When there’s only one right answer, we get bad policy and tortured historical thinking in Supreme Court opinions.

Someone will find the one answer they need to justify their own tortured historical thinking, calling it a manifesto and planning a world-wrecking event like the mass shooting in Buffalo.

When there’s only one right answer, we risk finding ourselves in a world determined by dead-end ideas.

This provocative idea of thinking in thousands of answers comes from one of my favorite stories about sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. She was responding to a student looking for a magic bullet. We do this in so many of our books today. We read through seven chapters of a careful discussion of the many facets of a problem and feel disappointed when the eighth chapter fails to tell us how to fix it.

Butler had to explain that there is no such thing as THE ANSWER. There is no magic bullet. There is no tower of Babel representing a golden moment when we all understood each other. There is no fixed or final answer to our democratic processes. Our process for making these decisions, and evaluating thousands of answers, shows us how democratic we are.

Mary Retta used this famous story about Butler in an expansive and empowering review of Janelle Monae’s new book, The Memory Librarian. In “Welcome to Janelle Monáe’s Dreamworld,” Retta writes that Butler delivered a response that “would remake my understanding of the future.” Her response makes Retta, the student, and each of us a part of the story of what happens next. We have the power to shape what the answer is.

This understanding aligns with how Eddie S. Glaude describes James Baldwin’s approach to social change. In his 2021 book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, Glaude turns to one specific Baldwin quote to frame his understanding of the influential writer:

“Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.”

This responsibility is key to resilience and participation. Democracy depends on our holding onto this responsibility. Without it, we might think we have no hold of our own on what happens next.

This responsibility will necessarily lead us to grapple with what we know of our past and how it has a hold on us today. In describing Monáe’s new book and musical career, Retta has to explain how Afrofuturism works. She compares it to nostalgia:

“One way to think about Afrofuturism is what it is not: a presentation of the past as clean and whole, with previous tragedies living at a neat and soothing distance from the present. In other words, the inverse of Afrofuturist thinking is nostalgia.”

We can infer that nostalgia depends on an understanding of the past that is safe—fixed, final, and distant. In contrast, Afrofuturism confronts the past and how it continues to shape us in the present. It does this to unlock a future world the writer wants to make real.

Butler, Baldwin, and Monáe reflect a theory of change that starts with Butler’s words:

“There’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

Despair and hopelessness are reasonable responses to a particularly fraught political moment (or a series of them). However, our future looks different depending on our decision to either accept or reject these responses as our final answer.

A theory of change that starts with thousands of answers invites each of us to participate in the story. That’s how we meet our responsibility to shape the answer to “What happens next?”


--P.S. Earlier this month, I shared a longer quote from Begin Again and discussed how it shaped this months newsletters on Instagram. Would love to hear your thoughts on that reflection too.

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For Your Reading List

For the latest episode of “Life in Unprecedented Times,” President Biden used the Defense Production Act to respond to the country’s baby formula shortage. (Don’t miss “Operation Fly Formula” on that White House Fact Sheet).

The question this week is a simple one. At least three generally well-informed people have come to me to ask:

What’s the deal with the baby formula shortage?

They thought the headline would be a blip on the daily news update—here today and gone tomorrow. Instead, there are big reasons why the story has persisted.

The answer starts with a product recall.

One plant producing formula for one company issued a “voluntary recall.” You can read an apology from Robert Ford, CEO of Abbott Laboratories, in The Washington Post. He promises a new approach that will include redundancy to prevent future recalls.

Compare Ford’s framing of the situation and the company’s response to a much more comprehensive explainer published in Fortune magazine, “America is running out of baby formula because 3 companies control the market and babies aren’t that profitable.” Four babies have fallen ill. Abbott disputes that its formula is to blame despite the findings of the FDA.

A more complete answer has to talk about competition and open markets.

Analysts have estimated that Abbott Laboratories produces twenty percent of all the baby formula sold in the United States. In addition, through the Agriculture Department’s Women, Infant, and Children (WIC program, they have exclusive agreements to provide formula for those participants in 2/3 of the states.

NPR starts with the observation that “it’s kind of mind-blowing how a single plant can have such a huge role to play in feeding the nation’s hungry babies” and then explains how “Federal policy may have contributed to over-reliance on a handful of formula suppliers.” Listen to “Economists are weighing in on America’s baby formula shortage.”

CNN adds that WIC families buy “about half” of the infant formula available nationwide and explains what the U.S. Department of Agriculture is doing to help families navigate these exclusive agreements amid the formula shortage.

The best answer would alos point to policy failures and a threadbare social safety net.

Vox news uses the subtitle, “The U.S. policy failures are colliding in the formula shortage.”. That article quotes Ann Kellam, a University of Virginia faculty pediatrician, who suggests:

A stronger social safety net would have left the U.S. better positioned to navigate this shortage… given the lack of paid leave in the U.S., the country is always forcing new parents to make difficult decisions about how to balance the need to take care of their children with the need to support them financially.

Other policy concerns include:

  • The small number of companies competing in the market;
  • No legal requirements for manufacturers to notify the government of potential disruptions;
  • Failure of anyone to have a working contingency plan.

A hungry baby is a big problem for any family. A fragile supply chain is a problem big enough for all of us to demand better answers.

For Believing in Democracy: Ukraine wins Eurovision with folk music, hip-hop, and mom.

The band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision song contest with a fusion of Ukrainian folk music and hip-hop. The winning song has a powerful story to tell.

Frontman Oleh Psiuk had written the song “Stefania” as a tribute to his mother before Russia invaded the country. The song does not include a single reference to war but became an anthem for the country and its people.

The band won the song contest by earning an unprecedented 439 points through the public vote, “believed to be the highest number of points ever awarded.” Then, after the contest, Kalush Orchestra released this video of the song filmed in the suburbs of Kyiv, areas that Russian troops had occupied.

At the end of the video, there’s this message:

“The war in Ukraine has multiple faces, but it is our mother’s face that keeps our hearts alive in the darkest times.”

Band members returned to Ukraine within days of winning the contest. Psiuk told reporters that he would like the song to “become the anthem of our victory.”