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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.
- William Sloane Coffin
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A meeting of the minds at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Larry Jacobs, Bill Antholis, and Krista Tippett have a vibrant discussion about our pluralistic life in America, and abroad. What Bill is concerned about embracing in our public life? “The sacredness of the mind.”
A meeting of the minds at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Larry Jacobs, Bill Antholis, and Krista Tippett have a vibrant discussion about our pluralistic life in America, and abroad. What Bill is concerned about embracing in our public life? “The sacredness of the mind.”

A meeting of the minds at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Larry Jacobs, Bill Antholis, and Krista Tippett have a vibrant discussion about our pluralistic life in America, and abroad. What Bill is concerned about embracing in our public life? “The sacredness of the mind.”

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Krista Tippett speaks with philosopher Jacob Needleman. As new democracies are struggling around the world, it’s easy to forget that U.S. democracy was shaped by trial and error. A conversation about the “inward work” of democracy — the conscience that shaped the American experiment.

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For the founders and for all spiritual teachers — and by ‘founders,’ by the way, I want to broaden the founders to include people who came later, including such people, of course, as Lincoln and also — one people may find strange — Frederick Douglass and people like that who spoke very powerfully of conscience. Conscience is an absolute power within the human psyche to intuit real values of good and evil and right and wrong. We are born with that capacity. It’s not just socially conditioned into us. This is what the great traditions teach. This is what I think. But it is covered over by a lot of the egoism and chaos of our un-free inner life.
- Jacob NeedlemanJacob Needleman, on conscience in "The Inward Word of Democracy"
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A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It’s a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it?

Well, if I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that’s not so simple. It doesn’t mean just to stop my talking and wait till you’re finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that’s what we’re speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?

- Jacob NeedlemanJacob Needleman, from "The Inward Word of Democracy"
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Individualism and individuality have to be separated. Individualism can take a turn where it’s a kind of egoistic, selfish thing: Me, me, me, me, and what I want and what I care, what I think and what I like. Oh sure, we need to have the liberty to express all that, but a real individual is a different thing. And to be truly one’s self is to be truly in contact with this great self within, this divinity within. And the paradox of true individuality is that the more you are in touch with what all human beings have in common under God, the more you are uniquely what you, yourself, are. And that’s why I say we need to bring back the obligations that go along with the rights in order to understand the depths of what the human rights really mean.
- Jacob NeedlemanJacob Needleman, from the On Being show "The Inward Word of Democracy"
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"I don’t believe that math and nature respond to democracy. Just because very clever people have rejected the role of the infinite, their collective opinions, however weighty, won’t persuade mother nature to alter her ways. Nature is never wrong."
—Janna Levin from How the Universe Got Its Spots
Photo by Agustin Ruiz (Taken with instagram)
"I don’t believe that math and nature respond to democracy. Just because very clever people have rejected the role of the infinite, their collective opinions, however weighty, won’t persuade mother nature to alter her ways. Nature is never wrong."
—Janna Levin from How the Universe Got Its Spots
Photo by Agustin Ruiz (Taken with instagram)

"I don’t believe that math and nature respond to democracy. Just because very clever people have rejected the role of the infinite, their collective opinions, however weighty, won’t persuade mother nature to alter her ways. Nature is never wrong."

—Janna Levin from How the Universe Got Its Spots

Photo by Agustin Ruiz (Taken with instagram)

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Can Turkey Inspire Egypt as a Religious Role Model?

by Mustafa Abdelhalim, guest contributor

Turkey as a Role Model for Religion in Egypt

Last week, Egyptians went to the polls to participate in the first presidential election since Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011. Going forward, the new president, who will be elected in the second phase of elections in June, should look to examples from other countries that have undergone successful democratic transitions.

When asked what leader outside their own country they most admired, a recent poll from the University of Maryland found that 63 percent of Egyptians answered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicating that Egyptians may be interested in learning from Turkey. Turkey can serve as a relevant model because it has successfully dealt with three key challenges facing Egypt — the relationship of the army to a civilian government, economic growth and fostering positive international relations.

