‘Between the Lines’: a Civic Sermon

Reading keeps us free. Our imagination keeps us free. And our stories keep us free. Civic Nebraska's Steve Smith discusses how we can claim and focus all three.

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On June 26, 2021, Steve Smith, Civic Nebraska’s director of communications and a 2020-21 Civic Saturday fellow, delivered the following “civic sermon” during a Civic Saturday gathering at Francie & Finch Bookshop in Lincoln, Nebraska. Learn more about Civic Saturdays here.

 Listen to this sermon below.

Because this is a place for stories, I’d like to start with one.

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Leslie. Leslie worked in the travel industry. This was how she had built a successful career over the years. So it wouldn’t have been a stretch to assume that she would spend the rest of her working years working in the travel industry.

One day, Leslie was on a work trip – fittingly, on an airplane. She was bored. So she picked up an in-flight magazine and flipped through it. And she stopped on an article about, of all things, the resurgence of independent bookstores.

She thought: “You know, that’s what I would do if I could.”

In her mind’s eye, Leslie saw a place like this – a shop weaved into the fabric of the community, yet with its own unique and unmistakable character that could place it anywhere in the world. She imagined the customers moving between the shelves, pulling down books with a mixture of curiosity and wonder. She envisioned having conversations at the counter about the stories within these walls. She pictured the bookseller’s ultimate joy: A customer finding something that became, to them, a life-changing book.

Now, that? That’s the kind of imagination that creates something special.

Now, I’m sure Leslie will tell you that it’s taken a little more than simply imagination to make this bookshop a success. Like persistence, the tenacity required to challenge barriers and ask “what if.” Just like Francie Nolan, the little girl in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. And, by being curious and asking hard questions of herself and others, just like Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Francie. Finch. Hey! I just got that!

Most of all: Francie & Finch started with an idea, and it became a reality. And we’re glad it did. Bookshops like these inhabit an important place in our democracy. They’re houses of ideas. Ideas that give us the power to govern ourselves, even while we entertain ourselves.

That’s what reading does. Reading keeps us free.

It certainly made us free. Many of our Founders were authors themselves. Some even established libraries in their home states. And most importantly, they spent their lifetimes reading: Locke and Rousseau and Hobbes and Montesquieu and other Enlightenment thinkers, whose influence on our nation’s founding creed, our founding documents, is so clear.

Reading made us free. And it keeps us free. It’s why every year Civic Nebraska puts together a Summer of Democracy Reading List to engage, and inspire, and challenge assumptions. It’s also why we wrote a book this year. And it’s why, among all the things that all of us do every day to protect our democracy, there is nothing more important than being active citizen readers.

So today, I want to touch on three things:

First, let’s look at just how reading keeps us free.

Then, let’s look at how imagination keeps us free.

And finally, let’s look at how our stories keep us free.

When I say that reading keeps us free, I mean that very literally.

I mean, authoritarians around the world aren’t exactly encouraging Sunday-night book clubs. The greater the intellectual and cultural isolation of a place, the easier it is for propaganda and disinformation to grow. We know the classic examples. Today, there’s the Great Firewall of China, or the entire nation of North Korea. Governments from Asia to Africa to the Caribbean block the free flow of knowledge. For millions – billions – around the world, the Information Age is a foreign and distant concept.

So. It’s good thing, then, that we’re here in the Land of the Free. Right?

Well, there’s another problem that has taken hold here in America. One that we struggle with. Nearly all of us. Every day.

We all have one of these, right? (holds up a mobile phone)

Yeah.

This is one virus that isn’t going away. Before we even understood what these little buggers were capable of, they transformed the way we processed information.

We can’t say we weren’t told. There are lots of classic twentieth-century novels, from 1984 to Fahrenheit-451, that predicted a world saturated with screens. Screens that entranced people … and spied on and stole from people. In these novels, screens often took the tools that people needed for responsible, active self-government.

Thankfully, these dystopias have not come to pass. Not fully, anyway. Here’s historian Timothy Snyder. He says: “Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable. But the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework.” He goes on: “To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading.”

Reading. It builds empathy, the ability to imagine and understand lives that are different from our own. It reminds us of our revolutionary, generous, and deeply moral commitment to human equality. It expands knowledge and inspires critical thought. The ability to read between the lines. To recognize QAnonsense and base demagoguery. And to reject it.

So, yeah. Reading keeps us free. It gives us the power to pause. To think. To question. To empathize. And, to imagine.

To imagine.

That’s my second point. At the intersection of reading and democracy is imagination.

I’d love to see a show of hands. Who here can say they’re satisfied with the way things are going in America?

(no hands go up)

Not a lot of hands. OK.

Next question: Who here would like to be part of a movement that creates meaningful, positive change in America?

