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Since World War II, our politics has fundamentally revolved around two traditions of thought. Last week Paul Krugman summarized this well in his column, A Tale of Two Moralities. The first holds that it is immoral for a wealthy capitalist society to allow its citizens to go without the minimum necessities of a human life: food, shelter, basic health care, and a decent education. Where this minimum threshold of welfare does not exist, the state must provide. The second morality believes that it is wrong for a government to seize a person’s wages or to define the terms of his/her behavior, which the individual alone ought to manage as a free and autonomous chooser of ends.

For Krugman, these two positions stand at fundamental odds. Common welfare and negative freedom are opposite poles. The New Deal is oil and the Reagan Revolution is water. Thus, our only choice is to prevent violence from entering the public sphere, and to fight ferociously within the law. “By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully,” Krugman writes, “but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are.”

These two perspectives, oriented around philosophical welfarism and liberterianism, have their roots in European political thought. They are continental ideas retrieved and reconstructed for the American experience.

During the past two years President Obama has worked within this familiar dichotomy. He has been a man of the left – an heir to the New Deal and the Great Society, with health care reform marking his original contribution.

One  way to interpret his current activities is that he is attempting, however, to bring a third morality fully back into the American debate after a century of neglect – a tradition of political thought that is uniquely American and that Obama feels more natural within, but that he could not rely on practically in the face of an economic crisis or politically with a 60-vote majority in the Senate demanding legislative victories. This observation has already been made my many people, most recently James Kloppenberg in his Reading Obama.

Beginning in post-Civil War America, a variety of thinkers developed pragmatism based on their skepticism of those who seemed certain that God and right was on their side. These folks – John Dewey, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes – sought humility in place of hubris and saw experimentation, democratic dialogue, and common sense as the keys to building a more perfect union. For these pragmatists, no fallible human being can alone answer the question, ‘how ought we to live together’? and no nation derives its greatness from some eternal divine favor. We all see through a glass darkly and need constant debate, continual experimentation, and simple hard work to become better as individuals and greater as a society.

Thus, in politics, these pragmatists did not begin with a vision of the good society and the ideal role of government (big or small), as we have come to expect of our politicians. Rather, they argued for enduring ideals of process – dialogue, fairness, education, hard work, and hope – and with the never-ending goal of elevating the human condition through innovation and collaborative effort. All methods of progressing on this goal were open to consideration and ruled out, through debate, by their inability to survive critical scrutiny or their failure to perform in practice. Questions of ‘big government’ and ‘limited government’ were secondary…the primary question was how to define the human condition and what actions could be reasonably taken to elevate it. Answers to these questions could result in proposals to add, and proposals to subtract.

In practice, political pragmatism can look, and be, weak, indecisive, and self-serving. Thus the reason it is often a dirty word in daily usage. Nonetheless, it is based on stronger intellectual foundations than the expedient willingness to compromise.

Perhaps the first pragmatic president, although he would not have known the word, was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln believed that humans were superior among animals in their ability “to improve their workmanship through discoveries and inventions.” And, he remains our only President to hold a U.S patent – for a method of helping riverboats float freely over shallow water. He thought deeply of religion but sought constant flexibility in his faith, once declaring that he would never officially join any church until its only demand was to love God as he saw fit, and love his neighbor as himself. This, despite the fact that he could quote whole chapters of Christian scripture from memory.

And, in politics, as a Whig and later as an anti-slavery Republican, he eschewed neat political categories. He grew government dramatically, but in the service of a Civil War that expanded individual human freedom for blacks and retracted tyrannical government in the secession states. He argued vigorously for a national bank, protective trade tarrifs, and government funding for ‘internal improvements’ and public schools – but all with the goal of empowering the common man to improve his lot in a rapidly transforming world. He argued against President Polk’s invasion of Mexico, not out of pacifism, but on the reasoned argument that the evidence for the war was scant and that public funds would be best used elsewhere.

And, in a Message to Congress on July 4, 1861 – already in the midst of his first term – Lincoln declared his philosophy of government in the clearest terms he had to-date. “The leading object of government,” Lincoln said, “is to elevate the condition of men. To lift artificial weights from all shoulders. To clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all. To afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”

This is a progressive, pragmatic vision. It asserts the government’s role in improving people’s lives…in making justice real. But it is also a vision of individual agency and empowerment – not of a perfectly elegant just society operated by select elites. Its objective is to promote the general welfare, as our Constitution demands, not provide for it.

It seems to me there have always been 2 President Obamas. One the heir to New Deal liberalism and  the other a modern Lincoln liberal of sorts, genuinely excited to build a new progressive era that works to elevate the condition of all men and women, and recalibrates government activities around the question of whether or not they serve this objective.

The 2nd Obama will dominate the remainder of this 1st term and will be articulated more fully than it has been to-date on Tuesday in his State of the Union address. He will call for adjustments to New Deal entitlements to accommodate the baby boom; additional public investments in education, infrastructure, and technology that empower individuals; revision of the tax code to both challenge the alarming trend of concentrated wealth among the super-wealthy and to lift artificial weights on the small business owner and the middle-income earner; military spending cuts to splinter the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower feared; a fairer immigration policy that embraces diversity and hard work; public-private coordination to spur energy innovation and fracture the oil oligopoly; and increased engagement of the citizenry within local communities to solve problems where we can, independent of government activity.