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todaysdocument:

Presented to Congress on January 29, 1866, signers of this Petition for Universal Suffrage included pioneer suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and members of the former Women’s  Loyal National League, Ernestine Rose, Lucy Stone, and Antoinette Brown  Blackwell. This exceptional combination of signatures represents some of  the period’s foremost advocates for suffrage and abolition.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
todaysdocument:

Presented to Congress on January 29, 1866, signers of this Petition for Universal Suffrage included pioneer suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and members of the former Women’s  Loyal National League, Ernestine Rose, Lucy Stone, and Antoinette Brown  Blackwell. This exceptional combination of signatures represents some of  the period’s foremost advocates for suffrage and abolition.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

todaysdocument:

Presented to Congress on January 29, 1866, signers of this Petition for Universal Suffrage included pioneer suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and members of the former Women’s Loyal National League, Ernestine Rose, Lucy Stone, and Antoinette Brown Blackwell. This exceptional combination of signatures represents some of the period’s foremost advocates for suffrage and abolition.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Parker Palmer on Healing the Heart of Democracy

by Kate Moos, executive producer

Creative ReflectionsParticipants at a conference reflect on a plenary session speech by Parker Palmer. (photo: Fund for Theological Education)

Parker Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and the author of nine books, including well-known titles such as The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak. He is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, perhaps most recently the Utne Reader’s 2011 Visionaries, 25 People Who are Changing the World.

His new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, takes a deep and wise look at the loss of values that have impoverished American democracy and public life. Palmer proposes ways to rediscover what the great political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the heart” that are essential to a democracy.

Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker PalmerPalmer writes:

“The human heart, this vital core of the human self, holds the power to destroy democracy or to make it whole. That is why our nineteenth-century visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, insisted in his classic Democracy in America that democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness.”

We corresponded by email over the course of several weeks for this interview. 

Parker, you cite five habits of the heart you feel are necessary to moving forward as a democracy: understand that we are all in this together, develop an appreciation for the value of “otherness,” cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, generate a sense of personal voice and agency, and strengthen our capacity to create community.

In and of themselves, none of these habits seem too complex or difficult for us to achieve, and I’m guessing most people would find it easy to embrace them, at least conceptually. What prevents us from becoming better at practicing these habits?

You’re right, Kate, of course. Saying the thing is always easier than doing the thing! So it’s important to understand why we have trouble embracing good ideas and allowing them to animate the way we live.

We resist the first habit of understanding that we are all in this together because it’s easier to pretend that we live in individual silos than to allow ourselves to get the fact. To take but one example, that the large and tragic achievement gap in public education between white kids and kids of color is something we all pay a price for sooner or later. If my son is doing well in school, great; I’m happy. But if his black and Latino classmates are doing poorly, I need to be unhappy about that, very unhappy, and advocate for the changes in public education that would help close the gap.

Among other things, that gap helps explain the fact that we now have more African Americans somewhere in the judicial and penal system than we had in slavery ten years before the Civil War. And that’s not only costly to this society in terms of the threat of crime, the cost of incarceration, etc., it’s flat-out evil in the way it crushes the spirits of young people who have just as much promise as my son does.

So, when you step outside your silo and understand your interconnectedness, life becomes more complicated and ethically demanding. But the bottom line is, what do you stand for: narrow self-interest or the common good? And do you understand that narrow self-interest can be self-defeating while caring about the common good can be a way of caring about yourself and those you love?

I’m 72 years old, so I reflect more often on the fact that I’m going to die than I did when I was 30, or 40, or 50. On that day, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be saying to myself, “Boy, am I glad that I spent all my years on Earth feathering my own nest and not giving a hoot about anyone other than my family and friends!” I’m pretty sure I’d rather be saying, “I’m glad I did what I could during my brief sojourn on this planet to help bring a caring community into being, to love my neighbor as myself.”

As you know, Kate, I say quite a lot in the book about each of those five habits, but let me say a few words about one more: “Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.” This one is right at the heart of our democracy, both institutionally and personally. America’s founders, for all their blind spots, gave us a set of governing institutions whose genius lies in their ability to hold tension creatively over time. Democracy is all about taking the tension of our differences and using it as an engine to keep moving us forward on important social issues. So why is it hard to live this one? Because it requires us to resist the ancient and well-known “fight or flight response” that kicks in when we find ourselves in a tension-ridden situation. Our instinct is either to run away or to punch out the source of the tension!

We all know at some level that if we can hold tension creatively — in the family, in the workplace, in the larger community — we often emerge with a better solution to the problem than if we ran away or used force to control the situation. My favorite close-to-the-bone example involves raising a teenager. Good parents can see their teenage child’s potential and “true self” while they also see that child making some bad choices and perhaps even going off the rails. But good parenting means holding our children in a way that both acknowledges their long-term possibilities and their current realities, knowing that the worst thing we could do is to try to force the outcome. Many of us know how to do that kind of “holding” in our private lives, so we have the capacity to do some of the same in our public lives.

