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Morning Lecture Recaps

PUSH Buffalo’s Rahwa Ghirmatzion traces history, work combating housing injustices

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Buffalo was once one of America’s prized cities. It had the sixth-largest economy among U.S. cities and a world-leading port. Today, it’s behind only Cleveland and Detroit as the United States’ poorest city.

A residual of the decisions that contributed to that downfall is historic and institutionalized disadvantage to its African American residents, according to Rahwa Ghirmatzion, the executive director of People United for Sustainable Housing — or PUSH — Buffalo, who spoke Wednesday, Aug. 10 in the Amphitheater for the Chautauqua Lecture Series.

Ghirmatzion is a trained community health worker and currently serves on the board of People’s Action Institute, a national multi-issue affiliate organization. She was born in Eritrea, a country in northeast Africa along the Red Sea, in the midst of a 30-year war for independence. At age 5, her family fled to Sudan following a dramatic 16-day journey. Her family emigrated three years later to Western New York.

Speaking under the umbrella of Week Seven’s theme, “More than Shelter: Redefining the American Home,” Ghirmatzion shared her experiences with PUSH Buffalo in combating housing injustices and reinvigorating Buffalo neighborhoods.

Ghirmatzion began by tracing Buffalo’s history. She shared a map of Buffalo in 1805, which she described as “a village rich with waterways and canals, innovation, and full of violence and destruction to Indigenous people and the environment.”

Following construction of the Erie Canal, Buffalo became the world’s largest freshwater port. Factory production drew immigrants and migrants from Europe and African Americans from the South. Ghirmatzion said it became an “industrial heartland” during the two world wars, and the birthplace of commercial aviation and innovations — including air conditioning.

“This is one of the best planned cities in America,” Ghirmatzion said, referring to early Buffalo. 

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the city’s Delaware and Humboldt parks, linked together by tree-lined Humboldt Parkway. 

“The city contains buildings designed by American architecture masters, like Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson and Louise Blanchard Bethune,” she said, “making Buffalo one of the most architecturally significant cities in America.”

Buffalo’s subsequent decline, Ghirmatzion said, is partly a product of city planners’ and federal housing officials’ decision to facilitate urban flight.

She said that flight was propelled by the creation of the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA, and Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, or HLC, a government agency established in 1933 to stabilize real estate that had depreciated during the economic depression and to refinance urban mortgage debt. While HLC provided mortgages to rescue homeowners from bank foreclosures, the FHA offered insurance to guarantee that homeowners would repay their loans. That led to the practice of redlining, in which mortgages and insurance were denied to people living in neighborhoods considered high-risk for investment. Many of these neighborhoods were home to underrepresented minority populations.

“The FHA, the government agency, codified existing redlining housing discrimination regimes; discrimination that runs through all markets, labor and all services that still permeate today,” Ghirmatzion said, pointing to data that showed 81% of investment was in Buffalo’s suburbs. “It shows you this extractive economy that is already building where, again, it’s privileging some areas and disadvantaging others.”

The phenomenon was furthered in 1963, when the Kensington Expressway decimated the bucolic parks and parkway that linked Buffalo’s Black and white neighborhoods.

“What was called progress was just another moment of violence to Black Buffalo and the ecology,” Ghirmatzion said. The expressway “cut down the middle of what was at the time … a burgeoning Black middle-class community to make way for quick transportation of white people from the city to white suburbia.”

In the post-World War II era, Buffalo suffered a drastic decline, with the blame variously placed on failed leadership, natural resource depletion, environmental problems, and even oppressive taxes. Whatever the cause, the effect was deindustrialization and a loss of about half its population. By 1970, Buffalo’s population had dropped drastically from its former peak.

“Industry has left Buffalo with brown fields, waterways and the collapse of the working class,” she said. “This leads to a 50-year economic decline, taking Buffalo from the sixth-largest economy in the nation to the third-poorest city, only coming in behind Detroit and Cleveland.”

Enter PUSH Buffalo, founded in 2005. Ghirmatzion said PUSH Buffalo aims to address the root causes of the systemic oppression of Buffalo’s history — to create strong neighborhoods with affordable housing and local employment; and to advance racial economic and environmental justice.

PUSH Buffalo is not a city agency. In fact, its success is owed to mobilizing its members to advocate, even pressure, local officials, even as it works with grassroots groups around Western New York. 

“Our theory of change revolves around community control, community ownership, and of resources and the just transition strategy framework for transformative structural change,” Ghirmatzion said.

Realizing the world’s – and Buffalo’s — immersion in an “extractive” economy that “digs, burns, and dumps,” Ghirmatzion said PUSH advocates for a “regenerative” alternative.

That green alternative exists “where the worldview is censored in caring and sacredness of our humanity, where resources are renewable energy sources and circular economies, where our work is actually cooperative and our purpose is restoring ecological harmony,” Ghirmatzion said. 

On the west side of Buffalo, PUSH advocated for a 20-square-block green development zone, now expanded to 40 square blocks.

One of its highest-profile projects has been public school No. 77, circa 1927, which was eyeballed by developers for a condo complex, meaning imminent gentrification of the zone. PUSH Buffalo stalled the city’s approval for several years while it polled the community on how to use the building. Instead of high-end condos, there will instead be 30 affordable senior apartments.

“It’s the people that are of and from the community that not only designed it, planned for it, helped raise the money, co-designed the spaces, but now they are also the stakeholders that utilize it,” she said.

PUSH also works to restore vacant properties, using green construction methods such as sustainable roofs and solar panels. Other community features address the problem of stormwater runoff, with features such as parking pads that filter rainwater, rain gardens and vegetated stormwater planters.

PUSH Buffalo has spent $84 million in green affordable housing, green infrastructure and stormwater management in the green development zone. It owns about 150 parcels of land. More than a thousand homes have been weatherized, or subjected to a “green retrofit.” Ghirmatzion shared that in April 2022, PUSH Buffalo broke ground on 14 sites across its green development zone.

“We’re the small little seeds of decency that we can plant today and tomorrow, for the next generation or two,” Ghirmatzion said. “… We often say what the hands do, teaches the heart.”

Ghirmatzion closed by challenging the audience.

“What did you learn today to go back where you are, what’s a small little thing that you can do to continue to build on those cells of decency for collective impact that will lead to our collective liberation?” she said. 

MacArthur ‘Genius’ Matthew Desmond examines eviction crisis, offers possible solutions

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The struggling single mother who committed armed robbery to make rent. The war veteran with amputated legs working laboriously to pay off his rent to his landlord. The elderly woman who pays 70% of her income to stay in a condemned home that was declared a biohazard by the city. These are the faces behind the pink papers on the doors that evict about 3.6 million Americans a year. 

While eviction may seem faceless, just a word to those untouched by housing displacement, it affects real people. In pursuit of understanding why eviction happens in America, over the course of a year, author Matthew Desmond followed eight families facing homelessness in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a journey he detailed thoroughly in his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Living in a mobile park in the South Side of Milwaukee, and later in a house in the North Side, Desmond watched the process unfold for both the evicted and the evictees. 

“I was going about this work, and then there were all of these questions that kept springing to mind that were just beyond the reach of normal reporting,” Desmond said. “ ‘How often do people get evicted? Who gets evicted? What are the long-term consequences of getting tossed from your home?’ I went looking for some answers, at least some data to support this kind of inquiry, and I got nothing. I decided to click the data myself.”

In writing his book, Desmond collected hundreds of millions of eviction records. In Milwaukee, he surveyed over 1,000 renters and 250 tenants in eviction court and looked over 100,000 eviction case records. 

Dylan Townsend / staff photographer Matthew Desmond, the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, gives his presentation for both the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle on his Pulitzer-winning book ­Evicted Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

“I tried to write a book that brought all of this stuff together, to combine big data with the small data, and things that I was learning on the ground every day in Milwaukee,” Desmond said. “In that spirit, Evicted is really a book that starts on the ground and ends on the ground.”

Desmond told the eviction story of America to Chautauquans at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9 in the Amphitheater in his lecture titled after his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond’s discussion of how and why eviction happens in the country was part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Seven theme, “More than Shelter: Redefining the American Home,” and the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle’s 2022 vertical theme, “Home.”

Desmond is the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and winner of the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” as well as the founder of the Eviction Lab, which published the first national dataset of evictions in the United States in 2018. In addition to Evicted, Desmond has authored several books, including On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters.

In addition to the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, Evicted has amassed the National Books Critics Circle Award, the Andrew Carnegie Medal, the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and more; it was also cited as one of the best books of the year by over three dozen media outlets. 

Desmond chose one particular narrative of a single, Black Milwaukee mother named Arleen, and her children Ger-Ger, Boosie, Jori and Jafaris, to lay out how eviction happens in the country. He said Arleen’s story provides a lens through which people can understand and empathize with the housing injustices plaguing America. 

Arleen’s eviction experience started with an enraged man kicking down the door of her home after Jori threw a snowball at his car. The landlord swiftly kicked them out after the incident, leading them to stay at the Salvation Army until Arleen found another place to live. She bought a house for a little over $500, but it had no running water. 

“When we looked at that survey data and we asked, ‘What happens to families after they get evicted?’ a big thing that we learned is that they move into much worse housing than they lived in before,” Desmond said. “If we want to nail a kid who lives with lead paint, exposed wires, no heat, no water, a big reason is families are forced to accept these conditions in the harried aftermath of an eviction.”

The city found the house unfit for human habitation, sending Arleen and her sons back on the streets without a home. They then moved to an apartment on a block ridden with crime and drug activity.

“The fact that she was kicked out of this place was pretty important for understanding how she ended up in such a dangerous part of the city,” Desmond said. “… We found that you can control a lot of things, and you still see families who get evicted moving from high-crime neighborhoods into more dangerous neighborhoods in the city, from poor neighborhoods to even more impoverished communities. Eviction seems to push families deeper into disadvantage.”

Arleen quickly moved to another house in poor condition on the North Side of Milwaukee. With utilities excluded, the property cost $550 a month — 88% of Arleen’s entire welfare check. 

“Arleen is not alone in spending the vast majority of her income on housing,” Desmond said. “For 100 years, there’s been this idea, this consensus in America, that we should spend 30% of our income on rent. That gives us enough money to feed our kids, save and afford a car. For a long part of our history, a lot of us met that goal. But times have changed.”

Most poor, renting Americans spend nearly half of their income on rent and utilities, and one-fourth of those families spend over 70% of their income on rent and utilities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey. 

“If you want a roof over your head and hot water, under these conditions, you don’t need to make a huge mistake or have a big emergency hit your life to get evicted,” Desmond said. “Something as small as a snowball can do it. For folks like Arleen, eviction is much more of an inevitability than responsibility.”

Desmond laid out three reasons for the rise in rent, the first being that the income rate of Americans without a college education has been stagnant over the last 40 years, according to a population survey directed by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Second, housing costs soared nationally within that same time period. Since 1985, rent has outplaced income gains by 315%.

The third reason is that federal government programs have little reach. Three-fourths of renting families below the poverty line receive no housing assistance, and those that have government housing often wait for years before they receive it, Desmond said, referencing the American Housing Survey.

Arleen tried to put her name on a government housing list only to find it had been frozen, with 3,500 families in Milwaukee and a wait time of five years; five years is a short wait compared to other cities, according to Desmond.

“The waiting list for public housing in our biggest cities is not counted in years anymore,” Desmond said. “It’s counted in decades.”

A notice for a welfare appointment was sent to Arleen’s old address and she missed the meeting, causing her $628-a-month check to be reduced. This, in combination with funeral expenses for a loved one, caused Arleen to fall two months behind on rent, and she was evicted yet again. 

“When we think of the typical low income family today, when it comes to housing situations, we shouldn’t think of them like living in public housing or getting any kind of help from the government to make rent,” Desmond said. “We should think of someone like Arleen, because she’s our typical case.”

Milwaukee has over 130,000 rental homes, and every year, the city evicts 16,000 people. One in 14 houses in Black neighborhoods are evicted in an average year, according to Desmond’s “Eviction and the Reproduction of Urban Poverty” article, which looked at the repercussions of inner-city evictions. 

In Desmond’s research, he found that “eviction is a cause, not just a condition of property.” 

“The home is the center of life,” Desmond said. “It’s our refuge from work. It’s our protection from the street. It’s where we go to let down. It’s where we remove our masks and shoes and (that) language is spoken all over the world. … Home is not just shelter, but like warmth, family, community, the womb. (When evicted,) families lose their homes, but children also lose their school. You lose your neighborhood. You lose your connections.”

Eviction proves to be particularly harsh for women of color, especially single, African American mothers. Desmond’s research shows that one in five Black women in Milwaukee report being evicted at least once in their life. 

“Eviction is something like the feminine equivalent to incarceration,” Desmond said. “We know that many poor, African American men are being swept out over the criminal justice system, being locked up. Many poor, African American women are being locked out and disproportionately bearing the brunt of the eviction crisis.”

For adults with children, the likelihood of eviction and homelessness rise. 

“This is a problem that affects young and old, the sick and the able-bodied,” Desmond said. “The face of our eviction epidemic is the smallest of kids. Go into any housing court around the country and you see a ton of kids running around.” 

Arleen’s eviction record — and the fact that she had children — prompted landlords to turn her away from a total of 90 homes. Arleen finally was accepted into a one-bedroom apartment, but was shortly kicked out after an incident involving Jori and his teacher that required the police to come to her home. 

“When I started this work, I thought kids would shield you from eviction,” Desmond said. “It’s the opposite. In fact, that study we did in eviction court, we were trying to crack that mystery. Why do you get evicted? It wasn’t your race. It wasn’t your gender. It wasn’t how much you owed. It was kids. The chance of you getting an eviction judgment tripled if you lived with kids.”

Having an eviction record also bars families from safer housing; Desmond said he met many landlords who would not accept a tenant with an eviction in the last two to three years.

“If you’re carrying around evictions like this, they follow you,” Desmond said. “They haunt you. This is the reason why families move into worse housing into worse neighborhoods after they get evicted, because there are limits.”

When Desmond began his journey to understanding evictions in America, he had no data to draw on. Seeing the shortage of information around evictions, he founded the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, a data resource for the public about evictions in America. In 2018, it released the first-ever comprehensive dataset on evictions with millions of data points collected all the way back to 2000. 

“We have collected millions and tens of millions and over 100 million eviction records from all over the country, and published them. … One thing we learn is every year in America, 3.6 million evictions are filed,” he said. “About seven evictions are filed a minute every year.”

The hope is that compiling research and data about evictions can help policymakers and communities target the issue head-on. 

While the eviction crisis pervades the United States, Desmond’s research offers good news and hope of progress in smaller areas of the country. New York’s eviction rates in 2020 were much lower than what was expected under normal conditions, and remained low even after the COVID-19 eviction moratorium expired. The strides the country has made in the last century of revitalizing communities show what can be done for the eviction crisis today. 

To pull communities out of the eviction crisis, Desmond suggests that the government expand the existing legislation of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 

“If you qualify for this program, you benefit from the program,” Desmond said. “You can take this voucher. You can look anywhere you want in the private market, as long as your housing isn’t too expensive or too crummy. Instead of paying 50, 60, 70% of your income on rent, you would pay 30% and the voucher would cover the rest. That would fundamentally change the face of poverty in America.”

Two questions arise from this suggestion: Would the expansion be a disincentive to work, and can taxpayers afford it?

Research shows there is no relationship between housing and work, Desmond said, and he predicts that if adults worked less with this voucher, they are most likely spending time with their families.

“I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, the status quo is a much bigger threat to work and self-sufficiency than any affordable housing program could be,” Desmond said. “… Many can’t hold their jobs down long enough, because they can’t hold their homes down.”

In terms of national expense, Desmond points to a jarring statistic: The year Arleen was evicted, the country devoted $41 billion to housing assistance, where $170 billion was allocated on homeowner tax. That $170 billion is equivalent to the entire budget for the Departments of Education, Veteran Affairs, Homeland Security, Justice and Agriculture — combined. 

“Most of that benefit goes to families with six-figure incomes, because if you have a bigger income, you can get a bigger mortgage, take a bigger deduction,” Desmond said. “… If poverty persists in America, it’s not for lack of resources. We lack something else.”

