk about politics in the language of the heart - if we cannot be publicly heartbroken, for example, that the wealthiest nation on earth is unable to summon the political will to end childhood hunger at home - how can we create a politics worthy of the human spirit, one that has a chance to serve the common good?

I want to quote a bit more from the remarkable Prelude, nine and half pages that very much lay out the premise of the book before I give some description of the main parts.

Rightly understood, politics is no game at all.  It is the ancient and honorable human endeavor of creating a community in which the weak as well as the strong can flourish, love and power can collaborate, and justice and mercy can have their day.

And the final two paragraphs of the Prelude:  

    It is well known and widely bemoaned that we have neglected our physical infrastructure - the roads, water supplies, and power grids on which our daily lives depend.  Even more dangerous is our neglect of democracy's infrastructure, and yet it is barely noticed and rarely discussed.  The heart's dynamics and the ways in which they are shaped lack the drama and the "visuals" to make the evening news, and restoring them is slow and daunting work.  Now is the time to notice, and now is the time for the restoration to begin.
      For those of us who want to see democracy survive and thrive - and we are legion - the heart is where everything begins:  that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life for us and for our nation.

The rest of the book is divided into 8 chapters, titled as follows:
Chapter I     Democracy's Ecosystem
Chapter II    Confessions of an Accidental Citizen
Chapter III  The Heart of Politics
Chapter IV   The Loom of Democracy
Chapter V    Life in the Company of Strangers
Chapter VI   Classrooms and Congregations
Chapter VII  Safe Space for Deep Democracy
Chapter VIII The Unwritten History of the Heart.

Each chapter begins with one or more quotations relevant to the theme of the chapter.  For example, the quotation at the beginning of Chapter V, is from the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi, "A community of the Spirit" -

There is a community of the spirit.
Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street,
and being the noise.

Parker Palmer has read widely, and reflected even more.  Each quotation provides a starting point for exploring the theme of the chapter that follows.  The chapters also include material from other authors that Palmer finds relevant to his task in the book of connecting us with a tradition of community commitment that is essential both to the human heart and also to the sustaining of true democracy.  

I have thought long and hard about how to present this book.  I suspect that Parker Palmer would not be surprised, given his own struggles in birthing the book.  At the end he offers [GRATITUDES] to those who helped him in that process.  Allow me to offer the first two paragraphs of that section as part of how I present this book to you.

    This book, my ninth, has been the most challenging.  When I first felt called to write it, I tried to hang up the phone. I knew the topic was important, but I also knew that exploring it wold mean negotiating some hazardous terrain.  I felt too old, weary, and disheartened to take the job on, let alone to do it well.
     I cannot claim to have found the fountain of youth.  But writing this book has rejuvenated me, perhaps because I survived it!  Nor can I claim to have done the job well.  That, of course, is for others to judge.  What I can say is that I now feel better equipped to engage creatively in the conflicts of democracy as a citizen who cares about the common good.

Focus if you will on the final sentence above.  

to engage creatively  the process of doing democracy is not something we can do by rote or unthinkingly

the conflicts of democracy  think if you will of the origins of the term democracy:   demos - the people  kratia rule by.  How do we collectively rule when individually we are so different?  Conflict will be an inevitable part of that process

as a citizen   here I think of the expression of that term two millenia ago:  Civis romanus sum -  I am a Roman citizen -  and how when Paul claimed that right he was sent to Rome itself for the final disposition of his case

who cares about the common good -  it cannot be merely caring about ourselves.  Democracy at least as Palmer understands it requires a communal commitment lest it devolve into mere squabbling, the appearance of rule by the people without its substance.

Like Palmer, I am a Convinced Friend - I chose as an adult to commit to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).   Thus when I read those words, I am reminded of the thoughts of George Fox that have been so important to me even from decades before I made the choice of being and living as a Quaker, that we are to walk gladly across the earth answering that of God in each person we encounter.  That requires an openness to our differences, one that can at time be discomforting.  The only way to do it is to break open the walls around our own hearts.

