It can all fall apart, this democracy thing. It’s not like gravity that makes rocks fall, even if you don’t believe in it. Democracy only lives in the mind and spirit and evaporates when we forget it. The belief that people can elect people who care enough to more or less do what they said they’d try to do rests on a fragile set of behaviors and values. For instance, that elected ones won’t lie and laugh at the same time. Basic stuff; it’s a low bar but one we have dropped below.
I was on a Delta flight to Denver Wednesday on my way to a meeting of the Stakeholder Health Advisory Council. Trapped in a middle seat between two suits who immediately turned the inflight video monitor on Fox News inches from my face. The guy on my left opened up a vast laptop with a powerpoint about the 10 things you need to know about illegal immigrants, including the “fact” that 79% of food stamps go to illegals. I’m pretty sure that in North Carolina half of food stamps go to Baptists, because half of everybody is a Baptist. I didn’t know how to begin the conversation, so I just turned on CNN. I’ll do better next time.
How do we craft a working democracy again; one where we can talk to each other? In a nation where hardly any of us came from here, you wouldn’t think that would be that hard. We are all a muddle, all some kind of mutt. My last name is Norwegian, but 15/16th is something else. Nobody is the same, even those that think we are. All the Evangelicals and Catholics turn out to have abortions and divorces at nearly the exact rates as the liberals, who are presumed to not be Evangelical or Catholic, even though many are. We are all just doing the best we can to be decent parents, brothers, sisters and citizens, the whole time we know we are not doing a very great job of any of those roles.
In such a motley group, it is important to avoid letting someone else tell you who to be afraid of. This is especially important when by any rational basis you have never actually met one of the fearsome people. I’m thinking, of course, of the many Muslim physicians without whom our hospitals named Baptist would have to close. And the many, kind family-oriented Spanish-speaking men and women who have found refuge in our city, rebuilding the south side of town with an entrepreneurial earnestness. Why be afraid of them? I’m more afraid of the people trying to make me afraid.
Of course, others want me to be afraid of white small town Baptists, who did, admittedly, vote for our current White House occupant, which I find mystifying. In my actual experience, these folks are kind and generous to any request for mercy, willing to drop anything to go build a wheel-chair ramp for a total stranger. The rural churches are naïve about the ecumenical nature of opioids addiction, alcoholism or poverty. If I needed food, I’d head to a church, confident they’d help no matter how inconvenient.
Here in gentle Winston-Salem, we had some very ugly, but predictable, outbreaks of threats against the two Muslim Mosques where our doctors worship. We don’t know who did it; but I’m sure they’ve never met a Muslim. I’m certain that, if we asked the Baptist Men’s groups to turn off Fox News and head over to provide protection, they’d do it. If they brought their wives, everyone would quickly find pull out grandchild pictures and complain about the teenagers. The kids would play soccer together as they do at school.
Sometimes, all it takes is an invitation to do better. Many of those claimed as friends of the mean have simply not been invited by to do anything else than put a dumb red hat. Shame on us for not asking more.
Jerry Winslow is the chair of the Stakeholder Health Advisory Council. He and I were together a couple of weeks ago at Loma Linda University Health’s institute for Health Policy and Leadership. Amid the heavy policy discussion we found some time to turn a gorgeous piece of maple burl and reclaim a piece of chestnut bowl I had managed to turn a hole in the bottom of. Jerry, the son of a German immigrant home builder, has been a master craftsman of wood for decades.
On Saturday Jerry took me over to the 1909 Gamble House, the epitome of “craftsman” architecture in Pasadena. It is a revelation in simplicity. Every single joint, lamp, door, handle, light, stair tread and attic beam was thought about and then crafted to express a perfect blend of form and function. The two architect brothers, Greene and Greene, were part of a vibrant global movement that saw in craftsmanship the hope for democracy, the possibility of a human culture. This was no small thing to believe amid the turn of the raw and violent century where industrial bigots had their way nearly unfettered. Something as modest as a well-crafted cottage might seem hopelessly irrelevant against the unstoppable tide of crass exploitation. But not if that cottage, or chair, or perfectly made lamp is an expression of integrity, consistent with a whole way of relationship to other people and the created order. What if such people outnumbers the mean crass ones? What if they—we—crafted a democracy?
In fact, the craftsman movement was a strong signal about what mattered most, a thoughtfulness about how to live a well and worthy life. Frank Loyd Wright (a man of no small number of peccadillos) said of the movement: “Do not think that simplistic means something like the side of a barn, but something with a graceful sense of beauty in its utility from which discord and all that is meaningless has been eliminated. Do not imagine that repose means taking it easy for the safe forest, but rather because it is perfectly adjusted in relationship to the whole, in absolute poise, leaving nothing but a quiet satisfaction with its sense of completeness.” (Architecture and Machine, 1894).
It is time to craft democracy again with the same thoughtful attention to form and function as our earlier teachers lent to working with wood and home. Some of the old tools work fine, if sharpened again. Jerry still uses tools he acquired decades ago, now sharpened to a fraction of their original length. I just bought some 100-year old Sears Craftsman tools on EBay for $25. Old tools still work: Precinct 601 met in the Single Brothers House of Old Salem where democracy has been argued for a couple centuries. We elected a new party precinct chair, Kate Hayden, who looks for all the world like Bernie’s granddaughter, but knows the craft of elections. First job is to get to know each other, have a party for the party, read some books and talk like humans who are capable of caring and thinking about what matters.
I have some very modern carbide tools, too. Likewise, we need to craft to the relational technologies like twitter that are too powerful to leave to the mean and desperate. This is how I think of 100 Million Healthier Lives, the unprecedented collaboration led by Dr. Soma Stout of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. The craftsman movement has something of the same challenge to figure out what to do with industrial machines; but democracy is played for much higher stakes than any lathe. Respect the medium; watch the density and grain if on a lathe; watch the pattern of need if crafting public policy. If you don’t love the wood or the people, go do something else.
When there was much to fear in a culture gone to mere machinery, the craftsman movement trusted thoughtfulness and beauty from integrity and the life well-lived. These democratic and communitarian values stayed alive in the culture expressing themselves later in the practical compassion of the Civilian Conservation Corps (which turned Jerry’s German immigrant father into a craftsman), Social Security, the policies favoring religious hospitals and non-profit health insurance. They crafted institutions that removed abject fear of penury from aging and made it possible to fight a skirmish, if not war, on poverty itself. Think of it as graceful joinery the Greene brothers would have liked.
Democracy can all fall apart; But it can also heal and find its heartbeat. I think that is what is happening.
The meanest bully by the beach that we find so shocking today is nothing compared to the raw and untethered industrial power a hundred years ago. We have seen worse bluster fail before well-crafted policies and institutions built by people no smarter than us who wanted their life to simply be good.
They even left some tools behind that just need to be sharpened, put to the grain by hands willing to learn. Find your party precinct meeting, show up and get ready for the next cycle of voting. Make an appointment with your congressman just to tell them what you care about. Take your state representative out for lunch with a couple friends. Volunteer for a church mission committee and go find somebody to help. Plant a couple hundred trees like my brother did at his Presbyterian Church along with some Muslims up the block. Go read a book to a kid. This is how you craft a community, a culture, a life.
Let’s do that.