Marriage Opportunity: The Moment for National Action

marriage-opportunityA Statement from the Marriage Opportunity Council

Why We Come Together

Make marriage achievable for all who seek it.

At this moment in our country’s history, reducing legal, social, and economic barriers to marriage has become something America must do. It is also something the country can do—together, in a way that has not been possible before.

For the couples who seek it and for the nation as a whole, marriage is fundamental. Marriage creates family and strengthens social bonds. It’s a wealth-producing institution. It’s almost certainly society’s most pro-child institution. Warts and all, it’s today’s best bet if you are seeking faithfulness and lasting love.

But American marriage today is becoming a class-based and class-propagating institution. In upscale America, marriage is thriving: most people marry, fewer than 10 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers, and most children grow up through age eighteen living with their two married parents. Among the more privileged, marriage clearly functions as a wealth-producing arrangement, a source of happiness over time, and a benefit to children.

But for millions of middle- and lower-class Americans, marriage is increasingly beyond reach, creating more fractured and difficult family lives, more economic insecurity for single parents, less social mobility for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, more childhood stress, and a fraying of our common culture.

This growing class-based marriage divide threatens all of us. It endangers the very foundations of a broadly middle-class society. Such a core fracturing of our civil society surely calls for—but has not yet received—sustained national attention and commitment to reform. . . . More

Did Someone Forget to Read the Culture War Handbook?

In American religious life, something interesting just happened.  Last week, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, long viewed as opponents of gay rights, publicly opened a dialogue about how to balance needed expansion of legal protections for gays and lesbians with reasonable exemptions intended to protect religious freedom. American culture just shifted a bit.

Some of the instant reactions to the news seemed to come right out of the Culture War Handbook. On one side, prominent gay-rights leaders voiced skepticism. The Human Rights Campaign called the LDS Church’s new stance “deeply flawed.” On Twitter, Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry – a man I know and respect – called the Church’s statement a “nod” toward non-discrimination, but worried that religious exemptions can be “licenses to discriminate.”  Retired Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson’s op-ed on the announcement was entitled “Dear Mormons: Thanks But No Thanks.”

On the other side, prominent religious conservatives also voiced skepticism. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission called the Mormon position “well-intentioned, but naïve.” He argued that legal protections for gays and lesbians “inevitably lead to targeted assaults on religious liberty” and announced with satisfaction that the LDS Church statement was generally greeted by “disappointment from social conservatives.”

But I don’t like the Culture War Handbook, and for that reason alone, I believe that the LDS Church must be doing something right here. Yes, some advocates seem determined to use the cause of religious liberty to justify blatant discrimination. And yes, other advocates insist that any and all exemptions from non-discrimination laws are illegitimate. But this kind of no-compromise, winner-take-all culture war is not the only possibility.  I’m not a Mormon, and I have no special knowledge of LDS Church leaders’ motives on this issue.  But I was struck, and deeply encouraged, by three aspects of last week’s announcement.

First, the Church is clearly seeking to do more to recognize and respect gay and lesbian people and families. To me, that’s morally right. Is it everything that gays and lesbians want?  No. It it a good step to take?  Yes.

Second, the LDS leaders are clearly advocating a model of engagement in which both sides get something of value. Gays and lesbians gain a more welcoming church and new statewide legal protections. (Remember, in a majority of U.S. states, there are no laws protecting citizens from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in fundamental areas such as housing, public accommodations, and employment.)  Houses of worship gain protection from coercion by the state in matters of conscience and religious practice. (Remember, many churches fear that they could face public or private lawsuits or the loss of their tax-exempt status by, for example, refusing to host weddings to which they object on religious grounds.)   Such a model of engagement, done in the right spirit, makes it possible for both sides to win – and in the process show that diverse groups of Americans can find creative ways to live together.

How important is this LDS-backed approach in the current political climate?  In recent months, in a number of states where there are currently no legal protections for gays and lesbians, religious-liberty advocates worried about gay rights have forged ahead anyway, often with proposals that are quite extreme.

Last year in Kansas, for example, a proposed bill – it did not pass – would have extended the right of religious objection from religious organizations themselves to every private individual and business in the state, raising troubling issues of basic fair treatment. It would have protected religious objections not only to gay marriage, but also to “similar” arrangements. The bill also specified that religious objections to gay unions in Kansas always win, regardless of the burdens placed on same-sex couples.  My home state of Mississippi recently passed a very similar bill.  If you look up “religious freedom” in the Culture War Handbook today, this is what you’ll find.  It’s ugly and one-sided and unfair. What the LDS leaders are proposing is a welcome departure from this recent pattern.

Finally, there’s the question of tone. In the Culture War Handbook, we’re taught that the correct tone is anger. We’re fed up and we’re not taking it anymore. We’re offended by the brazen behavior of our opponents, who are acting in bad faith. This is a battle, and we’re going to win it!

Last week the LDS leaders ignored the Handbook.  They argued for what they called a “fairness for all” approach which might help to “overcome the sharp divisions and present cultural divide in our nation.”  They called for a “mutually respectful dialogue” in which “neither side may get all that they want.”

The editors and students of the Culture War Handbook are unhappy over this surprising turn of events.  But I’m not.

Some American Roots of “Sustainability”

Arguably the 21st century’s most important ethical imperative — using resources wisely, or what many people call sustainability — traveled for much of American history under the name of “thrift” and for decades was formally celebrated each January by millions of American children and adults. Tragically, that history has been largely forgotten. But for the sake of our future, we can now remember a bit of it, thanks to my colleague Andrew Yarrow’s new book, “Thrift: The History of an American Cultural Movement.”

One of the great institution-building efforts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the spread of the Young Men’s Christian Association across the United States. Largely aimed at rural-born boys and young men newly arriving in cities and towns, the YMCA’s special blend of recreation and character education featured the idea of stewardship, which says that all our possessions (health, wealth, the natural world around us) are not ours to do with as we please but are gifts from God that we hold in trust. Another and somewhat more secular word for stewardship was thrift, which comes from “thrive” and meant the ethic of wise use.

Local YMCA-sponsored thrift clubs — usually focused on encouraging more careful spending and starting savings accounts — began appearing in the 1890s. The idea caught on, and soon enough the national YMCA had a “Thrift Division.” A National Thrift Committee was launched in 1916 and by 1920, National Thrift Week — beginning always on Jan. 17, Benjamin Franklin’s birthday — was being observed in more than 300 U.S. cities and towns. Besides the Y, scores of other organizations took part, including the American Library Association, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Jewish Welfare Board and the League of Local Building and Loan Associations. The official slogan for Thrift Week 1922 was “Spend Time and Money Wisely.”

