Want to change the world by writing? Ten Writers show you how.

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Have people improved the world by writing? Of course.

Every great movement towards freedom, responsibility, economic viability and health has begun with a thinking person who decides to share his or her ideas in compelling ways that last for generations. In the past 200 years, ideas have been more readily available via the written word shared in articles, essays, novels and speeches that inspire action.

Successful writers not only produced work that changed the world in irreparable ways in their time, but they also communicated their ideas so well that succeeding generations re-read their work to get inspired about taking action in modern situations.

In my life, I’ve been particularly interested in pursuing freedom, promoting Canada’s role in the world, strengthening communities, participating as a responsible citizen to improve democracy, expressing creativity through nonfiction, learning how environmental sustainability promotes health, equality and justice, and lessening the gap between rich and poor. So for me, ten people who improved the world by writing are: Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, H. G. Wells, Stephen Leacock,  Louise Beebe Wilder, Martha Gellhorn, Marshall McLuhan, E. F. Schumacher, Bill Mollison and Neil Sheehan.

A description of who these writers were, which works I find inspiring, and how each writers’ work remains current follows. Please share some of your writing heroes in the comments below.

Improving the world by protecting heritage

Victor Marie Hugo

February 26, 1802 – May 22, 1885

Victor Marie Hugo is most known for Les Miserables, his ground-breaking play about love and redemption despite poverty, prostitution, slavery and theft, but I fell in love with him after reading his 1831 novel, Notre Dame de Paris.

Notre Dame de Paris centres on non-literary characters in Paris prior to 1500. Hugo wrote the story to protect the cathedral that gives the book its name by emphasizing how many important stories are encased in gothic architecture. In one section (p182), Hugo pits writing against architecture to show the vulnerability of great buildings in a modern age. He wrote:

To destroy the written word, you need only a torch and a Turk. To demolish the constructed word, you need a social revolution or an earthquake. Barbarism swept over the Colosseum; a deluge, perhaps, over the pyramids.

In the fifteenth century everything changed.

Human intelligence discovered a way of perpetuating itself, one not only more durable and more resistant than architecture, but also simpler and easier. Architecture was dethroned. The stone letters of Orpheus gave way to the lead letters of Gutenberg.”

The book was extremely successful when first published in that a full-scale restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral began in 1845. It continued serving its purpose long after Hugo’s death too; architects behind the modern day restoration that began in 1991 also used the novel as inspiration when renovating the building.

Hugo’s speeches about ending capital punishment, freedom of the press and copyright are also thought-provoking.

Another work worth reading is Claude Gueux, a true-crime story that describes how a man became a murderer due to injustice in 1834.

An organization founded by Hugo in 1878 remains active to this day. The International Literary and Artistic Association (ALAI) holds their next annual congress in Copenhagen on May 18 and 19th, 2017. A Canadian chapter also exists, with active membership in Quebec.

Improving the world by promoting social justice

Harriet Beecher Stowe

June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896

Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a series of articles in an anti-slavery newspaper called The National Era. The first story appeared on June 5, 1851 and ended on April 1, 1852.

Times were tense. The U.S. Congress had passed five bills known as “the Compromise” the previous autumn. These laws outlawed the slave trade but allowed individuals to remain slave-holders, required citizens to help catch fugitives, and set up appointed commissioners who determined who was free and who remained a slave. Commissioners were paid twice as much for slaves as they were for those released.

Stowe responded with a story designed to inspire people to join the abolitionist movement. She based each chapter on first-hand accounts, research, and her own efforts to aid runaways trying to get to Canada, where the British-passed Slavery Abolition Act had been in force since August 1, 1834. Among her sources were the memoirs of Reverand Josiah Henson, who used the Underground Railroad to bring his wife and four children to Ontario, Canada in 1830. The site of the community he established houses the Uncle Tom’s Historic Site.

A month before the newspaper series ended, Boston publisher John P. Jewett published the story as a two-edition book that sold 300,000 copies in the United States and a million copies in Great Britain within a year.