It will be an agenda of promotion, not provision. And, it will seem, to the observer, that Obama has compromised…that he is ‘triangulating’ between more government and less without a fixed operating principle, perhaps with two eyes on 2012. But, whether or not the effort succeeds or is at all laudable, it will be grounded in a consistent and originally American school of thought.

In the wake of this weekend’s tragedy in Tucson, the national discussion has quickly turned to one of civility. Did the words of conservative activists encourage this troubled boy to commit acts of murder? Or, is such an inference misguided and even insulting? Many are calling on the president to turn the tragedy into an opportunity to talk about the importance of a civil tone in our vitriolic politics.

This seems like the wrong approach to me.

The President, and others in a position to be heard, ought to resist calls to “use” this moment as an opportunity to do anything but lift up the stories of those who lost, or nearly lost, their lives last Saturday.

Consider Judge John Roll, a chief federal judge appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1991 that died in the shooting spree. Roll is described by his colleagues as having been humble, fair, and kind, and was working to bring more resources to his state to help with a severe case back-log in the months before his death.

9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, the only girl on her Little League baseball team and a newly elected member of her student council, also died.

Daniel Hernandez, a 20 year-old intern on his 5th day on the job, operated on instinct to stop Congresswoman Giffords’ bleeding with his bare hands, and provided comfort to her until emergency responders arrived.

And there’s Congresswoman Giffords, currently fighting for her life, who continued to host open forums at easily accessible locations like supermarkets, even after she had received death threats and had her office window shattered by vandals.

The stories of these individuals is what ought to dominate our news cycle in coming days/weeks, not a process-oriented discussion about how to have a discussion.

By focusing on these stories, the President can summon much more than civility – he can summon inspiration. In the lives affected by the Tucson shooting, we find evidence of the American spirit we so badly need right now: Young people like Christina committed to education and leadership; Older professionals like Judge Roll still going above-and-beyond the call of duty, instead of having one foot out the door; Citizens showing up on a weekend to listen, to chastise, and to meet one another.

People do not become civil because they’re told its the right thing to do. They do so because they are inspired to come together around a common purpose, and a common vision. Civility, at root, is simply a necessary means for achieving our desired end as a people – to form a more perfect union. It is the grease necessary to turn the wheels. It is not the end in itself.

Instead of a singular focus on ‘civility’, let us figure out how to take from these hallowed dead and wounded an increased measure of devotion to being stronger students, nicer neighbors, harder workers, and better citizens.

That nine year-old, Christina Taylor Green, was born on September 11, 2001. Her short decade on Earth was one marked by terrorism, war, political division, and economic uncertainty. In this new year – this new decade – let us be here dedicated to her unfinished work and, together, build a nation that can thrive in the 21st century.

If we build it, civility will come.

Throughout the fall, our friends Michael and Gabrielle spent much of their time in kitchens and delivery trucks, visiting food stands and local markets.  In doing so, they were able to highlight some interesting angles of the local and community-oriented food scene in DC.  After spending time interviewing and writing, taking photos and creating video slide shows, some of their work is now online on The Atlantic’s food blog, and more of it will be posted soon.

Take a look at what they’ve created, and learn a little bit more about food in Washington, DC.  I’ll post links to other articles as they become available.  Enjoy!

Day 3

I’m not a huge New Year’s Resolution maker.  As a teenager, I used to make a big deal out of each new year.  I’d write a reflective entry about the prior year, and document my hopes and predictions for the coming year.  I’d also make a long list of vague resolutions.  And I would forget about them all by the next week.

I’ve found that I’m better with implementing small new actions in my life.  For instance, when I was in high school, I kept a journal where I wrote about where I saw divinity each day.   This journal was inspired by Matthew 25: seeing divinity in the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned.  The journal was centered on the idea that every human is valuable, and that even the tiniest creations are worth noticing.  I wrote in this journal every single day for about three years – remarkably more sustainable and meaningful to me than any New Year’s Resolution ever has been.

In the same spirit of adding a small practice to my daily life, I’ve decided to do 365 days of photography in 2011.  I have noticed in the past that I become much more conscious of and connected to my surroundings when I carry my camera.  What does the light look like in this place, and at this time of day?  What details surround me?  Where are there surprising patterns?  Who else is sharing this space with me?  How can I capture these many things?  With all of my traveling during the past couple years, I’ve had the opportunity to take lots of pictures of some truly incredible sights.  But I want my photography to be an artistic outlet, not just snapshots.  I want to get better with the technical aspects of photography, and more creative and gutsy with my subjects.

So, 2011: 365 will hopefully push my photography to new levels.  And, I suspect, it will give me the chance to reflect more consistently on the places and faces in my daily life.

Currently, I’m just hosting the project on my Flickr account (do visit!).  I may at some point bring the project to this blog, or maybe not.  And, I’m sure there will be more than an occassional dud published.  But that’s ok!  I’m excited to see where this project leads me in the new year.


Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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