On our own Jericho road

Perhaps the strangest thing about living in the late 2010s is that everybody seems to talk about how they don’t want to live in the late 2010s. Some of us want it to be the past again. Some of us want it to be the future already. Some of us pine for a time before some technology or politician messed everything up, while others pine for a time after some barrier will be lifted by the next best thing. Indeed, if we are not reminiscing about the good old days — those days before “they” made this, that, or the other happen — then we are likely waiting for the good new days — when “they” finally make this, that, or the other happen. If only, if only it were the 1950s or the 2050s…then everything would be better, we think. We just have to pretend or we just have to wait — and all we have to say, or post, in response to every passing indignity of the present moment is: “Ugh, 2018!”

But many people do not have the luxury of pretending or waiting. They are forced to survive right now, in the harshest conditions of the present. Almost fifty years ago, on the morning of February 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker couldn’t pretend or wait — they had to go to work. They were Memphis “tub-toters” — the overworked and underpaid men who rode on the back of garbage trucks, hopping on and off at every suburban house to empty each family’s trash cans into the trucks’ compactors. It was raining that Thursday, and Cole and Walker didn’t have raincoats. They didn’t have much at all, in fact — the city gave them, in the words of Memphis historian Hampton Sides, “no benefits, no pension, no overtime, no grievance procedure, [and] no uniforms.” They didn’t even have a functional machine with which to work. The rickety orange trucks they rode on were known by the city to be dangerous.

To escape the rain after completing their rounds that day, Cole and Walker sat inside the jaw of their truck’s compacting mechanism. A little after 4:15 in the afternoon, the wires to the compacting motor shorted, triggering the truck’s hydraulic ram to begin the compacting process. When they heard what was happening, the two men tried to escape, but they were hampered by their heavy clothes, which were drenched in rain and liquid refuse from a long day’s work. The ram caught part of their clothing, dragged them further into the truck, and crushed them to death.

The next day, Memphis’ newspaper ran only a tiny story on Cole and Walker; in Sides’ words, it was “a drab announcement with all the emotion of a bankruptcy notice.” The small item, Sides describes, “failed to mention that the truck in question had a history of killing people, or that the families of Walker and Cole had no money to bury their two men, or that the city had no contractual obligation to compensate the widows beyond a rudimentary one-month severance.” The newspaper didn’t have space for all that information, because most of that day’s news coverage was devoted to the birth of Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’ daughter. Hardly anyone in Memphis seemed to care that two of their neighbors had been crushed to death by their city’s own truck. Earline Walker, Robert’s pregnant widow, had to bury her husband in a pauper’s grave.

I say “hardly anyone,” because one group did care: Walker and Cole’s fellow sanitation workers. About two weeks after the incident, hundreds of sanitation workers went on strike for better pay, better hours, and safer working conditions. They wanted to be treated with respect — to be recognized as working professionals.

The city refused to acknowledge their cause. When confronted, Memphis’ mayor Henry Loeb told the strikers: “You are breaking the law. I suggest you go back to work.” But Loeb didn’t know what he was up against. In the sanitation workers’ corner was Reverend James Lawson, a veteran of the 1960 Nashville sit-ins. He elevated the strike from a labor dispute to a civil rights campaign, reminding the all-black workforce: “You are human beings. You deserve dignity. You aren’t a slave — you’re a man.” Soon the strikers would be carrying placards with that simple, powerful message: “I AM A MAN.”

In March, Lawson called his old friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., and invited him to come speak to the striking sanitation workers. King’s staffers wanted him to decline — he had to focus on his upcoming march on Washington for economic justice. But King ignored their pleas and accepted Lawson’s offer.

A few weeks later, on April 3, 1968, King was in the Mason Temple in Memphis speaking to hundreds of striking tub-toters. He began his speech in a strange way: “If I were standing at the beginning of time… and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, what age would you like to live in?’” What a question to be asked by the Almighty — a literal take on the old Jewish call to action, “If not now, when?”