Stowe’s one-time home in Hartford Connecticut now houses The Harriet Beecher Stowe Centre. The centre is just finishing a $3.3 million restoration due to be completed later this spring.

Herbert George Wells

September 21, 1866 – August 13, 1946

Although Wells is known for his science fiction, it’s his non-fiction that inspires me. From his 1901 book, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought about the year 2,000, to his 1920 work entitled The Outline of History, which is still in print, to his 1933 The Shape of Things to Come, Well’s overview of history and how it repeats itself is extremely comprehensive. I admire the second work even more since learning that it was partly based on an unpublished work by Canadian Florence Deeks.

I don’t agree with his idea for a World State as argued in his 1940 book, A New World Order but the ideas encompassed in the 1940 booklet The Rights of Man and incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights eight years later are very sound.

Well’s letters and manuscripts are located in the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, which purchased them in 1954.

Stephen P. H. Butler Leacock

December 30, 1869 – March 28, 1944

Stephen Leacock is best known for humour, primarily because of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, which was published in 1912 and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, published two years later. That legacy remains with the annual Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, a prize that is now worth $15,000 to the winner.

Leacock also published many non-fiction works in politics and history, however, and many make for enlightened reading today.

Of these, Elements of Political Science, which came out in 1906 and then again in 1913, sold best in his lifetime.  This basic textbook outlines the classical background to political science and would have been a helpful primer when I began university. It’s one of the few volumes linking Hobbes, Aristotle, international law, economics, history and the evolution of the definition of the state together in a clear insightful way.

I have two other books Leacock wrote. One, Canada, The Foundations of its Future, was published by the House of Seagram in October 1941. Montreal, Seaport and City was published by Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc. in 1942. Both supply very traditional views of history with a fun dollop of humour. The chapter entitled American Occupation of Montreal, for example, includes a section that reads:

As the Revolution drifted into the past the march became a legend, and heroic accounts were written such as Judge Henry’s ‘Hardships and Sufferings of the Band of Heroes,’ dictated in extreme old age. Such stories tell how the men upset the food in the river, ate their mocccasins, and how a great number deserted. If so, they must have managed very badly. The venerable Canadian historian, Professor Kingsford, who wrote his voluminous pages with the detachment of a mathematician, says that Arnold’s expedition ‘through the wilderness’ was much the same as what Canadians now regard as a camping holiday. The season was just right, too late for flies, too early for winter. The route had all been marked out some years before as a blazed trail by an English military officer. There were no enemies and no casualties. They left friendly people on one side of the divide and found friendly people on the other. Kennebec and Chaudière are still there, and anyone can go and make the portage. If he upsets his canoe and eats his boots he is scarcely a hero.”

Leacock has been criticized for sexism and racism, and his work does include traces of both, but he makes for very entertaining reading nonetheless. He also took on several important issues in his time, including social justice, in which he argued for “adequate food, clothing, education and an opportunity in life” for every child, and conservative economics, in which he argued in favour of the gold standard. I can’t help but agree with him on both counts.

A free audio version of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice is available from Librivox.

For nonfiction writers, Leacock is a prime example of how one can ensure that every work includes a very definable voice. I highly recommend him.

Improving the world through positive action

Louise Beebe Wilder

January 30, 1878 – April 20, 1938

How can a prominent journalist and author remain so personally hidden from view while her work continues to inspire gardeners around the world?

That’s the question I ask when confronted with the life of Louise Beebe Wilder, whose ten books about gardening are extremely down-to-earth and practical. She also wrote for Horticulture, House & Garden, and the New York Times, although I haven’t read any of her articles in those outlets. Her founding of the Bronxville Working Gardeners Club in 1925 and the fact she helped run it until her death is the only hint at her activities, and no photos or other personal information is available.

If you’re trying to create a specific flowering garden in, or close to, the Northeast United States, however, her advice will definitely help as long as you’re looking for precise instructions and little story or narrative of any kind.