A few years ago, the Bipartisan Policy Center calculated that to address the eviction crisis, the nation would need to devote an additional $22 billion. As rent increases, its calculations fluctuate from $22 billion to $40 billion to $45 billion. 

“These are not small figures,” Desmond said. “But this is well within our capacity. We have the money. We just made decisions about how to spend it. Every year, homeowner tax subsidies far, far outpace direct housing assistance. We already have a universal housing program. It’s an entitlement. It’s just not for poor people.”

While promising, this solution isn’t the only one that can solve the housing crisis; Desmond calls on people to work with housing equality organizations and educate themselves about a system that does not affect them directly, but does affect their neighbors and fellow citizens. 

“This degree of inequality, and this level and depth of social suffering, and this cold denial of basic human need, this isn’t us,” Desmond said. “This doesn’t have to be us.”

In concluding his lecture, Desmond asked Chautauquans to think of their communities and what America could be if people uplifted those like Arleen when they’re faced with eviction. 

“Poverty reduces people born from better things,” Desmond said. “Arleen didn’t want some small life. She didn’t want to make a living gaming the system. She wanted to work and contribute. Poverty is complicated, but a stable home is a great way to give folks like Arleen a shot at realizing their full potential.”

‘Post’ columnist Megan McArdle opens week examining history of housing trends

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As a writer, Megan McArdle spends a lot of time thinking about words. She encouraged the audience at her 10:45 a.m. lecture Monday, Aug. 8 in the Amphitheater to do the same, and specifically contemplate the word “house.” With that, she opened up Week Seven’s Chautauqua Lecture Series theme on “More than Shelter: Redefining the American Home.”

McArdle not only writes about economics, finance and government policy for The Washington Post, but she has also run her own blog since 2001, which was recently renamed “Asymmetrical Information.” In her lecture, “Homebound,” she addressed the history of housing and, ultimately, what housing allows us to do.

Although McArdle grew up on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, her idea of “house” was a little box she would draw as a kid with a triangle on top. This simple house was, of course, inhabited by a stick figure family.

“This captures so much about how we have come at housing in this country over the past half century. … The problem with our housing policy is we’re not actually dealing with a generic box house or stick figures. We’re dealing with this very, very, very complex product,” McArdle said.

Housing is essential because it impacts every aspect of our lives, she explained. From where children go to school, to where we work, to who our neighbors are — it is all impacted by housing.

“I won’t say that housing is everything, but boy, it is the lynchpin of almost everything that matters, and so, of course, this complex thing can’t be a generic commodity that’s covered by housing policy,” she said. “It’s as complicated as we are.”

Because of this, McArdle believes housing is not interchangeable with the word “home.” While housing policies might deal with the space where people actually lay their heads at night, home is about communities, and how those communities affect people’s lives.

“We talk about ‘housing’ in the abstract, but ‘home’ is in the specific. You go house hunting, but you find a home — because a home is where the people stop being stick figures and they start being individuals,” McArdle said.

To delve into this concept more fully, McArdle discussed the history of housing. For hundreds of years, the idea of a house looked the same to a lot of people because many people farmed for a living, specifically in the United States. She quoted a statistic that 72% of Americans worked in agriculture in 1820. This impacted where their house was: on or near the land they farmed.

One hundred years later, in 1920, just 30% of the workforce was in agriculture, and that again affected where people lived.

“There’s obviously a lot of cost to that. Anyone who has read Dickens is well aware,” she said. “But there’s also a lot of great things about that. We get a lot richer. We get a lot more prosperous. And then we start getting healthier.”

The Industrial Revolution initiated a widespread move to cities, which McArdle believes was only made possible by a housing revolution. During that 100-period, she said the population of New York City increased from 152,000 to 5.6 million. To make space for all these people, apartment buildings skyrocketed.

But apartment buildings were not a new invention created to deal with the 20th-century issue, McArdle explained. Ancient Rome also had apartment buildings.

“While the Romans were actually good with concrete, they were missing the two inventions you need if you really want to stack people safely and comfortably, which is structural steel and elevators — actually, really, elevator brakes,” she said. “It’s not that hard to build an elevator, but it’s hard to build an elevator that will go tall without killing you if it falls. That was the big innovation.”

The next big innovation was sanitation. The increased emphasis on sanitary measures made cities more inhabitable — and more enticing.

“Suddenly, for the first time in human history, cities are not death traps (of disease). … For the first time, you can go there safely, live comfortably with the new technologies that we have, with a ton of new people in a very small space,” she said.

These changes to make cities safe to live in were not cheap, McArdle added, but they happened because people enjoy being around other people. Cities make it possible to surround oneself with new people and new ideas.

“They’re the best places for spreading ideas. They’re phenomenally productive,” she said.

McArdle believes a reason the United States is successful is because so many people immigrated in from all over the world, bringing their cultures and ideas.

But the existence of cities relies on housing and, McArdle said, sprawl — which she acknowledges is sort of a dirty word.

The area of Manhattan where she grew up used to be known as Strycker’s Bay, long before her family lived there. It used to be a suburb, and the people would take a ferry into the city where they worked. Ferries, streetcars and trains create urban sprawl as they shorten the time it takes to get to work. McArdle pointed out that commute is an essential factor in where people decide to live.

Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti coined a concept now known as the Marchetti’s Constant, which says that people are willing to commute 30 minutes one way to go to work. McArdle views Marchetti’s Constant as key in explaining how communities are built; as commuting technologies advance and it takes less time to get to work, people move farther away from their workplaces. Increased car ownership led people to choose to live outside the city, she said.

“The old model of the suburbs was determined by the technology (like trains)that had shaped it,” she said. “… That dictated what we might call a walk-to-ride model, where you ride to a fixed destination and walk around the neighborhood. … The car doesn’t have that constraint.” 

McArdle acknowledged that the racism of “white flight” contributed to suburbanization.

“We shouldn’t forget all of those harms and all of the ways in which this was bad for us and for the environment,” McArdle said. 

Still, the mass movement  signified people’s desires to live in suburbs. 

“People weren’t just running away from the city’s problems or interracial panic; they were running to something that they wanted,” she said. “People really like single-family, detached homes with big yards where kids can play or they can sit out on a summer evening.”

Cheaper cars made it possible for the middle class, who lived in the city, to move out to the suburbs and buy detached homes in a movement McArdle called the Great Inversion.

“Historically, in cities, rich people lived close to the center because that’s where the center of the action was. Poor people ended up in a long, dismal walk away on the periphery,” she said. “In the second half of the 20th century, that pattern reverses. Suddenly, the affluent are living in a ring, and what we have in the center is people who have been left behind by the departing.”

We should not romanticize a time when people of all social classes lived together, McArdle said, because economic and racial injustices were still prevalent. Although, wealthy people living in city centers advocated for things like clean water, which positively impacted everyone living in that area.

“If you’re a billionaire on Fifth Avenue, you want the subway to work, you want crime to be low, you want your water to be clean, you want the electric utilities to be competent,” she said. “And it’s hard to have those things just for yourself.”

Twenty years ago, people started to notice that the opposite of the Great Inversion was happening. More young people who move to the cities are staying longer, delaying having children and focusing on work. But McArdle believes it started happening much sooner than the year 2000. 

Housing prices rise, and McArdle said a way to combat this is to build more places for people to live — in cities, this requires building upward. However, people fight against more housing being built.

“Suburbs had long used zoning codes and other tricks to keep out ‘the undesirables.’ Cities now get into that game,” she said. “A lot of early gentrifiers were outraged to discover that when they had finally got done fixing up the place just like they liked it, some big developer would come in and want to slap up a giant apartment building so a bunch of newcomers could enjoy the hard-won amenities in this beautiful neighborhood that you had just built.”

Activists who want to conserve the communities that they and their families grew up in fight against developers coming in and building more housing. McArdle said this often doesn’t work in their favor because the lack of new development means the housing is limited, prices go up, and ultimately, rich people still move into those communities.

“In the abstract, we all favor more housing,” she said. “But in the specific, we like our home just the way it is; that is, after all, why we chose to live there. So over the last 20 years, demand just keeps going up and up, while supply is going much more slowly. And that’s the housing crisis.”

Housing issues also exist in small towns and their communities. Often, McArdle said, the message to people who live in small towns is to move somewhere they can get a more lucrative job.

“If you don’t have a lot of money,” she said, “you tend to substitute social capital for financial capital.”

This means that people in small towns rely on family members to watch their children or call up a friend to fix their plumbing, rather than paying someone they don’t know, McArdle explained. When you live like this, it builds community, and that makes it even harder to leave.

“I love cities,” McArdle said. “I’ve lived in a city all my life. I’m not really sure I can live anywhere else. But there are a lot of people who don’t feel like me, and the only advice that we could give them was, ‘Be more like me.’ ”

Often, moving to a city doesn’t solve a person’s financial problems. For example, in California, teachers make double what teachers in Mississippi make, but in California, the cost of living is more expensive in terms of housing, groceries and taxes. It is, therefore, not always a smart financial decision to move somewhere just because the salary is higher.

“I’ve been talking in the present tense, even though I’m not really talking about the present. I’m talking about the economy as it looked on March 7, 2020,” she said.

McArdle believes the pandemic might have shown the United States a different method to approach the housing crisis.

“The pandemic has shown us a way around the bottlenecks we’ve created by refusing to build in the biggest cities,” she said.

A large answer to being able to live where we want and work where we want might come down to working remotely, which is made possible by platforms like Zoom.

“We should think of Zoom … as a technological transformation that eases the Marchetti Constant. In some cases, it blows it up,” she said. “Imagine a world where you can commute to anywhere in the world in 30 seconds. That’s exciting, right? It opens up so much land we could build on. And we could, if we could get our regulatory act together.”

Zoom can make new communities possible, she said. As of right now, building houses is expensive, but McArdle thinks we need to reimagine that. Instead of bringing all the materials to the site and building there, people should look more into modular homes. McArdle pointed to how some start-ups are even 3D printing homes.

“If we could make it work, we could be looking at some of the most exciting changes to American communities in decades, if not centuries,” she said. “We could make it easier for people to move out to the country. We could make it easier for people to move back to cities like Buffalo, which has a ton of lovely old houses and an amazing history — and a convenient location near some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth.”

She described it as reversing the vacuum. Instead of cities sucking in people and resources, people can spread back out and cover more land because they can work remotely.

“I’ve spoken to so many people, from Rochester and Syracuse and Buffalo and the towns around them, who wanted nothing more than to be here spending six months of every year scraping the snow off their windshield, but they couldn’t,” she said. “They had to leave home and everything they loved because they’d get a better job in the city or better house in the Sun Belt.”

While it might be a dream for some to live anywhere and work remotely, McArdle thinks the future of work looks more like a hybrid model, with people commuting in only a couple days a week rather than five.

“So now the Marchetti Constant — don’t think of it on a daily basis, but on a weekly basis,” she said.

This would mean people might be more willing to commute for longer, if they do not have to commute as frequently. McArdle thinks this would create more of a sprawl, which could help housing prices.

She knows, however, that not everyone can choose to work remotely. Some jobs cannot be done over Zoom. For those, they need affordable housing, which McArdle said can happen by building more houses — or reworking office spaces left empty by the COVID-19 pandemic into housing options.

McArdle also considers what people will do with their ability to work remotely.

“To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to drink coffee while looking at beautiful scenery. I have been doing it for two days, and I am so grateful,” she said. “But I think if that’s all remote work does, is enable highly-paid professionals to enjoy themselves even more, while displacing locals, I think we’ve failed. We can do better than that. This is America. We can still do big things.”

McArdle circled back to the idea of home. When she thinks of home, she thinks of the Victorian chair that her mother used to rock and sing to her in before she went to bed. That chair now sits in the home McArdle shares with her husband and her dogs.

“I’m actually really asking you to look back on your own reflections about home,” she said. “When you were thinking about home, were you really thinking about a house, or were you thinking about the people who were in it? Were you thinking about the people who made that the place (where) you will always be safe and warm and at peace?”

When people think of the housing crisis, McArdle they often only think of the technical side: the physical space.

“Everyone needs someplace to keep the rain off of their heads, and we need to figure out how to give it to them. But we need to do so much more than that, because, in the end, we need a house,” she said. “But we are still, all of us, wanting something that’s so much more important. We are longing for home.”

Walter Mosley warns of parasitic influences of systems, technology

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Many people see technology as the gateway to the future, but mystery writer Walter Mosley believes that humans are ultimately heading toward an alluring mirage — a facade with a bright light — that is leading society into a dystopian world of darkness.

“Darkness is inside of us, yet we are unaware of it,” he said, “darkness that on a bright and sunny day, hides the truth from our eyes. … The world we think we know, knows us better. The truth is that we live mostly in darkness. Even on a bright and cloudless day, the things most important to us remain hidden.”    

Mosley gave the final lecture of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Six theme, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime,” on Friday, Aug. 5 in the Amphitheater. Mosley is perhaps best known for his Easy Rawlins mystery series, in which he documents the African American experience from the deep South to the post-Obama era in New York City. Throughout his career, he has written more than 55 books, ranging all the way from crime novels to literary fiction, to nonfiction and political essays.

Instead of talking about his profession, he decided to speak to Chautauquans about the themes of darkness and night. He believes that the two words can carry multiple connotations, depending on their usage. 

“The concept of night cannot be pinned down because it doesn’t mean one thing,” he said. “We can see this in the many phrases used today that contain the word — fly-by-night, night owl, one-night stand, good night, two ships passing in the night, the night is young, and burning the midnight oil.” 

In his talk, however, he referred to darkness and night as the “unknowns.” He explained how humans have developed an intense fear of uncertainty — of “what they don’t know” and of beliefs that challenge their existing ways of seeing the world. 

He distinguished between two different types of darkness — one that is unconscious and uncontrollable, and another that is avoidable and technologically self-induced. 

One of the darknesses he mentioned is the human discomfort with subversive beliefs and elements, which he believes has led to widespread social issues, including political polarization. 

“The desire to eradicate any notion that interferes with the ideas of ourselves is paramount when we feel threatened on a global scale,” he said. “Many members of the left interpret words long ago as if they were uttered in opposition to today’s aesthetic. … In much the same way, today, members of the right misinterpret the meaning of concepts like Critical Race Theory in an attempt to protect themselves from being humiliated by their own history.” 

Humans have repeatedly sought out ways to come to terms with the unknown darknesses of life, such as death, aging and the passage of time. While clocks and other man-made creations are often used to cope with these uncertainties, he emphasized that time, which he referred to as a “source of modern distress,” is not actually quantifiable. Rather, it is a completely human concept.

“As children, we were all taught that time existed on a circular disk that was broken into 12 numbers representing 24 hours and 700 tiny increments,” Mosley said. “These hours and minutes are all equidistant, inferring that the passage of time between each indicator is also equal. We were taught that, in essence, time is an absolute and we can trust it to pass equally for all.”

But time does not pass evenly, he said, and then cited the rapid growth of digital technologies since World War I.

“All the way back to the beginning of human awareness, knowledge grew by 100% every 100 years or so,” he said. “… Before World War I, from one generation to the next, there was very little difference in how we were connected through technology and resulting technique, with bows and arrows, ironwork, agriculture, and other uniquely human modes of labor remained little changed in a century. … (Now) it doesn’t take five generations for knowledge to double. It doesn’t take a century, only somewhere around a year.”

With such immense changes, comes an increase in the velocity of time. 

“A threat, or simply a challenge,” Mosley said; he believes this rush is causing society to plunge further into the apocalypse of darkness. 

“These (technologies) are the intelligent parasites that control our hearts and minds,” he said. “… Even the physical systems of the Earth itself are deeply impacted by our economy and our technologies, but like any intricately involved parasite, these systems subtly and unconsciously take over our lives and bid us to the will of an inhuman system. It is the theme of many science fiction novels and movies, that a league of super-intelligent computers will one day soon take over. … As you may be able to tell, I believe in this apocalyptic prophecy.”