The American thrift movement of nearly a century ago had ideas that sound strikingly modern. Anna K. Wiley, a thrift advocate who had also been a leader of the Woman’s Suffrage League, campaigned tirelessly for healthier food, even persuading President Calvin Coolidge to substitute whole wheat bread for white bread at White House dinners. During Thrift Week 1927, she told a Washington, D.C., assembly of schoolchildren: “Thrift means simplicity of living, a love of nature, and not a love of the artificial pleasures which cost money.”

In 1919, the thrift educator Arthur H. Chamberlain, as chairman of the Committee on Thrift Education of the National Education Association, co-authored a book titled “Thrift and Conservation: How to Teach It.” This curriculum says: “The resources upon which the happiness, and in fact, the very life of man depends, are ours to use but not to waste. The people of all generations are the rightful heirs of nature. We therefore hold these resources in trust, and it is our duty to guard our trust faithfully and to pass it on as little impaired by our use of it as possible.”

A 1923 school book for younger children, by way of urging children to “save wood, coal, and gas,” says: “Old Uncle Thrift said: ‘We will be a thrifty nation, when we all learn conservation.’ ” A 1924 national convention on thrift education sponsored by the National Education Association, the American Society for Thrift and other groups featured presentations from the National Park Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and several independent national conservation organizations.

In his book for teachers, Chamberlain even makes a distinction between conservation and thrift. Conservation, while important, merely avoids waste. Thrift does more — it produces a growth of resources. Thus: “Conservation applied to our forests will prolong their life for many years. Thrift dictates that we plant both seeds and trees, thus adding to our capital.” Perhaps Chamberlain was remembering the old English proverb: “Planting of trees is England’s old thrift.”

In any case, Chamberlain’s important distinction is as contemporary as this morning’s headlines. A recent story in the New York Times reports that Samso, a small island that is part of Denmark, is now a world leader in the area of renewable energy. Samso today “actually generates more power from renewable sources that it consumes over all.” Making two blades of grass grow where only one grew before. Thrift!

So the next time you are supportive of an idea aimed at increasing sustainability — no more plastic bags at grocery stores, reducing food waste, more bicycles and fewer cars, more saving, more use of green energy — you can take your pick of attitudes. Either you’re a cool, modern person on the cutting edge of progressive social change. Or you’re as old-fashioned as grandma’s nightgown, committed still to that venerable and often-overshadowed American value of thrift.

NOTE: David Blankenhorn’s interview of Andrew Yarrow, author of “Thrift: The History of an American Cultural Movement,” can be found here in both video and podcast formats.

 

“Feeling Into” the Other

When I was in the third grade in Jackson, Miss., in 1963, I won a citywide essay contest. The award made me very happy. The essay topic was “Helping Others” and my conclusion said: “Just because of the way they look or talk doesn’t mean that they’re bad. You should not play with just some people. You should make them all your friends.”

To announce the award, the school board sent out a letter saying that mine was being honored as the best third-grade essay that semester from “Jackson’s white schools.” Full of pride regarding my insights on the importance of “making them all your friends,” I hardly noticed the irony.

This story nicely illustrates the phenomenon of selective empathy. The word “empathy” came into the English language in the early 20th century as a translation of the German word “Einfuhlung,” which means “feeling into.” The word began largely as an aesthetic term, as philosophers struggled to explain why works of art, or scenes of nature, can move us emotionally. If you’ve seen the new movie “Mr. Turner,” about the great British Romanticist painter J. M.W. Turner, you know that Turner had astonishing empathy for — he “felt into” — the qualities of sunlight and landscape and was able, through his painting, to help us “feel into” them as well.

Today we typically use the word “empathy” to mean the capacity to identify deeply and emotionally with another person’s situation and feelings. Discussing the related concept of sympathy in 1759, the great economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith wrote that “it is by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or be affected by what he feels.” That’s a lovely definition of empathy. Scholars seeking to understand the qualities of wisdom consistently report that empathy — putting myself sincerely in the other person’s shoes — is a key pathway to wisdom.

Selective empathy is when children and teachers in 1963 can admirably encourage empathy for others — “You should make them all your friends” — so long as the definition of “all” is restricted to “Jackson’s white schools.”

Recently, responding to marches in New York and elsewhere focusing on what is viewed by the protesters as police brutality against African-Americans, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani went on TV to say flatly that “the police aren’t racists” and to insist that the problem is not the police, but the people who won’t support the police. Giuliani was far from alone in expressing this view.

Much of this perspective stems from genuine, admirable empathy. Giuliani and many of us can “feel into” the situation of the police. We understand that so much of their work is tough and demanding. Working on the front lines, they risk their safety every day to try to keep us safe. The jobs are more blue-collar than upscale. We may not pay these people what they deserve, but at least we owe them our respect and gratitude.

I agree with this way of thinking, but I mistrust the selective empathy that seems often to accompany it. In what ways does our common humanity also call us to “feel into” the situation and feelings of African-Americans — in particular young black men — in poor communities? Can we as a society walk in their shoes as well? Or should most of us continue to treat their repeatedly stated conviction that police brutality exists as simply a false idea that is best ignored or denounced?

Of course, on this issue selective empathy can work the other way, too. Especially if I’m willing to switch back and forth between, say, Fox and MSNBC, for nearly every talking head I find on TV empathizing with the police and stereotyping the protesters, I can find another doing the exact opposite.

What’s rarer, and surely more needed, is a capacious empathy that “feels into” the actual situations of both those I can readily recognize and those I can less readily recognize. Absent that (admittedly difficult) non-selective empathy, we can certainly have a fierce debate, but we’re unlikely as a society to produce much wisdom.

What feeds today’s ugly hyper-partisanship? There are many sources, but an important one is the belief that society is divided into two mutually incompatible groups — the group of me and those like me who stand for truth and justice, and those not like me who stand for the opposite. Notwithstanding its current popularity, this is a deeply wrong-headed way of seeing the world. Perhaps the most powerful antidote for it is empathy.

Does Wisdom Matter?

Wisdom doesn’t get much respect. When did you last hear a U.S. leader being praised as wise? When did you last hear someone stress the social importance of wisdom or speak about our nation’s need for more of it?