Consider a passage in What Happens in My Garden that’s typical of her prose:

The phlox masses usually require to be broken up with plants of other forms, such as Globe thistles (echinops), eryngiums, artemesia ‘Silver King’ and A. lactiflora, lyme grass (leymuse), Veronicastrum virginicum (Veronic virginica) and V. subsessilis, sea lavender, the funkias (hostas) and the white gooseneck-flower, Lysmachia cletbroides.”

Such information works very well for individuals looking for specific plants, but isn’t in the least bit revealing about the time or place in which the garden stood, or the people who built it. Still, if you’re a gardener like me, you’ll appreciate Beebe Wilder.

Improving the world by exposing evil

Martha Ellis Gellhorn

November 8, 1908 – February 15, 1998

If you want to learn just a little about the suffering evil causes, read Martha Gellhorn’s article entitled Dachau Experimental Evil, which appeared in Collier’s Magazine on June 23, 1945.

Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces; and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky. We crossed the wide crowded dusty compound between the prison barracks and went to the hospital. In the hall sat more of the skeletons and from them came the smell of disease and death. They watched us but did not move: No expression shows on a face that is only yellowish stubbly skin stretched across bone.”

Gellhorn covered the depression in the thirties, the rise of fascism in Europe and wars in Spain, Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

She also penned several books, including one I own called Travels with Myself and Another that serves as a sort of breathless memoir of the world. The book’s title refers to Ernest Hemingway, who appears in the book as UC or unwilling companion, although I only know that via Wikepedia. He’s not at all important to the story except as a place-marker to time. In this memoir, China became a very odd place thanks to Gellhorn’s description of discussions with a man named Mr. Ma. She reduced Africa to five encounters in an unforgettable landscape, making readers join her in feeling sorry for the animals. Moscow’s complications became evident via conversations with people she didn’t like. In many ways, the book reads like a compendium of blog posts and reminds nonfiction writers how voice and content combine to make lots of complex information easily digestible.

A Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism used to exist in the United Kingdom, but it wasn’t funded in 2015 or 2016. I hope they revive it for 2017.

Improving the world by explaining patterns

Herbert Marshall McLuhan

July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980

Herbert Marshall McLuhan has become famous as the key academic who explained the Age of Information despite dying prior to the existance of the World Wide Web.

For me, his key work is Understanding Media, a book published in 1964. He makes several points about how the-then electronic technology changed not only how people think, but who they can be and how such a process will continue throughout time as more and more new technologies extend of human capacities.

On page 128, he writes:

Lighting as an extension of our powers affords the clearest-cut example of how such extensions alter our perceptions. If people are inclined to doubt whether the wheel or typography or the plane could change our habits of sense perception, their doubts end with electric lighting. In this domain, the medium is the message, and when the light is on there is a world of sense that disappears when the light is off.”

Understanding Media forecasts gamification, issues with student drop-outs and the destruction of conventional forms of the press. It remains a very worthwhile read.

McLuhan’s estate runs a webpage with an almost-daily blog post that ensures that his work remains relevant.

Ernst Friedrich Schumacher

August 19, 1911 – September 4, 1977

E. F. Schumacher lived in Britain, New York and Germany prior to World War II, but moved back to Britain from Germany before war broke out.  He then spent twenty years promoting the coal industry, thirty years as president of the soil association (an organic gardening movement) and wrote.

His most popular work was a 1973 treatise called Small is Beautiful. Subtitled “A study of economics as if people mattered,” the work argues against globalization, rampant chemical use, colonial-style development and nationalism in ways that designed for modern consumption. Consider his anti-development argument on page 163, for instance.

Anyone who has taken the trouble to look systematically at actual ‘development’ projects – instead of merely studying development plans and econometric models – knows of countless such cases: soap factories producing luxury soap by such sensitive processes that only highly refined materials can be used, which must be imported at high prices while the local raw materials are exported at low prices; food-processing plants; packing stations; motorisation, and so on – all on the rich man’s pattern. In many cases, local fruit goes to waste because the consumer allegedly demands quality standards which relate solely to eye-appeal and can be met only by fruit imported from Australia or California where the application of an immense science and a fantastic technology ensures that every apple is of the same size and without the slightest visible blemish. The examples could be multiplied without end. Poor countries slip – and are pushed – into the adoption of production methods and consumption standards which destroy the possibilities of self-reliance and self-help. The results are unintentional neocolonialism and hopelessness for the poor.”