I view this book as a teaching journey.   The journey is one which Palmer invites us to explore with him.  Like many good teachers (and those who know him through his works or in person will tell you he is a great teacher) he uses himself as a means of helping us connect with the journey to which he is inviting us.  Thus while most readers may not have experienced the kinds of clinical depression he shares in the book (although this reader has), it helps connect us with a perspective that has a coherence to it, and can perhaps greater empower us to step outside the walls of our own hearts and experience and begin to have the kind of openness necessary for the task to which this book invites us.  

Let me see if I can illuminate this a bit by a brief exploration of material from the first chapter, "Democracy's Ecosystem."  It begins with quotes from E. M. Forster and Molly Ivins.  Let me share each with a brief observation.

"So, two cheers for Democracy:  one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism.  Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three."

The rule by the people is rule by a diverse collection of individuals and how they may group themselves.  That inevitably creates conflict.  Thus we need to allow for criticism, and understand that some of it will be directed at our own participation.   Two cheers because democracy is never complete, it is a journey on which we travel, a process in which we must constantly engage.

"The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that is not neat, orderly, or quiet.  It requires a certain relish for confusion."

Things in process are inevitably incomplete.  Our engagement with one another will of necessity involve conflict.  If our hearts and minds are open to the hearts and minds of others, we will not always be able to see quickly how we can resolve our conflicts yet maintain our integrity.  That is messy, it will be at times very confusing.  

In this first chapter Parker Palmer explores history and geography.  Let me offer a few set of his words accompanying each with some of thoughts they evoked in me as I read them -  and yes, in exploring this way I am attempting to parallel somewhat the process to which Palmer invites us in the book.

Just as a virgin prairie is less efficient than agribusiness land, democracy is less efficient than a dictatorship.
 The image of Americans first traveling across the vast prairies in our midlands, then converting them to the production of food for our burgeoning population is a major part of our heritage.  But as we have learned with some difficult, our engagement with the natural world before us can be destructive.  Remember, this chapter is about Democracy's Ecosystem.  We have learned over time that we cannot look at what we do in the natural world only from the standpoint of how much we can produce, for that is not sustainable.  Similarly, democracy is not intended to be efficient.  It takes time, it takes commitment, to sustain it despite its messiness and lack of efficiency.  But consider the alternative.
The civility we need will not come from watching our tongues.  It will come from valuing our differences.
 Those differences potentially enrich us all.  Further, we cannot sustain democracy - rule by the people - if we are afraid of exploring what potentially divides us, for until we know honestly, how can we hope to find a way to bring us together?
Partisanship is not a problem.  Demonizing the other side is.
 We should be vigorous in advocating our beliefs, but not so vigorous as to deny the humanity of those with other beliefs.   As a Quaker, I must remember that it does not matter if they seem to seek to demonize me:  I must answer that of God in them, I must act as there is a common humanity, otherwise how can we make democracy work?
Of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, only thirty-nine signed the final document.
 I wonder how many Americans truly understand that part of our beginning, that there was real conflict among our Founding Fathers.  In part because I live in Virginia, but also because my spouse has long admired him, I think here of George Mason, who refused to assent to the creation of a strong government without an explicit protection of the rights of the people. Mason, who in May of 1776 had authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, had enough stature that Virginia would not have ratified the document - and the new government would thus have been effectively stillborn - without a commitment from Madison to work out a Bill of Rights in the first Congress.
At the highest levels of institutional politics, the common good is rarely served if citizens are not speaking and acting in their local venues, gathering the collective power necessary to support the best and resist the worst of our leaders as they decide on matters that affect us all.

In reading the passage just quoted I remembered the words of Tip O'Neill that all politics is local.  Further, plans made for a nation often do not consider its impact at the level of town or neighborhood.  As the nation has grown, we too often lose sight of the need to pay attention to local concerns.  Further, it is perhaps easiest for us to maintain our civic involvement when we are on a scale where we can truly know those with whom we live, with whom we must work out our differences for democracy to survive.

