What do diplomat Condoleezza Rice and historian David Kennedy have in common?
Not much, really. Which is kind of the point of their new project, “American Creed.”
Rice and Kennedy are on the faculty at Stanford, and through that affiliation came to realize that you don’t have be of similar party, background or race to be worried about our divided nation, to want the best for your country. Rice is a former Republican secretary of state under George W. Bush. Kennedy is a Democrat, a historian and author of, among other works, “Freedom from Fear,” the FDR book that won the Pulitzer Prize. What they found they have in common is a love of country and an interest in seeing society and government function.
Their documentary project with WTTW in Chicago and PBS proposes a “bold, respectful national conversation” and poses this question: In a fractured nation, what ideals do we share in common?
A piece of that “American Creed” project is coming to Idaho.
Idaho Public Television has partnered with PBS to screen the documentary and host conversations in Boise and Twin Falls to discuss its themes. I’ll moderate one of those discussions this Thursday with Mac Lefebvre, of Grangeville, a procurement forester with Idaho Forest Group, and John Robison, of Boise, public lands director for the Idaho Conservation League. That conversation is at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Capitol’s Lincoln Auditorium, sponsored by IdahoPTV, the Statesman and Boise State’s Center for Idaho History and Politics. It’s free, but you’re asked to RSVP.
Mac and John are two of the participants in the Payette Forest Coalition, which has helped design forest restoration projects with the Forest Service, the industry and the environmental community that have produced timber for local sawmills, jobs for Idaho workers, and improved health and habitat for Idaho fish and forests. It’s one of a number of Idaho lands projects where diverse interests have found ways to build bridges and overcome philosophical and other obstacles, something for which Idaho can be justly proud.
One of the stories that “American Creed” tells, and which we’ll screen Thursday night, features Mark Meckler, co-founder of the conservative Tea Party Patriots, and Joan Blades, co-founder of the liberal MoveOn.org. Two more different people you can’t imagine. But Meckler and Blades decided to meet and talk; to their mutual surprise, they became friends. While they still have very real political differences, they work to bring together people of different backgrounds and beliefs to promote a civil political culture and look for common-sense approaches.
IdahoPTV’s work on “American Creed” is part of its ongoing commitment with such Idaho institutions as Boise City Club, the BSU Center for Idaho History and Politics, the Statesman and the Idaho Humanities Council to support and foster civil discourse. IdahoPTV supported City Club’s 2016 Civility Project and is working with City Club and Boise State on the second annual Civility Symposium March 14. The daylong event at BSU will host panels, explore civic and media literacy, and examine the successes and limitations of civility efforts. While Meckler can’t attend, Blades is scheduled to be part of that day’s events.
Lunch that day will be a City Club forum exploring what we learned from the Civility Project and what our community and our state needs next to advance this commitment to civil dialogue and common-sense problem-solving. Stay tuned for details.
Boise State is advancing similar values. It had its own civility project in 2016-17 and brought to campus author and columnist David Brooks, whose talk in September of that year overflowed the Morrison Center. Brooks’ book “The Road to Character” was Boise State’s Campus Read that year.
In addition to the March 14 Civility Symposium Boise State is hosting, the university’s online journal Blue Review has been publishing a regular series of essays on the theme.
If that seems like a long recitation of events and initiatives, that’s because it is. Idaho is far away from the traditional centers of U.S. power, but it’s at the heart of efforts to build bridges and find common ground, as hard-working, grassroots people like Lefebvre and Robison can attest.
One of the things I’ve come to recognize through conversations and meetings is the passion that Idaho librarians have to this cause as well. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The state’s librarians are an army of public servants whose sole job is to connect people to the best, most factual information available. They’ll be participating in the March 14 symposium as well.
Another place where good things are happening is the Boise School District, which has students involved in the symposium. The district is examining how its curriculum can give students the best tools to be discerning consumers and judges of information in an age when it’s hard to tell truth from fiction and where so many sources want to give you their version of the “facts.”
I was president of Boise City Club when it kicked off its civil discourse project in late 2015, and we viewed it almost as scattering seeds — not knowing what might take root where. It’s impressive and gratifying to see blossoms in such disparate places.
This is important work. It’s easy to mock as naïve, to dismiss as one small finger in the dike amid a flood of misinformation and disinformation. There are many, many factions that profit from polarization. It’s hard not to get discouraged when you survey the state of discourse on cable TV and social media. And when you see data that show that our society’s divisions are hardening, not softening.
But for every bad actor, divisive bot or screaming social media post, there are hundreds of people who want to listen, to learn, to do what’s best for their families, their communities and their country. And that is, when you come down to it, our American creed.
Feb. 15 screening, discussion
“Civil Discourse in the Western States,” a panel discussion with clips from the PBS documentary “American Creed,” begins at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, at the Lincoln Auditorium at the Idaho Capitol. Doors open at 5:15. The event is free, but attendees are asked to register at IdahoPTV.org.