Today, we are at the point where even developed countries striving for self-sufficiency are challenged, not by the governments of richer countries, but instead by multi-national corporations that benefit from rights that supersede government regulation.

Bruce Charles “Bill” Mollison

May 4, 1928 – September 24, 2016

As a certified permaculture designer, I was sorry to read about Bill Mollison’s death last September. The principles that inspire me were developed by Mollison and David Holmgren in 1974. Their principals insist that one work with nature, observe before acting and consider how systematic functions evolve before coming up with a design for a space or a life.

My favourite work by Mollison is his 1988 Permaculture, A Designers’ Manual.  His preface begins:

To many of us who experienced the ferment of the late 1960’s, there seemed to be no positive direction forward, although almost everybody could define those aspects of the global society that they rejected, and these include military adventurism, the bomb, ruthless land exploitation, the arrogance of polluters, and a general insensitivity to human and environmental needs…Great changes are taking place. These are not as a result of any one group or teaching, but as a result of millions of people defining one or more ways in which they can conserve energy, aid local self-reliance, or provide for themselves. All of us would acknowledge our own work as modest; it is the totality of such modest work that is impressive.”

Joining in the work of Mollison feels like a sacred trust.

Cornelius Mahoney “Neil” Sheehan

Born: Oct 27, 1936

I first learned about Neil Sheehan, the reporter who received the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsburg and made sure they were published by the New York Times, from the book Without Fear or Favor, a history of the New York Times by Harrison E. Salisbury. He was the key focus of a chapter called “A Question of Trust.”

It was these characteristics of devotion to detail, bulldog tenacity, of an almost perfect nose for news coupled with that fire in the belly which for centuries kept the Irish cause aglow in which was rooted  Sheehan’s great project.”

Sheehan specializes in telling complicated stories about intrigue and politics. He is co-credited with helping expose a South Vietnamese cover-up in 1963. He also earned a Pulitzer for his book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, in 1986. His story about the Cold War, called A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, came out in 2009. Both of these books are impressive models for how one can use a single narrative to make complicated points about a specific war.

Do you know of others who improved the world by writing?

I hope that you have a chance to check out the work of each of these writers and that they will also inspire you. If you have other notable non-fiction mentors, let me know in the comments below.

What can you learn from Obama’s farewell speech?

Did you hear the United States President Barack Obama’s farewell speech last week?

This single hour epitomized Obama’s mastery at writing moving dialogue that inspires people to act. In addition to expressing hope and gratitude, Obama’s remarks made listeners consider doing three things: stay involved, meet people you disagree with personally, and take responsibility for your role in government.

My favourite quote applies equally to citizens living in other democratic nations.

“It falls to each of us to be those anxious jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great Nation of ours because for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud title, the most important officer of democracy: citizen.”

The entire speech is a great model for notable nonfiction writers. It stays focused on story despite a complicated structure primarily because Obama delivers his text slowly and his natural confidence and self-deprecating humour play off one another well. This speech also benefits from several stylistic tricks and many surprising comments that prevented it from being boring despite its earnest nature. The craftspeople who wrote it were careful to duplicate phrases to achieve rhythm and yet vary sentences so that the presentation flowed.

Story

Like his inaugural speech, Obama’s main message was that positive change can only happen with consistent individual action. That was the frame in which he presented his gratitude and successes in improving health care, respect for diversity, integrating immigrants, making same-sex marriage legal, combating climate change, improving the economy and achieving security while protecting personal freedom. He made it clear that isn’t going to stop working for the change he believes in and he wants company. Since listening to the speech, I noticed that his personally-named website https://www.barackobama.com is the official site for a nonprofit called Organizing for Action (OFA). The organization was founded in January 2013 to get people to take action on these issues. Anyone can still join the network at that site.