Yet across time and cultures, wisdom has been viewed as a primary human virtue — a key to the advancement and integration of knowledge, our most reliable guide to action, and a personal good linked to long-term fulfillment and well-being.  Wisdom is like a peak performance. It’s arguably the highest state of knowledge and its development. As a vital source of social capital, don’t we undervalue it today at our peril?

Wisdom is hard to define succinctly, in part because it’s not one trait so much as the blending of a number of traits. For me, wisdom might be best understood as the use of reason to make and encourage good decisions. The researchers Paul Baltes and Jacqui Smith describe everyday wisdom as “good judgment and advice about important but uncertain matters of life.”

Among the world’s great philosophers, among the small but growing group of psychologists and neuroscientists who study wisdom, and within the wisdom proverbs and other sources of folk knowledge, there is considerable commonality of understanding and at least implicit agreement on the basic qualities that make a person wise. Let’s look at six of them.

  1. Richness of knowledge. A wise person tends to have what Baltes and Smith call “an extensive data base about life matters” analogous to a “cross-referenced encyclopedia.”  She also likely has rich “procedural knowledge” — effective ways of thinking about problems and their possible solutions. At the same time, being smart and being wise are not the same — we’re all familiar with the clever, well-educated person with a high I.Q. who is anything but wise.
  2. Empathy. Self-centered people are far less likely to be wise. Wisdom is consistently associated with compassion and the ability sincerely to put oneself in the other person’s shoes.
  3. Equanimity and resilience in times of adversity. The wise person can regulate his emotions so as to meet sorrow and suffering calmly and to treat set-backs as puzzles to learn from and problems to try to solve.
  4. Perspective. Nearly everyone agrees that the wise person is able to see the overall, the big picture. The wise person’s point of view is broad and disinterested, not partisan. As importantly, and in some ways paradoxically, the wise person is likely able to see through complexities to fasten upon what Lincoln, arguably our wisest president, often call “the nub” of a topic — its foundation and essence. At Gettysburg, the main speaker of the day, the great orator Edward Everett, spoke for two hours.  Lincoln, following Everett, spoke for about two minutes. But we remember Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because this poet-president wisely discerned for us “the nub” of what the war meant and what the nation is and could be.
  5. Recognition of values pluralism. Some values (sometimes called natural laws) are so essential that they should be binding on everyone. But the wise person likely realizes that such values are few in number, do not come with operating instructions, and are often themselves subject to interpretation. She recognizes that “truth” is not a unity in which all the pieces fit together harmoniously; she therefore sees that there’s no single grand narrative that explains everything. She recognizes that, as often as not, the conflicts we face, in society and in ourselves, do not consist of good versus bad as much as two legitimate goods in tension with one another.
  6. Acceptance of uncertainty. The wise person likely views doubt and ambiguity not as enemies to be resisted, but as acquaintances to be accommodated. Indeed, much of wisdom appears to be the capacity to accept realistically what’s not known and what’s not knowable. When Lincoln infuriated his critics by saying “My policy is to have no policy,” he was improvising as best he could in a situation of unavoidable uncertainty — an indicator (at least in Lincoln’s case) not of passivity or lack of resolve, but of wisdom.

Couldn’t America use a wisdom revival? In his new article in The Atlantic, “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,” Jonathan Rauch explores the links between wisdom, happiness, and aging — obviously an important topic for many of the world’s aging societies, including our own. Wisdom, at least for some, may increase with age. And more broadly, surely our politics and public conversation today could use a little more empathy, perspective, and conciliation and a little less certitude, aggression, and intransigence.

Wisdom is not common in human affairs. It’s typically in short supply.  But it probably can be consciously cultivated, both individually and socially. The first step is wanting to do so.

Clean Your Plate!

Berlin is a terrific city out of which now comes an important trend: wiser use of food. For example, through a network of food-sharing centers, Berliners can now give leftover food to others who can use it as well as receive food that others donate. It’s all free. Thousands of people in Berlin and other German cities are becoming volunteer “food savers” who regularly go to stores, restaurants, and other locations to collect, and help put to good use, tons of food that otherwise would be thrown away.

There’s more. If you are a Berliner interested in visiting nearby farms to gather (at the cost of only your labor) food that otherwise would rot in the fields, there are websites to help you. If you think that imperfectly shaped apples for free are better than perfectly shaped apples with price tags, Berlin is the city for you. The main goal in all of these activities is to promote health and thriving by reducing the amount of wasted food. This trend is visible in numerous cities in the world, including in the U.S., but Berlin seems to be leading the way.

The need is enormous. Studies suggest that at least 30-40 percent of food produced in the U.S. is wasted. The waste occurs at every level, from farm to fork to landfill. Americans likely waste about 50 percent more food per capita than we did in the 1970s, and food waste now costs our economy an estimated $165 billion per year. The environmental damages stemming from this much wasted food are significant, including freshwater loss, unnecessary use of chemicals, land, and energy, and climate-harming greenhouse gas emissions from food rotting in landfills.

Finally, this degree of societal indifference regarding the stewardship of food almost certainly contributes to a range of social problems, starting with a food system in which some Americans don’t have enough food and many others have too much food that’s unhealthy.  Food, like love, is a human fundamental. We likely risk something important – something large and perhaps ultimately spiritual – when we act as if wasting it is not a problem.

There are arguments for waste, of course. Waste often requires less immediate effort than thrift. Particularly for Americans, living as we do in a young country blessed with astonishing natural abundance, wastefulness has often seemed worth the bargain. In earlier generations it was often said, and not only by the French, that a French housewife could feed her family for a week with the food that an American housewife threw out in a day. When Edward Bok, as a young boy from the Netherlands, first arrived in America in the 1870s, what shocked him most was learning that America was “a land of waste”: “The butcher’s waste filled my mother’s soul with dismay … There was literally nothing in American life to teach me thrift or economy; everything to teach me to spend and to waste.”

Today, teachers report that in U.S. high school lunchrooms, some students after paying the cashier simply leave any returned coins on their trays, so that the money can be easily tossed into the trash afterward along with debris and uneaten food.  In a land of plenty, the stewardship of small amounts – arguably the essence of the ethic of wise use – can seem trivial and restrictive.

Waste can also be an assertion of status. Waste says, “I am big, I have plenty!”  Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe in part this phenomenon. Anthropologists report that many societies develop celebrations (such as the “potlatch”) in which leaders compete with one another in part to see who can destroy the most wealth, by burning it or throwing it into the water. Whoever wastes the most is the biggest man. Similarly, waste and tolerating waste can be ways of asserting dominion. Waste says, “I control this sphere, it’s mine!”