While many people believe that technology is aiding their lives, Mosley said that it may be actually dictating them, whether they are conscious of it or not. He referenced Sigmund Freud’s theory of hysterical blindness, which posits that an individual may consciously prevent themselves from seeing the dangers of a situation. 

Mosley believes humans are becoming small parts in a large technological machine, and urged Chautauquans to reconsider their usage of digital innovations in an attempt to open and enlighten their eyes. 

“Systems of trade and technique have blinded us to anything except their own glittering promise. And so, darkness — that which is hidden from sight. We live within systems that hide away from perceptions,” Mosley said. “We believe we are freely making decisions. … This, I believe, is the curse of night on humanity.”

Because of this, we’ve become a curse on the flora and fauna of this world, he said, and abandoned philosophical thought.

“We have lost our connections in this forever night, and until we are reunited, the sun will not rise,” Mosley said.

Sheena Jardine-Olade defines importance of nighttime economies

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No matter what Sheena Jardine-Olade does, in work, school, or leisure, it all comes back to the night. She loves it, and her hope for the audience at her Thursday lecture in the Amphitheater was that Chautauquans might fall a little more in love with the night, too — or at least learn how to think about it a little differently.

Jardine-Olade, who gave her lecture on “Equity and the 24-Hour City” as part of Week Six’s theme, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime,” opened with a land acknowledgment for both the ground on which she stood at in Chautauqua — the Erie and the Haudenosaunee — and for where she was born in Ottawa — the Anishinaabe.

She now lives in Vancouver, where she’s an equity planner for the city, and is co-founder of the consultancy group Night Lab, whose specialty is nighttime governance structures of municipalities. It’s the first nighttime economy development group in Canada. 

“I am a person who loves nightlife, the night economy, and night activities,” Jardine-Olade said. “In fact, I spend most of my time thinking about how we can cultivate our 24-hour day and strategically think of the hours between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.”

She invited the audience to think about what goes into planning for a city-centered vacation: restaurants, music venues, cultural attractions. But no city report or tourism brochure is complete without mentioning a great night out.

But what is the nighttime economy? Jardine-Olade ran through a couple definitions, but landed simply on the world between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“That’s it. I feel anyone within that time, when I discuss the nighttime economy, falls within my purview,” she said. “Nighttime economy ‘Level One’ is when we  think about live music, clubs, restaurants, evening games, casinos, theaters, operas, night markets, street festivals and fireworks.”

Digging deeper, one considers doctors, nurses, firefighters, police and safety services, airports, and transportation workers. Even further, she asked, what else is going on while most of us sleep? Sanitation workers, factory workers, hotel staff and gig economy workers all are making their livings in the dark.

“When we think about the NTE, our mind always flips to the consumptive side — the revelry, the entertainment,” Jardine-Olade said. “But what about the productive side and the vital services that are components of this large, nighttime economy machine?”

A city with a strong nighttime economy is efficient in terms of public infrastructure — by sheer necessity. A solid NTE (Jardine-Olade’s shorthand) is good for branding, tourism and reputation. Vibrant NTEs create a unique culture, are good for attracting and retaining populations, support tech and start-up workers, and — her favorite — foster social cohesion from authentic experiences.

It’s only been within the past 10 years or so that cities have begun to consider the impact of NTE, but Jardine-Olade said that what we know so far is that in 2020, China’s nighttime economy grossed $4.6 trillion; in 2017, tourists in Toronto spent $8.8 billion on nighttime tourism; NTE contributed to 4% of Australia’s GDP and 6% of the U.K.’s GDP; in Berlin, 35% of tourists take part in NTE activities — 150,000 visitors every weekend. And in New York City, the nighttime economy brings them $35.1 billion a year and has created 300,000 jobs.

But, “what about the things that go bump in the night?” Jardine-Olade said. “Good question.”

Safety, noise, gentrification and residential conflicts top the list of concerns when considering a nighttime economy, and when determining what the right approach to NTE is in an individual city, “you have to determine what the drivers for your nighttime governance look like,” she said.

Most strategies at the moment fall into one of three categories: Public safety, revitalization and tourism, or resource distribution.

“Public safety is usually a top priority and a key goal for both residents, as well as municipalities,” Jardine-Olade said. “While cities with a vibrant nightlife do face challenges in public safety, including alcohol-fueled challenges to public order, a 24-hour city can actually improve public safety by providing additional eyes on the streets and critical infrastructure needed to support 24-hour things, like public transit and increased lighting along main routes and residential areas.”

In terms of public safety, governments can — at best — encourage residents to feel comfortable and participate in nighttime activities. At worst, the focus centers bylaws, regulations, licenses, fees, taxes and a disproportionate police presence. 

A good example: In Amsterdam, a nightlife initiative was paired with a mobile app to immediately report nuisances or threats. There was a 25% reduction in crime, she said, and a 30% increased perception of safety.

A bad example: New York City’s Cabaret Law, created in 1926 to make dancing illegal when three or more people were in a room unless an establishment had a license to operate. In a Prohibition effort to curb alcohol sales and enforce segregation, the law was weaponized against marginalized communities. It remained on the books until 2017.

To focus on revitalization and tourism, development offices use tools like tax breaks and other incentives focused on businesses, in the hopes those incentives will attract cultural and creative development.

“Often, the purpose is to re-energize downtown cores that have lost people or mass due to suburbanization or post-industry activity,” Jardine-Olade said. “Most of these efforts have worked very well when it comes to revitalization, and the injection of money usually creates vibrant entertainment districts. On the flip side, this can often act as a catalyst for gentrification.”

The final approach, she said, is a “fairly new take on night stewardship” — that of resource distribution and support services.

“Many realize now that the nighttime economy is merely an extension of the daytime economy,” Jardine-Olade said. “Policy-makers and planners and politicians realize the residents need access to amenities and essential services, the same ones they require during the day, as they do at nighttime.”

These services and amenities include policing, transportation, and food are needed by everyone, but marginalized communities need them even more, she said. Accessibility is important, especially with wayfinding and lighting solutions. This is a lot of municipal work; enter the night mayor.

“The idea (of the night mayor) was first conceptually introduced in the 1970s, and now it has taken off. There are 50-plus night mayors installed all across the world,” Jardine-Olade said, with different titles in different countries and different cities, but with essentially the same mission — providing municipal governments with the capacity to focus on nighttime management.

Across the world, some night mayors are internal to a specific government, external consultants, or a hybrid of the two. There are benefits and drawbacks to each, Jardine-Olade said, and limitations in either case can lead to a “focus on just one portion of the nighttime economy, the consumptive portion of the night, catering to demographics focused on a night out, tourism, or those who have the money to spend. That’s why many are slowing down to ask the question, exactly who are we planning for when we plan for the nighttime economy?”

Here, Jardine-Olade pointed to a photo of her mother in her PowerPoint above her in the Amp. A Triniadian immigrant to Canada, Jardine-Olade’s mother worked for $3.25 an hour, from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., commuting long distances in terrible weather, often with no time to shop for groceries.

“That’s the question we need to ask ourselves. What about the people who are basically invisible to the policy-makers in the system, with the careers like my mother?” Jardine-Olade asked. “They are the cleaners, the drivers, the factory workers, the sex workers, the security workers, and people that go around in nighttime spaces and often fall through the cracks when we are considering about who we’re planning for.”

Jardine-Olade rattled off a list of what would cease to exist if not for these workers: Clean gyms, clean streets, coffee on a commute to work, no one-day Amazon packages.

“Even our evening experiences are facilitated by waiters, bartenders, cooks, often using secondary, part-time work to supplement low wages,” she said. “If you remember, many workers’ intersecting identities compound their ability to safely and comfortably navigate the night that is integral to their livelihood.” 

Thus, it is time to shift NTE from the top-down approach drawing on academics and experts. Cities need a bottom-up approach.

“We need to figure out exactly what cities, residents, and businesses with a focus on communities that have been particularly underserved actually need,” Jardine-Olade said.

With better citizen engagement and more fulsome discussions, cities can look deeper into how existing resources are deployed, or how new resources can be most practical and helpful. Even something as simple as increased, safe transportation and lighting, she said, can change the perception of public spaces. And then there are the resources that communities truly need, like 24-hour washrooms or phone-charging stations.

“Many times these amenities can be a lifeline for sex workers or those experiencing homelessness,” Jardine-Olade said. “But even beyond that, how many times have you been out in public and used a washroom or your phone died? Everyone can use these amenities and resources.”

Talking policy, governmental approaches and practical infrastructure for the NTE, for Jardine-Olade, stems from a very simple place, and one of her “most favorite things about the nighttime city” — social cohesion. She showed Chautauquans photos of herself at age 16, DJing at an underground music event. The warm reception she received in that community, at that age, is the reason she said she stood on the Amp stage now.

“As the main space for my social interaction, it has led to positions on municipal music advisory committees and eventually led to my degree in master’s in urban planning,” she said. “It also led to me consulting on the nighttime economy and my equity work. The relationships I made and causes I supported are a big part of who I am today. The nighttime economy provided invaluable social infrastructure for me and others in the community, and does so especially for queer communities and culturally based communities.”

These spaces were put at risk during COVID-19, making NTE stewardship all the more important now, she said. During the pandemic, Night Lab pivoted to partner with other organizations to offer services, “typically to underserved and marginalized populations to help them navigate the often-unwieldy processes” of businesses, permits and licensing to survive.

Closing her lecture, Jardine-Olade said she hoped the audience came away with, if not new information, a new way of thinking about the nighttime economy “in a more expansive way.”

“The key takeaway today is that the nighttime economy is a complex organism that is rapidly changing to meet the needs of the people and the surroundings,” she said. “Due to its complexity, night life moves beyond consumption and encompasses culture, production, social inclusion, and cohesion.”

She called on Chautauquans to help manage and support their own nighttime economies, starting small, starting collaboratively, starting from the bottom up.

Finally, she said, they must remember that “when we plan for the most vulnerable among us, we all benefit. By strategically allocating night resources in an equitable way, we can ensure that the invisible majority doesn’t get lost, especially since they shape so much of our environment.”

Her last question: “So, what goes bump in the night? Me, and hopefully you, too.”

Harvard emerita professor Maria Tatar speaks on interplay of dark, light in stories

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Maria Tatar has spent decades studying folklore and mythology, implicitly and tangentially exploring the power of darkness and light in the stories we tell ourselves.

And yet, after her initial excitement over the invitation to speak for the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the theme, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime,” she had second thoughts.

“Darkness? What do I know about darkness?” she asked. “… But what I could possibly say about darkness quickly yielded to: ‘There’s way too much to say.’ ” 

Google took her to Philip Pullman, Milton, Star Wars, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Leonard Cohen, whose “Anthem,” featured in Wednesday’s ecumenical worship service, includes the phrase: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

“Darkness and light, of course, are what we live in and what we live by,” she said. “The words we speak are saturated with metaphors drawn from the realms of light and dark.”

Tatar is the John L. Loeb Research Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and of Folklore and Mythology, Emerita, at Harvard University, and the author of, most recently, The Heroine with 1001 Faces — a response to author Joseph Campbell’s seminal work. But it was a different author she told Chautauquans she’d be highlighting in her Wednesday, Aug. 3 lecture in the Amphitheater, which was titled “Light in the Night Kitchen” — children’s book author Maurice Sendak. A lecture on books, culture and meaning, it was a fitting conclusion to the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Class of 2022 Recognition Day Ceremony; graduates sat front and center in the Amp as guests of honor.

Before she got to Sendak, however, Tatar had to cover the nature of primal fear and the power of storytelling, the Enlightenment, and how aesthetics informed the cultural meaning of black (and Black) and white. So she started small.

Dylan Townsend / staff photographer Tatar’s lecture was titled “In the Night Kitchen,” and drew on numerous cultural touchstones, from Spike Lee to Maurice Sendak.

“For a long time, I was afraid of the dark,” Tatar said. “One night, with the help of a flashlight I swiped from my brother’s room, I made friends with the darkness. Suddenly, there was light; it was a little dim, but portals magically materialized. I found myself standing on thresholds that led to Neverland, to Narnia, to Wonderland, and to other outlandish places.”

Letters, she said, lit up her world. And they kept illuminating it.

“Letters and light banished my fear of the dark and of much else,” she said. “Reading may require candles, light bulbs, and other sources of illumination, but storytelling paradoxically, at least oral storytelling, is an art that flourishes at night and in the dark.”

Dreams let us tap into our unconsciousness, she said, evoking neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro’s Tuesday lecture. That, combined with human beings’ capacity to develop language and symbols, means we are both storytellers and interpreters.

“Anthropologists tell us many cultures forbid storytelling in the daytime, but once the sun sets, the moment comes for ‘once upon a time’ or other beginnings for stories,” she said, as she invited the audience to go back in time with her to a period when “ … nocturnal beasts are on the prowl. Mobility is limited. The labors of the day have fatigued bodies. So it’s time, then, to listen to the music and to the muses of the night.”

Man-made light, from campfires to lightbulbs, promotes activities “designed for a time when the sun disappears, when darkness descends on us,” she said. But as technology became more sophisticated, capitalist economies exploited the dark. Yet, storytelling has not disappeared. 

“Today, it’s a common practice to elevate storytelling with metaphors that reflect the social origins of the practice. We exist together in a little patch of warmth and light. … That patch of warmth and light powerfully evokes the heat and light generated by the campfires of our ancestors, and also indoor hearths of the generations that followed. In the comforts of electricity and central heating, along with the instant conveniences of smartphones, we continue to adapt storytelling, reading, … teeming with luminosity and warmth.”

Even e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s NOOK, have names that evoke the warm spaces where our ancestors gathered. More than warmth, universally, light — and light bulbs — serves as a metaphor for knowledge, even genius.

“Nowhere is that link between light and learning more clearly demonstrated than in our collective veneration of the Enlightenment as a source of reason and progress,” Tatar said. “This is (the period) in human history where we discovered the liberating power of knowledge, of education.” 

As a professor of Germanic languages and literature, she had to draw on Kant, and the declaration that “ ‘the enlightened are not afraid of shadows.’ Once again, cementing the superiority of light over dark and affirming how epistemology, the science of knowledge, can rarely escape the metaphorical trap inherited from those campfires that served as sites for transmitting knowledge.”

If light is the embodiment of knowledge, it is only so because of theological traditions that said what is sacred, is luminous.

“Today, what is holy?” she asked. “What’s sacred, but knowledge? Knowledge is endowed with the aura of the sacred.”

Black, darkness, is symbolic of chaos and death, of both the Furies of Greek mythology and, more recently, dark matter and black holes — which, Tatar pointed out, Stephen Hawking showed “at least the really tiny ones, are actually radiant.”

“In line with the metaphorical logic of Enlightenment philosophy, daytime is dominated by reason, legibility and clarity, while nighttime is associated with opacity, irrationality and all of these sinister forms of darkness,” she said.

This bifurcation leads into “treacherous terrain with a force field of vectors, ranging from sin and evil to the diabolical and demonic … in a more pronounced form from the 18th century onward,” Tatar said.

Black has, subsequently, become the preferred hue for the wardrobes of villains, vampires, witches and wizards, coding their evil with hints of purple or green. In Western cultures, wearing black is a signal of mourning and loss, while white is for christenings and weddings. But modern culture is “working the transvaluation machine,” Tatar said, turning a villainous trope like Maleficent from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” into a “victim, heroine and savior, associated with the forces that were traditional light.”

Aesthetics extend beyond color theory; the use of chiaroscuro in silent films and noir cinema further bifurcated light and dark.

“The drama of light and shadow is so powerful (in these films),” Tatar said. “… What we’ve seen as a productive interplay of the two, in aesthetic terms … may appear to be skin deep, but in fact, is far more than that.”

Moving from aesthetics to ethics, Tatar came to a question that is “a profound part of our social and cultural landscape” — race and skin color in the United States.

She showed a clip of Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X,” in which two characters have a conversation about language and the cultural binary of black and white — literally taking to the dictionary for definitions on “black” and “white,” and all the connotations involved.

Fiction writers have tried to undo that binary, Tatar noted, but change is a challenge.