Structure

The structure of the speech was typical in that it began with a joke, followed by a personal anecdote within historical context followed by a list of accomplishments interspersed with strong opinions all in a past-present-future narrative. There’s no doubt that the person speaking believes in truth, responsibility and persistance. Despite the rather predictable structure, Obama’s capacity to lead his audience to responde and then integrate his hecklers’ comments into his speech protect listeners from boredom. He’s very good at playing off emotion because you can tell that he really believes what he’s saying. Others speakers could turn these words into propaganda, but it doesn’t sound like that when he says them.

Style

Obama used several stylistic tricks to get people’s attention. One key phrase: “We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union” included a few words from the constitution to give it power. Emotional words like spirit, slave, commitment, immigration and the names of locations in which mass murders took place kept his audience riveted.

Sound

The speech also worked well in terms of sound. As I read it, I thought of an old-fashioned song by a prominent duo. First he’d describe something in great detail and then accentuate the point with an almost-rebuttal. Just as a pattern of speaking emerged, it would be broken by a single-sentence paragraph to break up longer descriptions. The hour went by incredibly quickly.

Although the speech was written by several speechwriters, including Cody Keenan, Press Secretary Josh Earnest’s remarks en route to Chicago on January 10 emphasized that the president had a strong hand in writing it.

“I can tell you that particularly in the last 72 hours or so, the President has been working diligently on his remarks for tonight.  The President is not one to be overly sentimental, but given the circumstances I think it would be unrealistic to expect anybody to not feel some nostalgia for this moment…I would say the speech is all but done.  I think the President is going to reserve the right to make a few last-minute line edits on the flight.  I know that that was a presidential directive that was issued to the speechwriters shortly before I walked back here.  But I would say that the version that currently rests on Cody Keenan’s laptop is essentially the version that he’ll be reading from tonight.”

Transcript

Here’s the final transcript of the speech from the White House briefing room:

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Remarks by the President in Farewell Address

McCormick Place
Chicago, Illinois

8:02 P.M. CST

THE PRESIDENT:  Hello, Chicago!  (Applause.)  It’s good to be home!  (Applause.)  Thank you, everybody.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you so much.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  All right, everybody sit down.  (Applause.)  We’re on live TV here.  I’ve got to move.  (Applause.)  You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody is following instructions.  (Laughter.)  Everybody have a seat.  (Applause.)

My fellow Americans — (applause) — Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well wishes that we’ve received over the past few weeks.  But tonight, it’s my turn to say thanks.  (Applause.)  Whether we have seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people, in living rooms and in schools, at farms, on factory floors, at diners and on distant military outposts -– those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going.  And every day, I have learned from you.  You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.  (Applause.)

So I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s.  And I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life.  And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills.  It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.

AUDIENCE:  Four more years!  Four more years!  Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT:  I can’t do that.

AUDIENCE:  Four more years!  Four more years!  Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT:  This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.

After eight years as your President, I still believe that.  And it’s not just my belief.  It’s the beating heart of our American idea –- our bold experiment in self-government.  It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

What a radical idea.  A great gift that our Founders gave to us:  The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.

For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation.  It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom.  It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande.  (Applause.)  It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot.  It’s what powered workers to organize.  It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima, Iraq and Afghanistan.  And why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs, as well.  (Applause.)

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional — not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.  Yes, our progress has been uneven.  The work of democracy has always been hard.  It’s always been contentious.  Sometimes it’s been bloody.  For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.  But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some.  (Applause.)

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — (applause) — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11 — (applause) — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens –- (applause) — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.  But that’s what we did.  (Applause.)  That’s what you did.

You were the change.  You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.  (Applause.)

In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy.

AUDIENCE:  Nooo —

THE PRESIDENT:  No, no, no, no, no — the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected President to the next.  (Applause.)  I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.  (Applause.)  Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.

We have what we need to do so.  We have everything we need to meet those challenges.  After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth.  Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours.  But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works.  Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people.  (Applause.)  Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.

That’s what I want to focus on tonight:  The state of our democracy.  Understand, democracy does not require uniformity.  Our founders argued.  They quarreled.  Eventually they compromised.  They expected us to do the same.  But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity -– the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.  (Applause.)

