What If It Was Called The Declaration of Interdependence?

The most well known passage of our founding document is… say it with me, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

After listing the twenty-seven different ways in which England was violating these rights, we declared our separation from this tyrannical rule and the rest, as they say, is our history.

The document has also served another, perhaps unintended purpose. It established the idea of independence as the centerpiece of our national character. We are the country of the pioneer, the self-reliant, and the boot strapped.

But while the declaration was the story of breaking apart it was equally the story of a coming together.

It is after all the origin story of our country, the United States of America – thirteen colonies coming together to form a “more perfect union.”

Just prior to the signing of the Declaration, Benjamin Franklin admonished his fellow founding fathers, reportedly saying, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Also on July 4th, a committee was formed and tasked to create a seal for our new nation.  Six weeks later, they presented their recommendation featuring the phrase, E Pluribus Unum – meaning out of many one.

And consider, the final words of the declaration, “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

It is interesting to note that nowhere in Jefferson’s actual text, will you see the term “Declaration of Independence”.  In fact, the top of the document reads “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.”

There is little doubt that as a legal document the purpose of this declaration was indeed to announce our separation from England. Yet that declaration was only possible if we first agreed that we must join together to do so.

And this interdependence extended well beyond our shores. During the war, the Netherlands provided loans and war supplies and without the aid of the French and Lafayette, who knows what the outcome of the war, would have been.

Yet, national narratives can be stubborn and pernicious things. Over the last two hundred and forty plus years, we have struggled with this idea of interdependence. 

On the world stage it has sometimes led us to think that we can act unilaterally or most recently disengage from important global agreements.

As states, we have often recoiled at the idea of federal intervention, most tragically leading to the Civil War and most recently leading some states to opt out of federal programs like Medicaid.

And as individuals, it has translated into the widely held belief that our lives are largely determined by our independent actions and not impacted by those around us.

As we celebrate what we so affectionately refer to as Independence Day, and contemplate where we are as a nation, it provides the perfect opportunity to square what should not be seen as two opposing ideas – independence and interdependence – as ones that are complementary.

We can believe we are the greatest country in the world AND that’s countries have always worked together to do great things like win world wars or eradicate disease.

We can respect that states have the right to govern themselves and that the federal government can provide value to them through projects like the interstate highway system, creating the intranet, and providing national defense.

And we can take pride in what we have accomplished as individuals while also appreciating that our family, friends, teachers and mentors have helped us along the way.

So as we wave our flags this July 4th, symbolizing our independence, lets all take a moment to appreciate the thirteen stripes, fifty stars and thousands of threads that hold it all together.

What To Remember This Memorial Day

In 1943, off the coast of North Africa, my grandfather, Burton Poucher was one of 1,149 U.S. soldiers who were killed aboard the HMT Rohna.

The ship was sunk by a newly designed remote control German glider bomb – a precursor to today’s “smart” missiles. It was the largest single loss of life in the sea during the war.

Prior to shipping off, Burton was stationed in Indiana for training. Upon learning that he would be deployed, my grandmother boarded a train for the first time in her life and traveled almost 24 hours to reach him and say her farewell. When she arrived, she was told that he had already left.

Devastated, she prepared to leave. A friend of Burton overheard her and told her that he thought he was still there. The couple was reunited for a final goodbye. Or should I say hello, as that night my mother was conceived. So had my grandmother not jumped on a train, had a random soldier not overheard her and taken her to Burton, my mother would have never come into this world… and of course neither would I.

Burton Poucher is one of an estimated 1.3 million soldiers who have died during our conflicts stretching back from the Revolutionary War through today’s conflicts in the Middle East.

That is 1.3 million sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. As we remember Memorial Day it has become too easy to forget the magnitude of that sacrifice.

I learned recently from Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, that in the last 50+ years, trust has declined for every American institution but two:  small businesses and the military.

The fact that trust has increased for the military in spite of the fact that almost every military conflict during that span, from Vietnam to the War in Iraq, has been met with mixed feelings at best says a lot about our respect for soldiers and their sacrifice.