After asking it, King proceeded to ponder living in different ages: ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. But after a wistful description of life in some past age, he rejected each, one by one. “I would turn to the Almighty,” he told the crowd, “And say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’”

He called this idea — of preferring to live in the age into which he was born — a “strange statement.” Indeed, in the late 1960s, everybody seemed to talk about how they didn’t want to live in their time either. “The world is all messed up,” King admitted. “The nation is sick… trouble is in the land; confusion all around.” If Twitter were around back then, “Ugh, 1968!” might have been a popular tweet.

But King followed his “strange statement” by pressing his case for living in the present. “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars,” he reminded the crowd. “And I see God working in this period…in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.” He and his fellow inhabitants of the present moment, he argued, lived in a time when the great debates of history had come to a head — when nations had become so powerful, and the world so interconnected, that there were real and serious choices in front of them about where the human race should go. “Either we go up together,” he reminded the crowd, “or we go down together.” And about all this, he repeated his answer to the Almighty’s question: “I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding.”

And then King proceeded to recount his favorite story: the one about the Good Samaritan. On a “dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho,” King told the crowd, a man fell among thieves. The man needed help, but everyone who passed by — even a priest — didn’t stop to help him. But finally a Samaritan came by, saw the man as her neighbor and stopped to help him. Instead of asking “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” she asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

King prodded the crowd to wonder why the priest did not stop. Perhaps he was late for a meeting. Perhaps he was forbidden to help because of ceremonial reasons. Perhaps he wanted to focus his efforts on building a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” Or perhaps, most likely, he was afraid.

Hearing King’s speech, I cannot help but think of the crises of our present moment as similar to the man in the parable who fell among thieves. A quarter of our neighbors’ children live in poverty. A fifth of our neighbors suffer from persistent loneliness. Those on Capitol Hill who are fighting for the interests of the vast many are outnumbered 34 to 1 by those fighting for the interests of the wealthy few. Tens of millions of our neighbors live in the shadows of second-class citizenship because of their immigration or criminal status. Hundreds of millions of our global neighbors are threatened by a changing climate that we helped destabilize. And with median white wealth dwarfing median black wealth 12 to 1, many of our black neighbors are still left wondering when the American Dream will include them. Our nation has fallen among thieves.

And hearing King’s speech, I cannot help but think that when we say we do not want to live in this time — when we pretend to live in the past or wait to live in the future — we are being more like the priest than like the Samaritan. I cannot help but think that when we exasperatedly exclaim “Ugh, 2018!”, what we are really doing is turning a blind eye to the suffering of our moment, crossing over to the other side of the Jericho road, and hoping that the next curve does not find us witnesses to such an unfortunate situation.  I cannot help but think that when we want to escape from our times — into irony or nostalgia or self-satisfaction or resentment — we are doing so because we, like the priest in the parable, are afraid.

That April night, fifty years ago, King called on the crowd to stand, like the Good Samaritan, with greater determination — to remember that the important question is not “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to me?” but rather “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” He reminded them that they had a blessed opportunity “to make America a better nation”— not necessarily great again, but rather “what it ought to be.”

And then Martin Luther King, Jr. stopped — and the repetitive preacher started talking about something he rarely discussed before: his own mortality.  He recalled an assassination attempt from eight years prior. He recounted various battles throughout his thirteen years in public life. And then he discussed how there were threats on his life that week in Memphis.

But he said he did not mind. He was not concerned about that anymore. He was happy. He wasn’t worried about anything. He was not fearing any man.

By fully embracing the age he was chosen to live in, by fully confronting the great challenges of his time, by stopping along the Jericho road to be a neighbor to countless men and women — including two men who had been crushed by a nation that had failed to live up to its ideals — he was graced with fearlessness and a glimpse at eternity. His last words that night: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

It would be his final speech. The next day, he was martyred.

Fifty years later, may we turn to the Almighty and pray that we be allowed to live just a few years in the first half of the 21st century to continue his work.

