The Struggle to Stay Human Amid the Fight

World War I and the adversarial mentality.

It’s the eternal argument. When you are fighting a repulsive foe, the ends justify any means and serve as rationale for any selfishness.

Dax’s struggle is not to change the war or to save lives. That’s impossible. The war has won. The struggle is simply to remain a human being, to maintain some contact with goodness in circumstances that are inhumane.

Disillusionment was the classic challenge for the generation that fought and watched that war. Before 1914, there was an assumed faith in progress, a general trust in the institutions and certainties of Western civilization. People, especially in the educated classes, approached life with a gentlemanly, sporting spirit.

As Paul Fussell pointed out in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” the upper classes used genteel words in place of plain ones: slumber for sleep, the heavens for the sky, conquer for win, legion for army.

The war blew away that gentility, those ideals and that faith in progress. Ernest Hemingway captured the rising irony and cynicism in “A Farewell to Arms.” His hero is embarrassed “by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression, in vain.” He had seen nothing sacred in the war, nothing glorious, just meaningless slaughter.

.. European culture suffered a massive disillusion during the conflict — no God, no beauty, no coherence, no meaning, just the cruel ironic joke of life. Cynicism breeds a kind of nihilism, a disbelief in all values, an assumption that others’ motives are bad.

Fussell wrote that the war spread an adversarial mentality. The men in the trenches were obsessed with the enemy — those anonymous creatures across no man’s land who rained down death. “Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama,” he wrote.

The “versus habit” construes reality as us versus them — a mentality that spread through British society. It was the officers versus the men, and, when they got home, the students at university versus the dons.

George Orwell wrote that he recognized the Great War mentality lingering even in the 1930s in his own left-wing circles — the same desire to sniff out those who departed from party orthodoxy, the same retelling of mostly false atrocity stories, the same war hysteria. As Christopher Isherwood put it, all the young people who were ashamed of never having fought in the war brought warlike simplicities to political life.

.. Some of the disillusioned drop out of public life, since it’s all meaningless. But others want to burn it all down because it’s all rotten. Moderation is taken for cowardice. Aggression is regarded as courage. No conciliatory word is permitted when a fighting word will do.

Today we face no horrors equal to the Great War, but there is the same loss of faith in progress, the reality of endless political trench warfare, the paranoid melodrama, the specter that we are all being dehumanized amid the fight.

A Really Good Thing Happening in America

A strategy for community problem-solving does an extraordinary job at restoring our social fabric.

.. SAM embodies a new civic architecture, which has become known as the “collective impact” approach. Americans feel alienated from and distrustful toward most structures of authority these days, but this is one they can have faith in.
..  it creates an informal authority structure that transcends public-sector/private-sector lines, that rallies cops and churches, the grass roots and the grass tops.

Members put data in the center and use it as a tool not for competition but for collaboration. Like the best social service organizations, it is high on empathy and high on engineering. It is local, participatory and comprehensive.

.. Cincinnati had plenty of programs. What it lacked was an effective system to coordinate them.

.. Collective impact structures got their name in 2011, when John Kania and Mark Kramer wrote an influential essay for the Stanford Social Innovation Review in which they cited StriveTogether and provided the philosophical and theoretical basis for this kind of approach.

.. Such structures are now being used to address homelessness, hunger, river cleanup and many other social ills. Collective impact approaches have had their critics over the years, in part for putting too much emphasis on local elites and not enough on regular parents (which is fair).

.. Frankly, I don’t need studies about outcomes to believe that these collective impact approaches are exciting and potentially revolutionary. Trust is built and the social fabric is repaired when people form local relationships around shared tasks.

David Brooks and Mark Shields with Jeff Greenfield

When commentators of the caliber of syndicated columnist Mark Shields and The New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks get together to discuss today’s major issues, you know you’re in for an illuminating and stimulating evening. The PBS “NewsHour” sparring partners will present their views, analyze the day’s news and maybe even make a prediction or two on the outcomes of election 2016. Moderated by Jeff Greenfield.

Where American Renewal Begins

A Baltimore-based community program provides the architecture for kids’ success.

.. I am constantly using this column to argue that social fragmentation and social isolation are the fundamental problems afflicting America today. Organizations like Thread are the best way to address them.
Thread has taken 415 academically underperforming students in Baltimore schools and built an extended family around them, with about 1,000 volunteers. Each student is given up to five volunteers, who perform the jobs that a family member would perform.
.. Each volunteer is coached by a more experienced volunteer, called the Head of Family. The Head of Family is coached by a Grandparent, who supports the Head. The Grandparents are coached by Community Managers, who are paid Thread staffers. Circling the whole system are Collaborators, who offer special expertise when called in — legal help, SAT tutoring, mental health counseling, etc.
.. The students are lured with free pizza and asked if they would like to join the program. They are told they will be in it for 10 years, until they are in their 20s. They sign a contract demonstrating commitment, and no one has left early.

For the first few months, the students often reject the relationships. “You expect people not to be there for you,” says Marcus, one of the students. Trust is built by persistence through failure.

“Unconditional love is so rare in life that it is identity-changing when somebody keeps showing up even when you reject them. It is also identity-changing to be the one rejected.”

Thread also has an app called Tapestry. It tracks every time a volunteer has a touchpoint with one of the students — driving to school, sharing a meal. Hemminger calls it the Fitbit of social relationships. Tapestry can track how often a student has touchpoints, who hasn’t had a touchpoint, how many touchpoints lead to what outcomes.

.. Thread cultivates an ethos of utter vulnerability, which starts at the top. Hemminger and her staff are very open when they don’t know what they are doing and need help.

They are very, very open when they are hurting.

.. That vulnerability stretches throughout. Teenagers, who usually have their armor up with strangers, told me all about the stresses in their life, their fears and their mental health challenges.

.. The program rejects any distinction between haves and have-nots. The volunteers are not there to do social change. They are there to be changed. The word “mentor” is banned because everybody is leaning on everybody else.

.. These days, I spend my mornings writing depressing columns about a political culture marred by distrust and my afternoons visiting places like Thread. There is no way to repair national distrust without repairing individual relationships one by one. This is where American renewal begins.