The key, of course, is love. Love leads us to hold the tensions we experience as parents in a creative way. Of course, the kind of love we have for those close to us cannot be replicated in the public realm. But can a different form of love — love of the promise of the human spirit, love of the common good — lead us to hold political tensions creatively? I’m not sure, but I sure hope so, because a politics rooted in greed or hunger for power rather than love of the commonweal is a politics headed toward self-destruction.

I’d like to devote much of my remaining time and energy toward helping to make our public life more compassionate and more generative — and I know many, many people who share that vision and that desire.

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The Conscience Behind the “Idea of America”

by Krista Tippett, host

It’s easy to forget, especially around U.S. Independence Day, how much trial and error went into the creation of American democracy, how much of what Americans now take for granted wasn’t fully formed for decades after 1776. The warm and wise philosopher Jacob Needleman looked back at the American founders with this in mind for his book The American Soul. He took apart the ingredients that grew up our democracy. And he found that every iconic institution, every political value, had “inward work” of conscience behind it. Every hard-won right had a corresponding responsibility.

It feels important to me, right now, to revisit the 2003 conversation I had with Jacob Needleman about this, and have been formed by ever since. In our historical moment, it is as clear as ever before that the American republic is an ongoing work in progress. And at the very same time, young democracies are fighting to emerge across the world and are looking for instruction and models.

To rise to this occasion, I believe, we need to remember and pass on this inward work as much as the outer forms of government that were long in the making. As we created this week’s show, we also pulled in words Jacob Needleman points to — of founding voices of “the idea of America.” These include George Washington and Thomas Paine, but also Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman.

For this commentary, I offer excerpts of Jacob Needleman’s insights from our interview — and a little Walt Whitman — for remembering and reflection.

On the rights of the individual

"Individualism and individuality have to be separated. Individualism can take a turn where it’s a kind of egoistic, selfish thing: Me, me, me, me, and what I want and what I care, what I think and what I like. Oh sure, we need to have the liberty to express all that, but a real individual is a different thing. And to be truly one’s self is to be truly in contact with this great self within, this divinity within. And the paradox of true individuality is that the more you are in touch with what all human beings have in common under God, the more you are uniquely what you, yourself, are. And that’s why I say we need to bring back the obligations that go along with the rights in order to understand the depths of what the human rights really mean."

On freedom

"A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It’s a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if … I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that’s not so simple. It doesn’t mean just to stop my talking and wait till you’re finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that’s what we’re speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?"

On conscience 

For the founders and for all spiritual teachers — and by “founders,” by the way, I want to broaden the founders to include people who came later, including such people, of course, as Lincoln and also — one people may find strange — Frederick Douglass and people like that who spoke very powerfully of conscience. Conscience is an absolute power within the human psyche to intuit real values of good and evil and right and wrong. We are born with that capacity. It’s not just socially conditioned into us. This is what the great traditions teach. This is what I think. But it is covered over by a lot of the egoism and chaos of our un-free inner life.”

On the importance of “thinking” in public, political life

"Shouting is not thinking. ‘Come let us reason together,’ the prophet says, God says to Isaiah… I think the moment you start thinking together with someone, immediately their eyes light up… I must confess I spoke to — I won’t say who, but I spoke to some members of Congress not long ago. We had a very quiet evening together and we started opening up, just what you and I are doing now. And they said, in effect, you know, ‘We never get a chance to do this. We’re in there trying to, you know, speak to television cameras or make points with electorates or with lobby groups, but we never…’ I said, ‘You mean you never come together and just reflect together?’ And they said no. To me, that’s the dirty secret of America at the moment. That’s the problem."

From Walt Whitman’s essay Democratic Vistas, which Jacob Needleman also includes as part of the long tradition of the foundational “idea of America,” and which ends our show.

"I say the mission of government, henceforth in civilized lands, is not repression alone and not authority alone, not even of law, nor the rule of the best men, but higher than the highest arbitrary rule, to train communities through all their grades beginning with individuals and ending there again to rule themselves. To be a voter with the rest is not so much. And this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation and equal with the rest, to commence the grand experiment whose end may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman — that is something."

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It’s supposed to be me. I wish people wouldn’t make busts or posters of me, it is a very strange thing to be looking at yourself all the time. It’s not like this at my house, I promise you. I have pictures of my children.
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Activists Hold Up Cut-Out Images of Aung San Suu Kyi— Aung San Suu Kyi, when asked by the Guardian's Jack Davies about a golden bust behind her at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD). According to the reporter, “images of her are everywhere: on posters, calendars and pamphlets, T-shirts, necklaces and earrings.”

(photo: Activists from the Free Burma Coalition holding masks depicting Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the Myanmar embassy in Manila. (photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

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