On the other hand, there’s my parents, now retired and living in Madison, Mississippi. Most of their vegetables come from their garden. Most of their meat and fish my father gathers as a hunter and fisherman.  Paying full price at the supermarket is something they’d hardly consider – they regularly bring home large quantities of slightly misshapen produce or slightly out-of-date milk, most of which is free or nearly free, and much of which they share (along with their garden bounty) with a circle of friends and people in need. The grocers are happy to work with them. They’ve canned, preserved, and frozen enough food to last several winters. They regularly “eat down” their refrigerator, treating leftovers as a treat and a privilege. What little food waste comes from their kitchen is composted and returned to the garden.

Just like they’re doing in Berlin, with a Southern accent.

Helpful links:

The author and food leader Jonathan Bloom runs a website, Wasted Food, and is the author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It)

 A 2013 study from the World Resources Institute is Reducing Food Loss and Waste.

A 2012 study from the Natural Resources Defense Council is Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill

Thrift – Telling the Story of a Cultural Movement for Today

I have a special treat for you. David Blankenhorn sat down with Andrew Yarrow in our New York offices and they talked up “Thrift: The History of an American Cultural Movement.” Tired of reading? You’ll find this fascinating podcast here.

Andrew Yarrow has written a delightful book, laying bare, root and branch, the forgotten story of the early 20th century Thrift movement. If you like returning to the source where practical and creative people tackle new challenges, you are in luck. The Thrift movement took its recognizable shape from about 1890 to 1930. Its crazy quilt history reads like the original crowd sourced solution to the bewildering issues raised by the maturing of the industrial age and America’s nascent consumer culture. Andrew also has a few important things to say about how that impulse for reform, thrift, is relevant for our economic security in our eerily similar age.

I particularly love the chapter on the movement visionaries, entitled “Allies and Strange Bedfellows.” What a spectacular group of eccentrics and entrepreneurs! And how surprised we are to learn that many of the institutions they dreamed of, designed and built, still endure. Their call to arms remains both familiar and more urgent than ever. 

Andrew’s writing is as smooth as butter and as economical as you could hope to find given the wide variety of sources and insights required to bring this story out from the shadows. And like the proverbial Dutch boy’s thumb, it fills a critical and contemporary need – and makes you glad that he was there to fill in the gap. 

In addition, the University of Massachusetts Press has made this arresting volume even more attractive by including so many of IAV’s collection of images from our Thrift Catalogue. Picture and text together evoke for the reader both the proverbial wisdom and ethical passion of Thrift as  “the philosophy of common sense” – as Teddy Roosevelt labeled it. We really do come away with a rich sense of the imaginative reach of this simultaneously hardwired and yet to be attained American ethic.

Thank you Professor Yarrow.

Should We Legalize Sports Betting?

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the new commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Adam Silver, says that he favors allowing legalized sports betting throughout the United States. The announcement both surprises and confirms. It surprises because no leader of any major U.S. sports league, either college or professional, has ever expressed anything other than opposition to sports betting. But Mr. Silver’s about-face also confirms a trend – for some time now, big-time sports and big-time gambling have been quietly exploring ways to make money together.

So we can thank Mr. Silver for making the idea official. And we can welcome this opportunity to consider anew whether commercial sports betting is a good idea. Let’s ask ourselves four questions.

First, what positive good for society might be gained by legalizing sports betting?  Tellingly, Mr. Silver is silent on this point. Other than trotting out the idea that legalized gambling is good because plenty of people already do it illegally – the argument of commercial gamblers everywhere since gambling began – Mr. Silver is in the uncomfortable position of advocating a major change in American sports without being able to offer a single positive reason why.

Don’t blame Mr. Silver. He offers no reason because none exists. Like all forms of gambling, sports betting is the sterile transfer of money from some people’s pockets into other people’s pockets, producing nothing new and nothing of lasting value. Its economic impact is similar to throwing your money on the street so someone else can pick it up – it redistributes wealth without creating it. And because this nonproductive activity nevertheless uses up time and resources, it almost certainly reduces our national standard of living.

The commissioner apparently thinks that the NBA can make money from sports betting – that his league can pick up some of that money thrown on to the street – and on that point he may be right.  But let’s realize that there is no larger motive behind his move.

Second, will legalized sports betting create new harms for people who’ll be encouraged to place bets?  On this issue, too, Mr. Silver is oddly silent, as if such a question is none of his concern. But shouldn’t it be?  If sports gambling becomes both legal and encouraged, more people are likely to gamble. And as more people gamble, more are likely to hurt themselves, their families, and their communities through excessive gambling. An already significant social problem – you can see it portrayed in the 2005 movie “Two for the Money” – would almost certainly get worse.

Third, will legalized sports betting encourage cheating and game-fixing?  Do basketballs bounce? An incontrovertible truth of U.S. sports history – and the main reason why all league officials until now have opposed sports betting – is that gambling and corruption, soliciting bets and enticing players and referees to cheat, go together like ham and eggs.  Amazingly, Mr. Silver essentially wishes this issue away, implying that more gambling, so long as it’s legal, will result in less cheating.  It almost certainly won’t.  (In a nearly comic touch, Tim Donaghy, the former NBA referee who went to jail for betting on games that he officiated, recently endorsed Mr. Silver’s proposal.)

Finally, leaving aside issues of cheating, would legalized sports betting change the meaning of American sports?  The answer is yes, and here in my view is the deepest reason why commercial sports betting is harmful. Betting on games subtly but profoundly shifts our focus away from the game itself – the sport for the sake of the sport – and instead encourages us to experience the game as a means of measuring and grasping for money.  In doing so it violates everything that, as children, drew us to sports in the first place.

Remember, when you place a bet with a bookie, you usually aren’t even betting on who’s going to win the game – you are betting against a point spread established by the bookie. The game itself becomes something of a tangent.  Is this what we want our sports to mean to us?  Not the thing itself, but the commercialization of the thing?

And not just any old commercialization.  Let’s also remember that sports betting is fundamentally an income transfer from the betting public to professional bookies. Over time, the bookies always win. (Mr. Silver knows this; he just wants his cut.) In this sense, legalized sports gambling will publicly identify the meaning of American sports with something very close to a fleecing operation.  How can such a change be good for our sports or our society?

Mr. Silver would have us believe that the main issue is whether the activity is legal or illegal.  But that’s not true. The main issue is the activity itself.  Sports gambling is not harmful because it’s illegal.  It’s illegal because it’s harmful.

What Good is Marriage?