Politics involves conflict.  But conflict does not have to result in warfare, physical or metaphorical.  It takes courage to go beyond what one knows and believes and engage in the actions necessary to maintaining and sustaining a real democracy.   It takes an open heart, one which may experience the process of being shattered again and again, yet cannot lose hope.

Remember that the subtitle of the book is our need for courage - a word derived from heart - the courage "to create a politics" - something that is not a given, but one to which we must give human effort - worthy of the human spirit - something that enables all of us to have the opportunity to flourish.

Palmer makes great use of the words of others as a means of connecting us, of reminding us of our common humanity, and of the common journey on which we must embark.   He ends his first chapter with words from Abraham Lincoln, offered in 1861, at a time when war seemed inevitable (states were already seceding) but shots had not yet been fired.  Let me share those words from Lincoln's first inaugural:  

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chords of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

I am going to end my already too long exploration of the book here.  Why, might you ask, do I not provide more detail about the rest of the book?  Because reading the book is a journey, a process, one that I cannot do for you.  I can point the direction, provide something of a map, but how you explore it will be different than how i did, or even perhaps how your closest friend might.  We will come to the challenge with different backgrounds and understandings.  That is like the process of participating in democracy.

That is what this book is about, the journey of exploration, the process of involving ourselves in the maintenance of a democracy in which all who are willing to open their hearts can flourish.

I found it an inspirational book.  For me, it helps inform my thinking about my own participation in politics and the democratic process.

I can only hope that my too many words serve to invite you to explore this magnificent book.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Here's another way to appreciate Parker Palmer (12+ / 0-)

    He was featured a few years back on Bill Moyer's Journal on PBS.   This link will let you (a) learn more about Palmer;  (b) watch the video; and/or (c) read the transcript.

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Thu Dec 29, 2011 at 08:55:39 AM PST

  •  this is going up an hour later than planned (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JanL, DRo

    I was finishing it this morning, had been writing for about forty minutes and did something - what I am not sure - and lost all I had written in that forty minutes.  From that experience I caution that when one is writing directly in the edit mode here, it is important to periodically preview so that the text one has so labored on is saved and not wiped out.

    I hope what I have recreated is worthy.  I felt frustrated.  But life is a learning process. So is participation in democracy.  My experience this morning touches on what Palmer might suggest democracy requires -  a journey of learning, and we often learn the most from the mistakes we make, especially if we will honestly examine them.

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Fri Dec 30, 2011 at 04:00:20 AM PST

  •  Good morning and thanks! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I have about five books to read over this short holiday break before going back to work but I need another one, especially by Parker Palmer.    :)
    The very thought of another presidential campaign this year makes me feel a little tired and worried.  Didn't we just do this?  -- I keep asking in my head. I don't feel very motivated to call, door knock, go to organizing meetings, and so on and yet it must be done. Perhaps the book will renew my spirits.
    Happy 2012 to you and yours!

    Think what you are doing today. -Fred Rogers

    by JanL on Fri Dec 30, 2011 at 04:51:20 AM PST

    •  I have four more to review (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      in education books by Deborah Meier and David Kirp

      the latest by Thomas Frank (which I hope to finish reading today)

      and perhaps one by Chris Matthews -  that I will leave until last

      Best to you and yours as well

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Fri Dec 30, 2011 at 04:53:41 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Lessons from political theory and France (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, BeeDeeS

    I was on vacation the last couple of weeks. It was my first trip to France. Sailing on the Seine and then a couple days on the coast in the south.

    I didn't realize that in the French Revolution of 1787 both the elite and the Catholic church were taken down. They controlled the resources. The state still owns all the land and lease space for Catholic services.

    After that revolution came the reign of terror. When they cut the head off the King, the other monarchs saw that they could be next, so they sent armies to invade France. Napoleon appealed to a unified nation and raised an army of 1 million. He easily defeated the monarch's armies of tens of thousands. Thus began the nation state.

    I am now reading Hannah Arendt's important work from the early 1960's "On Revolution." My sense is that she is the most important political theorist from the last century.

