In praise of an editor past

Frances William Browin from the Sep­tem­ber 15, 1968 Friends Jour­nal.

When I became an edi­tor at Friends Jour­nal in 2011, I inher­it­ed an insti­tu­tion with some rather strong opin­ions. Some of them are sourced from the pre­dictable well­springs: William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s foun­da­tion­al mid-century style guide and the edi­to­r­i­al offices of the Chica­go Man­u­al of Style. But some is all our own, log­i­cal­ly test­ed for con­sis­ten­cy with Chica­go but adapt­ed to Quak­er idio­syn­crasies.

One of our most invari­able (and con­test­ed) for­mats comes from the way we list con­gre­ga­tions. Quick aside for non-Quakers: you will often see a Quak­er meet­ing list­ed as  Town Month­ly Meet­ing, Town Friends Meet­ing, Town Quak­er Meet­ing, etc. Peo­ple often have strong opin­ions about the cor­rect ways to write them out. Occa­sion­al­ly an author will insist to me that their meet­ing has an offi­cial name that use con­sis­tent­ly across their pub­li­ca­tions, busi­ness min­utes, Face­book pages etc., but after a few min­utes with Google I can usu­al­ly find enough counter-examples to prove incon­sis­ten­cy.

To cut through this, Friends Jour­nal uses “Town (State) Meet­ing” every­where and always, with spe­cif­ic excep­tions only for cas­es where that doesn’t work (meet­ing is named after a street or a tree, etc.). Town/state abbre­vi­a­tion in parentheses/capital-M–meet­ing. This for­mat­ting is unique to Friends Jour­nal—even oth­er Philadelphia-based Quak­er style sheets don’t fol­low it. We’ve been doing it this dis­tinc­tive­ly and this con­sis­tent­ly for as long as I’ve been read­ing the mag­a­zine.

For­tu­nate­ly we have dig­i­tal archives going back to the mid-1950s thanks to Haver­ford College’s Quak­er and Spe­cial Col­lec­tions. So a few months ago I dug into our archives and used key­word search­es to see how far back the for­mat goes. Trav­el­ing the years back it time it’s held remark­ably steady as “Town (State) Meet­ing” until we get back to the fall of 1962. The Octo­ber 15 issue doesn’t have con­sis­tent meet­ing list­ings. But it does announce that long­time Friends Jour­nal edi­tor William Hubben was to begin a six-month sab­bat­i­cal, with Frances Williams Browin to fill in as act­ing edi­tor.

It didn’t take her long. The next issue sees a few paren­the­ses uneven­ly applied. But by the Novem­ber 15th issue, nine­teen meet­ings are ref­er­enced using our famil­iar for­mat! There’s the “mem­ber of Berke­ley (Calif.) Meet­ing” who had just pub­lished a pam­phlet of Christ­mas songs for chil­dren, an FCNL event fea­tur­ing skits and a covered-dish sup­per at “Swarth­more (Pa.) Meet­ing” and the announce­ment of a promi­nent arti­cle by “Ken­neth E. Bould­ing, a mem­ber of Ann Arbor (Michi­gan) Meet­ing.”

I’ve tried to imag­ine the scene… Browin sit­u­at­ed in her new tem­po­rary office… going back and forth, forth and back on some list­ing… then final­ly sur­pris­ing her­self by shout­ing “enough!” so loud­ly she had to apol­o­gize to near­by col­leagues. At the end of the six months, Hubben came back, but only as a con­tribut­ing edi­tor, and Browin was named edi­tor. Friends Jour­nal board mem­ber Eliz­a­beth B Wells wrote a pro­file of her upon her retire­ment from that posi­tion in 1968:

Her remarks usu­al­ly made sparks, whether she was express­ing an opin­ion (always pos­i­tive), exert­ing pres­sure (not always gen­tle), or mak­ing a humor­ous aside (often dis­turb­ing). For in her ami­able way she can be tart, unex­pect­ed, even prej­u­diced (in the right direc­tion), then as sud­den­ly dis­arm­ing­ly warm and sen­si­tive.