That marriage is a good thing for individuals and society can no longer be assumed. Yes, most Americans still aspire to marry and do marry. But recent research shows that growing numbers of Americans, especially younger ones, are either uncertain about marriage or express mistrust of the institution. Moreover, while marriage apparently remains a good fit for most upscale Americans, in much of non-affluent America marriage as a stable institution is primarily recognizable by its absence and by its wreckage.

So we’re called to think anew about this institution whose fundamental validity previous generations largely took for granted. Let’s start with the basic question. Why would someone today want to marry?  What good might marriage do?

The main fact about marriage is that it’s different from, and larger than, the love that is shared by the lovers. Sexual love is one of the most powerful feelings on earth. Sexual intercourse affects us even at the biochemical level, so that when lovers report that they feel “addicted” to one another, they are doing more than speaking poetically. Sexual love is a primal, potent human feeling.

Marriage is the social invention that surrounds and helps to guide sexual love. To private love, marriage adds a public structure. To an anarchic, drug-like feeling that is certain to ebb and flow over time, marriage adds rules and roles intended to help it survive over time and serve larger goals.  In short, sexual love is a feeling and marriage harnesses that feeling to what scholars call a social institution.

Now, let’s admit that “social institution” is not a phrase likely to set the heart racing, particularly when discussing sex and love.  But let’s also recognize and respect what goods are created – what is made more attainable – when sex and love are guided by a working social institution.

The first good is permanence. We all know that many marriages today fail, but for anyone who wants love that will last, marriage remains the best idea out there. This truth is beautifully captured by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in 1943 told a couple on their wedding day that “It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, your marriage that sustains your love.”  If I could give every American only one sentence to read about marriage, it would that sentence from Bonhoeffer.

The second good is faithfulness. Viewed as an institution, marriage is largely a set of rules, and one of marriage’s central rules is to have sex only with your spouse and, more generally, to be true and devoted to your spouse.  Do we at times experience this rule as a burden?  Yes.  Do some of us break it?  Yes.  Does the rule almost always contribute importantly to better, richer, and more lasting love?  Yes.

The third good is children. Anthropologists tell us that a primary purpose of marriage across history and cultures is to protect children and promote their well-being. And current scholarship abundantly confirms the general rule that the two-parent, married-couple home is the best environment for raising children.  Warts and all, marriage is by far humanity’s most pro-child institution.

The fourth good is social bonds, or what economists call social capital.  Marriage helps me to thrive by placing me within a thick network of established mutual obligations and caring relationships. Marriage is a powerful connector.  It brings together not only two individuals but two extended families and two networks of friends. Does marriage as a formal structure add power to these relationships?  You bet it does. The late columnist William Raspberry used to say that he’d be uncertain if his daughter asked him to lend money to her boyfriend, but would reach for his checkbook if his daughter asked him to lend money to her husband.  Form matters.

The fifth good is wealth. Studies consistently show that marriage is a wealth-producing institution.  It’s true that higher earners are more likely to marry in the first place (researchers call this a selection effect), but it’s also true marriage in and of itself tends to encourage people (especially men) to work harder and earn more. Even more importantly, the marriage commitment creates incentives for the spouses to divide labor, plan for the future, and cooperate with one another over time in ways that build wealth.

The sixth good is civil society. Marriage tends to be associated with, and helps to produce, a range of character traits that are valued by individuals and society – including obeying the law, being trustworthy, and being a good neighbor and citizen. Marriage certainly does not guarantee these traits, or hold any monopoly on them. But marriage clearly contributes to them.

The Beatles said, “All you need is love.”  But that’s not all you need!  For fullness, transcendence, and staying power, the smart move is to put a ring on it.

Of Thee I Sing

If you want to know America, study the words of our national anthems. In his terrific book This Land That I Love, John Shaw offers at least eight songs that qualify as true American anthems, or “songs that people sing together on ceremonial or celebratory occasions when they want to evoke, share, or express a public emotion about nationhood.”  The earliest is “Hail, Columbia” (1789) and the most recent is “This Land is Your Land” (1940).  In between are “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1814), “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (1831), “Dixie” (about 1859), “America the Beautiful” (1895), “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1899), and “God Bless America” (1938).   

What’s so remarkable about America is that we’re a nation based largely on ideals. What makes us one people is not our language, or our ethnicity, or our family backgrounds, or our religious creeds. Our essential unifying bond is a set of civic beliefs – which is why anyone can become an American. Our anthems reflect this astonishing fact.      

The most celebrated ideal in these eight songs is freedom. All but one (“Dixie”) stress it. We hail those “who fought and bled in freedom’s cause.” We sing of “a sweet land of liberty.” Our voices “ring with the harmonies of Liberty.”  We go “walking that freedom highway.”  There are many other examples. According to our anthems, if America must be sung in one word, that word is freedom.   

Yet two of these anthems link our nation to freedom’s opposite. “We have come over a way that with tears have been watered / We have come, treading our path of the blood of the slaughtered.” And “By the relief office I see my people / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”  

I’m glad that these hard sentences are in our anthems. I like living in country big enough, and free enough, to include in its pantheon the painful truths told by James Weldon Johnson in his African American national anthem and by Woody Guthrie in his anthem of America’s ignored and dispossessed. Our foundational songs tell us that American patriotism is more than mere celebration.   

Four of these anthems praise America’s natural beauty.  I sing to America that “I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills.” God bless America “from the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam.” America is beautiful “from sea to shining sea.” That “golden valley” was made for you and me. What a huge, continent-sized country we live in – and how beautiful!    

Most of our anthems invoke the divine.  “In Heaven we place a manly trust, that truth and justice will prevail, and every scheme of bondage fail.”  We’re a “heaven rescued land” whose “motto” is to trust God. We sing to “our fathers’ God, Author of liberty.” We pray that “shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand.”  And of course, we sing “God bless America, land that I love.”   

At the same time, like the theme of freedom, the theme of America’s relationship to God comes in several flavors in these songs.  Sometimes we’re simply grateful for God’s blessings. Sometimes we ask for divine protection and guidance.  Sometimes, in my view, we come too close to suggesting that God especially favors America. 

 But sometimes, instead of believing that God today is on our side, we pray that tomorrow we can be a better people – perhaps more worthy of being on God’s side. From “America the Beautiful”: “America! America! God shed his grace on thee / Till selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free!” And: “America! America! May God thy gold refine / Till all success be nobleness and every gain divine!”  There is no complacency here, no confidence in our collective rectitude, only a challenge in the form of a prayer.   