The Harvard Law Forum, Fall 2017 Roundup

The Harvard Law Forum, the speakers I have been running for two years now, just closed its Fall season.  Here’s a round-up of talks from the past semester:

Race, Class and the Future of Solidarity with R.L. Stephens — November 16, 2017

R.L. Stephens is an elected member of the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America and the former A. Philip Randolph Fellow at Jacobin Magazine. His writing on race, class and social movements has appeared in The Guardian, Gawker, and Jacobin. He was a campaign strategist at labor union Unite Here in Chicago and previously participated in a campaign to end unfair scheduling practices in the retail sector while working at Gap. He graduated from George Washington Law in 2014.

On November 16, 2017, he came to the Harvard Law Forum to share his thoughts on class, race, and the future of solidarity.

The Case for Medicare for All with Tim Faust — November 9, 2017

On November 9, 2017, health care expert, Jacobin writer and HEAVYxMEDICAL co-host Timothy Faust came to Harvard Law School and made the case for a single payer, Medicare for All health insurance system.

Ralph Nader — November 8, 2017:

On November 8, 2017, Ralph Nader — consumer advocate, public citizen, Harvard Law alumnus, and one of The Atlantic’s 100 most influential figures in American history — came to Harvard Law to inspire students to deploy their education for justice, democracy and the public interest.

Fighting for Access to Justice in the Halls of Congress with Rep. Susan W. Brooks and Rep. Joe Kennedy III — November 6, 2017

On November 6, 2017, the co-founders of the bipartisan Congressional Access to Legal Services Caucus, Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) and Susan W. Brooks (R-IN), came to Harvard Law School to talk about the importance of funding for civil legal aid for impoverished Americans.

Racism and Climate Change: Putting Racial Justice at the Center of Systemic Transformation with Jacqui Patterson — October 30, 2017

Jacqueline Patterson is the Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. She has worked as a researcher, advocate and activist for women‘s rights, violence against women prevention, HIV & AIDS treatment, racial justice, economic justice, and climate justice.

On October 30, 2017, Patterson came to Harvard Law to discuss the intersection of racism and climate change— to show the Harvard community how to “put racial justice at the center of systemic transformation.”

Lawyers, Monopoly Power and Breaking up Amazon and Google with Matt Stoller — October 19, 2017

Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Open Markets program, where he researches the history of the relationship between concentrated financial power and the Democratic Party in the 20th century. Prior to joining the Open Markets program, he was senior policy advisory to the Senate Budget Committee on trade, competition policy, and financial services. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York TimesThe New Republic and The Nation.

On October 19, 2017, he came to Harvard Law School to share insights on the relationship between the legal profession and monopoly capitalism… and let students and faculty know what they can do to protect open markets from the distortions of monopoly power.

Our Bicentennial Crisis: A Call to Action for Harvard Law School’s Public Interest Mission

Last month, to coincide with Harvard Law’s bicentennial, I published and distributed a report: Our Bicentennial Crisis: A Call to Action for Harvard Law School’s Public Interest Mission.

It aims to document: first, the crisis of mass exclusion from legal power for the average American (in the criminal justice, civil justice and political Screen Shot 2017-11-17 at 1.12.55 PMsystems); second, Harvard Law’s failure to address this crisis, and the inaccurate excuses our school community tends to give for not addressing it; third, what accounts for this civic deficit; and fourth, twelve reform proposals that aim to help us better live up to our mission.

Judge Learned Hand, of the Harvard Law School Class of 1896, once said: “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: thou shalt not ration justice.” When we celebrate our third century a hundred years from now, it is my fervent hope that they say of our generation of Harvard Law School students, faculty, staff and alumni: “they helped keep our democracy.” If this is to be the case, it will be because of reformers in our community who put in the work in the coming decades to better align our school with its public interest mission. I hope this report is a useful tool for their efforts. Let’s get to work.

