An experiment is under way in Twin Falls to see if a community can, in this most noisy of times, create a new way to calmly talk, listen and find common ground.
This community has been to hell and back. Its members could be excused for wanting to turn inward, or tune out. But when I visited Thursday, I found people optimistic and ready to engage, not retreat.
Just this week, we learned that part of the 2016 anti-immigrant tumult in the Magic Valley was ginned up by a Russian front group that posted Facebook messages that demeaned immigrants and called for a rally to protest Muslim refugees. And the Russian meddling was in addition to agitation by Breitbart News, which sent a representative to the valley to stir up angst against immigrants, including exploiting a tragedy — a child sexual assault — and falsely painting it as a knifepoint rape by Syrian youth.
This week, 150 people gathered at the Turf Club in Twin Falls for a Constitution Day lunch that also served as the first meeting of what organizers hope will be a nonprofit, nonpartisan Twin Falls City Club. Organizer Russ Tremayne, a history professor at the College of Southern Idaho, said a core of 50 or so people are ready to sign on and support a city club, which would host four or six forums a year. Those forums would be modeled on clubs in Boise and Idaho Falls, which host monthly public policy discussions and Q&A sessions with experts, leaders and newsmakers.
I’m not a disinterested party in this conversation. I’m a former president of Boise City Club and was involved in early efforts to encourage a city club in Twin Falls, under the leadership of the Idaho Humanities Council and with the help of the Idaho Falls City Club. “A seed well planted,” said organizer Curtis Eaton, a special assistant to CSI President Jeff Fox.
Five Idaho Falls members — lawyers, ranchers, retired teachers — drove two and half hours to the Thursday event in Twin Falls. “We just wanted to lend our congratulations,” said Tim Hopkins, a lawyer.
In addition to heavy lifting by Tremayne, Eaton, Fox and others at CSI, the Times-News newspaper has demonstrated a powerful commitment to advancing community dialogue. When refugee/immigration tensions were at their peak, the newspaper hosted a public forum that drew 700 people. That success is one motivation for Publisher Travis Quast to lend his newspaper’s support to a city club in Twin.
“There was really a need and a desire for people to understand what was going on in their community,” said Quast. “That kind of renewed the effort around a city club, and started those talks again … because there is more than just the refugee issue facing our community.”
Another advocate for creating opportunities for civil discourse around the state is the Humanities Council, and its patient, persistent Director Rick Ardinger, who offered Idaho Falls leaders seed money and other help to start the city club there more than a decade ago.
“Civility doesn’t happen by accident. You’ve got to attend to it,” said Jenny Emery Davidson, the chairman of the Humanities Council board.
“In two corners of the state, we have these really vibrant city clubs, and I think we have witnessed the difference they makes to citizen engagement in those areas,” Davidson said. “But in a state that covers as much geography as we do, it’s important that those dialogues can happen in other corners of the state.”
The effort in Twin has the backing of folks as diverse as Twin Falls Republican Rep. Steve Hartgen and constitutional scholar David Adler. Adler was on the Constitution Day panel Thursday. “The mission of a city club,” he said, “runs completely in harness with the ‘grand experiment’ undertaken by the framers of the Constitution,” who asked “if it is possible for people to govern themselves within the context of reasoned discussion and debate.”
Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robyn Brody talked about the need for jurists and journalists to better explain the complicated workings of the courts to a busy, confused populace.
Don Burnett, the former University of Idaho Law School dean, got my attention when he talked about the little-appreciated value of an impartial judiciary. I’d never thought in terms of the crucial fact-finding that courts have to do before rendering judgments — the slow, methodical, dispassionate determination of knowable truth. It’s a concept that is almost passé in a world dominated by 140-character snap judgments and online experts ready to pounce and pronounce, whether they know anything or not.
Burnett retold the story of Ben Franklin, emerging from helping to draft the Constitution in 1787, being asked: “What have you given us?”
“A republic,” Franklin famously challenged, “if you can keep it.”
Keeping our country functioning is the work of our time. It sometimes feels as if we are no longer up to the task. We no longer trust our institutions — churches, courts, cops, corporations, Congress, correspondents — to help us work through our disputes and differences. It would be easy to decide that it’s less work and less risk just to hunker down and disengage.
Just the opposite is happening in Twin Falls. Creating a place where people can join calm, collegial conversations about our republic is a heartening response to Ben Franklin’s challenge.
Speaking before the United Nations, President Donald Trump gave a conventional speech artfully disguised as a nationalist provocation.
Trump campaigned as someone who would put America first, a commitment he claimed foreign-policy elites of both parties had failed to make. His U.N. speech might seem to fit with that campaign promise, since he both uttered the phrase “America First” and used the words “sovereign” or “sovereignty” 21 times.