It also says a lot about the lack of sacrifice we see in other sectors of society. It is noteworthy that when you look at how frequently the word “sacrifice” is used in books over the last two hundred years (using google ngram viewer) you will find it’s steep decline overlaps almost perfectly with declining trust.

In our daily lives, most of us make sacrifices for our families and friends. But what do we sacrifice for our communities, our fellow citizens, our country?

This Memorial Day as we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, ask yourself “what could I sacrifice for others today?”  

Three Reasons History Rocks

Jimmy Carter was the first US president born in a hospital. That is the kind of historical fact that makes you go “hmmm that’s interesting.”
But history is more than a collection of interesting facts, dates and events. It is who we are and from where we came. 
David McCullough’s new book, The American Spirit, is a collection of speeches some stretching back more than twenty years.  But inside each are poignant stories that provide invaluable lessons for where we are today.
As a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Freedom of Medal recipient, I will let McCullough’s words largely speak for themselves:
1. History makes us more appreciative. 

 “As history abundantly shows, Congress for all its faults has not been the parade of clowns and thieves and posturing windbags so often portrayed…It was Congress after all that provided the Homestead Act, ended slavery, ended child labor, built the railroads, built the Panama Canal, the Interstate Highway System. It was Congress that paid for Lewis and Clark and for our own travels to the Moon. It was Congress…that created Social Security, TVA, the GI Bill, the Voting Rights Act and the incomparable Library of Congress.”
2. History makes us feel more connected.

“We are all part of a larger stream of events, past, present and future.  We are all the beneficiaries of those who went before us – who built the cathedrals, who braved the unknown, who gave of their time and service, and who kept faith in the possibilities of the mind and the human spirit. From history we learn that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman.”
3. History makes us feel alive.

“History isn’t just something that ought to be taught, read, or encouraged only because it will make us better citizens. It will make us a better citizen and it will make us more thoughtful and understanding human beings.  It should be taught for the pleasure it provides. The pleasure of history consists in an expansion of the experience of being alive.”  
Throughout this wonderful collection, McCullough offers countless engaging stories – within each are more lessons we can glean from history.  Undergirding them all is a simple plea.  Know your history – then share it. 

History starts at home, McCullough writes.  We need to know and tell stories that make not just American history come alive, but our own personal history as well.  

Keep your eye out for a special announcement tomorrow about a new tool that we hope will help each us do just that. 

How To Save Art

During a classroom visit last week, my nine-year-old daughter showed me a project, featuring side-by-side drawings of the same subject – in her case spring. One was a realistic depiction and the second an abstract version. Accompanying the pictures was a biography on the Russian artist Kandinsky whose work they learned had a similar transition from the realistic to abstract.

The most remarkable thing about this lesson in perspective was that it was not part of their art class, but instead central to a social studies unit on Russia. Her teacher told me she was grateful to still be able to do these kinds of things with the added pressure coming from other curriculum requirements.

Recently, the President’s budget called for  eliminating federal support for the arts, humanities and for public media, further igniting debate on the role of art in our society. 

Sadly, art has come to be seen by many as separate from life. Either elevated as elite and above the masses or devalued as out of touch with every day needs and concerns. In both instances, art in the abstract is perceived as being distant and detached from the reality of life.

Yet our individual lives tell us a completely different story. Who can’t point to a book, painting, song, performance, film, or show that has lifted us for a needed moment or even permanently informed our worldview?

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, recently described how lucky he was as a little boy growing up in rural Texas, when his grandmother would bring him old art magazines and programs from arts events. She hadn’t attended the events herself but instead worked as a maid in a wealthy family’s home who had given them to her.

In this moving talk, Walker says, “Those pages unlocked my capacity to imagine a world beyond my own—and to imagine my place in it. Simply put, the arts changed my life.”

When we isolate the experience of art from the experience of life, we fail to appreciate its true value and leave it susceptible to the whims of false choices – whether in our federal budgets or our classrooms.

In his persuasive defense for public television, General Stanley McChrystal challenges this isolation and false choice saying, “In our society, I see public media as a lever. It pushes people by elevating them and their sights. It brings them into more thinking and understanding, and it brings us together.”

