• We are Americans, First

    I saw a Tweet this week that made me laugh a little.  Someone had shared a video of the flooding in downtown DC on Monday when that deluge of rain came through.  The National Archives had tweeted the footage and pointed out that you could see their building beyond the waves of the flood waters.  An historian at Georgetown said he hoped the Constitution had been kept dry because “we might need it again, someday.”

    To be sure, this is some gallows humor, but it speaks to a sense of crisis that permeates our politics right now.  Everything feels consequential.  Everything feels dire.  There’s a permanent sense of crisis, daily (sometimes hourly) a new outrage; and a never ceasing media frenzy around the latest scandal—or purported scandal.

    The results are toxic to our constitutional system. 

    Democracy doesn’t operate best in a state of constant crisis.  Democracy requires cool heads and dispassionate compromise. Our republic requires political leaders that put country over their own political interests—whether personal or party.  And it requires leaders and citizens who are able to distinguish between support for a political leader or policy and love of country.

    Those distinctions—as well as those ideals—seem lost, now.  An op-ed contributor in USA Today the day after the President’s July 4th speech alleged that Democrats were “upset” about the speech, “not because it was political or partisan,” but because “it was patriotic, and that is what annoys the left the most.”

    That’s garbage. 

    It would have been garbage if the parties had been reversed.  It would have been garbage if the criticism was about collective intelligence of one party over another.  It would have been garbage if the criticism was about one’s faith in God. We ought to be able to stipulate that none of us have any basis to question the patriotism of others, the intelligence of others, or the reverence of others.

    But that’s where we are at this moment in our politics, and my greatest concern is that I don’t know how to begin to fix this in the absence of some catastrophic event that gets Americans thinking, again, as Americans, first.  If you listen to the way so many of us engage with our political opposites, there’s a “purge this land with blood” mindset in both parties.  But I also hear constitutional scholars and typically cool-headed observers wondering aloud if we are nearing the end of our current constitutional system—that the break down in checks-and-balances is nearly complete; that the co-equal branches of government designed by the founders no longer operate as such.  When the executive branch simply refuses to comply with legitimate congressional oversight; when the Congress is unable because of partisan loyalties to assert its prerogative; and when any president responds to a ruling by the Supreme Court with a threat to act by executive order, we are perilously close to tyranny.

    What’s at stake isn’t Republican or Democratic control of Congress or the White House.  What’s at stake is the American republic—this glorious experiment in democracy and self government, of, by, and for the people. We are Americans, first, before we are Democrats or Republicans, or whatever other label might be hung on us.  We are Americans—and we all need to remember that before it’s too late and we carelessly throw away something we all truly love.

  • Living with Neurological Disease with Lisa Genova

    Air Dates: July 8-14, 2019

    An estimated 5.6 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s today. Another 100,000 are living with ALS—or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lisa Genova is a brain scientist whose best-selling novels describe not what it’s like to die from these diseases, but what it means to live with them. 

    Dr. Genova is a Harvard trained neuroscientist who broke into the public’s consciousness with her novel, Still Alice. Likened to Oliver Sacks and Michael Crichton, her fiction combines her mastery of brain science and her insights into the human condition. Her other novels are Left Neglected, Love Anthony, Inside the O’Briens, and, most recently, Every Note Played.

    In 2015, the Pell Center honored Genova with the Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square. She’s a scientist and a story-teller who sees in the power of story the power to harness empathy to change the world.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Native American History with Philip Deloria

    Air Dates: July 1-7, 2019

    The British colonies in the New World, and later the United States, were built on land taken from native populations. Philip Deloria explores the interplay of Native Americans and the development of America’s national identity.