Here are relevant links regarding the report:

Essay on left-liberal divide in Current Affairs

I had an essay on the left-liberal divide in the Democratic Party published in Current AffairsI tried my best to have it be something that people from both sides of the divide could read and feel that their concerns are respected. But also, to respect some of the less reconcilable differences between the two sides, I tried to additionally propose healthy processes through which those differences could be arbitrated: processes that neither quiet internal dissent nor risk more Trump-Ryan-McConnell power. Excerpts:

Such cross-divide conversations are hard— and with the release of Hillary’s new book and Bernie’s Medicare for All bill, it is likely to get harder. But I believe in the old Mister Rogers maxim: what’s mentionable is manageable. In that spirit, I aim to persuade: to build up intra-party understanding by, first, doing my best to articulate what I believe each side feels; and, second, attempting to identify a few prospective patches of common ground.

These divisions may have started the left-liberal conflict, but what has sustained the conflict has been the fact that because both sides are developing into integrated political tribes. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, political tribalism begins with shared intuitions: we first feel what is politically right, then later muster arguments to support our intuitions. When people who share some intuitions about politics find each other and discover they share other intuitions, they begin to form political communities to collaborate on mustering arguments for their shared bundles of political intuitions. Out of these political communities emerge leaders and institutions that further surface and solidify their connection and creed. The tribal formation is complete when these communities establish a unified tribal narrative— complete with stories of the past, present, and future; heroes and villains; and direction for what members should be doing. At its most extreme, tribal participation approaches a religious experience, as theologian Harvey Cox explained well in The Secular City: “In secular society politics does what metaphysics once did… It brings unity and meaning to human life and thought.”

This would move our conflicts — over which candidates are worthy of trust, over what voters actually want, and over the reality of certain larger forces — away from the neverending shadow-boxing ring and toward resolution in the court of public opinion. Primaries, for example, will help resolve the strategy divide, surfacing whether “pragmatism” or “idealism” wins in general elections, as candidates of different persuasions win primaries and test their pragmatist/idealist orientation in general elections. Issue campaigns, meanwhile, will surface the extent to which the party has been corrupted by nefarious structural forces. One need not endlessly discuss whether this or that politician is a “neoliberal shill” if you can resolve the question by launching issue campaigns that dramatize these larger forces at play and see whether said politician supports the campaign. If they do, they may be worthy of more trust. If they do not, they may be worthy of a primary challenge.

Read the whole essay — How to Heal the Left-Liberal Divide — here.

All Rise! roundup, Season 2

At Harvard Law, I co-produce All Rise!, a podcast of longform interviews with HLS professors and other figures in the law.  We just finished Season 2:

Here’s episode 6 with Constitution expert Michael Klarman:

Here’s episode 7 with municipal broadband expert Susan Crawford:

Episode 8 with HLS student organizations coordinator Tracey-Ann Daley:

A special episode 9 with prison education advocates Max Kenner and Vince Greco:

Episode 10 with Critical Race Theory expert Khiara Bridges:

Episode 11 with death penalty expert Carol Steiker:

Episode 12 with HLS’s negotiation and mediation sage Bob Bordone:

Episode 13 with Demos President Heather McGhee:

And Episode 14 with federal judge Nancy Gertner:

You can subscribe to All Rise! on iTunes here.


My favorite 4th of July song is “I am a Patriot”- originally written by E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt and covered wonderfully by Jackson Browne and Eddie Vedder. The chorus nails what patriotism means to me:

“I am a patriot and I love my country
because my country is all I know.
I want to be with my family,
people who understand me —
I’ve got nowhere else to go.”

I don’t love my country because it’s the best. I don’t love my country because our people deserve any more care than any other people do. I don’t love my country because it’s uniquely great or just. (In fact, in many ways, my country is especially troubled.) I don’t even love my country because it’s the one I would necessarily choose.

Rather, I love America because I didn’t choose it. It’s like my family or like the rights we were promised in the Declaration of Independence: inalienable. These people – my fellow Americans – are the ones who understand me. This homeland – our patria, from Yosemite to my neighborhood strip mall – is all I know. Like Van Zandt says: I’ve got nowhere else to go.