There have been moments throughout our history that threatens that solidarity.  And the beginning of this century has been one of those times.  A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism -– these forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy, as well.  And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland.  In other words, it will determine our future.

To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.  And the good news is that today the economy is growing again.  Wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are all rising again.  Poverty is falling again.  (Applause.)  The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records.  The unemployment rate is near a 10-year low.  The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower.  (Applause.)  Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years.  And I’ve said and I mean it — if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system and that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.  (Applause.)

Because that, after all, is why we serve.  Not to score points or take credit, but to make people’s lives better.  (Applause.)

But for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough.  Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.  (Applause.)  That’s the economic argument.  But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideal.  While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and in rural counties, have been left behind — the laid-off factory worker; the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills — convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful — that’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

But there are no quick fixes to this long-term trend.  I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free.  But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas.  It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.

And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need — (applause) — to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now, and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.  (Applause.)

We can argue about how to best achieve these goals.  But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves.  For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.

There’s a second threat to our democracy — and this one is as old as our nation itself.  After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America.  And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic.  Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.  Now, I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.  (Applause.)  You can see it not just in statistics, you see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.

But we’re not where we need to be.  And all of us have more work to do.  (Applause.)  If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.  (Applause.)  If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.  (Applause.)  And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.  Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.

So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.  (Applause.)  That is what our Constitution and our highest ideals require.  (Applause.)

But laws alone won’t be enough.  Hearts must change.  It won’t change overnight.  Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change.  But if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction — Atticus Finch — (applause) — who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.  We have to pay attention, and listen.  (Applause.)

For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s — (applause) — that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness.  When they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised.  (Applause.)

For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles — who it was said we’re going to destroy the fundamental character of America.  And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.  (Applause.)

So regardless of the station that we occupy, we all have to try harder.  We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.  (Applause.)

And that’s not easy to do.  For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.  The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste — all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.  And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there. (Applause.)

And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy.  But politics is a battle of ideas.  That’s how our democracy was designed.  In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them.  But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter — (applause) — then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.  (Applause.)

And isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting?  How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?  (Applause.)  How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing?  It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating.  Because, as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.  (Applause.)

Take the challenge of climate change.  In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil; we’ve doubled our renewable energy; we’ve led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet.  (Applause.)  But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change.  They’ll be busy dealing with its effects: more environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.

Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem.  But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country — the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.  (Applause.)

It is that spirit, born of the Enlightenment, that made us an economic powerhouse — the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral; the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.

It’s that spirit — a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might — that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression; that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but built on principles — the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly, and an independent press.  (Applause.)

That order is now being challenged — first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets and open democracies and and civil society itself as a threat to their power.  The peril each poses to our democracy is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile.  It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.

Because of the extraordinary courage of our men and women in uniform, because of our intelligence officers, and law enforcement, and diplomats who support our troops — (applause)

— no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years.  (Applause.)  And although Boston and Orlando and San Bernardino and Fort Hood remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever.  We have taken out tens of thousands of terrorists — including bin Laden.  (Applause.)  The global coalition we’re leading against ISIL has taken out their leaders, and taken away about half their territory.  ISIL will be destroyed, and no one who threatens America will ever be safe.  (Applause.)

And to all who serve or have served, it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your Commander-in-Chief.  And we all owe you a deep debt of gratitude.  (Applause.)

But protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military.  Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear.  So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.  (Applause.)

And that’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing.  That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.  (Applause.)  That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans, who are just as patriotic as we are.  (Applause.)

That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights — to expand democracy, and human rights, and women’s rights, and LGBT rights.  No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America.  For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression.  If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.

So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid.  (Applause.)  ISIL will try to kill innocent people.  But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight.  (Applause.)  Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for — (applause) —  and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.

Which brings me to my final point:  Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.  (Applause.)  All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.  (Applause.)    When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote.  (Applause.)  When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service.  (Applause.)  When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our congressional districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.  (Applause.)

But remember, none of this happens on its own.  All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.

Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift.  But it’s really just a piece of parchment.  It has no power on its own.  We, the people, give it power.  (Applause.)  We, the people, give it meaning.  With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge.  (Applause.)  Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms.  Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.  That’s up to us.  America is no fragile thing.  But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.

In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.”  And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.  (Applause.)

America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided but as malevolent.  We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.  (Applause.)

It falls to each of us to be those those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.  Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy:  Citizen.  (Applause.)  Citizen.

So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands.  It needs you.  Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.  If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.  (Applause.) If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.  (Applause.)  If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.  (Applause.)  Show up.  Dive in.  Stay at it.

Sometimes you’ll win.  Sometimes you’ll lose.  Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you.  But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire.  And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed.  (Applause.)

Mine sure has been.  Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers.  I have mourned with grieving families searching for answers, and found grace in a Charleston church.  I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch.  I’ve seen wounded warriors who at points were given up for dead walk again.  I’ve seen our doctors and volunteers rebuild after earthquakes and stop pandemics in their tracks.  I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us through their actions and through their generosity of our obligations to care for refugees, or work for peace, and, above all, to look out for each other.  (Applause.)

So that faith that I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change — that faith has been rewarded in ways I could not have possibly imagined.  And I hope your faith has, too.  Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004, in 2008, 2012 — (applause) — maybe you still can’t believe we pulled this whole thing off.  Let me tell you, you’re not the only ones.  (Laughter.)

Michelle — (applause) — Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side — (applause) — for the past 25 years, you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend.  (Applause.)  You took on a role you didn’t ask for and you made it your own, with grace and with grit and with style and good humor.  (Applause.)  You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody.  (Applause.)  And the new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model.  (Applause.)  So you have made me proud.  And you have made the country proud.  (Applause.)

Malia and Sasha, under the strangest of circumstances, you have become two amazing young women.  You are smart and you are beautiful, but more importantly, you are kind and you are thoughtful and you are full of passion.  (Applause.)  You wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily.  Of all that I’ve done in my life, I am most proud to be your dad.  (Applause.)

To Joe Biden — (applause) — the scrappy kid from Scranton who became Delaware’s favorite son — you were the first decision I made as a nominee, and it was the best.  (Applause.)  Not just because you have been a great Vice President, but because in the bargain, I gained a brother.  And we love you and Jill like family, and your friendship has been one of the great joys of our lives.  (Applause.)

To my remarkable staff:  For eight years — and for some of you, a whole lot more — I have drawn from your energy, and every day I tried to reflect back what you displayed — heart, and character, and idealism.  I’ve watched you grow up, get married, have kids, start incredible new journeys of your own.  Even when times got tough and frustrating, you never let Washington get the better of you.  You guarded against cynicism.  And the only thing that makes me prouder than all the good that we’ve done is the thought of all the amazing things that you’re going to achieve from here.  (Applause.)

And to all of you out there — every organizer who moved to an unfamiliar town, every kind family who welcomed them in, every volunteer who knocked on doors, every young person who cast a ballot for the first time, every American who lived and breathed the hard work of change — you are the best supporters and organizers anybody could ever hope for, and I will be forever grateful.  (Applause.)  Because you did change the world.  (Applause.)  You did.

And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started.  Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans, it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference — (applause) — to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.

Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country.  You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America.  (Applause.)  You know that constant change has been America’s hallmark; that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace.  You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward.  You’ll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.  (Applause.)

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you.  (Applause.)  I won’t stop.  In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.  But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.  I’m asking you to believe.  Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:  Yes, we can.  (Applause.)

Yes, we did.  Yes, we can.  (Applause.)

Thank you.  God bless you.  May God continue to bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)

END
8:53 P.M. CST

Reminiscing for the new year

My colleagues and I wrote several fun stories reminiscing about the New Year.

Mine focusses on food, shelter and waste, and of course, mentions Verdun and LaSalle.

Beryl’s editorial summarizes the whole list and as usual, is well-worth reading.
Joel Ceausu and P.A. Sevigny have the cover story.

 

 

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