There are great ways to support the arts and public media now during challenging times. In the long run, though, perhaps the most important thing we can all do is to consistently demonstrate that art’s impact on helping us move up is not abstract and distant but very real and very close to home.

Are You Up For A Road Trip?

There would appear to be something deeply ironic about our country’s name today.

To look at an electoral map, with it’s blues on the coasts and red in the middle, makes a clear enough case that at least politically there is nothing united about these states at all.

But upon further inspection, our geographic borders and how they came to be, tell another story altogether.

In his new book, Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World, Robert Kaplan takes us on a road trip from New York to California. He does not take the six-hour flight from coast to coast. But as his father, a truck driver, once told him, he has to “earn the Rockies.”  Which is to say, he has to drive.

He is recreating a road trip he took in the 70’s.  But while that was a quintessential youthful attempt to find himself, this latest journey is an effort to find his country.

He does not interview anyone or embed himself in any place. He just drives. Stopping to eat and sleep.  Most of all, he listens and observes.  What are people talking about in diners and in the streets? 

As he eavesdrops, we do also.  If you are interested in understanding America and how we got to where we are, I strongly encourage you to read this book. It is simultaneously touching and unapologetic.

Most of us don’t really live in “our country.”  We live in our town, our city or our state.  We fly over places we don’t understand. Perhaps occasionally dropping in to visit a small sliver of some place else but not really seeing it. 

In describing how our geography defined our character, Kaplan notes that America has more miles of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The fact that they flowed diagonally allowed the free flow of goods, commerce and ideas across large disparate swaths of land. In other words, they literally united our states.

It seems that fewer ideas or experiences in our country flow across anything. Instead they fly directly to points similar from whence they came.

We are blessed to live in a country whose borders have largely protected us from external harm. This is a luxury countries in Europe, Asia, South America or Africa cannot claim.  

As result, our threats or challenges have seldom come from foreign lands, but rather from within.

Whether crossing the Rockies to settle the west or sitting down in a bus seat to cross the lines of segregation, we are a country of pioneers who overcame barriers in an effort to unite the different parts of us.

Borders and boundaries are all within a car drive for all of us. It is much simpler to cross them physically then mentally.  Yet our efforts to do either are lacking.

We are in dire need of more pioneers willing to travel into unchartered territory and more channels where ideas can flow more easily across divergent lands.

Until then the irony in our name will persist and the division that comes with it.

So are you up for a road trip?  You never know what states you might unite along the way.

What I Learned From A Day At The Park

I am lucky to live in a village where the word public means something good. The public schools are excellent.  The public parks are beautiful.  The public library thrives year round. 

For most the 19th and 20th century, the public was preferred over the private. We held our public institutions in high esteem and were skeptical of the motives of private enterprises.  

In the last several decades the tables have turned. Many look at the private as the driver of progress and associate public things as of less value.

Why does this matter?

We take care of what we value – whether we are talking about a shirt or a public school, our home or our public park.  The more we value something, the greater likelihood we will use it well and make sure it lasts. 

I spent the majority of last Saturday in one of our parks.  My children ran around with their puppy chasing them, took turns asking to be pushed higher and higher by Daddy on the swings and laughed and giggled outside for hours.

Later that day, I noticed a new exhibit in our community center, titled, Know Your Parks.  It featured a large map of our village’s park locations. Surrounding this map were pictures of individuals for whom the parks were named. 

The park where I had spent the day was named after Thomas Reynolds, President/Mayor of Hastings for over 15 years. The park was dedicated to him in 1924.  Three years later he welcomed Babe Ruth there for a special visit to kick off the little league season (How cool is that!)

Another one of our parks was named after John William Draper, credited with taking the first detailed picture of the moon in 1840. And yet another was named after a citizen, Dan Rile, who had served the community for over 60 years. 

Why do these names matter?  

When we know the stories behind our places, we feel more connected to them and to each other. 