This sounds like the kind of per­son who would stan­dard­ize a for­mat with such resolve it would be going strong 55 years lat­er:

She was so entire­ly com­mit­ted to putting out the best pos­si­ble mag­a­zine, such a per­fec­tion­ist, even such a dri­ver, that her clos­est col­leagues often felt that we knew the spir­it­ed edi­tor far bet­ter than the Quak­er lady.

It’s a neat pro­file. And today, every time an author rewrites their meeting’s name on a copy­edit­ed man­u­script I’ve sent them for review, I say a qui­et thanks to the dri­ven per­fec­tion­ist who gives me per­mis­sion to be prej­u­diced in the right direc­tion. Wells’s pro­file is a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse into a smart woman of a dif­fer­ent era and well worth a read.

Remembering Christine Greenland

Over email, the news that Chris­tine Manville Green­land has passed. In recent times I worked with Chris­tine most­ly through the Tract Asso­ci­a­tion of Friends but I’ve known her for so long I don’t know when I first met her.

When­ev­er she said some­thing it was well worth lis­ten­ing to. On online forums from Soc.religion.quaker to Face­book she was always encour­ag­ing to what Samuel Bow­nas had called “infant min­is­ters.” She had the rare abil­i­ty to slice through thorny Quak­er issues with unex­pect­ed obser­va­tion and wis­dom. She had a long view of recent Quak­er his­to­ry that put things in con­text and she would pull metaphors from her train­ing as a botanist to explain mys­ti­fy­ing behav­iors in our core­li­gion­ists.

She also had a wealth of insti­tu­tion­al mem­o­ry. There’s incred­i­ble val­ue in this. Friends, like most humans, give a lot of val­ue to the ways we’re doing things right now. It only takes a few years before a process feels time­less and essen­tial. We for­get that things once worked dif­fer­ent­ly or that oth­er Friends have a dif­fer­ent meth­ods. By being involved with Friends in dif­fer­ent areas — Cana­da and Col­orado — Chris­tine brought geo­graph­ic aware­ness and by being involved in Philadel­phia so long she brought a mod­ern his­tor­i­cal aware­ness. That dys­func­tion­al meet­ing everyone’s talk­ing about? She’ll remem­ber that every­one was talk­ing about it thir­ty years ago for anoth­er con­tro­ver­sy and point out the sim­i­lar­i­ties. That doubt you’ll have about a path? Chris­tine will tell you how oth­ers have felt the lead­ing and assure you that it’s gen­uine.

She did all this with such gen­tle­ness and mod­esty that it’s only now that she’s gone that I’m real­iz­ing the debt I owe her. More than any­thing per­haps, she showed how to live a life as a Friend of integri­ty through the pol­i­tics and foibles of our Reli­gious Soci­ety.

I used Google to find pre­cious gems of wis­dom she left on com­ment threads. It’s a long trail. She was active on soc.religion.quaker back in the day, com­ment­ed on most Con­ver­gent Friends blogs and was active on Face­book. She took the time to write many enlight­en­ing and warm com­men­tary. Here is a ran­dom sam­ple.

Com­ment on my post “Vision and Lead­er­ship”

Yes­ter­day, I  clerked a small quar­ter­ly meet­ing work­ing group — I’m co-clerk, since it  isn’t my quar­ter… and the oth­er co-clerk is, which works well. We keep ask­ing the ques­tions and see­ing the poten­tials … but when it comes down to being faith­ful (a term I use instead of “account­able”) that needs con­sis­tent test­ing. It is impor­tant to cen­ter in wor­ship, no mat­ter what we are doing.

I had the expe­ri­ence of being chair of a group of biol­o­gists, and found that, even then, I con­duct­ed busi­ness in the same way… one of seek­ing guid­ance from oth­er mem­bers of the group — even though the group of which we were a small part used Robert’s rules of order. I felt our group was too small to make that approach work­able… Occa­sion­al­ly, I for­got I wasn’t among Friends until anoth­er mem­ber of the group (a Unit­ed Church grad­u­ate of Swarth­more Col­lege) remind­ed me… Church of the Brethren folks just grinned and allowed as how they pre­ferred the approach; we were, after all, both friends and biol­o­gists.  For most of us, the work had both a sci­en­tif­ic and a spir­i­tu­al basis.