    In the last chapter she points out how quickly revolutions end with power reconfigured and the spirit of revolution is contained. The power is of the people is in the local self -governing bodies. In the US, the Founding Fathers were concerned with a self sustaining government, and discouraged but didn't kill off the local bodies. In France the local bodies were killed off and power concentrated in the legislature and from there to the reign of terror.

    This is only a very short comment about this important topic. I encourage a few people who want to see the OWS uprising continue and change the power structure to seriously consider the work of Hannah Arendt.

    The book being reviewed by Teacher Ken looks like an easy version of the pressing need to revive our government.

    Hannah Arendt says that we become human by participation in politics.

    •  I was fortunate to meet Hannah Arendt (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Don midwest

      when she was receiving an award at Bryn Mawr College when I had returned at age 25 to finish up my BA at neighboring Haverford College.  Perhaps it was my advanced age, but I got invited along with some graduate students and faculty to the reception after the ceremony (at which Georgia O'Keefe was also honored).  

      Arendt was very insightful both as a thinker and as a writer.   But she was not herself actively as engaged as a participant as she urged others to be.

      Parker, whom I note is at this point someone I consider a friend, has been actively involved in a number of ways beyond his writing.

      I think Parker might suggest to you that it is more than reviving our government that is the issue.  The government is a reflection of what we have allowed our society to become.

      While I have not discussed it with him yet, I also suspect that while he would affirm the expression of pain flowing from OWS, he would still encourage them to go beyond their righteous anger to something else -  note the words I quote in the diary about demonizing one's opponent.  

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Fri Dec 30, 2011 at 05:11:42 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Good morning and a happy new year teacherken (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    And may you be blessed for this magnificent diary informing us about a magnificent author and thinker, Parker Palmer. I plan to read every word he has ever written.

    A few toughts this diary made me ponder about:

    -Democracy and "E Pluribus Unum": To me the Universe itself, from the tiniest particle to the mega stars, is ruled by "democracy" which in itself is peaceful (harmonius). We humans meanwhile do observe a certain "messiness" both out there and in here not because democracy is inherently messy but because what you have mentioned many times in your diary (both in your and Palmer's words) we have a "walling" of our hearts and minds. The "efficiency" we talk is also about those "walls." To explain it further, we are stuck in a mental set of "either,or." We are either "local" or "global," and we have not been able to master being both, "global" and "local," at once, thus the paradox remains. This paradox is responsible for our fears, suspicions of the "other" and the "different." Overcoming the paradox of "either, or" will allow us to be free of the walls while accepting the "different" and the "other" without fear and suspicion. We will then know that the truth (peace) is not "or" but "and."

    Such viewpoints are difficult to comprehend for us because they are a bit "magical" to our hearts and reasoning which are full of "efficiency" walls. And you know waht "walls" do: They divide the space into "either, or."

    Where do you see an example of this "magic" of democracy (the one without the mess and confusion) existing in nature? Where else, of course...the snow crystals.

    Nothing is more peaceful to the eye than a fresh blanket of undisturbed snow because it is the true "democracy" we all strive for. How does it work? I am tempted to say that it is "magic," again, but I think we are capable of seeing into the mechanics of this "snow democracy magic" in which the differences between the snow crystals are not conflicts but they exist to complement & complete one another. Likewise, my dear fellow, our differences are not because we have a conflict in between but we contribute to each other's existence, and that we complete one another. The universe we live in has no zerox copies. "All" is/are original. In a "paradox" then the opposites do not conflict with one another but complement and complete one another. We are all in a journey to that "completion," the wholeness, and on that journey we need everyone, all of us. Missing one means we have an incomplete hole in our existence. That is E Pluribus Unum: The whole that is infinitely complete. That is peace.

    I think the founders of this nation (themselves limited as human beings) had an idea about it but they also knew it would take time and struggle for the human minds and hearts to recognize these truths. They then set the principles of the new found nation to put it onto a journey towards that goal, the completion: The freedom form lack. America has many faults yes but its promise -the unfolding journey towards freedom-is indeed beautiful.


    "Corruptio Optimi Pessima" (Corruption of the best is the worst)

    by zenox on Fri Dec 30, 2011 at 08:27:06 AM PST

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