Human Dignity, Riots, and the Fragility of Civilization (And win a book on American mythmaking!)

Infusing goodness, beauty, and truth into our public discourse

Issue No. 10

Gracious Reader,

We find ourselves in a dark moment.

The protests against the grave racial injustices in our present—most recently, the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery—have properly brought renewed attention to the deep wounds in nation’s past. 

We saw peaceful, yet forceful, protesters across the nation laudably stand against the excessive use force by law enforcement against African Americans. We are in dire need of public leaders who will work together across the political aisle to think about, and act on, ways to fix the injustices—deep and longstanding—in our society.

In many places, what began as peaceful demonstrations against injustice devolved into riots and senseless violence. The fact that this chaos arose so quickly reminds us that civilization and community are not foregone conclusions. They require tireless work from each of us. They are maintained by each of us being decent, generous and kind to our fellow citizens—despite what they look like, whether they think like us, or whether they can do anything for us in return.

I wrote an essay for The Bulwark on this theme, which you can find here. The final point in the essay gets a truth I try to weave into all of my work: recognizing human dignity, and treating people accordingly, is the bedrock of a truly civilized society. This attitude is the very definition of true civility: treating with respect everyone, including those who do not think like you, look like you, or seem able to ever do anything for you.

Over the course of this past week, I’ve reflected on the heroes of our past who fought tirelessly against racism in our country, seeking to mine lessons from their lives and work (I’ve written about some of them here).

Many abolitionists of the 19th century eschewed violence and insisted on persuasion. This is notable, because if there was any time in history—American or otherwise—where it was morally justified to depart from the norms of propriety, it was in the fight to abolish slavery.

Take William Lloyd Garrison, the pacifist founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He recognized that civility requires taking our opponents’ dignity seriously, even when we profoundly disagree. He was committed to the proposition that equality applies to everyone—friend and foe. He knew that justice at any cost was not justice at all.

During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the heart of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent resistance training was ensuring that he and his supporters rose above the violence and abuse of those who sought to debase and oppress them. He chose this path because he knew that violence only begets more violence. Only sacrificial love—only when the abusers saw affection in the eyes of those they abused—could change hearts and meaningfully displace the evil of racism. As Dr. King said, “The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.”

The events of recent days should provoke us to reflect on how we think, talk about, and respond to issues of racial injustice. Our public discourse must be reoriented toward an acknowledgment of our shared humanity and the irreducible dignity and worth we each hold as persons.

G.K. Chesterton suggests an analogy that puts this idea—that we each bear dignity and are worthy of respect, despite our deep differences—beautifully. He observed that when we say that people are equal, we mean something like what we mean when we say pennies are equal:

When we say that all pennies are equal, we do not mean that they all look exactly the same. We mean that they are absolutely equal in their one absolute character, in the most important thing about them. It may be put practically by saying that they are coins of a certain value, twelve of which go to a shilling. It may be put symbolically, and even mystically, by saying that they all bear the image of the King. And, though the most mystical, it is also the most practical summary of equality that all men bear the image of the King of Kings.

Only by constantly keeping in mind the irreducible dignity of our fellow man will we be able to navigate the fraught but necessary conversations in the days to come.

We have a colossal task ahead of us. We are due for a national conversation about what it means to be an American—a nation founded on the ideals of liberty and fundamental equality of all—when racism is manifest in our past and present. We all have a duty to be thoughtful, deliberate and sensitive when thinking about this issue. We must do ample listening, and also be all the more intentional about building bridges and sowing seeds of kindness and healing in our everyday—especially with those who have first-hand experience of the hurt and pain in our current moment.

Readings I’ve Enjoyed

Foreign Affairs had a great essay on “How Civic Tech Can Stop A PandemicIt was a fascinating overview of how citizens—in our own past, and in other countries today—work to solve the myriad complex problems related to national crises. The article looks at the use of citizen-driven “civic tech” in aiding the world’s greatest success story in the war on COVID 19: Taiwan. Taiwan’s achievement resulted from the cumulative effect of dozens of community-created apps that supported the Taiwanese government’s response to the virus. Our country has examples in its past of citizen action in mitigating disaster to look to as well, such as the explosion of citizen-led initiatives—supported by 10 million volunteers—to help America’s war effort during World War II.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. One of my quarantine reading projects, undertaken with my husband, is to read Tocqueville’s magnum opus cover to cover. We have found it brimming with quotable lines and poignant insights that extend far beyond those we are fall familiar with. Take, for example, this beautiful observation: “It isn’t necessary for God himself to speak in order for us to discover sure signs of his will… I know, without the creator raising his voice, that the stars in space follow the curves traced by his fingers.”

The New York Times ran a “how to” for ways to create a community organization, particularly timely during our time of tumult and need. Find it here.

The New Yorker had a fabulous essay on mutual aid groups during the pandemic. The piece shows that Tocqueville’s observation that America is a nation of “fixers” and “doers” continues to be true. From the piece: “Writer Rebecca Solnit published the book A Paradise Built in Hell, which argues that during collective disasters the “suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems” spur widespread acts of altruism—and these improvisations, Solnit suggests, can lead to lasting civic change.” Find it here.

The Wall Street Journal had a lovely piece entitled “Why America Is Rediscovering the Social Front Yard.” This essay is reminiscent of Richard H. Thomas’ famous essay “From Front Porch to Patio.” Thomas’s piece unpacks how an architectural shift—builders began moving large front porches to the back of the house—tracked a cultural one—America became more individualistic, and less communal. The parity of these essays is notable, as the COVID 19 lockdown has certainly caused people to see the downsides of individualism (perhaps discovering that there is too much of a good thing!) and look for ways to connect and commune with others. (This is also related to my Novak Fellowship project on the “Porching” revolution occurring across America, a revolution the COVID 19 crisis has further accelerated.

What I’m Writing

As noted, I wrote for The Bulwark on how the riots reveal both the fragility of civilization and the need to re-orient our public discourse toward our shared human dignity. Find it here.

For Newsweek,  I showed how George Washington’s Rules of Civility can help us amid the pandemic

For The National InterestI reflected on how our social norms have changed during the pandemic, and why creating new trust-building norms is essential to maintaining community during this time of social distancing.

For USA Today, I’ve penned a series of columns on how civic innovators are problem solving to help their communities amid the pandemic in ways that the Government cannot:

o   In April, I wrote of a doctor who started a micro-practice to offer higher quality of care to his patients, and promote price transparency in our convoluted and inefficient medical system. Read the piece here.

o   In May, I featured a young man who developed a chat bot that connected people to local (and open!) food pantries to mitigate food insecurity in Houston. I argue that our leaders must understand their limitations and look for ways to empower grassroots innovators. Read the story here.


Would you like to win a copy of historian Colin Woodard’s new book Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood? It’s easy! Merely forward this email to a friend or family member you think might enjoy it, send me a note letting me know, and then you’ll be entered into the draw! The winner will be announced next newsletter.

Woodard is the author of the celebrated book American Nations, which looks at American history through the lens of the different ethnic settlements prior to and after the founding. In a moment in our history that yearns for and direly needs a shared narrative, this book on American myth-making is particularly timely.

I’d like to give a shout out to the last book-give-away winner, Ron Manners from Western Australia, who won a copy of Dr. James Hankins’ Virtue Politics, recently published by Harvard University Press.

Our beloved Percival is now nearly three months old and flourishing. My husband Kian and I are so honored to be his parents! 

Man’s place in the universe is somewhere between the beasts and the angels, but, because of the divine image planted in him, there are no limits to what man can accomplish.Pico Della Mirandola, On the Dignity of Man