To Mic­ah Bales’s “Is It Time to Get Rid of Year­ly Meet­ings?”

I checked in with Friends at our Quar­ter­ly Meet­ing pic­nic yes­ter­day; respons­es were mixed for a vari­ety of rea­sons, some hav­ing to do with resis­tance to chang­ing the ways in which we are Friends, and oth­er respons­es that I can only describe as “insti­tu­tion­al cheer-leading”.

Some of this has to do with expect­ed ten­sions as we grap­ple with mat­ters of both race and class; still oth­er mat­ters have to do with the fact that our struc­tures have changed at least twice in 30 years, as has the out­line of our faith and prac­tice. The ques­tion I have (of myself and oth­ers) is “How do we — indi­vid­u­al­ly and cor­po­rate­ly — show that we tru­ly love one anoth­er as Christ has loved us?” By that, I mean all oth­ers.

The most hope­ful exchange was speak­ing with a dear Friend in my for­mer meet­ing who had gone for the first time in decades, and feels strong­ly led to encour­age her meet­ing to assist in work going on at both the quar­ter and year­ly meet­ing lev­el; this will cross bound­aries. I was hope­ful in part because this Friend exudes con­sis­tent love. … and has in the 25 years I’ve known her. Love of God/neighbor are insep­a­ra­ble. She lives that bet­ter than I do.

It seems I have much to learn.

Com­ment on my “What Does it Mean to be a Quak­er?” (on an old site)

I cringe when I hear the word “Quak­erism” or “the Quak­er Way”… I find the two terms inter­change­able — both can lack sub­stance. It seems we have final­ly become the “bureau­crat­ic asso­ci­a­tion of dis­tant acquan­tances” rather than the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends. Some years ago, an expe­ri­enced Friend wrote that Integri­ty (say­ing what one means, mean­ing what one says) was at the heart of Quak­er Prac­tice — as a tes­ti­mo­ny.

If we’re just going for PR, that lacks integri­ty.

The ques­tion — for me — becomes “How can I live as a Friend?”

Com­ment on Eric Moon’s “Cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly Not the Tes­ti­monies”

When I first came to Friends, it was the way of life — not the intel­lec­tu­al con­struct — that drew me to meet­ing week after week (a uni­ver­si­ty meet­ing in what lat­er became Inter­moun­tain Year­ly Meet­ing). When I applied for mem­ber­ship, my com­mit­tee of clear­ness ques­tioned more whether I could live into a way of life, into the com­mu­ni­ty of that par­tic­u­lar meet­ing. Friends felt that wrestling with the under­stand­ing of the faith tra­di­tion was a part of my edu­ca­tion. Only after I moved to Philadel­phia did I begin hear­ing of the “pars­ing” of the faith tra­di­tion. It seemed too pat.

Still, the over­lap­ping cat­e­gories are still as use­ful by way of expla­na­tion, but it isn’t the whole sto­ry.

As with many mat­ters of faith, for those who pos­sess it, no expla­na­tion is nec­es­sary; for those who do not, no expla­na­tion is pos­si­ble. Howard Brin­ton did his best by way of expla­na­tion, but faith-wrestling is a task we all have.

Com­ment on Ash­ley Wilcox’s The Cost of Trav­el­ing Min­istry

My ques­tion about younger Friends serv­ing as trav­el­ing min­is­ters is some­what more seri­ous: Are their meet­ings atten­tive to both the spir­i­tu­al gifts and the needs (cost of trav­el, etc.)as well as the spir­i­tu­al need for sup­port. If not, is the Friend with a con­cern for trav­el, teach­ing, or any oth­er min­istry) hum­ble enough to ask the ques­tions Jon is ask­ing. In my expe­ri­ence (as an old­er adult Friend)there is lit­tle com­mu­ni­ca­tion among age groups so that gifts of min­istry are ful­ly rec­og­nized… Young Friends are often left to their own devices. It may be that lack of spir­i­tu­al sup­port that is the “last door out.”