But the heavy-handed emphasis on these concepts didn’t lead to any major departure in policy. Trump said America would exercise its sovereignty in concert with allies. He pledged humanitarian assistance abroad. He told the U.N. itself that it was important but had to be reformed, and that other countries had to pay more for its upkeep.
And he threatened action against rogue regimes that pose a risk to American interests — or even American values. He didn’t make the point about values explicitly, but he defended sanctions on Venezuela and possible further action wholly on the basis of its oppressiveness.
The verbiage was unusual, but the underlying message was roughly the same as what any Republican president would have delivered. (More than a little of it was the same as the one Hillary Clinton would have delivered if she had been elected.)
Another president, it’s true, might not have bluntly warned North Korea that “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if it threatens nuclear aggression. That other president may have been wise to speak with less bravado. But the threat of retaliation has always been our chief deterrent against nuclear attack, and was our explicit policy during the Cold War.
I won’t overstate the case. Another president would have drawn a different line on refugee policy, agreeing to take them in rather than just provide funding to help them be settled elsewhere. Only Trump would have denounced trade deals in an address to the U.N.
But you had to look in the speech to see any payoff to Trump’s solicitude for sovereignty.
It might seem as though respect for the sovereign rights of other nations conflicts with Trump’s continued support for American engagement around the world. A key sentence of Trump’s speech worked around the problem: “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties, to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”
Trump is trying here to do justice to the dueling truths that most of what goes on in other countries is not our government’s business and that we must sometimes intervene. His solution is therefore to embrace a malleable definition of sovereignty. When we don’t wish to take action against a foreign government, we can say that we are refraining out of respect for its sovereignty. When we do wish to take action, we can say that the government has forfeited sovereignty by failing in its duties.
Trump even goes on to explain that truly sovereign countries “allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.” It’s a line that could easily have been inserted into President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, in which the former president rationalized a policy of spreading democracy and human rights around the globe.
In another key line, Trump said that “authoritarian powers seek to collapse the values, the systems, and alliances that prevented conflict and tilted the world toward freedom since World War II.” His harshest critics have speculated that he, too, seeks to collapse those things.
But in this speech he pledged himself, as former presidents have done, to the defense of the global order. Somehow that mission became part of minding our own business as Americans. The speech may not have provided intellectual clarity, but for listeners in many foreign ministries it may have provided reassurance.
I am going to dip into a very hot topic today. A visitor to the Democrat booth at the fair had a printed copy of a quote from Sally Boynton Brown about “shutting down” Democrats who said they are not prejudiced and do not recognize “white privilege.” He said that he would never vote for a Democrat again. He would not engage in a discourse with me, so I asked a trusted friend who also was upset about that comment to tell me what he heard when someone brought up white privilege.
I paraphrase, but not much: I hear that, because I am a white male I have had everything given to me. I hear it as an excuse for not being able to accomplish things or for needing handouts to make them equal to me. I am angry because I have always worked hard for everything I have.
This is an example of a quote I remember from an old edition of the Air Force publication “Tongue and Quill:” “I know you think you heard what I said, but I don’t think you heard what I meant.” The quote explains both out-of-context and misspoke rejoinders. Sally was talking about listening and not presuming to understand before the message is delivered. My friend was talking about advantage. In my mind, privilege and advantage are not the same thing. Privilege, in the dictionary, carries with it the term immunity, and that makes the difference.
Advantage is about old-school ties, geographic location, the happenstance of birth, hard work and sometimes luck. Privilege is no questions asked, no bias set aside, no difference noted. Skin color is not the only carrier of privilege. Membership also carries privilege, but skin color is because of genetics; membership is mostly because of someone’s choice.
My studies of psychology and sociology give me background to understand why there is such indignation and even rage at the term white privilege or black lives matter. However, I believe that there is another social science that illuminates the true problem significantly. Economic studies show us that the economic advantages of the very wealthy are more significant than they have been for decades. The history we have any personal knowledge of, the history back through our grandparents, was characterized by an upwardly mobile middle class which had secure economic stability.
With the help of the labor movement, it was generally recognized that employees deserved a fair share of the profit from commercial enterprise. Today, even stock holders have seen their share of profit drop as company executives and the money managers who arrange deals for them take the lion’s share of increasing profitability. People are wondering why their hard work is not producing the standard of living of the last century. Economic advantage has gone to the few, and they claim privilege.
I object to terms meant to capture a complicated idea used to bash someone over the head. It is also an example of a political tactic meant to distract attention from another enemy. Using propaganda to attribute all woe to Trump, Obama, the right wing, or the liberal limits creative thought. Instead of examining the harm being done by the concentration of wealth and privilege to the few, we are busy throwing rocks among the many. We don’t need economic equality, but we do need broader economic advantage so that the overriding privilege we have is simply being an Idahoan in America.