As I watch events unfold in Egypt, I can’t help but think of Uganda. At the surface, the parallels between Presidents Mubarak and Museveni are plain to see. Both are war heroes that brought stability to much of their country. Both forged strong ties with the West and leveraged this support to consolidate their own power domestically. Both have remained in power for 25+ years. And, for some reason, both made the decision to circle their wagons around their own survival rather than prepare their country for peaceful democratic transition.

It is puzzling to me why so many leaders decide not to take the high road. I am less familiar with the Egyptian case, but I know that President Museveni could still cement a positive legacy for himself in the eyes of mankind by stepping down and putting all his energy into leading his country through a peaceful and democratic transition. But, instead, he insists on forcing his countrymen to choose between his corrupt stability or the uncertainty of populist revolt. Why not ride off into the sunset and become a Cincinnatus or Washington? He could live well; books would be written about him; he’d probably win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, the reason for Mubarak and Museveni’s calculation probably lies in an under-appreciation for what is being asked of them. In the United States, we look fondly upon George Washington’s virtuous decision to step down from power. But, we often fail to appreciate that this decision was made without the fear that a democratic transition would result in fundamental social change in the country. Slavery and marginalization of native peoples ensured that any transition of power would occur within a limited pluralism. In other words, there was no risk that the country would go from Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood or from Ankole to Acholi. Thus, by bracketing the voices of a large swath of the populace, there was less at stake for the United States in building the institution of democratic transition.

I wonder, if African slaves and native peoples had the vote in Washington’s time, would things have been the same? Would Washington really have stepped down so honorably if a free and fair election risked bringing to power an entirely different social group prepared to take the country in a drastically different direction? An even more interesting question is, would the elites around Washington – Addams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, etc. – have allowed Washington to step down? Or would they, like the elites around Mubarak and Museveni, have encouraged him to hold on to power and cultivate aid from donor countries to decrease dependency on local voice? Perhaps some of them would have worried privately that a Native American president might replace private property rights with communal tenure, or an African American president would implement a land-reform agenda to break-up enormous plantations. These founders, in turn, might have to flee back to Britain, or in exile to France or Spain. Of course, we will never know the answers to these questions, but it is interesting to consider them.

The American democratic experiment has been conducted gradually, incorporating new variables over time. We created democratic institutions while controlling for slavery; we industrialized while controlling for harsh labor practices and gender inequity; we promoted global democracy while propping up dictators from time to time.

The United States is a force for good and the world’s most successful democracy. But, the road to this point was long and full of litter.

The truth about the American experience ought not give the autocrats of the world an excuse for their spinelessness. But it ought to give us pause. As we ask nation-builders across the world to democratize in one, two, or even three generations, we should make it clear that we aren’t asking them to catch up to or emulate us, but to do that which we weren’t able to do ourselves.


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.

Well, our final Mitchell reflections have been posted – marking the official end of my year in Ireland.  As always, check out my fellow scholars’ reflections about the year and our time on the Emerald Isle.


I’m famously terrible with goodbyes. I get teary in the days leading up to a big goodbye, and everything sets me off – the mere thought of a final farewell, the symbolism of a sunset, etc., etc. It’s a bit of an embarrassment when I find myself reduced to tears so easily. So I knew that my last month in Ireland would be rough: many opportunities to publicly humiliate myself with goodbyes to the Mitchells, my Irish friends, and #24 The Waterfront (our lovely home in Galway on the River Corrib).

The Mitchell goodbyes went better than expected. After a great week of activities – meeting Irish President Mary McAleese and receiving our class rings, becoming one with nature at Glenstal Abbey, participating in Listowel Writer’s Week, and enjoying time in the beautiful Glin Castle – we had one last big group hug in the parking lot of the Limerick train station. I held back my tears and laughed at the antics of the group as we said our goodbyes.

Saying goodbye to Galway and my friends there was another story. Once, in the days leading up to our departure, my husband Jon just said the word cry and I burst into tears – apparently unable to stop myself. As we packed up our belongings (…miniature Eiffel Tower from Paris, leggings I purchased at Dunnes for only €3, books on gender and economic development…) I thought about the many things I’d miss about Galway. First and foremost, my friends Laura and Avril, who share my interests and now know my quirks enough to tease me mercilessly; not to mention the community of friends I’ve built over the past year. But also: the swans, the Saturday market, the guy on Shop Street that sculpts a sleeping dog out of sand, the habit of taking tea four times a day, the discussions of local politics and the recession on Galway Bay FM. After days of preparations, Jon and I gathered our things and boarded the train. I thought about the loss of our happy little Galway life as we pulled out of the station and began to miss Ireland even though I was still within its borders. Just as expected: at least one public show of tears.