(every hand goes up)

OK! Lots of hands! That looks like consensus.

Final question: Can you picture what that changed world might look like?

How about – what it would take to get there?

Or, how it would function?

Or, which American values come to the fore?

Can you see it?

If you can, you’ve just taken the first and arguably the most important step in making change. You’ve used your mental armory to picture a new future. It happened to Leslie on that flight when this bookshop came to her for the first time. It’s true of our country, too. Of our democracy. If we dare to imagine what a safe, prosperous, healthy America for all looks like, well then. That America is possible.

Piece of cake, right? Of course not! We live in this world. We’re not a bunch of pollyannas. We’re realists. Pragmatists. So that means we accept hard truths.

Here’s a hard truth. We’ve allowed our collective democratic imagination to wane. Haven’t we? We’ve gotten used to being told big things aren’t possible anymore. That progress is too costly. That we don’t deserve a better way. We put the blame for this on our institutions, our politicians, our parties, our media – anybody but ourselves.

But if you are here today, you already know this: America does NOT run on autopilot. We can’t just nudge it in a general direction every four years, and then watch WandaVision or Loki or the latest ball games until it’s time to go vote again. Or not vote again, come to that. Democracy runs on ideas – on our collective imagination. Otherwise, there’s no clear path forward. There’s no aspiration for what a more perfect union looks like. American life would be reduced to one day, the same as the last. Like Orwell’s and Bradbury’s worlds.

We can’t have it. A lack of imagination means democracy dies. So we have to fill it up, relentlessly, with our imaginations. Really fill it up. Think deeply about what our country should look like. What it should feel like. Let it get into our pores, into our bones. To hold it so damned close that it almost hurts. And then, to do everything in our power to bring that feeling to life.

Don’t say it can’t be done. It’s happening around us right now, just south of this bookshop. In the South of Downtown, there are street-level activists like Isabel (Salas, one of today’s Civic Scripture readers), artists, and residents who are telling new narratives. It’s happening in Omaha, with civic storytellers like Culxr House and NOISE and One Omaha. It’s happening in towns and cities across Nebraska, from Panhandle to Platte River. New ideas. New approaches. New ways forward. We just need more. And more. And more.

Because imagination keeps us free. It compels us to ask “what if.” It makes us read between the lines. And to remember that civic power, if we so choose, is right there for us for the taking.

So, yeah, imagination makes us free.

And so do our stories.

I’ll close today by saying this: Bitcoin is all the rage right now. But our oldest, most valuable currency is in our stories. They connect us all across time, across space, across background, across ideology. At a basic, human level.

Our stories make more of us free. A truly representative democracy happens when many voices, taken together, are meaningfully heard. That can only happen if all of us, regardless of who we are, have the ability to tell our stories in a legitimate way.

Every time we open a book by a local author … an author of color … a Native author … a queer author …. we fortify our mental armories, and we fortify our community.

So, here’s the good news about these things (holds up a mobile phone again): Thanks to these things, we can tell our stories in ways that were impossible just 15 years ago. Americans who once couldn’t get their stories out there have mastered these tools and are being heard.

And it’s about time, isn’t it? It’s about time.

That’s why we have a special duty – as citizen readers – to lift up their stories. To find and share and champion words that don’t just repeat what’s said in the daily media. Stories that matter, that break new ground, that provoke, that build empathy, that challenge us – and the status quo.

Because, in our democracy, if we find these stories, we will find ourselves.

Before you leave the shop today – hopefully after picking up a copy of our new book – I hope you also find a great work of modern fiction – or a classic one. Or, maybe an awesome work of travel writing. Or some essays about current events, or culture. Or, a memoir that challenges you, maybe makes you a little uncomfortable.

Word by word, sentence by sentence, volume by volume, this is how we find ourselves. This is how we deepen our convictions, and how we broaden our search for truth. And, yes: In doing this, we build a freer, more equal, more loving society.

These days, it’s unavoidable to hear people talk about the end of America. But this kind of talk has always been there. It’s echoed throughout our national story. And each time, the story has gone another way.

Now it’s our turn.

And so, because this is a place for stories, I’d like to finish with one.

Once upon a time, citizens of a powerful, yet unsettled nation found themselves emerging from a once-in-a-century crisis. Instead of turning back to the way things were beforehand, though, they decided on a different path. Together, they paused. They read. They imagined. And in doing so, they reclaimed their country’s founding creed. They refused to submit to the sound and the fury raging across their screens. With determination, and with joy, they took up their duty of reimagining …

… and redefining …

… and remaking America. Again.

The end?

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3 months ago

Each and every one of us has a role in making our democracy function. Thanks Steve for challenging and showing us.

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