For instance, I would not trav­el with­out the full con­sent of my past com­mit­tee of care, all of whom know me well. They have gen­er­ous­ly sup­port­ed me this year (as well as my co-leader).

What con­cerns me is the ener­gy it takes (spir­i­tu­al and phys­i­cal), and that it most often takes an elder to attend to the mun­dane things — as well as to keep the min­is­ter on track.

She was also always one to think of the kids. Here she is com­ment­ing on Kath­leen Karhnak-Glasby’s “Bring­ing Chil­dren to Wor­ship: Trust­ing God to Take Over from There”

I recall one par­ent of a small meet­ing in Ontario at Cana­di­an Year­ly Meet­ing ses­sions try­ing to encour­age his daugh­ter to sit qui­et­ly dur­ing wor­ship… Her very rea­son­able response was “but Dad­dy, I can pray stand­ing on my head!” Her min­istry caused me to reflect on whether I could indeed pray/worship in all cir­cum­stances, and from what­ev­er posi­tion I was in at the time. I still reflect on that…

At anoth­er meet­ing, when Friends noticed the pow­er strug­gles between chil­dren and their par­ents, we asked elder Friends to serve as “adop­tive” grand­par­ents, with whom the chil­dren could sit… That defused the pow­er strug­gles, and mem­bers of meet­ing who had no chil­dren of their own were very help­ful to par­ents in that meet­ing.

I also recall learn­ing to sink deeply into wor­ship — and hear­ing a younger Friend’s grand­moth­er gig­gle. I looked down and there was the 1 – 2 year old peer­ing up in won­der at why/how I could sit so qui­et­ly when he was busy crawl­ing under the bench­es. it was just fine. He became a part of my prayers that day, and still is a part of them.

And this one has to be the last I’ll share, from a Quak­erQuak­er dis­cus­sion start­ed by Richard B Miller and titled “Elders’ Cor­ner”

Like you, I learned about the role of elders from Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends (in Cana­da and Ohio).  In the con­text of my own meet­ing (and quar­ter), how­ev­er, there are Friends who can and do serve as guides and sound­ing boards — offer­ing cor­rec­tions as may be required.  Ide­al­ly, elders should arise from the month­ly meet­ings, and then be rec­og­nized in larg­er bod­ies of Friends, not nec­es­sar­i­ly being named by a year­ly meet­ing nom­i­nat­ing com­mit­tee.

I was asked to serve as an elder for Year­ly Meeting/Interim Meet­ing… but because I was also on the nom­i­nat­ing com­mit­tee, had a “stop” about whether that was right­ly ordered. I con­sult­ed some North Car­oli­na Friends, who agreed with the “stop”.

One dif­fi­cul­ty that you raised is that many of the con­ser­v­a­tive Friends who held that tra­di­tion are no longer avail­able as guides… One effect is that the role elders once played is dimin­ish­ing among con­ser­v­a­tive Friends.

I’m feel­ing pret­ty bro­ken up right now. And I’m feel­ing the weight of this loss. I’ve found myself more and more to be the one giv­ing out advice and giv­ing his­tor­i­cal con­text that new­er Friends might not have. It’s the kind of perch that Chris­tine had. I’m only start­ing to appre­ci­ate that she formed a gen­tle men­tor­ing role for me — and I’m sure for many oth­ers.

A few years ago my wife and I lost our remain­ing par­ents (her dad, my mom) and we had the unescapable recog­ni­tion that we were now the old­est gen­er­a­tion. I know there are old­er Friends around still and some have bits of Christine’s wit and wis­dom. But one of our human guides have left us.

The demise of online subcultures?

An interesting profile of a niche community affected by the shift of attention from community-led sites to Facebook, “How Facebook – the Wal-Mart of the internet – dismantled online subcultures.”

Over time, these challenges to the BME community became increasingly problematic. Members deleted accounts or stopped posting. By 2015, the main community forum – which used to have hundreds of posts a day – went without a single comment for over six months.

Having predicted many of the web’s functions and features, BME failed to anticipate its own demise.