“The instinctive response of some Black writers was to conceal darkness by blending in with it and becoming invisible,” she said. “It’s precisely because black is so fraught with symbolic meaning that Barbara Neely, a Black writer of murder mysteries, named her detective protagonist – in a genius stroke of deep irony — Blanche White.”

Blanche, who is Black, takes a job as a domestic worker to solve murder mysteries, using her race to blend in and not raise suspicions. It’s the same approach used in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Tatar highlighted a more recent book — Jason Mott’s twisting and bending Hell of a Book, which won the 2021 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2022 Chautauqua Prize. 

“(This character) is an author-protagonist who has a startling epiphany, a burst of human insight about how his character, Soot, could be seen at last, how he must be seen,” she said. “He also has this epiphany about how you recuperate the power of Blackness, the beauty of Blackness, while also pairing it with light, in a move that reveals their reciprocity and independence.”

The imagery Mott creates resulting from that epiphany, of light reflecting through the lens of darkness, Tatar said, shoots out “something more beautiful than I have ever seen.”

Before we ever read books like Hell of a Book, Invisible Man, The Color Purple or Barbara Neely’s murder-mysteries, we read picture books — like Goodnight Moon (she played a clip of the book being read by Christopher Walken) or Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen

“I want to take us to those books, because they are foundational,” Tatar said. “What children grow up with, that’s how they inherit these ideas about light and darkness, so we have to think carefully about what we read and think carefully about the conversations we want to have after we read those stories.”

In these stories, “darkness can be a source of existential anxiety,” she said, but also a rich place of creativity and imagination.

In the Night Kitchen explores the power of darkness to transform the anxiety bred by the dark into wonder. … This magical process is something of a myth-making process,” Tatar said. “Sendak himself emerges as the supreme mythmaker with a book that draws on the memories of materials of everyday life to construct a story that has taken on, I think, the cultural authority of a myth.”

From the Enlightenment to Spike Lee, E.O. Wilson to Leonard Cohen, aesthetics to Christopher Walken, Immanuel Kant to Maurice Sendak, Tatar tried to sum it all up: The values attached to light and dark are by no means transhistorical, or transcultural.

“The hierarchical structures that we’ve embraced can be reversed — better yet, leveled and turned into a partnership in places that darkness is valued as a source of transcendent beauty and knowledge beyond good and evil,” she said. “Our symbols are kaleidoscopic. They transform themselves with the flick of a wrist and the blink of an eye.”

Light and dark are not always at war; they can be in relationship, with symbolic power that strengthens each other, rather than diminishes.

“Instead of framing the dialectic of light and dark in terms of good/evil, innocence/sin, knowledge/ignorance, the concepts can be spring-loaded with bidirectional energy, depending on each other for richer, more productive forms of cultural energy,” she said.

Interpreting the Oracle: Neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro explores history, biology of dreams

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Everyone sleeps, which means everyone dreams — but not everyone remembers those dreams. Neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro proved this point at the outset of his lecture, when he asked his Chautauqua audience to raise their hands if, surely, they sleep every night. But when he asked how many remembered the dreams they had while asleep, only half raised their hands.

Ribeiro, whose research focuses on memory, sleep, dreams and psychedelics, is the founder of the Brain Institute at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil, and the author of The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreaming. His lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater was part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Six theme, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime.”

We know much more about sleep than we do about dreams; humans go through four to five full cycles of sleep each night. Some, but not all, of those cycles feature dreams, and it’s the REM cycle when we dream the most, Ribeiro said. But thanks to the prevalence of electric lights, and then television screens and the internet in the palms of our hands, humans are sleeping less, which means we’re dreaming less.

“What we know is that we are sleeping about two hours less than people did 100 years ago,” Ribeiro said. “It depends on the age group. It depends on where you’re living. But overall, it basically means we are getting poorer and poorer sleep as we progress into the 21st century.”

Less sleep, essentially, means less of a chance for the REM cycle — the last cycle of sleep and dreams — to kick in. And what happens to people’s lives when they do not dream? We know that dreams are important in the history of humanity, Ribeiro said. Not just important, but essential. He traced stories from the earliest texts in Sumer, Mesopotamia and Egypt, all pointing to the centrality of dreams at the start of civilization. The Bible is filled with premonitory dreams, but they’re not limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Ribeiro said.

“People knew, in the antiquities, that dreams cannot be taken at face value; it’s not as if you have a dream and the dream is exactly what happens or tells you what to do, because you need to interpret dreams,” he said. “Sometimes they can be very direct, but sometimes they are very metaphorical.”

As the age of antiquities neared its end, philosophers attempted to classify dreams into two categories: A “regular dream” that references the past, and a “special dream” that refers to the future. A clear example of “special dreams” is Calpurnia, the wife of Julius Caesar, immortalized by Shakespeare, who dreamt her husband would die in a pool of blood — and her husband’s own dream.

“Caesar had a very different dream,” Ribeiro said. “He had a dream in which he would fly through the skies across the clouds and then go all the way up and meet Jupiter himself. … Jupiter greeted him warmly and said, ‘You’re now with us.’ And he felt empowered by this dream, so he didn’t pay attention to his wife, and he did go meet the senators, and we know what happened. Her dream came true in detail.”

Both dreams were premonitory, Ribeiro said, and noted he could go on for hours with examples of such dreams, from every single culture. But things started to change in the past 500 years, as “capitalism and science intertwined” first in Europe, and then everywhere Europe had influence.

“This role that dreams had to serve as some sort of insight into the future, even though it was somewhat fuzzy, somewhat noisy, somewhat needed interpretation — but nevertheless, an insight into the future — was substituted by science,” Ribeiro said. 

People didn’t need dreams and premonitions; they needed mathematics and meteorology.

“Dreams were completely neglected, and became actually complete nonsense,” he said. 

This is why we know more about sleep than we do about dreams — sleep, after all, is a “solid, scientific object.” But, Ribeiro stressed, this was only the case in Western cultures. He cited various African cultures, Indiginous communities in North America, and the Xavante people of his native  Brazil, who all understand dreams as spiritual voyages.

“For example, voyages to meet your ancestors, in which you can go and ask for council, in which you can go and ask for inspiration, for new ideas, for new names, for new songs, for new strategies,” Ribeiro said — bridging the dreams looking back with dreams looking forward, with inspiration from those dreams having real-world impacts.

The Xavante were combating occupation efforts by the Portuguese and then Brazilian governments during the 19th and early 20th century; in the 1940s an Xavante elder had a dream.

“We cannot fight the white man,” the man advised, based on his dream. “We need to make peace with them. We need to become friends with them.”

So the Xavante shifted their strategy, Ribeiro said, and they are now among the strongest Native people in Brazil because of it.

Beyond the artistic, metaphysical and historical influences of dreams, Ribeiro said science itself owes inspiring breakthroughs to the phenomenon — from chemistry to the periodic table of elements. 

“It’s interesting to see that even though science didn’t have a place for dreams for a long period of time, dreams always had a place for science,” he said. “They were always helping science throughout.”

After all of this, Ribeiro asked, could there be a plausible, evolutionary narrative to make sense of dreams? Dreams — at least at this point in our understanding of physics, he said — can’t actually predict the future. 

“Therefore, we need to come up with — if not a new physical explanation for things — we need to come up with some biological explanation,” he said, and maybe then some sense can be made of dreams.

Going back 4 billion years, to the beginning of life on earth, all biological organisms have a circadian rhythm — from the ones with just a single cell, to humans.  

“This means that this alteration of day and night is perhaps the most prevalent selective pressure, which means that all forms of life had to adapt to this,” he said. “They could not go against it. They had to go with it.”

This is true from jellyfish to humans — and all animals experience what is called “quiet sleep.” But there’s another kind of sleep, called active sleep, otherwise known as the REM cycle. Research has shown that even flies might experience active sleep; Ribeiro’s own lab has proven that octopus do. But those REM cycles are short, very short, compared to that of humans, whose cycles last 40-50 minutes. (The REM cycle for a platypus, however, is more than an hour.)

At the beginning of mammalian evolution, Ribeiro said, the focus was on survival. So the notion that dreams somehow predict the future likely evolved during the period in which all cognitive powers were dedicated to surviving. It has to do with memory reactivation, he said, and when we sleep, that’s exactly what happens.

“Threat simulation theory  says dreams evolved as a way to warn our ancestors about impending threats,” Ribeiro said. “By reactivating memories of those threats, this allowed us, our ancestors, to prepare for the future. … Whatever is happening to you now has direct consequences for tomorrow. And if you dream about that, you are simulating outcomes.” 

So the Oracle of Night evolved under harsh, but simple conditions — kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. But in the modern world, “when you have thousands of little problems, the dreams reflect that. And they often don’t make sense as a whole.”

As history progresses, and as humans evolve, we begin to share our dreams.

“If mammals are the animals that have the most dreaming, we are the only animals, as far as we know, that can share our dreams,” Ribeiro said. “I also have a little bit of suspicion that this may not be true. … (But) what we know is we can do it. And there’s no reason to believe that our ancestors 300,000 years ago were not doing this. Very likely, they were getting together and sharing their dreams around the fire.”

This is what truly, as far as we know, sets us apart from other mammals. A pet dog may always know to expect their human home at 6 p.m., but only humans can close their eyes — Ribeiro had the audience try this — and picture their best friend from the age of 5, to immediately picturing their plans for Thanksgiving.

“We can travel within our memories towards the past, towards the future. We can come up with stuff that never existed, and this is so easy that we can still do this as we talk to people and drive a car somewhere,” he said.

This is because the same parts of the human brain responsible for dreams are responsible for daydreams; so, as prehistoric humans developed stronger relationships among their families and communities, and the concept of death and loss developed as well, dreams took on a new meaning.

“Imagine back in the Paleolithic era,” he said, “(and you dream of a dead relative). This can only be interpreted as evidence of that person being alive. And many people have proposed … this was the beginning of the belief in gods.”

Science shows that sleep is when the brain detoxifies and heals, improving cognition and ridding the organ of malformed proteins. But it’s only been in the last 12 years that science has been able to show that dreaming is beneficial for a person’s cognition. And this delay in science, and the fact that both sleep and dreaming have been neglected in Western culture, has “tremendous impacts at the ideological, social levels,” Ribeiro said.

“When you sleep poorly and dream poorly, you get all sorts of problems the next day,” he said. “You have cognitive problems; you can’t remember what you know. You can’t learn new things. You have bad emotional regulation. You become cranky, grumpy, difficult to deal with, and this is like a social snowball.”

Down the road, a lack of sleep and restorative dreams can lead to diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease and, eventually, Alzheimer’s disease.

“We know that we have a problem in the world,” Ribeiro said. “There’s more people dying from suicide than homicides. People are feeling despair. People are feeling disconnected. Depression is rampant, even in countries that are developed and rich.”

There have been endless technological advancements, Ribeiro noted, but humans can’t solve starvation, or pollution, let alone contemplate the universe. He argued that this paradox may be linked to humanity’s abandonment of sleep and dreams.

“If we knew how to sleep and dream properly and to use those dreams, to share our desires and fears, could we be more empathetic? Could we be more resourceful? Could we be more creative? Could we be more intelligent and understand that the problems that our ancestors had are solved?” he said. “… If we’re just able to increase our ability to love and to decrease our ability to compete, we may actually survive ourselves.”

Jim Richardson discusses light pollution, human connection to night sky

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Photos of cacti with a backdrop of a brilliant blue, a starry sky contrasted against aerial photos of nighttime Chicago sliced into a grid by streetlights — these are some of the images displayed by National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson on Monday, Aug. 1 to the Amphitheater audience at the first 10:45 a.m. lecture of Week Six “After Dark: The World of Nighttime.”

His lecture, titled “Vanishing Night,” focused on light pollution and the Milky Way. Richardson opened his discussion with the places and projects his job as a photographer has led him to.

In order to demonstrate his approach to photography, Richardson showed a photo of soil erosion on the Shaanxi Plateau in China. While the photo had little to do with the decreasing visibility of the Milky Way, it helped demonstrate his overall point.

Richardson photographed the Shaanxi Plateau because it has some of the worst soil erosion in the world, but when he asked the farmers working on their field, they said they did not have a problem with soil erosion.

“It’s crept up on them. It’s not that they can’t see it, but that they don’t know what they are seeing,” Richardson said.

He believes this is where a photographer can shed light.

Georgia Pressley / staff photographer Jim Richardson, photographer for National Geographic, speaks Monday in the Amphitheater. Richardson’s talk, opening the Week Six theme of “After Dark: The World of Nighttime,” was titled “The End of Night.”

“I’m in the seeing business, but I’m also in the knowing business,” he said.

A combination of facts and images drove Richardson’s lecture. While he admitted he is not a scientist, he has a bit of expertise on the disappearing night sky because he spent time photographing the subject for National Geographic.

Camera technology is at a point where photographers can showcase light pollution and the night sky, he said. So, with NatGeo, Richardson went to the Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah. This location was chosen for a specific reason.

“It was the first of the dark sky parks in the world. And it really is magnificent,” he said. “There is a scale for this stuff, the Bortle scale.” 

The Bortle scale in one of the darkest skies in the world will show “such darkness that the Milky Way will cast a visible shadow.”

With the help of a park ranger to light up the underside of a natural rock bridge, Richardson took his first series of dark sky photos, capturing the brownish red rock bridge against the night sky speckled with white.

The photo taken there became the lead picture of the NatGeo cover story, “Our Vanishing Night,” which was published in November 2008.

“I was convinced that what we first had to understand was not the problem, but the loss of the splendor; the loss of the night sky; the loss of what has been, throughout our humanity, this wonderful heritage, this constant companion, this wonderful, wonderful place — our galaxy — and we live out there,” he said.

Richardson shared that when it is truly dark out and the Milky Way is visible, looking at the southern end of the galaxy, toward the center, is where the black hole of our galaxy is.

“That big super massive black hole that drives all of this, that emits these gravity waves that cause the crest of the waves of star formation — it’s a marvelous process, and we are not just inhabitants of it,” he said. “We’re part of that process. It’s an incredible thing.”

Richardson then shifted the audience’s focus to how the Earth looks from space, with bright splatters of light pollution across the globe, specifically in areas like the Eastern United States, Western Europe and India.

He explained that this radical shift in how our world looks from space has occurred in just over 140 years since Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. This portion of time is relatively small, and these changes happened quite rapidly.

“To a large degree, it’s a population map, isn’t it?” Richardson asked. “Except, conspicuously, from Africa. Because, not only is it a map of population, it’s a map of GDP — gross domestic product. Curiously, it’s also a map of paved roads. You have more light pollution where you have more paved roads.”

During Richardson’s photographic journey for this night sky project, he traveled to Burkina Faso in West Africa. There, he photographed people around a campfire with the vibrant night sky above them.

“For much of our existence here on planet Earth, this was our world. This was our world, you know? Sitting around the fire at night, the stories going back and forth, stories being projected onto the planets, stories being projected onto the constellations,” he said. “(The sky was) our constant partner, part of our heritage, how we think, how we react, how we commune with our families and our clans and all of that — that wonder that we feel when we sit there and look up at a pristine, beautiful night sky and contemplate the universe.”

He accompanied this with a photo of a man in Tanzania sitting on the ground and gazing up at the sky.

Richardson said people were created from stars, and if light pollution causes the connection to be lost between people and the night sky, the connection to our beginning is also lost. 

“All the atoms in our bodies formed within the hearts of stars,” he said. “It’s the only place you can make complex atoms. So, we are not just the observers. We are the participants in this great journey. And I think it’s worthwhile for us to consider with our knowledge, with what we know, how we think about the night.”

Richardson said that of the children born today, 80% will never see the Milky Way.

Light pollution is particularly rampant in cities, he explained, showing pictures of Central Park in New York City lit up at night, as well as photos of Denver and Chicago — the latter of which became the cover of the National Geographic issue that featured Richardson’s photos of the disappearing night sky. 

In some places, the lights are so bright at night that they have earned the term “sky glow.” When Richardson photographed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the lights shining up at the arch were so bright they cast a shadow from the arch onto the clouds overhead.