    Deloria is the first tenured professor of Native American history in the long history of Harvard University. His first book, Playing Indian (1998), explores the tradition of white Americans dressing up as “Indians” from the Boston Tea Party to today. His current book, Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract, places Native American artist Mary Sully among the greats of American art.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • The Impact of Technology on Modern Relationships with Helen Schulman

    Air Dates: June 24-30, 2019


    It is almost taken for granted that technology is changing America.  Whether we’re talking about job losses, election meddling, or the role of big-data in healthcare, technology is everywhere.  Helen Schulman, through her remarkable fiction, warns that technology is changing our personal relationships and our families, too. 

    Schulman, a novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and non-fiction author, is the chair of Fiction for the MFA Creative Writing Program at The New School in Manhattan, and this spring, she was named a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow for her fiction writing. Her most recent work is the novel, Come with Me.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Democracy is America’s Most Potent Asset

    The next American president should get back to celebrating the moral power of democracy.  This was standard fare for President Ronald Reagan—in fact it was pretty standard throughout the Cold War.  The fact that democracy promotion is little more than a slogan and not a centerpiece of American foreign policy is a mistake. We are leaving our most powerful asset unused in the global competition that will shape the 21st century.

    President Eisenhower came to office in 1953 having campaigned about rolling back communism in Eastern Europe.  The evidence is pretty clear that Eisenhower himself never intended to use armed force to achieve “rollback,” but his administration did launch some sophisticated information campaigns to try to undermine the regimes of Eastern Europe.  Well into the administration, the president ordered an assessment of the efforts. One of the lessons that emerged was remarkable: the United States didn’t need to tell the people of Eastern Europe how bad it was living under Soviet domination.  They already knew—perhaps better than anyone else.  What they needed were examples of and encouragement toward a better way: freedom and democracy.

    The long-term strategy for “cold war” Eisenhower adopted was predicated on the powerful appeal of freedom and democracy to achieve better outcomes for people around the world.  “Rot” would decay the Soviet system from within.  This was the basis for American foreign policy towards Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for the rest of the Cold War.  Ike thought the competition would take 30 years.  The Soviet Union, in fact, collapsed, almost 40 years after he made that comment. 

    Interestingly, when Mikhail Gorbachev was a new member of the Soviet Politburo in the early 1980s, he found himself walking along the shore of the Black Sea with Eduard Shevardnadze, then the Communist party boss in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, who would later become Gorbachev’s foreign minister.  As they walked, Shevardnadze said to Gorbachev, “You know, everything is rotten.”  Gorbachev agreed and when he became premier, tried to democratize Soviet life to breathe vitality back into the Soviet Union.

    It’s remarkable that emerging leaders of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s used the same terminology, “rot,” and saw the same solution, “democracy,” as the leaders of the United States over the preceding 30 years.  It’s not that they had been recipients of American propaganda, it’s that America’s information campaigns were built on enduring values that resonate in the hearts of people everywhere.

    But since the end of the Cold War, successive U.S. administration have stopped thinking of democracy as a strategic asset for the United States.  Since 1992, the United States has been locked in a pitched economic battle with the People’s Republic of China.  We care more, now, about trade and economic access than we do about promoting democracy.  Meanwhile, China’s economic might and patient diplomacy are creating a new geo-political alignment across Eurasia, even while the regime puts millions of its own citizens in concentration camps.

    In Russia, we face a resurgent, authoritarian opponent whose leaders are fearful of the popular will of their own citizens.  Over the last decade, Russia has attacked free societies and free elections across the West; they have invaded their neighbors; and they have annexed territory.

    If the United States wants to confront Russian aggression or counter China’s economic and political rise, it doesn’t need to attack those governments or spell out the failings of those societies.  Their citizens are aware.  All we would have to do is speak with conviction about the value of democracy in our own republic—not once, not on special occasions, but as a centerpiece of our foreign policy.

    Unfortunately, democracy promotion is tinged with the legacy of the Iraq War, now; it’s hobbled by elections in 2000 and 2016 when our popular vote did not yield an electoral winner; it’s undermined by so-called “dark” money in American elections; it’s impaired by foreign interventions in 2016 and lingering concerns about electronic voting machines; and it is betrayed by those who diminish our own democracy with gerrymandering and other means intended to obscure the will of American voters.

