For the Civic-Minded
Tis the season for good cheer. This is the time of year where we celebrate what we have put behind us and look forward to what lies ahead. But, unfortunately, when the answers to that second question include losing the protections of Roe v. Wade and facing down a new variant of COVID, optimism is hard to find.
We need it. There's no getting through the year ahead without finding our optimism now. A New Yorker interview with Jon Stewart reminded me that losing our optimism often means losing perspective.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, sat down to discuss the state of our affairs as part of The New Yorker Festival in early October. The two discussed Stewart's new show, the success of his former show, and the comedian's activism that has included appearances in congressional hearings. I had thought about Stewart's work as tireless and persistent, but Remnick asked him about his optimism. Looking at the same long list of efforts, Remnick reflected on what he called an "innate optimism" in Stewart's work and asked, "Where resides your optimism?"
Stewart jumped straight to his answer:
I don't look at today as uniquely flawed or uniquely troubling or uniquely... I look at it as all of the time periods that have come to pass. My parents came of age in the Depression and World War II. So the greatest threat to our mental health, I think, is probably loss of perspective and nostalgia.
He then suggested that our "shit show" might even yield "incredible inventions and progress and intelligence."
Hans Rosling diagnosed the problem of a loss of perspective as an "overdramatic worldview." In 2018, Rosling focused an entire book on the remedy; he called it Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He described his work "fighting ignorance and spreading a fact-based worldview" as both frustrating and "ultimately inspiring and joyful." He said a fact-based worldview is worth cultivating:
A fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview... When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems—and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.
That's the perspective that Stewart advocates for and the perspective that makes it possible to respond to a crisis.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn told us about the insecurity and uncertainty that accompany the failures we start to understand as a crisis. He also wrote, "Failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones." When we make the uncertainty of any one question the focus of the story, we undermine the effort to understand the nature of each failure. We need that understanding to develop a new theory or new rules.
It's possible that any crisis that has your attention today also carries opportunities for the days ahead, opportunities that require our engagement. On this, Kuhn wrote, "The significance of crises is the indication they provide that an occasion for re-tooling has arrived."
It's our optimism, wherever we can find it, that will help us keep our perspective on today's problems and what we might attempt to do when picking up the pieces. Our perspective will help us shift our focus from lamenting a crisis to re-tooling for the future.
—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, talking to John Hockenberry for The Takeaway (September 15, 2013)
Let’s make it easier to start thinking together.
We designed our Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter to help you tune your attention to the questions, ideas, and good work of a political life worth sharing. Subscribe to get a copy and let us know what you think.
We will never share your address or any other information without your permission.
For Your Reading List
My family, like many others, gathered around the same table for the Thanksgiving holiday. While it was nice to get together, we still had a series of conversations about how to do it safely. We are now heading into the next holiday season with a new COVID variant in circulation, and it's exhausting to consider.
I'm feeling like Goldilocks. I don't feel like I need to (or want to) know too much about this next round. I certainly don't want to know too little. My question this week is:
What do we need to know to be prepared but keep our perspective on Omicron?
You have to track what we know, what we don't know, and then figure out what to do with the in-between. For a quick answer to what we know, Vox boils it down to five indicators, read "How to know if Omicron is as scary as it seems For careful treatment of what we don't know, be sure to read "We Know Almost Nothing About the Omicron Variant by Katherine Wu (The Atlantic) and "How bad is Omicron? What scientists know so far" by Ewen Callaway and Heidi Ledford (Nature Magazine).
This round will start with us knowing more about the virus and having more tools to use. Zeynep Tufecki is my first stop for perspective on pandemic questions. She published a call to action in the Opinion pages of The New York Times, "Omicron is Coming. The U.S. Must Act Now." She offers a round up of what policies we would want to see in order to improve upon our response to previous rounds.
Kelsey Piper answers a similar question at the level of our global response in Vox, "How the faltering global vaccination effort paved the way for alarming variants."
There's even more good news when looking at the scientific advancements economic initiatives of the last two years. Read "The Omicron Variant Is a Mystery. Here’s How Science Will Solve It" by Adam Rogers, Grace Browne, and Maryn McKenna (Wired) or "How the $4 Trillion Flood of COVID Relief is Funding the Future" by Charley Locke (NYT Magazine)
For Believing in Democracy
A community gathered in the streets to sing together. Broadway performers and NYC's entire theater community gathered in Times Square to remember Stephen Sondheim.
A reflective, fun, and thoughtful conversation about our responsibility to the next generation. The pictures on social media celebrating Jason Reynolds's newest book, Stuntboy, in the Meantime, make smiles happen. This conversation between Reynolds and Stephen Colbert will make your spirit soar too.
I highly recommend listening for this moment when Colbert asks Reynolds what he has learned from his young readers. The answer starts with this:
"I think young people can really show us what compassion looks like, can show us what empathy looks like..."