On Manifestoes

On occasion, the course of human events leads human beings to sit back and take stock of where they stand, to state what they believe, and to come to terms, for good or ill, with what they see as deeply rooted truths, and make them visible in the medium of text. From Karl Marx to Michael Pollan to Ron Paul, from Francis Shaffer to Doug Pagitt & Tony Jones, manifestoes are one way we feel our way forward into the future. Less timeless (perhaps!) than a credo, a manifesto is nonetheless fundamentally challenging, surrounded by its very nature with intense personal passions and convictions. In the words of Citizen G’Kar (himself the author of a pretty spiffy manifesto),

“The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.”

So here are some manifestoes of the present day on books, education, faith, and civic life. Though their weight for good or ill, for much or little, is as yet unknown, these are some of the words that will shepherd us into our shared future:

On Books #

Sara Lloyd has blogged “A Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the 21st Century”1:

…the very nature of books and reading is changing and will continue to change substantially. What is absolutely clear is that publishers need to become enablers for reading and its associated processes (discussion; research; note-taking; writing; reference following) to take place across a multitude of platforms and throughout all the varying modes of a readers’ activities and lifestyle.

Follow this up with Clay Shirkey’s new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations:

…individual weblogs are not merely alternate sites of publishing; they are alternatives to publishing itself, in the sense of publishers as a minority and professional class. In the same way you do not have to be a professional driver to drive, you no longer have to be a professional publisher to publish. Mass amateurization is a result of the radical spread of expressive capabilities, and the most obvious precedent is the one that gave birth to the modern world: the spread of the printing press five centuries ago.

On Education #

I am a former public school teacher and current homeschooler, and John Taylor Gatto’s works, including Against School have been influential for my family as well as many others2:

What if there is no “problem” with our schools? What if they are the way they are, so expensively flying in the face of common sense and long experience in how children learn things, not because they are doing something wrong but because they are doing something right? Is it possible that George W. Bush accidentally spoke the truth when he said we would “leave no child behind”? Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure not one of them ever really grows up?

Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what?

Dana Hanley made the connection between Gatto’s work and the commentary of Harvard Kennedy School’s Paul Peterson on The Education-Industrial Complex3:

If politicians in America attended more closely to the needs of the next generation than the interests of unions and bureaucrats, the country could use its ingenuity to create once again an educational system the world would seek to emulate. To do so, however, politicians will have to take on the education-industrial complex.

On Faith #

Christians believe that God Himself has a manifesto, but that does not stop us from feeling the need now and then to proclaim the meaning of that revelation for our present circumstances. The Evangelical Manifesto, penned (with others) by Os Guinness (a faithful friend of his fellow manifesto-writer, the late Francis Schaeffer) attempts to speak, with words of both affirmation and repentance, to the call on Evangelical Christians at this moment in time4:

…we boldly declare that, if we make clear what we mean by the term, we are unashamed to be Evangelical and Evangelicals. We believe that the term is important because the truth it conveys is all-important. A proper understanding of Evangelical and the Evangelicals has its own contribution to make, not only to the church but to the wider world; and especially to the plight of many who are poor, vulnerable, or without a voice in their communities.

The place of religion in human life is deeply consequential. Nothing is more natural and necessary than the human search for meaning and belonging, for making sense of the world and finding security in life. When this search is accompanied by the right of freedom of conscience, it issues in a freely chosen diversity of faiths and ways of life, some religious and transcendent, and some secular and naturalistic.

Nevertheless, the different faiths and the different families of faith provide very different answers to life, and these differences are decisive not only for individuals but for societies and entire civilizations. Learning to live with our deepest differences is therefore of great consequence both for individuals and nations. Debate, deliberation, and decisions about what this means for our common life are crucial and unavoidable.

We ourselves are those who have come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that the great change required of those who follow him entails a radically new view of human life and a decisively different way of living, thinking, and acting….Here we stand. Unashamed and assured in our own faith, we reach out to people of all other faiths with love, hope, and humility.

On Civic Life #

Barack Obama’s speech or race in American life, “A More Perfect Union”:

The document [the framers of the U.S. Constitution] produced was eventually signed, but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations. Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution — a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time….

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America: to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality. The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through, a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care or education or the need to find good jobs for every American….

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past….”

For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away, nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years…. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of that old truism that the most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning.

That anger is not always productive. Indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems. It keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our own condition. It prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful, and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community….Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation….to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns, this, too, widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now.

It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. And contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle or with a single candidate, particularly — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own. But I have asserted a firm conviction, a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people, that, working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds and that, in fact, we have no choice — we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

Obama’s speech on race in America can be read in the larger context of the challenge of civic engagement. In this sense, we might do well to read him along with Richard Harwood’s call to Make Hope Real:

My fear all along has been that “hope” would become a casualty of this campaign – that its very meaning and currency would be diminished through overuse and sloganeering….For not all hope is created equal…. But no matter what results emerge…I believe we must see hope differently if we wish to make it real. We must distinguish between authentic and false hope.

…and also with Danielle Allen’s amazing tour from Aristotle to Ralph Ellison and beyond in Talking to Strangers: On Little Rock and the Art of Political Friendship:

Of all the rituals relevant to democracy, sacrifice is preeminent. No democratic citizen, adult or child, escapes the necessity of losing out at some point in a public decision…. An honest account of collective democratic action must begin by acknowledging that communal decisions inevitably benefit some citizens at the expense of others, even when the whole community generally benefits…. Their sacrifice makes collective democratic action possible. Democracy is not a static end state that achieves the common good by assuring the same benefits or the same level of benefits to everyone, but rather a political practice by which the diverse negative effects of collective political action, and even of just decisions, can be distributed equally, and constantly redistributed over time, on the basis of consensual interactions. The hard truth of democracy is that some citizens are always giving things up for others.

Allen’s book is a beautiful example of how to read manifestoes wisely. Her reading studies carefully the testimonies of Aristotle, Hobbes, Ellison, and our own recent headlines & history, sifting through their words to bring deep truths to light, and make visible the places where we stand.

  1. (via Booksquare)
  2. I’m really looking forward to the publication of Weapons of Mass Instruction.
  3. (via Principled Discovery)
  4. (via God’s Politics)

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