“America the Beautiful” is my favorite American anthem. It was written by Katherine Lee Bates – a professor of English literature at Wellesley College who likely had socialist political leanings – during a cross-country trip from Massachusetts to Colorado in the summer of 1893. It was her first trip west, and she clearly fell in love – as I did during my first extended trip west – with America’s skies, mountains, prairies, and “waves of grain.” She originally called her song “America,” but to me the eventual popular title, “America the Beautiful” is even better.   

Yet what I love most about this song is its confident hope that, with God’s help, this remarkable American experiment in ordered liberty can make us better tomorrow than we are today. “America!  America! God mend thine every flaw / Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!”  My admiration for this song continues to grow. 

This article originally appeared in the Deseret News

Is Marriage Over?

Should we give up on marriage? Some very smart people have apparently reached this conclusion. The latest and possibly most prominent is my friend Isabel Sawhill, whose new book is Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage.  Her basic premise is that “marriage is disappearing in America.” Accordingly, we should replace the old ideal of “don’t have a child outside of marriage” with a new ideal of “responsible parenthood,” which means “not having a child before you and your partner really want one and have thought about how you will care for that child.”

I admire Isabel Sawhill deeply, but I respectfully disagree with this recommendation.

First, American marriage isn’t disappearing, it’s fracturing along class lines. In upscale America – about one-third of the society – marriage is thriving. Most people marry, few children (fewer than 10 percent) are born to unmarried mothers, and most children grow up through age 18 living with their two married parents. Among the more privileged, then, marriage clearly functions as a wealth-producing arrangement, a source of happiness over time, and a benefit to children.

Indeed, scholars today increasingly identify America’s marriage gap – in which the affluent reap the benefits of marriage while the non-affluent increasingly do not – as an important driver of rising American inequality.  Wouldn’t it be odd, and sad, if American elites, at the very moment in which the role of marriage as both an indicator and producer of high status in their own lives is crystal clear, decided to throw up their hands in resignation when it comes to marriage in the rest of the society?

Second, changing what we support from “marriage” (a social institution) to “responsible parenthood” (a piece of advice) means downplaying the role of society and putting all responsibility on the individual. According to many scholars, a primary reason why humans invented marriage in the first place was to create a social structure that fosters responsible parenting. But now we’re supposed to ignore the structure and simply remind people to be responsible? Is that a realistic strategy for producing more responsibility?

Individual responsibility doesn’t begin and end with the individual – it also depends for its success on social institutions that encourage and guide it. Certainly we want people on our highways to drive responsibly. But does that mean we can or should stop stressing the importance of getting a drivers license and following traffic regulations?

Third, abandoning marriage as a social standard will do nothing to address the actual problems caused by the weakening of marriage. Several decades ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously described the futility of what he called “defining deviancy down,” by which he meant imagining that we’ve addressed a problem simply because we’ve re-labeled it as no longer a problem. It doesn’t work that way! An abundance of evidence tells us that marriage matters, whether we say so or not. Put another way, if society’s elites decided tomorrow to stop promoting marriage (except for themselves!), what problem will be solved or reduced?

Fourth, upholding marriage doesn’t mean that you can’t uphold anything else.  People who advise giving up on marriage usually favor something else. Isabel Sawhill wants more effective use of contraception. So do I. Others want better jobs or more educational opportunity. So do I. On reason for seeking these changes is that they’d likely contribute to a stronger marriage culture! Certainly there’s no reason to imagine that fighting for any or all of them means that you can’t also fight for marriage.

Finally, one reason for Sawhill’s resignation is her worry that liberals and conservatives will never come together on marriage. But she shouldn’t give up now! A new, broadly based marriage coalition is within our grasp.

Conservatives are long-time champions of marriage. To help lead a new and broader marriage coalition, the only thing conservatives need to do to is make their peace with gay marriage – a process that is already occurring. (And I speak from experience: I used to oppose gay marriage, but I’ve changed my mind.)

Liberals can help lead this new marriage coalition on the basis of their deepest values, such as the fight for a more equal society, as regards both sexual orientation and social class. For the first time in decades, liberals today can unashamedly embrace marriage – marriage for all who seek it and marriage as one important creator of wealth and opportunity for those at the bottom.

And consider this new-coalition possibility: Gays and lesbians, having fought bravely and successfully for the right to marry, can now by their leadership and example help the nation as whole to rediscover marriage’s promise. But how sad if, on the very eve of their astonishing victory for marriage, the nation’s elites decided to declare with passivity that “marriage is disappearing.”

This article originally appeared in the Deseret News.

Think Tanks, Fundraising, and What Money Shouldn’t Buy

A recent front-page article in the New York Times revealed that many foreign governments now make large donations to U.S. think tanks, which in turn help those governments gain access to U.S. policy makers, largely by producing and disseminating research that is friendly to those governments.

Strobe Talbot of the Brookings Institution, one of the Washington-based think tanks cited in the story, insists that the substantial money the organization receives from foreign governments doesn’t influence its work. In a letter to the Times, he states that “no one, inside or outside the institution, tells our scholars what questions to ask or what answers to propose.”

However, that’s not what many foreign governments apparently believe. An internal government report from Norway says: “In Washington it is difficult for a small country to gain access to powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and experts. Funding powerful think tanks is one way to gain such access, and some think tanks in Washington are openly conveying that they can service only those foreign governments that provide funding.” A government ministry in Qatar says that its large gift to the Brookings Institution will help in “reflecting the bright image of Qatar in the international media, especially the American ones.”

Moreover, the conflict of interest in this situation is real, irrespective of people’s motives and standards of conduct. Foreign nations seeking to influence U.S. decision makers gave lots of money to U.S. think tanks, which in turn did work that, by anyone’s reckoning, helped those nations achieve their goals. Even if all the players were acting entirely as disinterested seekers of truth, as Talbot suggests, there would still be something wrong.

What’s the right thing to do? Should these organizations be required to register as lobbyists for foreign governments, as some have suggested?  Probably not. If I take your money specifically to represent you to decision makers, then I’m a lobbyist. In some cases these think tanks walked right up to that line, but they don’t seem to have crossed it.

Should think tanks refuse to accept donations from foreign governments, as Congressman Frank Wolfe of Virginia has now recommended? No. There is nothing inherently wrong about a think tank accepting money from a foreign government. (Disclosure: My think tank, IAV, has accepted donations from Oman.) It’s also worth remembering that there’s no such thing as a donation without expectations. As long as we have think tanks, we’re going to have donors with motives.