Cities are not the only places that have a light pollution problem, Richardson pointed out, pulling up photos of Liberal, Kansas, which has a population of less than 20,000.

“You get this sense of light trespass,” he said.

Richardson addressed the question of light pollution’s definition and effect by listing the tangible issues of light pollution. To begin, he said, it disrupts the circadian rhythms of humans, suppresses the production of melatonin, and has even been found to cause breast cancer.

His example of this was his photo of a taxi’s rearview mirror, showing the reflection of the tired eyes of a man.

“It looks pretty much like that,” Richardson said. “Harder to see. Harder for me to photograph, but that one kind of got to it.”

The impacts on nature are also significant. He gave examples of how migratory patterns of birds, the eating patterns of bats, and firefly mating are disrupted because of light pollution.

Tall buildings with bright lights frequently cause birds to fly into them and, subsequently, die. Toronto resident, Brian Armstrong, noticed an injured bird and now patrols the streets of Toronto to try to save the birds that have mistakenly flown into the buildings.

The birds he can’t save, he collects for the Fatal Light Awareness Program, which creates a display of all the birds that died flying into buildings.

“It was one of the most profoundly affecting things I saw,” Richardson said. “All these birds, lying out there.”

Light pollution also leads to the death of the loggerhead turtles, which frequently breed in Juno Beach, Florida. The endangered turtles return to within 100 yards of where they were born to lay their own eggs.

“Often they come back to nest, to find that somebody has built a new house or a new high-rise tower that’s all lit up,” Richardson said.

This is not where the disruption ends. Once the loggerhead eggs hatch, Richardson explained, they are confused by the lights and head toward them rather than toward the ocean where they can swim away. When they move to the light, they often find themselves on highways where they could be run over by cars.

Even with all of the effects on nature, Richardson believes the light pollution problem is not unsolvable.

“There’s one big cure: Turn the lights down,” he said. “We can do all the technological things we want. But essentially, we have to figure out a way to live with the lights turned down a little bit.”

To experience a town where all the lights were truly turned off, Richardson returned home to Cuba, Kansas. On the Amp’s screens, he contrasted two photos: the first with the streetlights on and the second with all the lights off. The difference was not only visible in the sky, but in all the people gazing up at the stars.

Richardson also gave the example of Harmony, Florida, which is part of the International Dark Sky Association.

“They use these lamp shades in which no light goes up, and light goes down where you want it — where you’re walking at night,” he said. “But, you notice the houses back there? It’s not even lighting up the tops of the houses. So, light where you want it.”

Another photo Richardson took in Harmony has herons in the foreground and large homes in the background.

“What it means is the sandhill cranes can coexist with very nice housing,” he said. “That’s an impressive thing to me, that it’s not necessarily an either/or kind of situation.”

The International Dark Sky Association has also worked to create 195 dark sky parks, Richardson shared, from New Zealand to the United Kingdom, and even with many in the United States.

He finished his lecture with a call to action.

“I’ll also implore you that when the next zoning commission comes up in your town, when people are discussing street lighting or new developments or anything like this, you go,” Richardson said. “You go and raise your voice at some level to make intelligent decisions about how we can live morally in a world of limits and be happy doing it.”

From doom, gloom to hope: Lee Drutman outlines potential of multi-party system

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Lee Drutman’s closing lecture of the Week Five Chautauqua Lecture Series theme on “The Vote and Democracy” was titled “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.” And so he offered the audience “a little doom, a little gloom,” but “mostly a note of hope and a sense of possibility, because I do think our democracy can renew and innovate.”

In fact, America could be on the verge of that renewal and innovation, precisely because it’s in a doom-and-gloom moment, Drutman said. Drutman is a political scientist and advocate for both ranked-choice voting in the United States, and a multi-party system: the idea that the country needs strong third, fourth, or even fifth parties on the ballots. He’s a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America, and the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multi-Party Democracy in America. 

He spoke Friday, July 29, in the Amphitheater, sharing his “big idea” for representative democracy. Within his big idea is four takeaways that he shared with Chautauqua. 

“First, I want to convince you that though there are many problems, at the core is the hyperpolarized two-party system that keeps us divided and angry, and the winner-take-all electoral system that supports and preserves this hyperpolarized two-party system,” he said.

Dave munch / photo editor Drutman’s lecture closed the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Five theme of “The Vote and Democracy.”

Second, he wanted to convince his audience that, among proposed solutions, the one with the highest chance of success is this move to a proportional, multi-party democracy. And it doesn’t require a constitutional amendment — “just ordinary legislation.” 

“Third, I want to convince you that reform is indeed possible, and that we are in a moment in which big things are possible,” Drutman said.

Finally, he wanted to hammer home that this reform isn’t just possible, but urgent and necessary.

“American democracy has had a long history, and it’s a history of ups and downs,” he said. “… We’ve done this before, and in each era, there’s a pattern of deep dissatisfaction with the unfairness and corruption of existing rules that gave way to periods of reinvention and reinvigoration. … The fundamental bargain of American democracy adapted to changing societal values and moral expectations about how modern democracy ought to live up to its core values.”

Eras of reform — the Revolutionary War, the expansion of the franchise in the 1830s, the progressive era of the early 1900s, to the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Movement — happen about every 60 years. So, Drutman said, we’re right on schedule in 2022.

“But the question is, can we do it again?” he asked. “And can we learn from the mistakes of the past, or are we doomed?”

Drutman took the Amp back to the last era of reinvention in America — the 1960s.

 “Most politics was local,” he said. “National parties were more like these loose labels whose main function was really to come together every four years to say who should run for president. … There’s a famous quip from President Eisenhower in 1950: ‘There’s not one Republican Party. There’s 48 Republican Parties.’ ”

At the time, there were 48 states. The same quip could apply to the Democratic Party then, too. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement shifted political relationships, and for a moment in the 1970s, Drutman said, people thought the era of partisan politics was over. 

But “beneath the surface, what was happening was that the parties were realigning,” he said. “… And the focus of Washington was shifting. Washington was becoming the arbiter of cultural values as these issues really came to the center of politics, … and parties became more nationalized.”

Citizens were no longer voting for candidates, but for the parties. As local media declined in the 1990s, more attention focused on national politics, and elections — even local elections — became referendums on national issues. 

Those years of shifting political relationships, from the 1960s to the 1980s, meant that in those years, American politics “really operated more like a four-party system, with liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, along with conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats,” Drutman said.

But as parties drew clearer lines on social and cultural issues, those liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats began to disappear. Geography has something to do with it, tied to diversity, as America becomes more multicultural and multiethnic, Drutman said. It became easier to see the other party and “distant and different, and things that are distant and different become more scary, more threatening. The more the other side becomes a threat, the worse it would be if they won.”

That fear just feeds more fear, with harder fights and higher stakes. 

“Yet for all the fighting and the fear that the other side is going to take over and do some horrible thing, the other side never seems to amass quite enough power to actually do all that much for all that long,” Drutman said. “Instead, what we’ve had over the last 30 years is this constant swing, back and forth. … Stakes keep rising. Scorched-earth policy, scorched-earth rhetoric keeps rising. No compromises. Gridlock.”

This, he said, is the two-party doom loop.

“Yes, it’s true — we’ve had Democrats and Republicans for 160 years now, but something is fundamentally different today,” Drutman said. For one, politics are more nationalized than ever, and the two prominent parties are “completely, geographically, non-overlapping parties.”

Americans’ political conflicts have been flattened, with Democrats and Republicans “separated by geography, culture, identity and, most dangerous of all, different facts. Just fundamentally different realities.”

The Founding Fathers knew their history, Drutman said, and they knew that the few democracies and republics that had existed before America had fallen into civil wars. 

“They thought they had worked out this solution, which was this complex system of shared powers and checks and balances,” he said. “… Madison lays out in Federalist Paper No. 10 this idea that coalitions should be fluid. There’s going to be factions. … But you can prevent tyranny and dominance and this binary by trying to make it harder for the factions to be consistent.”

The alternative to politics without parties, however, is “incoherent chaos,” he said, and ultimately a descent into authoritarianism.

Having laid out the problem, he moved to the solution — a multi-party democracy. There are other counterarguments and ideas, Drutman noted, but his proposition is to change the way Americans vote, getting rid of single-member districts which limit choices to the two parties. 

He proposed proportional, multi-member districts, with up to five elected representatives per district, allocated proportionally. Around the world, in most democratic countries, “it’s a norm, frankly. … The U.S. is really the only large democracy that has two political parties.”

Drutman is not proposing what Israel does, for example, with the whole country as one electoral district. But there’s a sweet spot, of those five-member districts, that he thinks would pair nicely with increasing the size of the House of Representatives.

This system could do more than just solve the binary, zero-sum game the U.S. finds itself in; it could also alleviate the power of gerrymandering, which he said could mean “every vote matters equally.” And with more parties and more options, he said, voter turnout is higher among those who don’t align with either of the two major parties.

“There’s some good, decent people who would like to have a party that is conservative, but not anti-democracy,” Drutman said. “But without a multi-party system, where is that party going to come from? And that party is essential to the future of our democracy.”

Change happens slowly, and then all at once; he reminded the audience that many ideas have been fringe ideas in the history of American politics, and now is “a moment of transformation.”

“We’ve got to figure out how to build something new, that takes the best principles of American democracy and updates them for our modern era,” Drutman said. “Now, obviously changing how we vote is a big idea. And it’s really challenging to build new parties in our political system. … We’ve had a history of third parties that have failed because it’s really hard in a single-winner district (and) two-party system.”

There are promising steps being taken in the short-term, however. New York State has used fusion balloting, for example, allowing multiple ballot lines to endorse the same candidate.

“History doesn’t move in straight lines. History moves in waves. And the moments in which everybody’s feeling dark and pessimistic are the moments in which big ideas can take off,” Drutman said. “ … In these moments, somebody has to have a plan. Somebody has to have a vision. This is why it’s so important to have a vision for the future — any destruction to the status quo is going to feel risky, but whether we like it or not, it’s happening. It’s being done; it’s just a question of how, by whom, and with what goals in mind?”

That two-party doom loop he mentioned at the outset of his lecture “isn’t going to break on its own.”

“Democracy is a fragile system. … But I am seeing some energy that says we need bigger, more transformative change out there,” Drutman said. “The status quo is broken and we need to mobilize and organize. … Most progress always come when enough of us look at the world as it is and say, ‘enough already.’ ”

Americans are not “sleepwalkers fated for disaster,” he noted, because their political pessimism has done something important.

“It’s awakened us to where we might be headed if we don’t make big changes,” he said. “And the good news is that we’re here. We’re having this conversation. To me, this is a cause for optimism, and it’s a moment for leadership to take us out of the ravine. So enough with the pessimism. Let’s turn this mess around.”

Michael Li discusses gerrymandering, ‘thinking outside of the box’ in America

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Where the United States draws the line in election law has never been more important to the preservation of democracy — especially when it comes to representation, which Michael Li said is “the cornerstone of democracy.”

Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, tackled the multidimensional issue of gerrymandering Thursday, July 28, in the Amphitheater, discussing how redistricting has impacted politics and how it will continue to change in the future. His lecture was titled “The Fight Against Gerrymandering: How Are We Doing?” 

Li practiced law at Baker Botts in Dallas for 10 years before joining the Brennan Center, where he specializes in voter rights and redistricting. Author of a widely cited blog on redistricting, Li is a regular commentator on election law and has appeared on MSNBC, NPR and “PBS NewsHour.”  He has also written for publications like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today

As the fourth Chautauqua Lecture Series speaker for Week Five’s theme “The Vote and Democracy,” Li opened his lecture by drawing on a conversation he had with Tuesday’s 10:45 a.m. speaker Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity. 

On the front porch of the guest house on the grounds, Li asked Chavez if she was pessimistic or optimistic about the future of the United States, given the political and social strife afflicting the country — she responded that she was “worried.”

Li asked the audience the same question before telling them that his talk would offer both a hopeful and daunting perspective on voter rights.

He launched into his discussion of gerrymandering by reciting Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion on the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

“He says, ‘Women are not without electoral or political power. It is noteworthy that the percentage of women who register to vote and cast ballots is consistently higher than the percentage of men who do so,’ ” Li said. “Now, there’s a lot that’s wrong with those statements. … At the heart of it is the idea that if you don’t like the laws that are passed by lawmakers, just vote them out.”

Alito’s insinuation that the people of the U.S. can choose what happens in their country, however, discounts the injustices gerrymandering has in creating a majority unreflective of the actual population.

In reading Alito’s opinion, Li thought of his home state Texas, which, in 2021, redrew maps that allowed Republicans to win the majority with only 44% of the vote, while Democrats had 56%. 

“That, in short, is not what democracy looks like,” Li said “… There is no more vivid illustration of why what Justice Alito says will work, won’t.”

In 2019, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to make partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional in Rucho v. Common Cause; but, the Court tabled the question. 

“They said it is a political question that we are not going to decide,” Li said. “When it did that, it has opened the door to partisan gerrymandering around the country, because now, as long as you can claim that you’re doing it for political purposes, even if it’s to target an opponent, even if it’s to benefit yourself, even if it is to benefit your party, that’s OK.”

The Rucho decision made not only a statement on politics, but on discrimination.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Rucho has opened the door not only to political discrimination,” Li said, “but also to racial discrimination, if the courts are not willing to dig deeply and try to separate out when the motive is racial and when it is political.”

Li connected the 2019 decision to the American Revolution and struggle for representation in British Parliament. 

“Representation is important, and it’s important that the bodies that make our laws and decisions for us should look like us,” Li said. “That just doesn’t happen if you put the thumb on the scale in the way that has happened in recent years.”

To understand this imbalance, and redistricting in its entirety, Li briefed the audience on the dynamics of national politics in the last decade. 

The first aspect he highlighted was that the rate of population growth is the slowest it has been since the Great Depression, climbing only 7.4% in the last decade. That growth is most prevalent in the South and the West, home to 40% of all Americans. 

Population growth, in combination with racial demographics, affects redistricting.

The population growth of Black Americans increased by 2.5 million people in the last 10 years, and the South specifically has witnessed this growth with two-thirds of that increase living in the South. The South’s growth also increased with half of all immigrants who have come to the U.S. in the last year settling there.

Another facet of national, racial demographics Li touched on was that for the first time in the last decade, the white population in the United States fell. 

“This is a major driver of a lot of what is happening both in redistricting and in terms of our country’s politics,” Li said. “There’s no question that demographic anxiety lies at the heart of a lot of what I’m going to talk about today.”

The last piece of Li’s briefing discussed the people who draw the maps themselves. In 2011, Republicans controlled 187 congressional seats, as opposed to Democrats’ 75 seats. Republicans “maximized their advantages” and made it hard for Democrats to win back control. 

“Had Donald Trump not been elected and had there not been sort of the suburban shifts that followed his election, it’s likely that the House would have remained Republican all of last decade,” Li said. 

Having “set the table” for the discussion on gerrymandering, Li went on to define redistricting through the lens of seven specific examples. 

First, he said that Democrats did fairly well in the last decade, now on a path to the majority in future years. In 2020, President Joe Biden won 197 Democratic seats by more than 8 points and won 30 seats by less than 8 points. 

“Democrats drew maps in a way that suggests that they thought that the Biden coalition of recent years — the coalition of women and younger voters and voters of color and suburban, college-educated women — would hold together, largely,” Li said. “That’s a very optimistic version of the country. Republicans didn’t — so Democrats drew seats that were a lot more like 54%, 53%. This is good enough for us. Republicans drew seats that were a little bit safer than that.” 

The maps, however, are still “wildly skewed,” which was Li’s second point. In the last decade, nine states had maps initially passed at the legislature that were considered significant partisan gerrymanders.  

The third: Competitive districts are disappearing. Li again pointed to Texas to illustrate this phenomenon. 

“It used to be in Texas that Republicans won, or Donald Trump won 11 districts by 15 or more points,” Li said. “After redistricting, he wins 21, so it almost doubles. Republicans only have 24 seats in Texas. 21 out of the 24 seats they have are super-safe districts that Donald Trump won by 15 or more points, and that provides a lot of insurance — both against demographic change and political shifts.”