It’s definitely something I’ve seen in my niche world of Quakers. I started QuakerQuaker as an independent site in part because I didn’t want Google and Facebook and Beliefnet to determine who we are. There’s the obvious problems—Beliefnet hiring a programmer to make a “What Religion Are You?” test based on a few books picked up the library one afternoon.

But there’s also more subtle problems. On Facebook anyone can start or join a group and start talking authoritatively about Quakers without actually being an active community member. I can think of a number of online characters who had never even visiting a Friends meeting or church.

Our tradition built up ways of defining our spokespeople though the practices of recorded ministers and elders, and of clarifying shared beliefs though documents like Faith and Practice. I’ll be the first to argue that this process has produced mixed results. But if it is to be adapted or reformed, I’d like the work to be done by us in a thoughtful, inclusive manner. Instead, the form of our discussions are now invisibly imposed by an outside algorithm that is optimized for obsessive engagement and advertising delivery. Facebook process is not Quaker process, yet it is largely what we use when we talk about Quakers outside of Sunday morning.

I think Facebook has helped alternative communities form. I’m grateful for the pop-up communities of interest I’m part of. And there are sites with more user generated content like Wikipedia and Reddit that hold an interesting middle-ground and where information is generally more accurate. But there’s still a critical role for self-organized independent publications, a niche that I think is continuing to be overshadowed in our current attention ecosystem.

Mixing it up

Back in Novem­ber I start­ed a blog post that ran out of umph and stayed in my drafts. At time time I was react­ing to the pro­gres­sive debates about safe­ty pins as a sym­bol but it seems we’re are in anoth­er round of self-questioning, this time around the Women’s March and oth­er ini­tia­tives. As I find myself fre­quent­ly say­ing, we need lots of dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple orga­niz­ing in lots of dif­fer­ent styles. So maybe this blog posts’s time has come again.

Maybe this is just anoth­er stages of grief but I’ve been notic­ing a num­ber of online dis­cus­sions in which pro­gres­sives are shut­ting down oth­er pro­gres­sives for not being pro­gres­sive enough. Every time I see a pos­i­tive post, I can pre­dict there’s going to be about three enthu­si­as­tic “yes!” com­ments, fol­lowed by a 500-word com­ment explain­ing why the idea isn’t rad­i­cal enough.

Folks, we’ve got big­ger prob­lems than try­ing to fig­ure out who’s the most woke per­son on our Face­book feed.

Suc­cess­ful social change move­ments are always a spec­trum of more or less politically-correct and rad­i­cal voic­es. It’s like a chord in music: strings vibrat­ing on dif­fer­ent fre­quen­cies sound bet­ter togeth­er. Some­times in pol­i­tics you need the crazy rad­i­cals to stir things up and some­times you need the too-cautious lib­er­als to legit­imize the protest mes­sage.

Some years ago I was part of an cam­paign in Philly that tar­get­ed what many of us felt was a pro­pa­gan­da push around Colum­bus Day. An attempt by all of the con­cerned activists to come togeth­er pre­dictably went nowhere. There were too many dif­fer­ences in style and tac­tics and lan­guage and cul­ture. But that break­down in coör­di­na­tion allowed each sub­cul­ture to pick a tac­tic that worked best for them.

The Quak­ers did their vis­i­ble agit­prop lead­ing and got detained. The anar­chists made cre­ative posters and set off sur­rep­ti­tious stink devices. Some anony­mous pranksters sent out fake press releas­es to dis­rupt media cov­er­age. The resul­tant news cov­er­age focused on the sheer diver­si­ty of the protests.

If protest had indeed come from a sin­gle group fol­low­ing a sin­gle tac­tic, the dis­sent would have been buried in the fourth para­graph of the cov­er­age. But the cre­ativ­i­ty made it the focus of the cov­er­age. Diver­si­ty of tac­tics works. Mis­takes will be made. Some pro­gres­sives will be clue­less – maybe even some of the ones con­sid­er­ing them­selves the most woke. It’s okay. We’ll learn as we go along. We might laugh at how we used to think wear­ing safe­ty pins was effec­tive – or we might won­der why we ever thought it was mean­ing­less sym­bol. What­ev­er hap­pens, let’s just encour­age wit­ness wher­ev­er and when­ev­er it’s hap­pen­ing. Let’s be gen­tler on each oth­er.