Where you stand right now, both figuratively and literally, is the result of all that came before you.  Take the time to learn the story behind one of your public places – be it a school, a park, library or even the name of your town itself.  Perhaps you’ll learn to love it a little more. 

Now What?

Regardless of the outcome of last week’s election, the morning after would produce two irrefutable facts: 

  • Half of all Americans would be disappointed, despaired or even disgusted with the results.
  • Each one of us would still go on with our lives, trying to do what is best for our family, our friends and ourselves.

The first point cuts to the unfortunate and growing divide in our country – a by- product of a society segregated in far too many ways.

The second speaks to what has always unified us – the belief that we can make a better life for ourselves and those around us, regardless of the challenges we face.

Which brings us to the central question:  Now what?
 Do we continue to stay segregated in our respective bubbles, fostering resentment and hoping to take pleasure in the failure of others? Or do we reach out, seeking understanding, and new ways to help each other succeed? 

Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers) once said,  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Let’s do one better and be the helper when we see something scary.

A friend of mine, Rich Greif of Big Brothers Big Sisters, embodied this with his Facebook post:

“You want real change? Since last night, 40 people signed up to be a Big Brother or Big Sister with our agency. Those 40 people will have a more life-changing impact on those 40 kids than any President will. So get out and volunteer, donate and advocate and make your community and country a better place.”

Well said, Rich.  

So ask yourself again, now what? 

Can You Value What You Don’t See?

When asked in a national survey, Americans will tell you that the role of government is pretty far down the list of what is necessary to achieve the American Dream. Yet education, which is third on the list (behind hard work and a strong family) is largely financed and run by local, state and federal government.

During the recent debate over health care, many Americans expressed concern that the new Affordable Care Act would result in government-run health care. Ironically, some of the most concerned were those who were already happily receiving Medicaid or Medicare (i.e., “government-run healthcare”).

These are both examples of what Suzanne Mettler refers to in her book, Submerged State, of what happens when we can’t see the help we’re getting—we don’t value it.

Think about it: Has our government ever helped you? We traditionally think of social services such as food stamps or Medicare when we think of government assistance. But have you ever attended a public school, taken out student loans, applied for unemployment, filed for a mortgage tax credit, used a public road, or checked out a book at the library? When government works, it works—although we can barely see it.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a D or an R or an I. If you’re American, chances are your government has done something to help you get to where you are.

So the next time someone is bad mouthing your government, share what it’s done for you. Or better yet, share it on social media right now. Just click one of the icons below to post it on Facebook or tweet it to the world.

Learn more about our mixed views of GOVERNMENT and the American Dream.

How Free Are You?

In America, freedom is our most revered value. We are free to live, love, and pursue our dreams. Depending upon your beliefs, these freedoms have been bestowed upon us by our creator and/or protected by our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other laws.

Yet how free do you really feel?

Much like the Liberty Bell, our most sacred symbol of freedom, our personal freedom in life often has a few cracks.

Sometimes these cracks are systemic. Recently, my little girls were playing with an interactive display at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia that asked questions about who could vote in 1800, then 1850, 1900, 1950, etc.? They couldn’t understand why women and minorities were unable to vote until more modern times. This was a poignant reminder of our country’s constant struggle to provide and protect the freedoms of all its citizens.

Sometimes the cracks are conditional. For example, two colleagues are doing equally well in business, but one comes from a wealthier family and thus “feel free” to interrupt his/her earning years to go back to business school. Our support system can say a lot as to how “free” we feel at any point in our life.

Sometimes they are programmatic. I asked a woman once if food stamps helped give her a leg up. She pointed out, “While they’re helpful, they were more like a handcuff,” as the earning limit often meant choosing between the short-term security of food benefits versus the long-term potential of a better job. This brings up the question as to whether our programs promote or limit freedom.

And finally, sometimes they are personal. A parent with young children must look out for their children’s needs first and foremost, putting their own dreams on hold and limiting the risk one is willing to take. Responsibility almost always trumps liberty.

So while we should hold our freedom dear, we should never presume that it gives everyone the same express ticket to move up in life.

Cherish the bell, for sure. But understand the cracks.