When we arrived back in the United States, my dad welcomed us home with bottles of Guinness. He wanted us to have a little piece of Ireland when we returned. Over dinner with my grandpa and grandma, we cracked open the bottles and poured them the proper way. Grandpa took a couple of sips and asked, “Do any of you actually like this stuff?” He was right: Guinness from a bottle is not as good as it is from the tap. This was not a surprise, but Grandpa’s comment made us all laugh. The funny interaction between an American and something Irish reminded me of all the other interactions between the two cultures that I’ve seen over the past year.

There was the time, a couple weeks before we left Galway, that I checked my email and received a poem. Avril, who was sitting beside me, exclaimed, “I LOVE this poem!” The poem was one about summer by Carl Sandburg, a poet I have come to love from living in Chicago. Avril read it aloud, her Donegal accent filling the room, and I reflected on the beauty of finding an Irish friend who appreciates a Chicagoan’s poetry as much as I do.

I remember another time, months earlier, when my classmate Grainne happily informed me that her uncle was also from Chicago. “Maybe you’ve heard of him?” I laughed, reminded of the many times that Irish friends have asked me hopefully if I know their cousin who lives in Idaho, Pennsylvania, or Texas. “Chicago’s a big city, Grainne!” She defended herself by responding, “Well, he’s involved in politics. He’s worked really closely with Governor Quinn.” Oh, I thought, that’s different! It turns out that Grainne’s uncle is well known in Chicago, and Grainne was quite knowledgeable about Chicago politics. I would have never expected that one of my Irish classmates would have hosted the future Governor of Illinois at her home in County Mayo – but, she did!

I think back to an American Bluegrass festival held in Galway, conversations about American politics with the parents of Irish friends, and the time I explained the meaning of Thanksgiving to my classmates. In the US, I’m bombarded by Irish flags hanging over pubs in every city I visit and the ubiquitous Claddagh rings on women’s fingers. We spend our time reconnecting with friends and family, and talk to them not just about the ancient beauty of County Kerry, but also of the immigrant communities that we encountered in Galway, how the Irish educational system is different than the American one, and our peers’ viewpoints on social issues like gay marriage.


As all of the thoughts of the connections between the US and Ireland flash through my mind, a truth emerges. Ireland has become a part of me more deeply and permanently than I expected. When I took the train out of Galway at the end of June, it didn’t represent the end of anything. My relationship with Ireland, as well as the other Mitchell Scholars, is far from over. It’s just beginning.

In addition to reading and relaxing post-thesis submission, I’ve been messing around a bit more with my photos and flickr account.  I just revisited this recent photo, from our quick trip to the Art Deco District in Miami Beach, and I’m sort of in love with the colors.  Enjoy!

the Leslie Hotel, Miami Beach

Since we left Ireland, my life has been sort of a big, beautiful blur.

Leaving Ireland was, as expected, nearly impossible to do.  Saying goodbye to our idyllic lives by the sea and our lovely group of Irish friends was really, really sad.  We tried our best to keep our chins up and to enjoy every last second – all the while working on our theses and packing up another year of our lives.  We did take some time to check a couple of things off of our list, including spending an afternoon at the historic Tigh Neachtain pub with friends.

A perfect June afternoon at Tigh Neachtain

After a teary goodbye at the Galway train station, we were off … on our way to our whirlwind tour of America.

First stop: My hometown of Mahtomedi, Minnesota.  We made it just in time for my dear friend Hilary’s wedding, and spent the week both working on schoolwork as well as catching up with family and friends.

We had a lovely time with family, and loved seeing Grandma M and her newest quilts.

Next: Rockford, Illinois.  This time, Jon’s family and friends (and don’t forget those pesky theses).  We crammed a lot of quality time in with parents, grandparents, and our adorable little nephew.

Ryne's got a golf club in his hand - he LOVES to play golf!

Next stop: Chicago, Illinois, for a very quick hello & goodbye to our dear friends Becca and Sam. As luck would have it, we’re finally in the US  just as they’re on their way to South Africa for a year.  Good thing we have that wonderful kind of friendship that you can just pick right up where you left off.

Becca & Sam, Lauren & Jon reunion

Next? Naples, Florida, and then the Everglades, and Miami, Florida.  Jon and I were so excited to visit my mom’s new home in beautiful Florida.  Moving to a warmer climate has been one of my mom’s lifelong dreams, and it’s been so much fun for me to see her in her element in Florida.  Unfortunately, we STILL (!) had thesis work while we were visiting the tropics, but at least we could escape our punishing academic work by going to the beach.

Miami beach.

Well, we’re not done quite yet.  Next, we spent a week in Washington, D.C. We got to attend an annual Mitchell Scholar party and officially started the job search by doing informational interviews.  In between, we visited with friends and worked on theses.  And then… after many months and a final all-night session, I FINISHED MY THESIS!  It’s officially printed and turned in.  I am just waiting to hear back whether or not I’ll pass! 🙂

(I neglected to take a single photo in DC… not like me, but my mind was very much elsewhere).