New from Neil Young

And in all this crazi­ness I missed that Neil Young had just dropped a new tune on us.

And appar­ent­ly, this is just one of four new songs:

Famed rock­er Neil Young has played hun­dreds of towns and cities all over the world since start­ing his illus­tri­ous career in the ’60s, but last night marked his first per­for­mance in the beau­ti­ful moun­tain town of Tel­luride, Col­orado. Neil Young and Promise Of The Real treat­ed fans to a 21-song per­for­mance as part of their first of two con­sec­u­tive shows at Town Park in Tel­luride on Fri­day.

Wheat planting at Howell’s Living History Farm

We’ve got­ten into the habit of vis­it­ing Howell’s Liv­ing His­to­ry Farm up in Mer­cer Coun­ty, N.J., a few times a year as part of home­school­er group trips. In the past, we’ve cut ice, tapped trees for maple syrup, and seen the sheep shear­ing and card­ing. Today we saw the var­i­ous stages of wheat – from plant­i­ng, to har­vest­ing, thresh­ing, win­now­ing, grind­ing, and bak­ing. I love that there’s such a wide vocab­u­lary of spe­cif­ic lan­guage for all this – words I bare­ly know out­side of bib­li­cal para­bles (“Oh wheat from chaff!”) and that there’s great vin­tage machin­ery (Howell’s oper­a­tions are set around the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry).

The Quaker Wars?

Over on Quo­ra, a ques­tion that is more fas­ci­nat­ing than it might at first appear: What wars in his­to­ry were fought in the name of Quak­erism (Soci­ety of Friends)?:

This ques­tion is nei­ther sar­cas­tic nor rhetoric. As many peo­ple insist that vio­lence and atroc­i­ties are an inher­ent part of reli­gions, that reli­gions would cause wars, I real­ly want to know  if that is the truth. Per­son­al­ly I believe reli­gions can be peace­ful, such as in the cas­es of the Quak­ers and the Baha’i, but I might  be wrong. 

The obvi­ous answer should be “none.” Quak­ers are well-known as paci­fists (fun fact: fake can­non used to deceive the ene­my into think­ing an army is more for­ti­fied than it actu­al­ly is are called “Quak­er guns.”) Indi­vid­ual Quak­ers have rarely been quite as unit­ed around the peace tes­ti­mo­ny as our rep­u­ta­tion would sug­gest, but as a group it’s true we’ve nev­er called for a war. I can’t think of any mil­i­tary skir­mish or bat­tle waged to ral­ly­ing cries of “Remem­ber the Quak­ers!”

Quaker guns at Manassas Junction, 1862. Via Wikimedia.
Quak­er guns at Man­as­sas Junc­tion, 1862. Via Wiki­me­dia.

And yet: all of mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion has been shaped by war. Our polit­i­cal bound­aries, our reli­gions, our demo­graph­ic make-up – even the lan­guages we speak are all rem­nants of long-ago bat­tles. One of the most influ­en­tial Quak­er thinkers, the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry min­is­ter John Wool­man, con­stant­ly remind­ed his brethren to con­sid­er those lux­u­ries that are the fruit of war and slav­ery. When we broad­en the scope like this, we’ve been involved in quite a few wars.

  • We like to remem­ber how William Penn found­ing the colony of Penn­syl­va­nia as a reli­gious refuge. But the king of Eng­land held Euro­pean title to the mid-Atlantic seaboard because of small wars with the Dutch and Swedes (and lat­er held onto it only after a much larg­er war with the French New World set­tle­ments).
  • The king’s grant of “Penn’s Woods” was the set­tle­ment of a very large war debt owed to Penn’s father, a wealthy admi­ral. The senior William Penn was some­thing of a scoundrel, play­ing off both sides in every-shifting royalist/Roundhead see­saw of pow­er. His longest-lasting accom­plish­ment was tak­ing Jamaica for the British (Bob Mar­ley sang in Eng­lish instead of Span­ish because of Sir William).
  • By most accounts, William Penn Jr. was fair and also bought the land from local Lenape nations. Most­ly for­got­ten is that the Lenape and Susque­han­nock pop­u­la­tion had been dev­as­tat­ed in a recent region­al war against the Iro­quois over beaver ter­ri­to­ries. The Iro­quois were skill­ful­ly play­ing glob­al pol­i­tics, keep­ing the Eng­lish and French colo­nial empires in enough strate­gic ten­sion that they could pro­tect their land. They want­ed anoth­er British colony on their south­ern flank. The Lenape land reim­burse­ment was sec­ondary.