Denton County, Texas, further demonstrates this shift. Situated in the 26th congressional district, Denton County is home to a high-tech industry and college-educated women who are typically left-leaning. The area was sectioned off to join a district with the Texas panhandle, 700 miles away. This maneuver joined the rural suburbs of Texas with an urban area in contoured ways to control majority vote.

“If you’re scared of both people of color and of college-educated white women, there’s only so much you can do, and you have to end up doing something like this,” Li said, motioning to the gerrymandered map of Denton above him.  

On a more positive note, the fourth example offered hope for the future, and lies in state courts. This decade, state courts in New York, Maryland, North Carolina and Ohio have struck down gerrymanders. 

“Increasingly, people are looking to state courts and to state constitutions as a possible remedy for gerrymandering,” Li said. “I think that state courts are oftentimes ignored in vain and state constitutions are ignored in vain. … There’s a rich state constitutional tradition … to focus only on federal courts, and that’s really not where all the action is at.”

With the rising power of the state courts comes a counterattack. For example, Republicans wanted to impeach Maureen O’Conner, a Republican Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, after she struck down partisan gerrymanders.  

“State courts are playing a bigger role, but there’s also push back from state courts,” Li said. “Also, watch for judicial elections in lots of these states to be highly, highly polarized going forward.” 

 Li also brought up the independent state legislature theory, which asserts that only Congress can override a state law relating to federal courts or redistricting, not the state itself. When this doctrine — or theory, depending on who one asks — was raised after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s congressional map in 2018, the case was taken to the Supreme Court. Alito immediately denied it. 

The general attitude toward the theory is now changing. 

“Flash forward just four years, and you have a majority of the court deciding to hear a case out of North Carolina, deciding whether the North Carolina Supreme Court has the power to strike down a congressional map for violating the North Carolina Constitution,” Li said. “At least four justices agreed to hear that case, and there seems to be a path to a majority, and that’s really worrying because state courts are jumping into the equation, and now the U.S. Supreme Court could take them out.”

Li then moved to discuss the sixth example, redistricting reforms and their successes and limitations, by talking about the stark differences in Michigan and Ohio. 

In 2016, volunteers in Michigan created an independent commission aimed to eliminate gerrymandering. The commission received half a million signatures and passed with 60% of the blue vote. Michigan, which was previously one of the worst gerrymandered states in the country, is now among the least gerrymandered states. 

By contrast, Ohio adopted a reform that left line drawing in the hands of the elected officials. 

“While courts in Ohio can strike down a map, they can’t put in place a new map,” Li said. “They can only send it back to the people who drew the last gerrymandered map and say, ‘Fix this.’ You would think the Court telling you to fix this would cause you to fix it. That has not happened in Ohio, either at the congressional level or the legislative level.” 

The seventh and last point Li included was that above all, gerrymandering creates a disappointing cycle for people of color. 

“There is some good news for our communities of color in electoral politics around the country, which sometimes I don’t think we do enough to acknowledge,” Li said. “That is, that people of color are increasingly winning in districts where the minority share of the population is not particularly high.”

Alabama is a state with prevalent racial discrimination drawn into the electoral districts. Li said that there is only one district in which Black voters enjoy political success, and the rest ignore the “Black belt” of voters at the bottom of the state. 

“You see the band of Black voters stretching across Alabama? That’s the Black belt,” Li said, pointing to his slides. “That is the old cotton belt of Alabama that has hundreds of years of shared history, common challenges, common needs. In a lot of ways, the idea that the Black belt is divided up among four different districts is crazy, because everybody agrees what the Black belt is. Everybody understands that it has a shared history that stretches back, again, hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Li said that as gerrymandering persists, the effective use of the Voting Rights Act dwindles. 

“I think really the challenge for us is going to be, increasingly with this Court, to think outside the box, and to think about other alternatives,” Li said. “ … There’s never really been a successful multi-racial democracy where there isn’t a dominant group, and that’s a challenge for us. How do we do that? I think it’s important for us to be prepared to think outside the box, because that is a very dark place that we are in.”

To conclude his lecture, Li noted that the original First Amendment the founders drafted would have created a Congress different from what was actually made, one with far more seats and members. Li discussed this original amendment as a way to say that “we should not, at this moment, be afraid to think outside the box.”

“It is easy to curl up in a ball sometimes and think all is lost,” Li said. “But at this moment, we should be brave like the founding generation was and we should, in the words of Scripture, ‘fear not,’ because if we’re going to keep our country, it’s up to us to redefine it. Every generation gets to define anew, and that is our challenge, our task.”

Jelani Cobb analyzes history of voting rights, ‘peaceful transitions of power’

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Right off the bat, American democracy is not playing the same softball game it was back in 1776, as Jelani Cobb, historian, Peabody Award winner, incoming dean of Columbia Journalism School and staff writer for The New Yorker outlined in his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, July 27, in the Amphitheater as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series.

Speaking to the theme of “The Vote and Democracy,” Cobb opened his lecture with a few sports metaphors and questions, asking the audience if they remember the first time they played softball or baseball, or boxed, against a left-handed person.

Cobb, a southpaw himself, said the fundamentals of sports are fairly easy to learn until going up against a left-handed person. Then everything that was up was down, Cobb said, and he takes a particular pride in hearing right-handed people groan at this experience.

“All the rules you learned that apply in one way is the exact opposite that you have to do when you play against a left-handed person,” Cobb said. “Our society, our institution, the fundamental bulwarks of our democracy are playing against a left-hander for the first time.”

America is attempting to understand the patterns, policies and behaviors that are the inverse of the practices that originally led to a fully functioning democracy. Cobb highlighted the events of Jan. 6, 2021, as an example of this, along with the subsequent investigation and hearing.

“It’s possible amid the crush of information that we encounter in any given day, and the speed of events locally, nationally, internationally, globally, it’s possible to lose sight of just how astounding a departure the events of Jan. 6, 2021, were,” Cobb said.

George Washington is the only non-partisan president America has had. Federalist John Adams term ended and in 1800 Thomas Jefferson entered as a Democratic Republican, and for the next 220 years there was a “chain of peaceful transfers of powers.”

Cobb’s first foundational memory is his father taking him along to vote in the 1976 presidential election when he was 6. At first, he didn’t realize why his father took him, but he recognized later on that his father wanted “to instill in me at an early age the importance of not only exercising the right to the franchise, but the importance of having the rights to the franchise.”

If his father attempted to vote in his youth, in his home state of Georgia, he would have been subject to severe injuries, even death. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law when there were about 1,000 African Americans who held office in the United States. Cobb said this number has massively increased since then.

Eight weeks after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, he signed the Immigration and Nationality Act — also known as the Hart-Celler Act — into law, voiding the quota system. The quota system, created through the Immigration Act of 1924, was a xenophobic reaction in an attempt to preserve U.S. homogeneity. It favored northern and Western European immigrants, while essentially ending all immigration from Asian countries. 

“What that did was strip away the old racist quota system. … That’s not my judgment, that was the judgment of the people who wrote the law,” Cobb said. 

With the Hart-Cellar Act, immigration began to increase from countries outside of northern and Western Europe.

“We began to see immigration from places like India and Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa — places people would have had a great difficulty coming into this country as immigrants prior to this,” Cobb said.

The reverberation has echoed throughout America ever since these laws were passed, but Cobb said to understand how “potent this idea of maintaining a largely white electorate has been,” people need to dive even further back in American history.

“If we go back to 1798 in the course of the undeclared war that the United States was fighting with France, President John Adams and the federalists were also keeping an eye on Thomas Jefferson,” Cobb said, “who they thought would be formidable in the election of 1800. And they passed a law called the Alien Act of 1978.”

The principles attached to this policy, formally known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, changed the five years of residency necessary to become a citizen to 14 years of U.S. residency. In response to this, Cobb said Jefferson and Madison were so furious they drafted two propositions called interposition and nullification, otherwise known as state’s rights.

“(Jefferson and Madison) argue that states have the right to nullify legislation that imposes on the rights of their citizens,” Cobb said. “The federalists know that Thomas Jefferson is particularly popular with immigrant voters, and that if they can prevent more people from becoming eligible voters, they may have a chance of preventing him from becoming the next president.”

Then, in 1800, Jefferson won the election and Cobb said there is a “peaceful transition of power, and we move on.” Cobb said politics played out similarly over the course of the 19th century, but then from 1861 to 1865, almost 700,000 people died in the Civil War.

“About 12 times the number of Americans who died in Vietnam. Almost double the number of Americans who died in World War II,” Cobb said. “By far our bloodiest conflict, fought over the questions of ‘Who will belong?’ ‘Who qualifies as a human being?’ Will it be possible?’ and ‘’Will it be legal to own other human beings?’ ”

All of these questions were resolved by the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation struck down slavery, and Cobb said Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party had one overriding concern. 

“The Confederates largely centered on, at that time in the Democratic Party, not being able to regain the level of political power they had prior to the war,” Cobb said.

That power came from the Three-fifths Compromise, which counted each enslaved person as three-fifths of a vote in a congressional apportionment. Cobb said this allowed white, Southern slave owners to have a disproportionate amount of power, and Republicans were “concerned if they ever regain the level of power they had in 1860, they will rip the country in half again.”

Before Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he pondered the situation, but never came to a conclusion. Lincoln was trying to figure out how to give the vote to formerly enslaved men, something he had opposed seven years prior in debates with Stephen A. Douglas.

“He reasons, correctly, that if Black people are given the right to vote, they are not going to vote for the candidates who also get the support of their former slave masters,” Cobb said. “They will vote for the Republican Party — that Black people will be a counter balance to the power of the white Confederacy.”

After Lincoln’s assassination, the 15th Amendment was ratified, giving the right to vote to all men, but not women. Due to the amount of white men who died in the Civil War though, there were more white women in the South than men. 

“An astounding change takes place in American politics (and) in American government,” Cobb said. “Within a few short years, we see more than 600 African Americans, many of them former slaves, elected to political office throughout the South.”

Cobb said these political figures sought progressive change right away, but these rights were swept away as quickly as they came due to Jim Crow laws and segregation over the next 100 years. In March 1965, at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech.

“It’s not one of his better-known speeches, but it is one of his most fascinating and insightful,” Cobb said. “He gives a speech explaining why they had to fight for the right to vote in 1965, almost a full century after the 15th Amendment had granted the right to vote to African Americans.”

In this speech, King talked about the counter-revolution that reinforced the laws that catered to the wealthy, white slave owners. This is when America saw lynching, violence, intimidation and other “blatantly unconstitutional” acts against Black people.

“In response, the Southerner Lyndon B. Johnson gives a speech, which he concludes with the words ‘We shall overcome,’ and announces he will sign voting rights legislation,” Cobb said. “That happened in 1965. Five months later, President Johnson signs that legislation (and) it has this momentous impact.”

Over the years, the alignment between voter rights and immigration has become more explicit, Cobb said. The Voting Rights Act was focused solely on enfranchising Black Americans, but over the course of history amendments have been added to protect Indigenous people.

Language barriers are also an issue that has been addressed, Cobb said; the language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act say that if over 1% of the population speaks any one language, the voting centers have to provide valid materials available in that language.

“An example of this is, in the last mayoral election in New York City, I took my daughter with me,” Cobb said. “My daughter is just about the age I was when my father took me to vote in that presidential election.”

Reaching this full circle moment, Cobb took his daughter through every step of his personal voting process. He told her why he made certain decisions, who he was going to vote for and why.

“I let her cast the ballot, and then I took her for candy,” Cobb said. “I’m old enough to have realized that some portion of good parenting involves manipulation.”

Over time, the Voting Rights Act “grows to become a fundamental bulwark of inclusion in American democracy,” Cobb said, “but there are two dynamics that change the course of this.”

“This first happens in 2008 with the stunning, really unpredictable rise and election of the first Black president of the United States,” Cobb said. 

Although electing Barack Obama as president in 2008 was a huge milestone, Cobb said the fight for equal voting rights is never-ending.

Cobb once interviewed former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. about Shelby County v. Holder, and the decision that the Voting Rights Act places an unfair burden on Southern States — specifically with regard to the mandate that historically discriminatory juris­dic­tions receive court approval before changing any voting procedures.

“Never mind the fact that there had been Southern counties … which had as recently as a few years earlier had laws struck down for disproportionately disadvantaging Black voters,” Cobb said.

Now, there is legislation preventing voter fraud, which makes it harder for people, mainly minorities, in particular counties to vote, he said. The rise of voter ID requirements and changing voter procedures, including how long people have to wait to vote, are examples of this; Cobb saw this firsthand. 

“I lived in Georgia during these years,” Cobb said. “I remember witnessing the lengthening lines in communities where you would go out and vote.”

Cobb then pivoted to more recent events, including Donald Trump’s presidential election in 2016. Trump famously said that he lost the popular vote because between 3 and 5 million people — whom he referred to as illegal immigrants —  had voted in the state of California.

“It was specifically a canard that frightened people with the prospect that 3 to 5 million people not in the country legally insinuated themselves into the electorate, playing into that antique American fear,” Cobb said.

Yet voter fraud is rare, he said, and hardly enough to justify the impositions of the regime alleging there is no more voter fraud.

“I was covering a story about an election, and one of the things you find about covering local politics … is that the lower you go on the political scale, the less elegant the lies people tell you,” Cobb said.

Cobb said the landscape America finds itself in is one of weaponized lies, with the ability to mobilize people, citing the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. He said the Capitol has a particular metaphorical history.

“We know it was constructed in part by slave labor, but the original dome of the Capitol, which was made of wood, rotted immediately and over the course of the Civil War,” Cobb said. “Abraham Lincoln’s government oversaw the reconstruction of the Capitol dome, and that reconstruction became a metaphor for the attempt to hold the country together.”

The opposite metaphor was witnessed Jan. 6, 2021, when thousands of protesters broke through and stormed the Capitol.

“This is a dire crisis,” he said. “So what do we do here?”

Cobb said two key pieces of legislation — the Save Democracy Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — are stalled in the Senate because of the refusal of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to reform the filibuster.

“So it falls to us. It falls to us to pressure people,” Cobb said. “It falls to us to support candidates who are in favor of protecting American democracy.”

To close his lecture, Cobb gave a synopsis of the November 2020 election and the role the country thought Georgia was going to play, but didn’t. Now, Black voters are being asked to do exactly what the Republican Party asked Black voters to do in 1870: Nullify the threat of white supremacy destroying democracy.

“That is the responsibility that confront us. That is the work that is in our hands,” Cobb said. “It’s our responsibility to ensure that this country continues to move as diligently as possible in the direction of democracy, not autocracy. History is watching.”

Linda Chavez discusses rebuilding trust in U.S. democracy

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When Linda Chavez was running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 1986, the campaign trail brought her to Cumberland, Maryland — a small city in the western part of the state — where she was meeting with local business leaders and her primary opponent, a CEO out of Baltimore who wore a pinstripe suit to the event. Chavez was also dressed in a “proper little suit,” but there was one problem: After a hiking trip, her family had taken her high heels home with them, leaving her nothing but the cowboy boots she’d worn the day prior.

Chavez, who has been honored by the Library of Congress as a Living Legend, opened her lecture Tuesday, July 26, in the Amphitheater with this anecdote, because history rhymed that day for her: After a 10-day trip to Europe she was again left without her heels, abandoned in an Albanian hotel. So, she took the Amp stage in her tennis shoes and hoped that, like the cowboy boots all those years ago, they would bring her luck.

A widely published opinion columnist, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, an advisory board member for Republicans For Voting Rights, former U.S. Expert to the U.N. Sub-commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, and staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Chavez joined the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Five theme on “The Vote and Democracy” with a question: “How Do We Protect Democracy in a Divided America?”

Chavez first spoke at Chautauqua in 1996 on issues of media bias, and nearly 30 years later, those issues are still a problem — especially when one looks at polls she cited that show 70% of Republican voters still believe that the 2020 election was stolen.

“There’s a reason they believe that,” she said: President Donald Trump’s ability to convince his voters that he, simply, did not lose.