Right now, Jon and I are sadly separate.  He is in Rockford, putting the finishing touches on his thesis and spending more time with family, and I am back in Florida with my mom.  The big news here is that she just got an adorable puppy: Mabel, a teeny tiny Italian Greyhound.

Me & Mabel

Although the last couple of weeks have been spent solely in the US, we’ve seen so much it seems like we must have left the country a couple times.  We’ve had moments of quintessential Americana, like catching a Saint’s Baseball game with my dad, watching a small-town fireworks display with Jon’s dad, and walking along the Washington DC monuments at night.  We’ve also seen the diversity of American life: I talked with my friend Tena about her Somali students in Minneapolis, visited a wedding shop in search of a traditional Korean dress with my sister in Chicago, and enjoyed Brazilian food in Miami for Jon’s birthday.

Overall, it’s been a beautiful blur of a couple of weeks.  We’re still not quite sure what’s happening next in our lives – where we’ll be “settling down” or what jobs we’ll have, but we’ll be sure to keep you posted.  Until then, you can be sure that we’ll be savoring our downtime in the good ole USA.

As greedy, short-sighted capitalists surround us daily, Warren Buffet provides a dose of humility and wisdom. Listen to him writing on his pledge to give away 99% of his wealth to charity:

“My wealth has come from a combination of living in America, some lucky genes, and compound interest. Both my children and I won what I call the ovarian lottery. (For starters, the odds against my 1930 birth taking place in the U.S. were at least 30 to 1. My being male and white also removed huge obstacles that a majority of Americans then faced.) My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious. The reaction of my family and me to our extraordinary good fortune is not guilt, but rather gratitude. Were we to use more than 1% of my claim checks on ourselves, neither our happiness nor our well-being would be enhanced. In contrast, that remaining 99% can have a huge effect on the health and welfare of others. That reality sets an obvious course for me and my family: Keep all we can conceivably need and distribute the rest to society, for its needs. My pledge starts us down that course.”

The circumstances we are born into have something to do with luck? Capitalism works well overall but produces some widely distorted results? There is a point at which more wealth does nothing to enhance well-being and happiness? All obvious truths, but still truths worth making in times like these.

Read Buffett’s full comments here, and learn about his and Bill Gates campaign to encourage American billionaires to commit to giving at least 50% of their wealth away philanthropically.

Last week the other Mitchells and I gathered for our last Irish adventure.

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First, we had an event at Farmleigh, once the home of the Guinness family in Dublin, where we received rings commemorating our year in Ireland.  The President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was on hand to present them to us.  It was a lovely reception, and President McAleese was a wonderful speaker and very warm in person.

The next day, we headed to Glenstal Abbey, a monastery in County Limerick.  The Abbey is situated on some gorgeous grounds with glens, conifer forests, and gardens.  We were given a guided tour by one of the monks, who told us the history of certain trees, and wove in thoughtful reflections on humans, their environment, and life in general.  We also got a chance to visit a small chapel that holds a number of old Russian and Greek icons, complete with explanations of icons and the Orthodox church from a monk who has written books on the topic. Afterwards, we visited the Abbey’s library, which holds a number of rare and antique manuscripts, including texts from the 1400s and first edition Irish novels.  Oh, and how could I forget the tea and freshly baked cakes and pastries that awaited us when we needed a break!  All in all, the most perfect way I can imagine to spend an afternoon.

The remainder of our final retreat was spent in the town of Listowel and at the gorgeous Glin Castle.  We were in Listowel, in County Kerry, for the annual Writer’s Week festival, which brings in authors and poets and playwrights and artists for readings, discussions, and plays.  Two of the highlights for me were seeing The World’s Wife, a play based on the poetry of British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and hearing Irish author Roddy Doyle read some of his work and answer questions.  I also had a lot of time just hanging out around town with the Mitchells, which was nice.

I hadn’t thought too much about the goodbye at the end of the weekend.  So I was not prepared for the dread and sadness I felt as we pulled up to the Limerick train station at the end of the weekend, where I hopped out to take a train back to Galway.  Although I know that I’ll be seeing my Mitchell friends pretty frequently in the years to come – both at official Mitchell alumni events and wherever else we happen to be – suddenly I realized that this goodbye marked The End of our year in Ireland as a group.  This makes me acutely aware that it is almost time to say goodbye to everything else in Ireland – our gorgeous apartment, my wonderful Irish friends, and beautiful Galway.

Before the goodbyes, though, I have to finish a draft of my thesis. I’ll be trying to focus all of my energy on that rather than mourning my departure.  Hopefully I’ll be able to turn some sad emotions into positive outcomes… Wish me luck (I’ve got a week and a couple days to go for the thesis draft)!


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