And, honestly, as far as countries to be born into and peoples to be stuck with, I feel blessed to be part of this country and these people. I get to share a national heritage with martyrs for freedom like John Brown and Nat Turner, Viola Gregg Liuzzo and Harvey Milk. I get to be raised by the nation that fostered innovators like Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales and Settlement Houses’ Jane Addams, the Girl Scouts’ Juliette Gordon Low and A Change Is Gonna Come’s Sam Cooke. I get to draw on a legacy of dissent that includes pacifist Jeanette Rankin and indigenous leader Winona LaDuke, unionist Eugene V. Debs and voting rights warrior Fannie Lou Hamer.

If I were to forsake this country due to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington’s hypocrisy, I would lose with it Martin Luther King and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s calls to live up to the Framers’ promise. If I were to forsake this country due to Harry Truman and Henry Kissinger’s bombs, I would lose with it Eleanor Roosevelt and Daniel Berrigan’s peacemaking. For every John D. Rockefeller, there’s a Rachel Carson. For every Roger B. Taney, there’s a Thurgood Marshall. For every Donald J. Trump, there’s a Dolores Huerta. The same nation that polluted the world’s airwaves with the schlock of Madison Avenue filled the world’s pages with the jubilation of Walt Whitman. (He sure was right about us: we are large; we do contain multitudes!)

What’s most wonderful about America, though, is that we, more than most other nations, are brought together not just by our shared past, but rather by our shared future. Because of this, a single generation of Founding Fathers cannot and should not be the last word on what and who we can and should be. Instead, every American is called to be continuing Founders of what our nation is to become. And that patriotic calling — to conserve and reimagine, to defend and build, to achieve and realize our country — is what I celebrate on the 4th of July.

As is tradition, we hope to answer that call in a way that grows our Freedom, which to me is defined by Empowerment and Solidarity: devolving power so that more of us can realize our dreams and building community so that more of us can see each others’ dreams as our own.

In that project, our generation of Americans, like each previous generation, has a long way to go. But before we can change a nation, we must be members of it. And to be a member of a nation is to love it with our hands and heads and hearts… to be a patriot.

To all those old American patriots who got us to where we are today and to all those young American patriots ready to stick it out through this decade’s storm and continue the work of leaving our country better off than we found it: a happy 4th of July to you!

Snakes and Samaritans

A lawyer once asked Jesus of Nazareth what one must do to be on the path of righteousness. Jesus answered with two challenges: first, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart,” and second, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer responded, as lawyers tend to do, with a meticulous question about particular definitions, asking Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” This happened to be one of the most important clarifying questions in world history. To answer it, Jesus launched into a parable, one which two millennia later, is perhaps his most beloved: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here’s how it goes (paraphrased from Luke 10:25-37):

There’s a man walking on a road to Jericho. He’s attacked by robbers, stripped of clothes and left for dead. One guy walks passed him. Another guy walks passed him. Everybody walks passed him… except for one guy, the Good Samaritan, who, instead of walking passed him, walked up to him, bandaged him up, took him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn. He gave the innkeeper money to look after him and said he would be back to check on him.

Jesus ended his parable with a question for the lawyer: “Who was being the most neighborly to the stranger?” The lawyer responded, “The one who had mercy on him… the one who entered into his troubles.” Then Jesus advised: “Go and do likewise.”

In his speech this week marking a hundred days in office, Donald Trump read from the lyrics of a song, “The Snake,” a riff he had perfected in his 2016 campaign stump speech. Here’s how the song goes:

“On her way to work one morning, down the path alongside the lake, a tender-hearted woman saw a poor half-frozen snake. His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew; ‘Oh well,’ she cried, ‘I’ll take you in and I’ll take care of you.’ ‘Take me in tender woman; take me in, for heaven’s sake; take me in, tender woman,’ sighed the snake. She wrapped him up all cozy in a comforter of silk and laid him by her fireside with some honey and some milk. She hurried home from work that night and, soon as she arrived, she found that pretty snake she’d taken to had been revived. She clutched him to her bosom: ‘you’re so beautiful,’ she cried. ‘But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died.’ She stroked his pretty skin again and kissed and held him tight. Instead of saying thanks, the snake gave her a vicious bite. ‘I saved you,” cried the woman. ‘And you’ve bitten me, but why? You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die.’ ‘Oh shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin.‘You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.’”