To me, two changes are needed. The first is more disclosure. If you’re a think tank engaging with U.S. policy makers, and you’ve accepted money from a foreign government with a vested interest in the matter, you should be required prominently to disclose that relationship – even if you and your boss are convinced that the money isn’t influencing your work!  This is a simple, obvious reform that’s already being discussed in Congress.

The second change is harder. Put simply, the mission of a think tank should drive funding, not the other way around.  But like many universities, think tanks increasingly act as if their mission is to increase their funding and size. As a result they’ve become, first and foremost, giant fundraising machines for which the prime imperative is constant expansion. If you run a think tank or university today, it’s likely that your main activity is raising money and that your main goal is getting bigger. Asked about the Brookings Institution’s heavy focus on foreign donations, one scholar said: “Brookings keeps growing and it has to support itself.” That’s the idea.

But think tanks should question this idea. It concerns more than foreign governments buying influence. Arguably the most harmful trend in think tanks today – and in our public life generally – is hyper-partisanship. What feeds it? There are many factors, but a major one is the growing domination of money. There are many donors willing to pay think tanks to become PR shops for already-defined political agendas – and plenty of think tanks willing to make that deal with the devil, in part because of their conviction that success is fundamentally defined by dollars.

In our case at IAV, our staff and budget are small and our office is distinctly unfancy, unless your tastes run to second-hand books and hand-me-down furniture. Working this way has obvious disadvantages, but to me it’s worth it. At least we do our own work rather than someone else’s. At least we spend most of our days on something other than trying to make the organization bigger. At least we still live out the dream of having the tank serve the think rather than the other way around.

 This article appeared originally in the Deseret News.

Can Regular Bettors Become Regular Savers? You Bet!

Large and growing numbers of American households don’t save much. This is not good. Saving money over time – spending a bit less than you earn each week – has always been the fundamental American strategy for rising into the middle class and staying there.

Most non-savers are poor people and people of modest means.  It’s true that saving is easier if you aren’t financially strapped, but it’s equally true that not saving is a good strategy for staying poor!

The most important thing to know about saving is that it’s a habit: The essential practice is regularly putting away small sums of money.

On the other hand, Americans spend billions of dollars each year on lottery tickets. This is not good.  Lotteries are giant, state-run fleecing operations in which people buy hope for cash. Virtually all regular lottery players lose money – if you want your dollar to do you some good, buying a lottery ticket is about as productive as setting the dollar on fire in order to warm yourself for a moment.

Most regular lottery players are poor people and people of modest means. In fact, spending money each week on lottery tickets is a good strategy for staying poor!

The most important thing to know about playing the lottery is that it’s a habit: The essential practice is regularly spending small sums of money on the tickets.

Does anyone see the connection here?  Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas saw it. That’s why in 2010 he invited me and my colleagues at IAV (the think tank I direct) to develop a new program called “Kansas Saves.” The basic idea was to create convenient opportunities for regular lottery players to save money, while still being eligible to win prizes.

Picture how it would work:  If you walk into most any convenience store today in Kansas (or for that matter in most states), you can buy a lottery ticket.  But what if, in that same store, alongside the traditional lottery tickets, you see a new kind of ticket for sale?  It’s called a savings ticket.  If you buy one, two things happen.

First, the money you spend on it remains your money – every penny goes directly into a savings account in your name and controlled by you.  After that, each time you buy a savings ticket, the same thing happens – everything you spend is added to your savings.

Second, you’ll be eligible to win prizes. No, you won’t win mega-millions.  The prizes are donated by businesses and civic organizations.  But you might win a car, or a free weekend vacation, or tickets to sports or music events.

So in one way, buying a savings ticket is like buying a regular lottery ticket – you may win a prize.  But in another way, it’s completely different. You’ll never lose. Every ticket wins because every ticket helps to increase your wealth over time.

We conducted a statewide survey documenting the extent of under-saving and non-saving in Kansas. We did focus group interviews with Kansas lottery players, who overwhelmingly told us that they liked the idea. We travelled the state talking to civic leaders, finance and credit union leaders – a credit union seemed to make sense as the institution to hold the deposits – and lottery managers. In consultation with GTECH, the gaming technology company already working with the Kansas lottery, we developed the idea of the “Kansas Saves” smart card – a combination debit card usable for purchases, savings account card to transfer money into your savings account at the point of ticket purchase, and loyalty card to keep a record of ticket purchases and account balances.  We were excited!  We thought everything was ready to go.

At the last minute, Governor Brownback killed the idea. He never told us why.  Instead he went in exactly the opposite direction, implementing a plan that he’d inherited from his predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius, to build state-operated casinos in Kansas – yet another opportunity to encourage Kansans to lose their money rather than save it.

Governor Brownback missed his chance, but one day this idea will become a reality. As public policy, lotteries are a dishonest farce.  And the idea of using the lottery infrastructure to help steady losing bettors become steady winning savers is too good to ignore forever, even in our age of political dysfunction and hyper-partisanship. Evidence that such a program would work is already in.  My friends at the organization Doorways to Dreams, in their pioneering work with credit unions, have already shown that prize-linked savings programs can help people of limited means build assets over time and can win political support from both sides of the aisle. Where is the state governor out there who wants to do something good for the people?

The article appeared originally in the Deseret News.

Wilbur’s Big Idea

Our story begins on a fine day in April of 1913 in the small town of White Cloud, Kansas, when a ten-year-old boy named Wilbur Chapman meets a visitor named William Danner.

Wilbur’s parents were missionaries. Both had found their life’s calling as part of a YMCA-inspired youth religious revival which, according to one historian, “swept like a prairie fire” over Kansas in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Inspired by their faith, the young couple dedicated their lives to a new organization called the Gospel Missionary Union.  By April of 1913, Wilbur’s father, Charles, was home on leave, having spent more than a decade selling bibles and preaching the gospel in Ecuador and Columbia.  His mother Manie, whose health had become too poor to remain overseas, supported their work in many ways from their home in White Cloud.

One thing she did was start prayer groups to seek God’s help in caring for the world’s lepers. When she thought the time was right, she wrote to the head the American Mission to Lepers, a man from Boston named William Danner. Come visit us in White Cloud, Mrs. Chapman wrote. We’ve been praying for the lepers. If you’ll visit our churches, she said, I believe you can raise $250, enough to care for ten lepers for a year.

A good and dedicated man, Danner went to White Cloud. He stayed in the Chapman home. He befriended young Wilbur. He visited four local churches – in a town of about 750 people – and raised a total of $225 for the Mission. A disappointPete the Pig 2ed Mrs. Chapman apologized to him for not meeting their goal of $250.