“But in a democracy, we have to actually believe that our elections are free and fair,” Chavez said. “Because if we don’t, then the whole house of cards collapses. … The reason I am so worried is that I think that we have, in fact, lost a measure of that trust, and it is absolutely vital that we begin to rebuild that.”

Chavez pointed to America’s many divides — self-segregation, differences both political and geographical, a decline in faith and worship and, perhaps most of all, the same issues she sounded the alarm on in 1996 from the same stage: media bias and echo chambers.

“The most important change that’s taken place is the change in where we get our information from,” she said. “We don’t read the same newspapers, if we read newspapers at all. We don’t watch the same television programs, either for entertainment or for news. We don’t get information necessarily from organized outlets like newspapers or television broadcasts or the radio. We get it often from the internet, and we get it filtered by algorithms that are set up to steer us to people with whom we agree, so that we never hear what people who disagree with us have to say in a respectful fashion. We have no common reference point.”

Chavez said she grew up in a time when the news was trusted. Walter Cronkite was a mainstay, and Americans had a “common body of information, a common set of facts.” Interpreting those facts could lead to disagreement, but, facts were facts.

Algorithms and a lack of fact-checkers online has led to an erosion of trust, Chavez said, and “the problem is that a democracy absolutely requires the trust of the people who are involved in that democracy to function.” 

The media landscape is at fault, too, with how Big Money has altered the way outlets operate. Chavez used the example of the Jan. 6 Committee hearings, some of which have aired in primetime on major networks as a public service, while Fox News opted instead to not broadcast the hearings.

“There’s a very good reason why: It’s not a money-maker for them,” Chavez said. “… Those primetime shows (on Fox) bring in big bucks. … People think, ‘Well, of course, it’s the politics of Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch,’ … but Murdoch also owns the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and I think that they’ve been very hard-hitting not only in their coverage, but in their editorials against what happened in 2020.”

So, Chavez asked, what happened in 2020 that changed? The election was not close, but there was confusion because states were shifting how citizens could vote during the pandemic. Trump spent much of the election spreading mistrust over that confusion, Chavez said, but the biggest factor cementing distrust came after the votes were counted.

“For the very first time in U.S. history, a man who was defeated at the polls absolutely refused to concede,” she said. “This was very striking. … So we had a central lie that fomented the notion that the election had been stolen. Well, we saw what happened, what the result of that lie was.”

Chavez called the Jan. 6 insurrection “the most devastating moment of my political life,” as she watched “this symbol of American democracy, this symbol of freedom being physically attacked, with police officers being beaten, with the whole building being desecrated by a mob.”

It was a mob that Trump summoned, incited and sent, Chavez said, echoing the words of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. And by Jan. 6, Chavez had “had it with my party.” She changed her voter registration to “unaffiliated.”

As of Tuesday, the Jan. 6 Committee had held eight hearings, and Chavez said she had watched “every single minute of it.” An informal poll of her Chautauqua audience indicated that most had watched all, or most, of the hearings. That impressed her.

“We are not the majority. Sixty-two percent of Americans aren’t watching and haven’t watched at all,” she said. “And even those who are watching, at least part time, only 11% say they have watched most or all of those hearings. Only 25% of nominal Republicans have bothered to watch at all.”

Chavez said she wanted to focus on these numbers because the hearings have outlined “a long, complicated conspiracy to commit a coup — a conspiracy that has taken place on multiple fronts,” including the state courts and governments. As she listed developments on these various fronts, Chavez recounted voting fraud investigations in Georgia, considerations in the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to seize voting machines, and cases of fraudulent votes cast for Trump.

“What does all that mean for the future?” she asked. “… The fact is, we can survive this, but it won’t be easy.”

Chavez sees a bright spot in the bipartisan effort to reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887, and the contemplation among congresspeople to require one-fifth of the chamber vote to object to the counting and certifying of votes before holding any discussion of a debate on merits. That is an extremely important change, she said, but she worries about other Republican efforts to change the vote counting system, and to place individuals in election offices who believe that the 2020 vote was stolen.

Also worrisome for her is the emphasis on access in HR1, the For the People Act.

“I want every person who’s eligible to vote to be able to vote and cast that vote in a safe and secure way,” Chavez said. “But the problem is not so much the casting of votes. It is, as I say, the counting of those votes and what role that secretaries of state or other election officials will have in determining whether or not the votes in various jurisdictions are going to be counted.”

With Jan. 6 Committee hearings extending to the end of summer 2022, and possibly beyond, Chavez noted that “we don’t know yet exactly what’s going to happen.” She pointed to the length of the hearings indicating the involvement of people with integrity — not household names like Rudy Giuliani, but the Cassidy Hutchinsons of the world from the previous administration who are “upstanding members of the Republican Party” and now have the opportunity for their voices to be heard.

Chavez does think criminal indictments will be handed down as a result of the Jan. 6 Committee report, when it does come. She just doesn’t think it will be of Trump — but of what she called “phony electors appointed in the aftermath of the election” certifying the vote had gone to Trump, and of White House administrators who conceived of a stolen election to begin with.

The true challenge, after all of this: How do we restore trust in a democracy?

“It is by civic engagement, it is by going back to your communities (and) getting involved that we’re going to see this change. It’s by talking to your neighbors. Don’t just talk to your neighbors who you agree with. Reach out to people that you maybe haven’t agreed with in the last five years,” Chavez said. “We have to learn to trust each other again. We have to learn to try to convince people with words, not by bullying, … not by name calling. We have to convince people with the power of our ideas.”

One day, Chavez said, she looks forward to rejoining the Republican Party. She still identifies with many of the party’s issues and policies, and knows that democracy depends on a two-party system. 

“I would love to be able to vote for a Republican in 2024, but I’m not going to vote for Donald Trump, and I’m not going to vote for a whole lot of others who seem to be rushing to embrace him,” she said. 

She voted for Joe Biden in 2020 — the first time she’d voted Democrat in a presidential election since casting her first-ever vote for Hubert Humphrey. But she wants a two-party system, and “one in which my values can be represented by someone who also believes in the importance of democracy.”

Until that point, it’s going to be a struggle, she said, and Americans mustn’t take for granted that the United States is the oldest democracy in the world, or that that democracy will be around forever. 

“Are we the biggest? The strongest? The most successful? The most economically successful country in the history of the world?” she said. “We are, but it doesn’t mean we will be so forever. If we lose our democracy, if we lose the ability to trust in our institutions and to ensure that those institutions function as our Constitution envisioned, then we won’t be any longer. But I’m here to tell you, I’m sure that you’re not going to let that happen, and I’m going to do my best not to let it happen, as well.”

Jon Meacham shares message of hope for future of American democracy

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Jon Meacham last spoke to a Chautauqua audience from a computer screen, in the middle of the 2020 virtual season on CHQ Assembly. He spoke then as the closing lecture of a week on “Reframing the Constitution” — and a lot has changed since then. So he reflected on the idea of “The Future of History” by looking into the past.

“I would not have said that the American experiment in constitutional democracy is at an existential hour, even two years ago, if we had been here. I would not have said that when we were on our (Zoom) boxes together,” Meacham said. “It was, I believe, the erosion and attempted overthrow of the American government in the fall (2020) into January 2021 that cast into the darkest relief what we face.”

Meacham, presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, delivered the designated Chautauqua Lecture of the 2022 season at 10:45 a.m. Thursday, July 21, in the Amphitheater. Through stories and reflection, Meacham brought historical context to current events and issues. History may not repeat itself but it may rhyme, Meacham paraphrased Mark Twain. 

“Democracy is not guaranteed,” Meacham said. “It is the hardest of human undertakings because it requires us to see each other not as rivals, but as neighbors.”

For Meacham, preserving democracy is a human and moral commitment. 

“Without that, this experiment will not continue. I am convinced of that. And why should it? This is a human undertaking. This is a moral undertaking,” Meacham said. “Moral in the pure sense of the word. Moral means how we are with each other.”

Meacham said that this morality should be present in customs and behavior,  as well as how we view our rights and responsibilities.

“I don’t have to love you to respect you. It’s in my self-interest to respect you because we all know in our own lives, we are more likely to respect those who respect us,” Meacham said.  “Let’s be honest. As Franklin Roosevelt said, ‘The news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better.’ ”

Jan. 6, 2021, convinced Meacham that American democracy is in danger. 

“That convinced me that, in fact, I might not hand down the country that made my life possible to my children,” Meacham said.

In 2018, Meacham wrote The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, which argued “that manifestation of the forces we were dealing with from 2016 … were the fullest expression of perennial forces.” 

Meacham cited the forces of nativism, extremism, racism and authoritarianism. He said that while these forces began manifesting in 2016, they are still present —  changing only in degree and not type of force.

“They ebb and flow in human experience, and they are flowing. Every generation, to some extent, is judged by the extent to which it enables those forces to ebb or to flow,” Meacham said. “That’s the task that we face. What I did not foresee was a blatant attempt to thwart the concept of what I call the constitutional conversation.”

The constitutional conversation, Meacham said, is not just how the law is written, but also the spirit of the law.

“The social contract is about understanding that the letter of the law gets as close as it can to dictating and putting the guardrails up. But you don’t have to observe those guardrails,” Meacham said. “The danger we’re in, and the future of history — which is also the future of the American Republic — is, are we going to fall into this Hobbesian view of the world, that the strong should always dominate the weak? Is this the war of all against all? That was Hobbes’ state of nature.”

Sean Smith / staff photographer Meacham, after speaking to a Chautauqua audience virtually in 2020, gives his lecture on “The Future of History” in the Amp.

Meacham believes that the Founding Fathers shared Hobbes’ view of democracy. 

“You may think the founders made it really, really difficult to get anything done in the United States of America because they believe the worst of human nature, and we have done everything we can ever since to prove them right,” Meacham said. 

This country is fundamentally a social contract, and no political organization or party should have a monopoly on truth, said Meacham — noting that he does not see himself as a partisan, having written a biography on George W. Bush, as well as appear on MSNBC and work with Joe Biden.

“A democracy is the fullest expression of all of us. That is at once thrilling and terrifying,” Meacham said. “It’s thrilling, because it is up to us. If enough of us have habits of heart and mind, if enough of us have a disposition in our manners and morals to find political expression, then a course of action can happen.”

Meacham stressed that individuals not getting what they want doesn’t mean democracy isn’t working. Rather, the opposite.

“There’s progress, and then there’s a loss of ground, and there’s progress, and there’s a loss of ground,” Meacham said. “… I believe in many ways, the present and the future role of history is to tell a story that is convincing and activating.”

Meacham reflected on his children’s lived experience in the United States, with the oldest born in 2002 and the youngest in 2008. They have lived through the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the War on Terrorism, the Iraq War, 20-year war in Afganistan, the financial crisis of 2008, the Obama and Trump administrations, an insurrection and a novel pandemic. 

“For somebody under 25, what is the seminal, ambient, formative political experience?” Meacham asked. “The presidency of Donald Trump. … So why would you have a great deal of confidence in the world? Just given the basic demography of the folks I see here, our world was one in which the country — after too much time, too much treasure, too much blood, too much delay — produced civil rights, produced voting rights, which is now under assault again,” Meacham said. 

He noted that some of the audience grew up building the Cold War economy and the largest middle class in the history of the world. The key to democracy is the middle class, Meacham said. 

“There’s an expectation that if you do the work, you will thrive. Then the whole thing collapses,” Meacham said. “You can’t do it with two ends of the barbell. That leads to autocracy and aristocracy.”

In 1965, according to Pew Research Center, nearly 76% of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing always or most of the time. That number is now 9%, Meacham said. During the George W. Bush years, Gallup News reported Vice President Dick Cheney had a 20% approval rate, but now he has proven to be, along with his daughter, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, a “statesman of the republic,” Meacham said. He used the Cheneys to illustrate that “this is a human undertaking.”

Meacham shared what he believes the future of history is. 

“The present and the future of history, I believe, is this: We have to tell a story that preserves the possibility of prosperity and progress and justice. … It makes the history of the United States a potent and essential element in preserving the experiment, whose danger I described at the beginning.”

Meacham shifted toward discussing the political polarity in American politics; people are complicated as well as parties, Meacham said.

“In my view, the Republican Party as currently constituted is not a functional conversational partner within the constitutional construct. That’s terrible. Because it only works if we have two. And we can argue about reforming so they can have more, that’s fine. But we need two functioning principal parties,” he said. “We don’t have them right now.”

Meacham said he wanted to be clear in terms of the left, right and center — that “this is not about both sides,” pointing to the lived experience of the younger generation that leads to the belief that the system is not worth preserving.

“We know that the right has felt that way. They are putting strength above anything else. They want power at any cost. … That’s enough of a problem for any civilized society,” Meacham said. “A problem I worry about, and the reason we talk about the future of history, is that there could come a day, not too far in the future, where the center and the left decide, ‘You know what? I’m not sure this works either.’ And when that comes, I’m not sure what happens, but it’s not good.” 

With this polarization, the left and center are asked to be patient, tolerant and forgiving; this has been seen in the past, specifically during post-Civil War Reconstruction, Meacham said. People act on incentive, thus the need for story. 

Meacham focused on two main points in the nation’s history: 100 years ago and 60 years ago. In 1922, the Ku Klux Klan was refounded. Seven U.S. senators, around 20 members of the House of Representatives and five governors were openly members of the KKK. America faced the Great Depression, World War II and the second Red Scare, and in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, they were ready for a dictator. 

“There was never a ‘once upon a time’ in American history, and there’s never going to be a ‘happily ever after.’ Because it’s us. It’s a daily, hourly, weekly struggle to decide: What rights do we want to enjoy, and what responsibilities do we owe?” Meacham said

In the 1960s, the U.S. faced the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as a close presidential election. Meacham spoke about a moment in 1965, a week after Bloody Sunday, that is from his perspective one of the most important moments in presidential history. 

“Lyndon Johnson summons George Wallace to the Oval Office. … And he said, ‘George, when you’re dead and gone, do you want there to be a scrawny grave that says: George Wallace, he hated. Or do you want a beautiful stone monument that says: George Wallace, he built?’”

Meacham feels this question is still relevant in 2022.

“That’s the question for us, in the present, and therefore, what history will say of us,” Meacham said. “The question is, did we hate or did we build? Did we reach out? Or did we clench a fist? Did we add to the sum of human knowledge and grace and possibility? Or did we constrict opportunity out of fear and selfishness and anxiety?” 

Meacham said that it is our responsibility to uplift, not destroy.

“The duty we owe, the history of our own time, which is how history will see us, is to build and not to hate,” he said.

‘Start from a point of truth-telling’: Nicole Austin-Hillery traces interrelationship between human, civil rights in lecture

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The discussion on civil and human rights in the United States requires a truthful conversation between two receptive, open-minded parties, as if they were old friends. 

Congressional Black Caucus Foundation President and CEO Nicole Austin-Hillery approached Chautauquans with that exact mindset, calling on them to engage in a dialogue on race based in truth and respect. 

“I truly believe that the only way we can resolve the issues that we are facing, not only in this country, but across the world right now, when it comes to the fight for civil and human rights, is to start from a point of truth-telling,” Austin-Hillery said. 

Austin-Hillery took the lectern at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, July 12, in the Amphitheater to closely examine how civil and human rights are inherently the same, and how the United States can move toward progress in achieving equality and civil liberties for all. 

Continuing on Week Three’s theme of “The Future of Human Rights,” Austin-Hillery was the second Chautauqua Lecture Series speaker to talk about civil liberties in U.S. systems in her lecture, following Alison Brysk, Mellichamp Chair of Global Governance at University of California, Santa Barbara, on Monday. 

A graduate of the Howard University School of Law and Carnegie Mellon University, Austin-Hillery was the first to serve as the executive director of the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization that studies and advocates for human rights. Austin-Hillery was appointed president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in February 2022. 

Joeleen Hubbard / staff photographer Austin-Hillery’s lecture was titled “Race: A Human and Civil Rights Issue.”

To open her speech, Austin-Hillery told Chautauqua she would be speaking the truth from her vantage point of being an advocate for civil and human rights in her career, and asked the audience to voice their truths in the Q-and-A session, as well. 