    But like Eisenhower and Reagan before me, I believe that people around the world know in their hearts the value of freedom and democracy.  Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this—and they can again—and we can reclaim the most powerful weapon in America’s arsenal: the moral authority of a people free to choose the direction of their own country.

  • Mikhail Gorbachev and the End of the Cold War with William Taubman

    Air Dates: June 17-23, 2019

    Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the most important figures of the 20th century.  A child of the Soviet Union, and a fast rising star in the Communist Party, Gorbachev was also a democratizer whose reforms led to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  William Taubman has authored the definitive biography of the last Soviet leader. 

    William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at Amherst College.  A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Nikita Khrushchev, he’s latest book is a biography of former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev titled, simply, Gorbachev.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Immigration and America’s Dairy Farms with Julie Keller

    Air Dates: June 10-16, 2019

    The super-heated rhetoric over immigration and border security in the United States today is part of a long tradition of anti-immigration hysteria.  Julie Keller puts our recent panic in a sociological context—exploring changes in who works on American dairy farms, and how they traveled from Latin America to farms in the upper-Mid-West. 

    Julie C. Keller is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island. She earned her doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 and is the author of Milking in the Shadows: Migrants and Mobility in America’s Dairyland.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Remembering D-Day and Tiananmen Square

    This week, we mark two very different milestones: the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, the allied invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe; and the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989.  How these days are marked and remembered tells us a lot about the difference between democracy and autocracy.

    Earlier this week, a friend pointed out that D-Day is perhaps the most celebrated, fictionalized, and talked about battle in American history.  From feature films like “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan” to video games like “Medal of Honor” and “Call of Duty,” the story of D-Day and the valor of those who stormed Hitler’s Atlantic Wall is something understood broadly, by multiple generations. 

    President Reagan’s speech on the 40th anniversary of the invasion celebrated the Army Rangers who scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc in the face of withering fire from German forces above.  The president noted the moral energy that fuels an army fighting to liberate rather than conquer.  Then, to the assembled veterans of the assault, Reagan said: “You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.”

    In 1989, other people separated from D-Day by time and distance, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, had been protesting since mid-April, calling for increased freedom and even democratization in China.  They, too, were willing to fight tyranny. They, too, loved the idea of liberty. And yes, they, too, died for democracy when their own government sent tank columns against unarmed protesters and students, killing hundreds and potentially thousands of peaceful activists.

    But where the nations of the West venerate the courage of June 6, 1944, the events of June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square have been stricken from China’s official history.  Students in China don’t learn about 1989’s pro-democracy protests in school and there are certainly no public commemorations of the sacrifice those protesters made, or the courage they displayed against impossible odds.  In fact, the Chinese government is actively censoring any efforts online to  remember the events of that day.  According to VICE News, “at least 27 activists, artists, and netizens . . . have been detained, questioned or disappeared since the start of May” for posting items online about the Tiananmen Square crack-down.  Even Western news agencies trying to report on the anniversary have had their content blocked by China’s “Great Firewall,” and CNN’s Matt Rivers was harassed on camera while trying to report on the anniversary live from Beijing.

    In the West, we celebrate D-Day because it is a testament to our finest qualities and the possibilities of what free people can accomplish when they work together.  In China, the censorship around Tiananmen Square is a sure sign of weakness, of a brittle regime that does not trust its own citizens with the truth, who turned its guns on students rather than risk losing its grip on power.

    In 1938, Americans celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  It was the last major celebration of that turning point in America’s Civil War.  It’s believed that 25 veterans of the battle made it to the encampment.  Only a few more D-Day veterans, 35 to be precise, are expected in Normandy this year.  But even with the eventual passing of that generation, the legacy and the meaning of D-Day will live on, just as Gettysburg did, because it is a historical moment whose salience has been captured by the culture.  We won’t forget D-Day because D-Day helps us define ourselves and we like what it tells us about who we are.