At the train station before dawn, waiting to head back East, Chapman recalls that he took three silver dollars out of his pocket and “slipped them into Wilbur’s hands as I said good by, asking him not to show these to anyone till morning.”

Several weeks later Danner got a letter from Wilbur. In the fall, Wilbur wrote, I’ll use the three dollars to “buy a pig, and feed him, and see if he will not grow big so I can sell him for enough to support a leper for a year … Mother’s tenth leper! Do you see?”

Danner saw.  In November he got a second letter. Wilbur had saved the three dollars all summer. Now he’d bought the pig. Moreover, the pig was becoming a local celebrity! People had learned about Wilbur’s idea, and many children in town were eager to help Wilbur feed “the leper pig.” The pig was growing. Wilbur had named him Pete.

In the spring of 1914, Wilbur sold the pig and sent $25 to the American Mission to Lepers, finally raising White Cloud’s contribution to $250 and completing the pledge for “Mother’s tenth leper.”

That’s how the story begins.  Moved by what Wilbur had done, Danner shared the story with friends at a prayer meeting.  One of those friends worked at the Sunday School Times, a national publication serving Sunday School teachers.  He asked Danner to write a story for the Times about Wilbur and the pig. Danner agreed.

The story caught on. Sunday School teachers across the country began collection drives in which children would contribute coins to “feed Pete” so as to help the lepers. Soon the American Mission to Lepers was distributing thousands of metal (later, plastic) “Pete the Pig” banks for children to fill with coins. By 1919, 11,000 “Pete the Pig” banks had been distributed to U.S. Sunday Schools.  By 1938, the number had reached 100,000, and contributions to the American Mission to Lepers from U.S. Sunday School children had exceeded $1 million.

Today this story is all but forgotten.  But it’s worth remembering.

Feed Pete PinWhen you were a child, you probably had a “piggy bank.”  Do you wonder who conceived this idea and what made piggy banks so popular?  There’s no single answer.  For example, earthenware “penny pigs” were popular among British children in the late 19th century.  But one important answer, at least regarding the U.S., is the success of the “Pete Pig” campaign which grew out of Wilbur Chapman’s big idea in 1913.

That big idea can be summed up in one word: thrift.  It comes from the word “thrive” and it’s one of the English language’s oldest and most important words. It’s particularly relevant to problems facing us today. Thrift is an ethic, stemming ultimately from the idea of stewardship. The best definition of thrift is wise use. The opposite of thrift is waste. In practice, thrift usually means working hard and honestly, being frugal and saving all you can, and giving back all you can. Like Wilbur did!

David Blankenhorn is the author of Thrift: A Cyclopedia.  Follow him on Twitter at Blankenhorn3.  This article appeared originally in the Deseret News.

 

How Culture War Thinks

Why is our public discussion so dominated by rancor and divisiveness?  Why do our politicians increasingly resemble silly children throwing food at each other?  Why do our “news” programs on TV so often consist of people dealing out abuse and accusations?

There are many likely causes of what a recent Pew Research Center study calls rising “political polarization” in American society, but one of them is intellectual, concerning not so much what we think as how we think. Let’s call this phenomenon polarized thinking, and let’s reflect on its dangers by understanding its features.

First, polarized thinking reflects the notion that only some values matter.  What are the basic ethical concerns that human societies appear to value most? The psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind points to six: care for others, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sacredness. American liberals today tend to focus largely on care and fairness, while conservatives usually make more room for the other four.  But polarized thinking goes further. It says that my preferred values are everything and yours are nothing.  It’s like a right-handed person saying not only “I favor my right hand” but also “Left hands are no good.” It’s crude thinking. Try walking around one day using only one hand.

Second, polarized thinking is typically binary thinking, in which everything divides into two mutually hostile forces – left versus right, believers versus secularists, good people like me versus bad people like you. In his book On Human Nature, the scientist Edward O. Wilson suggests that humans are hard-wired “to dichotomize, to classify other human beings into two artificially sharpened categories.”  But this way of thinking should be resisted.  As Wilson says, it’s artificial. It’s simplistic. The world is extravagantly plural, and thinking about it in binary categories just won’t do.

Third, polarized thinking undermines doubt. Many people today appear to view doubt as a weakness. Some religious leaders even suggest that it’s a sin, that doubt will endanger your soul.  But the older I get, and the more I read and think, the more I’ve come to view doubt as my friend. Doubt can keep me honest. Doubt keeps me curious. By always reminding me of what I’m not completely sure I know, doubt can protect me from arrogance and self-righteousness. Yes, truth is objective, but we can only approach it subjectively – we see through a glass darkly. To treat doubt as a friend is to recognize this basic fact of our humanity.

I know there are plenty of people today who’ve already discovered the truth and whose main mission now is explaining it to others, but I seldom find them to be helpful.  Or interesting. I’ll take a good question over a final answer any day.

Fourth, polarized thinking tends to replace the clash of ideas with accusations of bad faith. Instead of focusing on content, we get name-calling and speculations about wrong motives. It’s profoundly anti-intellectual.

From 2008 to 2011 my former teacher Michael Ignatieff was the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.  In Fire and Ashes, his book about the experience, he describes how little it mattered what he actually said about the issues. What mattered were the personal attacks levelled against him.  He describes them, correctly in my view, as attempts to deny standing. The charge is not “What you say is wrong” but “You’re so personally flawed that you have no business saying anything.”

Ignatieff, a professor who’s written widely on politics and political theory, was genuinely shocked by the brutality and effectiveness of this procedure. I’ve been in the public debate myself – most controversially on the issue of gay marriage – and when the same thing happened to me, I too was genuinely shocked.  And distressed.

Finally, polarized thinking turns opponents into enemies.  It says not only “I disagree with you” but also “You and I have nothing in common” and “You are a threat to me.”  The result of this transformation is that civic engagement itself becomes pointless and the normal practices of democracy fall into disuse.  Why bother? Why listen to someone from whom you can learn nothing?  Why compromise with those whose only aim is to cause harm?

Here we get to the heart of the matter. There’s a reason why we call it “culture war” and why one of the most frequently used words in politics today is “fight.”  It’s harsh and aggressive and intended to be so.  It works well enough in times of actual war. But it’s no way for citizens to treat one another.  It’s no way to participate in civil society. It’s no way to run a democracy.

This article appeared originally in the Deseret News.

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