For the Civic-Minded
You may have heard a whole lot of news about Texas this week. Dark clouds have rolled in across the plains. There's shared despair, making it difficult to see any signs of our shared purpose. This time, I didn't just watch the proceedings under the capitol dome. I made sure to take my cues from the activists.
They have shown up at hearing after hearing, even the ones that were scheduled in the dead of night. They remind us what a "radical experiment in democracy" looks like.
I have also started looking at a familiar question differently. Every generation picks up an effort or two that revolves around the question—What does it mean to be an American? We have not always intended for the answers to be inclusive. This sense of ourselves has made it possible for some to argue that we have obligations to Afghan refugees, even as others use this question to suggest it's dangerous to make room for displaced people in our country. We risk losing something fundamental to who we are.
In recent years, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has tried to change the conversation this question provokes. He has tried to make it a tool for opening up our ideas of who is an American. He used the question "What is an American?" to raise awareness about immigrants living in this country and what they continue to believe is possible here. Under the banner of Citizen University, Eric Liu has asked, "What does every American need to know?" Embedded in this proposition is that we ask naturalized citizens to know more about the country than many natural-born citizens will ever know.
I have often wondered what knowledge an American citizen derived only from our citizenship test would have. This imagined citizen might have the basic facts of three branches, a president serving a four-year term, and maybe even the name of a Supreme Court Justice, but what would that version of us know about the purposes that animate everything? That would be a very flat idea of a citizen's role, democracy, and self-government.
Heather McGhee offers a follow-up question that will help us make our shared purpose part of the conversation. In her recent book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, she confronts the cycle of despair that has always accompanied the history of democratic life in America. Her book opens with an actual draining strategy—cities across the country that drained public pools as a way to avoid integrating them. From that example, she talks about how racial animus has always limited our ideas about healthcare, public welfare benefits, and organized labor.
In the concluding chapter, McGhee picks up MLK's idea that the "arc of the moral universe... bends towards justice," and tells the rest of the story:
When the arc in America bends from slavery in the 1860 and returns to convict leasing in the 1880s; when it bends from Jim Crow in the 1960s and returns to mass incarceration in the 1970s... when it bends, but as a tree does in the wind, only to sway back, we have to admit that we have not touched the root.
In this re-telling of how we have often failed to change, McGhee sees the opportunity we will miss if we allow ourselves to drown in despair. She writes, "This moment is challenging us finally to settle this question: Who is an American, and what are we to one another?"
What are we to one another? McGhee says this question is hard for us because "we are the world's most radical experiment in democracy."
When we insist on asking this follow-up question, we do our small part to keep the fire lit under this radical experiment.
Let's keep thinking together to create some heat,
—John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States
Let’s make it easier to start thinking together.
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Headlines and Found Questions
Is the COVID booster shot the right move for getting control of the pandemic?
For navigating the epidemiology of pandemic life, Andy Slavitt's podcast, Inside the Bubble, has been a helpful guide. In August, Slavitt's conversation with Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at John Hopkins, traces what is actually happening with breakthrough infections and how the recommended booster shots will change the equation.
At the end of the episode (skip to 58:00), Slavitt thinks through the medicine and the ethics of administering booster shots in the U.S.
What is a "shadow docket" and has it become a policymaking instrument for the Supreme Court?
The "shadow docket" sounds ominous. It's both a very normal part of how the Supreme Court works and a reflection of another dangerous democratic norm-busting trend.
These recommendations might help you make sense of it all:
- Vox offers a good explainer piece covering what the court's "usual business" looks like, where the phrase "shadow docket" came from, and what's lost when the highest court decides cases this way. Read: The Supreme Court's enigmatic "Shadow Docket, explained: How the Supreme Court hits major conservative victories in plain sight.
- She doesn't wear a robe like Justice Sotomayor, but Dahlia Lithwick has also been sounding the alarm about the increased use of the shadow docket. She reasons through the facts of the case in "The Supreme Court has just two days to decide the fate of Roe v. Wade" Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, published an article in Slate last April that offers a helpful explanation of what's different about recent shadow docket decisions.
- Adam Serwer wanted to make sure no one missed the problem with this particular decision and the whole practice of making decisions this way. There are no facts of the case or careful history. Serwer makes clear that this is no small technical matter. Read: Five Justices Did This Because They Could.
What's at stake in Texas's work around for denying people their constitutional rights??
Any sense of being fellow citizens has been diminished by this latest decision too. We're all bounty-hunters now, or we could be.
The implications of SCOTUS's rationale for not intervening in this Texas case could put the very idea of constitutional rights at risk. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor explains:
"In effect, the Texas Legislature has deputized the State’s citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbors’ medical procedures.
The Legislature fashioned this scheme because federal constitutional challenges to state laws ordinarily are brought against state officers who are in charge of enforcing the law. By prohibiting state officers from enforcing the Act directly and relying instead on citizen bounty hunters, the Legislature sought to make it more complicated for federal courts to enjoin the Act on a statewide basis.
Taken together, the Act is a breathtaking act of defiance—of the Constitution, of this Court’s precedents, and of the rights of women seeking abortions throughout Texas."
The Nation decided Justice Sotomayor's dissent needed to be published, amplified, and put into circulation. You can read the whole dissent on their site here.
"We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it."
—William Faulkner, American Writer
Good Work: Culture Aid NOLA Asks, "What do you need?"
House to house. Block by block. That's what the work looks like according to Erica Chomsky-Adelson, Executive Director of Culture Aid NOLA.
In this video, she tells The Washington Post that the organization had served 3,000 people every week for the past year. These past efforts meant they had the strength of a community network on their side when it came time to respond to the destruction left by Hurricane Ida.
Chomsky says these partnerships made it possible for them to ask, "what do you need?" and building their response around the answers they heard from the community. She says that's often missing from disaster response efforts. That ability to start with that ask is how Chomsky believes Culture Aid NOLA has built trust in the community.
Central to their mission is the belief that "New Orleans is its people." This focus on the people motivates them to provide "no-barrier, no-stigma aid." On their website, Culture Aid NOLA explains their mission:
To protect the culture of New Orleans by serving the people who make up that very culture.
They commit themselves to meet "people where they are" and serving everyone, no matter what, "We don't ask for identification, proof of income, or keep track of who picks up their groceries." That's what they believe it looks like to end "the stigma of hunger."
In partnership with a music venue, The Howlin Wolf, Culture Aid NOLA has been serving free food every day since Ida hit. This group of volunteers does more than simply serve their local community. The work of Culture Aid NOLA has made it easier for that community to come together when needs are high, and resources are limited.
Culture Aid NOLA is building community too.You can support their work here.