    In China, however, officials seek to edit history, to wipe an event from memory, and to pretend it never happened.  Why?  Because that moment defines the regime in China to this day, and the authoritarians who run China don’t like what that legacy reveals about them and their regime.

  • Local Journalism with Alexandra Watts

    Air Dates: June 3-9, 2019

    Local journalism is one of the key-stones of American democracy.  There’s no substitute for an experienced, local reporter—not just to get a story, but to share it with the insight and perspective that only comes from living in the community in which they report.  Alexandra Watts is one of 13 fellows with Report for America, a new effort to put reporters on the ground in communities across America. 

    Watts is a reporter with Mississippi Public Broadcasting, living and working in the Mississippi Delta where she focuses on under-reported issues. She is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Democracy in Peril

    When I moved back to New England eight years ago, the state of Rhode Island was in tough financial shape and several municipalities were being administered by officials appointed by the governor.  Let’s be clear about what this meant: whole communities—and sizable ones at that—had local democracy subverted and replaced by appointed officials.  I was troubled by the phenomenon.  It struck me as running counter to so many of the ideals and myths about America that cut to the very core of our identity.  I did some preliminary research to try to figure out how extensive a phenomenon it was nationwide.  The answer: more extensive than you might believe.

    In fact, it was a similar set of circumstances that led to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.  Because of the crumbling finances of the city of Flint, then-Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an “emergency manager” who took charge of Flint’s finances and determined to save municipal money by terminating Flint’s relationship with the Detroit water authority, and instead using water from the Flint River.  The Flint River water, however, was not treated with corrosion control chemicals and ate through the old pipes at the heart of that once-mighty industrial city.  The resulting corrosion put lead into the water of Flint—lead, perhaps the best understood neurotoxin.  Exposing young brains to lead is to sentence those souls to cognitive decline.  It changes lives for the worse.  Flint became a full-fledged public health crisis.

    In Flint, people new something was wrong.  Despite reassurances from state and local officials, the water tasted odd.  It looked worse.  But the person making the decisions at that time wasn’t accountable to the people of Flint.  He was accountable to the governor of Michigan, and that is one of the dangers of setting aside democracy: when the people don’t matter, their voices aren’t heard.

    It took a remarkable coalition, including a crusading pediatrician, a water scientist, and local activists to reverse what was going very wrong in Flint.  But for me, this is a story about disenfranchising Americans—about diminishing, devaluing, or eliminating the power of people’s votes.

    The alarming truth is that there are efforts to diminish the power of democracy happening all over the United States.  We see evidence that people want to resurrect poll taxes, and literacy tests.  In some cases, the efforts to disenfranchise voters takes the form of how many polling machines you put in a given voting precinct.  Every case of gerrymandering you hear about is an effort to concentrate blocs of voters into as few Congressional districts as possible, often by race.  Cases in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and Michigan have either been settled in the courts, or will be, but all raise profound and troubling questions about the commitment of many American political leaders to the very meaning of democracy.

    I think we have to keep an open mind, too, about whether the loss of suffrage due to criminal conviction isn’t, itself, a type of structural disenfranchisement.  We know that African Americans and Hispanics make up only 32% of the country’s population; but they make up 56% of the prison population.  When they get out, if they’ve been convicted of a felony, they won’t be able to vote in most states.  The end result is a large segment of the American population—many of whom are from under-represented communities—who can’t vote; and whose voices are effectively eliminated from the American public square.

    I am of the view that American democracy is strongest when every voice has an equal chance to be heard.  We should be looking for ways to make participation in the political process easier; not harder.  We should be helping Americans vote in races that are meaningful and consequential.  Democracy is not just about who won; it’s about discerning the consent of the governed.  We compromise that at our own peril.