The conversation launched from Austin-Hillery’s four declarations of truth that she has made to navigate discourse about civil and human rights. The first of her declarations was that civil rights and human rights are inextricably linked. 

She read the United Nations’ definition of human rights, which says: “Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.”

Then Austin-Hillery recited Merriam-Webster’s definition of civil rights, which reads: “The rights of personal liberty guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution and by acts of Congress.”

Having delivered the definitions, Austin-Hillery pointed out a glaring truth: that the meanings are inherently the same. 

“Both human and civil rights protect a human being against injustice, mistreatment and oppression, simply put,” Austin-Hillery said. “It’s based on the understanding that we have to accept and acknowledge that the two are inextricably linked and that … without accepting (the first) declaration, we cannot begin to address the problem of racial injustice in the United States. … We need one to make the other work, and we need them both to get us to the next level, to make us better.”

In accepting Austin-Hillery’s first declaration, she said people can understand her second declaration, which is that “the fabric of this country, the systems upon which it was built, and that we adhere to, have race at their foundation.”

“We have to also understand that in the history of the United States, the people who have been prevented from exercising and fully availing themselves of these rights, whether civil or human, have mostly been people of color,” Austin-Hillery said. “I don’t care what anyone says, if we look at the history of this country and the systems that have been created and the systems that have oppressed and have caused discrimination, the people who have been most impacted by that and by those systems are people of color.”

Austin-Hillery presented this statement with evidence, citing her past working in law in Washington.

The three examples she gave to support her second declaration were slavery, unequal opportunities for education and the history of the police system in the United States. Austin-Hillery drew on an article from The New Yorker, titled “The Invention of the Police,” by Jill Lepore, that explored how the police derived from Barbados slave patrols dating back to the 1600s. 

“The use (of slavery) was all about controlling these new people who were brought from Africa to serve, to till land, to till soil, to be at the beck and call of their owners,” Austin-Hillery said. “And these slave patrols are the earliest iterations of what we now call our police organizations in the United States.”

Moving on from the past to examine the present state of civil rights in the United States, her third declaration is that the United States is in a period of rights retrenchment. Austin-Hillery said the United States has come a long way in the past 60 years in terms of civil rights, but as of this moment, America is seeing a reckoning in human rights. 

“We are witnessing something wholly different,” Austin-Hillery said. “We are witnessing an effort to roll back these successes and these victories, these efforts that were put in place to expand, protect and defend hard won rights.”

She said the infringements of rights, especially for people of color, include the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade, strict voter identification laws and the police brutality that is responsible for taking the lives of Black people across the country, including George Floyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jalen Walker and many more African Americans who deserve to be named and honored. 

The pandemic, Austin-Hillery said, opened the eyes of many to these retrenchments that directly affect Black communities, and she was approached with a simple statement by many: “Nicole, I didn’t know.”

“They said, ‘I didn’t know,’ ” Austin-Hillery said. “Well, guess what? Now you know.”

This response led Austin-Hillery to give her fourth and final declaration, which says that we combat the retrenchment through the use of civil and human rights approaches as tools for change. 

“We no longer have the luxury of saying this issue of civil rights and human rights is for somebody else. It’s for someone else to deal with. It’s someone else’s problem,” Austin-Hillery said. “It is our problem. And we all have to take it on as a part of our individual responsibilities to figure out what in the heck we do about it.”

Austin-Hillery commended leaders in civil rights like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Eric Holder and John Lewis and their efforts in combating the stifling of civil liberties. 

She promoted a four-point agenda the Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations made to advise people on how to tackle civil and human rights. Point one says to stop denying and start dismantling; point two says to end impunity and start to build trust; point three says to simply listen; point four says we must redress and confront past legacies to deliver reparatory justice. 

To conclude her speech, Austin-Hillery circled back to the beginning, with the idea that truth enables real progress and real conversation. 

“When we look in the mirror, we have to ask ourselves the question, if we are living in this nation that is suffering from the cancer of (racism), what are we doing about it?” Austin-Hillery said. “And if you are not figuring out something in your corner of the world that you can do about it, if you are not engineering how we do better, how we can be better, how we can treat one another better, how we can ensure people’s lives are better, then maybe if we’re not doing that, maybe we’re all parasites on society if we don’t rise to that challenge.”

Austin-Hillery advised Chautauquans to remember and acknowledge her four declarations in understanding race in the United States, and she asked them to reflect on their position in the universal struggle for equality.

“The question that you have to ask yourself is: ‘If not now, when? If not me, then whom?’ ” Austin-Hillery said. “We only need to follow our instincts, our hearts, and our souls, and these lessons from history to know how we have to proceed and how we have to move forward. That is what democracy looks like. That is what America is supposed to look like. And that is how we will create a union of what I like to call social justice warriors and change makers. That’s who you are. That’s what I believe you have in you.”

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis makes conservative case for climate action

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With a career of challenging the norms of his Republican-leaning state, Bob Inglis, former U.S. representative for South Carolina’s 4th congressional district, chose to engage his Chautauqua audience through political comedic relief to introduce his three-step plan to becoming a conservative concerned with climate change.

Inglis spoke at 10:45 a.m. Monday, July 4, in the Amphitheater to open Week Two of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, themed “The Wild: Reconnecting with Our Natural World,” with his lecture titled “Can Free Enterprise Solve Climate Change?”

Inglis, executive director of conservative climate change initiative republicEn.org, opened his lecture by asking audience members, if they were comfortable, to raise their hand when prompted to indicate if they were politically left-leaning, right-leaning or in the center. A majority of the audience was left-leaning, with about 10 right-leaning and a handful in the center.

GEORGIA PRESSLEY / staff photographer
Inglis, former U.S. representative for South Carolina, discusses policy options available to address climate change.

He then asked the left-leaning portion of the audience a series of questions: if they believe climate change is real, if they believe it’s human-caused and if they believe it can be fixed. He then asked the right-leaning portion of the audience the same questions.

All audience members, regardless of what party they identify with, kept their hands raised for each question. Inglis had a different experience during his congressional tenure.

“Conservatives aren’t interested in climate change,” Inglis said. “That’s the way it was for my first six years in Congress. I said that climate change was nonsense. I didn’t know anything about it, except that Al Gore was for it.”

Inglis represented the 4th District of South Carolina, which he said is probably one of the most conservative states in the country. After his initial six years, he went into commercial real estate law, then returned in 2004 to run again for the same seat.

“That was the year that the eldest of our five kids had just turned 18, so he’s voting for the first time,” Inglis said. “He came to me and said, ‘Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you’re going to clean up your act on the environment.’ His four sisters and his mother agreed.”

Listening to his family was step one of his three-step plan, Inglis joked, because “these people can change the locks on the doors to (my) house.”

He joined a science committee and, through a congressional delegation, visited Antarctica to see the ice core drillings at the South Pole — the second step of his plan. 

His third step was going to the Great Barrier Reef to see coral bleaching. 

Inglis said he experienced a “spiritual awakening” when snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef with his friend Scott.

“So that’s how this conservative from South Carolina got involved in climate. It was a three-step metamorphosis,” Inglis said.

Inglis then went home to South Carolina to work on his newfound climate change initiative, focusing on carbon removal.

“I came home and introduced the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009,” Inglis said. “Note to self: Do not introduce carbon tax in the midst of a great recession in the reddest state in the nation. It did not go well.”

His stats as “an actual conservative” are a 93% American Conservative Union rating, 100% from the Christian Coalition, 100% from National Right to Life, an “A” with the National Rifle Association, a zero with the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action and a 23% with the labor union AFL-CIO — which surprised Inglis, as he was hoping for a 0%. 

Inglis’ roots in the Republican Party, paired with his passion for climate change, motivated him to start republicEN.org.

“We even spell (republicEN) differently,” Inglis said. “It’s EN for energy, entrepreneurship (and) the environment.”

Inglis then explained the second part of his lecture: policy options available in the United States and worldwide.

“We make it sound like the solutions are really complicated; they’re really not,” Inglis said. “They fall into three categories. You can regulate emissions. You can incentivize clean energy, or you can price in (the) negative effects of burning fossil fuels.”

Regulating emissions was a good idea until West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency this year, Inglis said. The Supreme Court found that the EPA “cannot seek to change the (carbon) generation capacity of the United States.”

Doing so exceeded the EPA’s authority. Inglis said he wants to imagine what could happen if the United States could regulate emissions, but the cons could outweigh the pros. 

“The risk of this regulatory approach, in all humility, even if you’re left of center, is you could go downhill on solving climate change,” Inglis said. 

Incentivizing clean energy, such as expanded credits for wind and solar power, is another concept Inglis has considered, but it has a similar outcome to regulating emissions.

“It’s got this same pitfall,” Inglis said. “Which is: ‘How do you incentivize Chinese corporations or individuals to do things to the American tax code?’ Answer — you can’t. So you might end up in the same spot.”

There’s a relatively small market for clean energy equipment — about 20-30,000 companies. Inglis worries about this industry becoming a mass market. If a lot of people end up wanting clean energy equipment, the price will remain stagnant, making it less accessible. This would reverse the effect that Inglis said would help cut carbon prices.

Inglis said the next option wouldn’t be to cut taxes somewhere else, but to divvy up the money from carbon tax to distribute among citizens so the government doesn’t get too much. The only issue with this, he said, is that applying taxes elsewhere would cause an uptick in the international market.

The problem is reflected in the cost of products, Inglis said. Increasing the prices of electricity, gasoline and propane doesn’t make people want to vote for this sort of change.

“Make sure you start with the good news, which is ‘No, we’re not going to cut your taxes somewhere else,’ or, ‘We’re going to divert the money back to you,’ ” Inglis said. “ ‘Yes, your propane is going to cost you more. It’s going to cost the actual cost of burning that stuff, but you’re going to have money in your pocket.’ ”

Ingis reflected on what  legislation has done, which is mainly correct past legislation. He said, at the end of the day, people on the left and right need to come together and realize they are all hoping for the same climate change endgame.

“I think that what was being preached earlier from this stage is the idea of grace and forgiveness,” Inglis said. “It’s incumbent upon the left to be that way toward the right in accepting people into this conversation.”

George Packer closes week with warning against contempt, loss of self-government

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Abraham Lincoln once said that, “as a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” According to journalist George Packer, America is now dying a slow death by democratic suicide in a highly polarized political and social state. 

“One way to think about democratic suicide in this country is a simple loss of faith in democracy: something slow and subtle, and even imperceptible,” Packer said. “But (there’s this) gradual belief in the public that everyone is on the take; that every politician is out for their own self-interest; that the media are simply a bunch of liars; that business is corrupt and always doing dirty deals with politicians; and that essentially there is no truth. We can’t know what’s real.” 

Packer, award-winning author and staff writer for The Atlantic, took the stage at 10:45 a.m. Friday, July 1, at the Amphitheater to discuss an introspective view of what equality means in American identity through his lecture “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal,” which shares the same name of his most recent book, published in 2021. 

Packer has been a staff writer for The Atlantic since 2018, and he worked as a journalist for The New Yorker from 2003 to 2018, where he covered topics like the Iraq War and the war crimes in Sierra Leone. Packer has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. 

After a week of lectures focusing on geopolitical strife in Ukraine and foreign affairs, Packer closed out Week One’s theme “What Should be America’s Role in the World?” by bringing Chautauquans home to examine internal democracy within the United States through fresh perspectives of international relations. 

Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, introduced Packer. 

Dylan Townsend / staff photographer Packer was the closing presentation of the Week One theme: “What Should be America’s Role in the World?”

Packer launched into his presentation with a passage from Lincoln’s Lyceum Address about the need to preserve the United States by following the law and seeking out justice. The passage from the famous 1838 speech set the stage for Packer’s discussion of U.S. democracy throughout time. 

The Civil War, Packer said, was a form of democratic suicide in history that Americans know well; the closest the country has come to that “form of suicide” since 1861 was that of the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021. 

“(Jan. 6) was the best and worst of times,” Packer said. “The best of times because more Americans had gone to the polls two months earlier in the middle of a pandemic than in our history, and that election, which was put under microscopic scrutiny, turned out to be about as fair and legitimate as any election we’ve ever had. It was the worst of times because the psyche of one man could not tolerate defeat and brought us to the brink of the overthrow of democracy.”

The events that happened on Jan. 6, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, have revealed the cracks in American democracy. 

“As long as there are no political or legal consequences for what happened that day, American democracy will always have a gun to its head,” Packer said.

Consequences and loss of faith prompted Packer to examine what exactly equality means to America, and how the nation has drifted from the ideals of democracy — if it have ever even achieved it at all. 

“(Equality) is about the idea that we’re all basically the same,” Packer said. “Equality as an ideal has been betrayed throughout American history. But equality as a feeling … (what de Tocqueville called) the passion for equality: a desire to be able to enter any world, to be anything, to be excluded from nothing on the basis of where you’re born or who you are, that is what de Tocqueville felt was the most distinguishing feature about Americans: the desire to be equal with everyone else. He called it equality of conditions.” 

In analyzing equality, Packer draws four American narratives in their chronological order: Free America, Smart America, Real America and Just America.  

 “We are red and blue,” he said. “Every election tells us how deeply divided we are, but the red and blue are in turn divided within themselves.”

Free America is an ideal defined by President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” It promotes individualism and deregulation of government.

“That was a powerful narrative,” Packer said. “I think it’s actually been the most influential of my adult life. It became the narrative of the Republican Party, and in some ways it remains that narrative.” 

Free America, however, didn’t last. 

“Something didn’t work with Free America. That is, we are a society; we are not simply a collection of individuals. We are citizens,” Packer said. “Free America created a door that was the beginning of the inequality that I’m talking about. It was the beginning of the breakup of the social contract that had created a middle class, the biggest in history, and instead has led to the hierarchy, the stratified society that we all are familiar with today.”

Smart America is an identity of educated Americans with the belief that anyone can rise with the power of knowledge, popularized by the Clinton administration, which became the identity of the Democratic Party. 

“That narrative says we need to soften the blows of our capitalist society, but the best path for anyone is to accept the future, to accept the information age,” Packer said. 

But like Free America, Smart America created a major problem. It created a new aristocracy of the top 10% of educated individuals, which left out a majority of Americans. 

Free America and Smart America were the narratives dominating American life before large political defeats birthed two new narratives. 

“They had spectacular failures: the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, the entire period of the war on terror … and the financial crisis of 2008 leading to the great recession,” Packer said. 

The third narrative, according to Packer, is Real America, a term coined by Nancy Pelosi when addressing a fundraising event in North Carolina. It consists of uneducated, white, traditionally Christian Americans who he said “led to the election of Donald Trump.”

At the same time came the fourth and last narrative of Just America, which is a younger millennial generation that believes the United States has never confronted its history of corruption, allowing the country to continue unjust practices. 

“This country is not moving toward a more perfect union,” Packer said. “It is not the best of all possible worlds. It is not a beacon of democracy to the nations. It is a country born in sin that has never rooted out that sin, that has a permanent character of oppression in its soul.”

Of the four narratives, Real America and Just America clash most frequently, representing the issue in these groups as a whole.

“Not only are we famously polarized, but we have lost what de Tocqueville called ‘the art of self-government,’ ” Packer said. “We don’t know how to talk to each other. We don’t know how to argue with each other, persuade each other. We don’t believe persuasion is possible. We only believe in power. That’s the ultimate consequence of this division, that only power is real.”

Having described his introspections of American identities, Packer laid out what he thinks is the most poisonous threat of democracy within U.S. borders: contempt and the loss of self-government. 

“Today, our culture is marked above all by contempt,” Packer said. “Contempt runs through our discourse like acid, and it corrodes everything. Contempt is really satisfying because it relieves you of the burden of having to take seriously anything that the person you despise says. Contempt is the currency of social media, and it corrodes the spirit of any democracy between equals because contempt is inherently unequal.”

While the road to preserving democracy and equality in the United States is long, and the solution unknown, Packer called on the audience to remember that the American people have no other choice than to coexist.

“We can’t choose,” Packer said. “We are stuck with each other, so we cannot stop searching for the common identity, however fragile, that lies beneath the four Americas I’ve described.”

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