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.