The message of Trump’s parable is not just opposed to Jesus’ parable– it is, in fact, the direct inverse of it. Jesus’ lesson is that we should turn the strangers we encounter into neighbors by reaching out a helping hand. Trump’s lesson is that to help a stranger is foolish, for people from outside groups possess certain inherently dangerous qualities, just like animals.

With his parable, Trump is not only failing to practice tenderness– he is actively condemning it. As Pope Francis explained in his TED talk this past week, tenderness “is the love that comes close and becomes real.” To be tender is “to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other… to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.” It is to be “on the same level as the other,” lowering ourselves, as God has, so that we can best speak “the real, concrete language of love.” Loving one another, acknowledging one another, listening to one another, humbling ourselves to care for one another… this is what Trump is rejecting when he mocks the tender-hearted.

Francis reminds us that “tenderness is not weakness… it is fortitude.” Tenderness is the path that “the strongest, most courageous men and women” choose. To be unable to practice tenderness is, in fact, a sure sign of weakness. And when power is bestowed on men who are too weak to practice tenderness, Francis warns, bad things happen.

A weak man can be neighborly to those who are exactly like him. A weak people can hold together a nation where everybody looks and thinks and acts the same.

But the challenge and promise of America is that we don’t look and think and act the same. To be held together as a nation, we need to do the hard work of turning strangers into neighbors. To do this work, we need to be strong… strong enough to practice tenderness. This is the work of mercy that makes a country what it is: not the thickening of its outlines, but the deepening of its solidarity. We are fortified as a country by our open hearts, not our closed borders.

If I die from a snake bite, so be it. We’re all going to die some day. We can’t control how or when it happens, no matter how much security we have. What we can control is how we live while we are alive. And I would rather die as a neighbor than live as a stranger.

The Scharff Alternative

(originally published in the Falls Church News-Press)

In the late 1950s, the social critic Paul Goodman tasked himself with figuring out why so many young people were failing to adjust to society and instead turning to lives of, as it was called back then, “juvenile delinquency.” Whereas many had already put forth their own culprits – rock and roll, Soviets, soft fathers, etc. – Goodman’s conclusion would stand out because he would be the first to argue, shockingly, that perhaps society was not worth adjusting to. Goodman titled his “report” Growing Up Absurd and made the case that the white picket fence lifestyle that kids were failing to prepare for was neither meaningful nor enlivening. Later on, Martin Luther King echoed Goodman, telling young people that they should be “proud to be maladjusted” to common evils like bigotry, poverty, and militarism.

Because of teachers like Goodman and King, a generation built an alternative to their parents’ suffocating Mad Men culture. But, as happens with the passage of time, when my generation reached high school, new absurdities had cropped up. To be a well-adjusted Millennial teen was to curate your individual identity at the shopping mall, praise the profiteers of the latest digital distractions, and study hard in school so as to “compete in the global economy.” When we resisted this path, most adults told us: there is no alternative.

However, if you were lucky enough to wander into the social studies wing at George Mason High School over the past 18 years, there was always an alternative waiting for you. There was someone there who would encourage you to listen to that voice whispering from your social conscience. There was a teacher there who saw education not as the pouring of the previous generation’s knowledge into the next generation’s empty heads, but rather as the sparking of our curiosity and moral imagination. His name is Jamie Scharff and he is retiring this year after 29 years of service.

Scharff avoided the pitfalls of the run-of-the-mill gadfly teacher. First, he did not hide his beliefs behind a faux neutrality. In fact, everyone at school knew what he thought about things. But he would not let us take his word for it and would follow up any opinion with ardent recommendations of books to read, documentaries to watch and thinkers to check out if we wanted to learn more.

Second, Scharff never let his students get cynical. He always paired criticism of the latest modern absurdity with positive alternatives of communities fighting back. Some days it was documentaries on worker cooperatives. Other days it was articles on indigenous communities fighting climate change. Sometimes it was Scharff’s own choices, like when he would explain why he taught a certain way or how his house’s geothermal system worked. Perhaps my favorite example is how, whenever a quiz bowl tournament got too competitive – Scharff was the coach of Mason’s team (and, yes, there is a funny irony to a teacher who despises fact-based education coaching a sport based on memorizing facts) – Scharff would call the team into a huddle and pretend to draw out basketball plays to run, a reminder that we were all there – in the tournament, and perhaps on this Earth, generally – to have fun, learn, and work together.

Just like how Kafka’s distinct style earned him his own adjective, Scharff’s blend of social criticism, humane hope and hearty jokes did, too. Over the years, I have often heard Mason alumni refer to certain challenges to the conventional wisdom as “Scharffish.” And perhaps Scharff’s greatest legacy is the hundreds of students who are bringing Scharffish perspectives to their work around the world. Ralph Nader (who Scharff turned us on to) once said that “the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” And that’s just what Scharff did.

Pete Seeger (who Scharff introduced to us, too, of course) used to share a parable about a big seesaw. The side of the seesaw on the ground had rocks of injustice on it. The end in the air had a basket quarter-filled with sand. Some people, Seeger explained, have teaspoons and are trying to fill up the basket, one teaspoon of sand at a time. Most people are scoffing at them, saying they are putting in all this work and nothing is changing. But one day, Seeger reminds us, that basket is going to be so full that the whole seesaw is going to flip in the other direction. And people are going to ask, “how did it happen so suddenly?” The answer, of course, is: all those teaspoons over the years.

One day, some of my generation’s seesaws will flip and we will overcome a few of the unjust absurdities of our day. When people ask how it happened, here’s the answer: the countless teaspoons from people like Jamie Scharff.

The Harvard Law Forum, Spring 2017 Roundup

I have been running the Harvard Law Forum, Harvard Law’s speaker series, for a year now.  Here’s a round-up of talks from the past year:

Beyond Resistance with Heather McGhee – April 10, 2017

Demos President Heather McGhee is a national leader in the fight for working families. Demos is a public policy organization working for an America where “we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.” McGhee’s opinions, writing and research have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Hill, Meet the Press, among other publications. She is one of The Root’s 23 Black Political Pundits You Should Know and one of Grist’s 50 People You’ll Be Talking about in 2016.

On April 10, 2017, she came to the Harvard Law Forum to show how students can help progressive organizations earn and deserve the trust of the majority of Americans who reject Trumpism by moving beyond resistance and towards helping restore working families to power.

Building a Moral Economy with Elizabeth & Matt Bruenig – April 5, 2017

Elizabeth Bruenig and Matt Bruenig are considered by some to be the moral politics dream team of the Millennial generation. Elizabeth is an assistant editor at the Washington Post, whose writing focuses on ethics, politics, and culture from a Catholic social justice perspective. Matt is an incisive poverty analyst and Twitter sage who has written for Jacobin, Demos, The Atlantic, Dissent and The Washington Post.

They came to the Harvard Law Forum on April 5 to give a one-two punch of moral vision and economic analysis to wake up Harvard Law students to the imperative of working towards a moral economy.

The Fight for Prison Education with Vince Greco – March 30, 2017

Vince Greco is one of the leading formerly incarcerated prison reform advocates in Maryland. He is member of the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform and Out for Justice. He is a beneficiary of prison education and during his three decade incarceration was a leader on the inside in expanding college programs to Maryland prisons.

On March 30, 2017, he spoke at the Harvard Law Forum on the importance of prison education.

Hope, Change and Community with Sr. Simone Campbell – March 22, 2017

Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, has served as Executive Director of the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice since 2004. She is a religious leader, attorney and poet with extensive experience in public policy and advocacy for systemic change. In Washington, she lobbies on issues of economic justice, immigration reform, and healthcare.

On March 22, 2017, Sr. Campbell came to Harvard Law School to speak about moral vocation building and advancing Catholic social justice values in the Trump era.

Why Trump? What Now? with Michael Sandel – March 22, 2017

Two decades ago, in his book Democracy’s Discontent, Michael Sandel warned that, absent a stronger civic republican spirit, liberalism would collapse, giving way to “those who would shore up borders, harden the distinction between insiders and outsiders, and promise a politics to ‘take back our culture and take back our county.’”

On February 22, 2017, the Harvard Law School Forum hosted Sandel to give his take on politics in the age of Trump.

What Motivates Millennials?

(originally published in the Falls Church News-Press)

Much ink has been spilled about what Democrats can do to win back the Rust Belt voters who switched from voting Obama in 2012 to voting Trump in 2016. Unfortunately, not enough focus has been given to a group that might be easier to reach in the coming years: young eligible voters who chose not to vote at all. Half of all Millennials stayed home on Election Day, a phenomenon that assuredly drove the election’s outcome: while Trump won Seniors 52%-45%, Trump lost Millennials 37%-55%. If Democrats want to win the next election, they would be smart to think about what would motivate those 24 million young people who last year’s candidates failed to inspire to vote.

When confronted with this challenge, party strategists tend to employ two misguided strategies. Their first strategy is to deploy what I call “civic engagement finger-wagging”: criticizing young people’s disengagement by appealing to platitudes about the almost-religious importance of voting (like “people died so that you could vote” or “It doesn’t matter who you vote for: just vote!”).

This strategy is ineffective, because people do not vote because they care about voting: they vote because they care about the deeper projects for which their votes stand. To be invested in voting, you have to be invested in a direction in which you want the country to move. To be invested in a direction in which your country could move, you have to be invested in your country. If we do not connect young people to their country — by engaging them in the public life of their own neighborhoods and towns — and if we do not empower young people to imagine themselves as being able to lead their country in a fresh direction — by respecting their ideas and fostering their initiatives — then young people will never become invested in voting.

A second misguided strategy that politicians use to motivate Millennials is to highlight political issues in which Millennials, they perceive, have a self-interest. They think they will win over Millennials by, say, talking about the national debt (“you know, you’re going to have to pay for this one day!”) or narrowly focusing on, say, student loans or legalizing pot.

This is also ineffective, because it appeals to young people as self-centered consumers rather than as moral-centered citizens. Our consumer preferences might motivate us to buy one toothbrush over another, but they will not motivate us to participate in something as beautifully irrational as casting our lone ballot in with millions of others. To vote, we need to first become part of something bigger than ourselves, a process which requires politicians to appeal, in Lincoln’s words, to “the better angels of our nature.”

The great sociologist Emile Durkheim warned of two paths to societal unhappiness. One was insufficient individualism: society requesting too much of its members and overwhelming people. We all know about the dangers of this type of society: our culture is replete with tales of iconoclastic individuals liberating themselves from the constraints of oppressive roles.
Durkheim’s other unfortunate path, however, is much less discussed. This is the path of “anomie” or excessive individualism: society providing little moral guidance to individuals, because the bonds of community, mentorship, care, and responsibility had broken down. Millennials today, perhaps more than any other generation, suffer under a state of anomie. We are given infinite choice and total consumer freedom. But we yearn for solidarity: a sense of belonging and purpose. If done in a spirit of solidarity, politics has the potential to be be one antidote to our generational isolation and drift.

Perhaps a lesson can be drawn from the story of civic organizations in the past decades. When mid-century community groups were seeing declining numbers, civic leaders split on what to do to stop the bleeding. Half of the organizations thought the best way forward was to ask less of their members: to loosen each members’ required commitments by demanding less time and less effort from each of them. The other half thought the best way was to ask more of their members: to re-affirm members’ required commitments by calling for more time and more effort from them. Surprisingly, organizations that loosened their requirements continued to wither and organizations who re-affirmed their requirements became vibrant again. Indeed, people are drawn to groups that demand enough of them to become a part of their identity.

If we are to meet the immense public challenges of our age, we young people need to make long-term civic commitments. Fortunately, as many of our elders know, these day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out, decade-in-decade-out commitments are a path to great joy. We need their help to teach us of what the poet Jack Gilbert put best: “not the marvelous act” but “the beauty that is of many days… the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”