The thou­sands of acres Penn deed­ed to his fel­low Quak­ers were thus the fruits of three sets of wars: colo­nial wars over the Delaware Val­ley; debt-fueled Eng­lish civ­il wars; and Native Amer­i­can wars fought over access to com­mer­cial resources. Much of orig­i­nal Quak­er wealth in suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions is indebt­ed to this huge land trans­fer in the 1680s, either direct­ly (we still hold some valu­able real estate) or indi­rect­ly (the real estate’s sale could be fun­neled into promis­ing busi­ness­es).

Not all of the fruits of war were sec­ond­hand and coin­ci­den­tal to Friends them­selves. Many wealthy Friends in the mid-Atlantic colonies had slaves who did much of the back­break­ing work of clear­ing fields and build­ing hous­es. That quaint old brick meet­ing­house set back on a flower-covered field? It was prob­a­bly built at least in part by enslaved hands.

And today, it’s impos­si­ble to step free of war. Most of our hous­es are set on land once owned by oth­ers. Our com­put­ers and cell phones have com­po­nents mined in war zones. Our lights and cars are pow­ered by fos­sil fuel extrac­tion. And even with solar pan­els and elec­tric cars, the infra­struc­ture of the dai­ly liv­ing of most Amer­i­cans is still based on extrac­tion and con­trol of resources.

This is not to say we can’t con­tin­ue to work for a world free of war. But it seems impor­tant to be clear-eyed and acknowl­edge the debts we have.

Edward Tufte and classical intellectual inquiry

Near the begin­ning of Edward Tufte’s Beau­ti­ful Evi­dence, he writes “My books are self-exemplifying: the objects them­selves embody the ideas writ­ten about.” The same could be true of his pre­sen­ta­tions.

On a recent Tues­day, Friends Jour­nal spon­sored me to attend one of Tufte’s one-day work­shops. He’s most well-known for his beau­ti­ful books on data visu­al­iza­tions but his work­shop touched on a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics. “The world is way too inter­est­ing to have dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries,” he said at one point as he took us from music to maps to space shut­tles to magi­cians. The range was pur­pose­ful. He was teach­ing us how to think.

I esti­mat­ed a crowd of maybe 450. A large per­cent­age were low-level cor­po­rate types (I over­heard one say “I was not expect­ing that he’d bash Pow­er­Point so much”; this slack­er obvi­ous­ly hadn’t even tak­en five min­utes to skim Tufte’s Wikipedia page). There were small­er mix­es of techie, cre­atives, and design pro­fes­sion­als, some of whom were there after fawn­ing over his books for years. Bonus if you go: part of the work­shop reg­is­tra­tion fee is gratis copies of his books!

I have 13 pages of notes. Some high­lights for me:

  • The heart of much of the work­shop was crit­i­cal think­ing. Tufte dis­sect­ed var­i­ous news web­sites to take us through the ways they gave attri­bu­tion and pre­sent­ed data. He also went through stud­ies and gave var­i­ous point­ers to sniff out when ver­i­fy­ing data was being with­held.
  • “Pro­duc­ing a good pre­sen­ta­tion is a moral and eth­i­cal act.” (dit­to for being an good audi­ence mem­ber). There is a form of civic respon­si­bil­i­ty to inquiry.
  • Tufte is a big believ­er in meet­ings that begin with read­ing. The highest-resolution device most of us have is paper. Peo­ple can read 2 – 3 times faster than a pre­sen­ter can talk. By let­ting peo­ple go at their own pace they can tai­lor the pre­sen­ta­tion to their own needs.
  • Data pre­sen­ta­tion: A theme through­out the work­shop was “doc­u­ments not decks,” an empha­sis on flat, web-like pre­sen­ta­tions that allow read­ers to con­trol scrolling. He con­tin­u­al­ly called out “flat sur­faces” and mate­r­i­al that is “adja­cent in space” to give an almost the­o­log­i­cal argu­ment for their supe­ri­or­i­ty over deck-like pre­sen­ta­tions (think Pow­er­Point) that can obscure impor­tant data.
  • He urged us not to pan­der to our audi­ence: Con­sumer sites show that data can be pop­u­lar: the New York Times’s web­site has 450 links; ESPN’s has tables atop tables and yet peo­ple read these sites every day. Why can’t we have the same lev­el of data-rich acces­si­bil­i­ty in our work lives? “Have we sud­den­ly becomes stu­pid just because we’ve comes to work?” He urged the mid-level execs in the audi­ence to demand good pre­sen­ta­tions. We should push back against the low-expectations of their boss­es to ask “Why can’t we live up to ESPN?”
  • Data as beau­ty. From gor­geous maps to graph­i­cal music nota­tion (below), Tufte loves design and data that come togeth­er in beau­ty. It is amaz­ing.

One of my favorite parts of the work­shop was an after­noon digres­sion from strict data that he intro­duced by say­ing, “It’s time for a heart to heart.” It began with a ser­mon­ette on cred­i­bil­i­ty: how to make your­self account­able and just other’s argu­ments.

Then he talked about how to respond when some­one chal­lenges your work. I could tell there must be a long list of per­son­al sto­ries inform­ing this part of the work­shop – lessons learned, yes, but sure­ly oppor­tu­ni­ties lost too. Tufte told us it was only nat­ur­al to respond in defen­sive­ness and anger and coun­seled us to not be too quick to dis­miss cri­tique. You’ve got to do the hard work to see whether your chal­lenger might be cor­rect.

He remind­ed us that when we’re in a room full of peers, every­one present has been fil­tered and select­ed over the years. You should assume the room will be just as smart as you are. “How dare you think your motives are bet­ter than those of your col­leagues!” he thun­dered at an emo­tion­al crescen­do. He admit­ted that this self-doubt is a hard pos­ture to adopt. He’s polled pub­lic fig­ures he respects and even the thickest-skinned are stung by chal­lenge.

He said he had learned to back off, go slow, and con­tem­plate when he’s chal­lenged. Just when I thought he had found some super-human abil­i­ty to ratio­nal­ly con­sid­er things, he told us it could took him three to five years to real­ly accept the valid­i­ty of dis­sent­ing views.

This was a much-needed ser­mon for me and I nod­ded along along. As some­one who pro­fes­sion­al­ly ampli­fies opin­ion, I’m often in the mid­dle of peo­ple in debate (I’ve been an actor in these con­flicts in the past, though these days I gen­er­al­ly play a role some­where between an agent and medi­a­tor). It’s good to see intel­lec­tu­al debate as a process and to remem­ber that it can take years. “This con­cludes the ther­a­peu­tic por­tion of today’s course”, he con­clud­ed, before going back to visu­al­iza­tions.

He end­ed by show­ing us time­less first-editions of beau­ti­ful sci­en­tif­ic works by Galileo and Euclid. He felt a gen­uine appre­ci­a­tion of being part of an intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion. He was a mas­ter and for this day we in the audi­ence were his appren­tices. “In life we need tools that last for­ev­er and give us clear lever­age in clear think­ing.”

 

Update: appar­ent­ly some num­ber of data visu­al­iza­tion peo­ple have dis­liked his work­shops. What I found fas­ci­nat­ing­ly wide-ranging they found ram­bling. Per­haps Tufte has tight­ened his pre­sen­ta­tion or I caught him on a good day. More like­ly, I think they came look­ing for a more tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sion of data visu­al­iza­tion and was sur­prised that Tufte focused so much on crit­i­cal think­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. I have a par­tic­u­lar soft spot for quirky and opin­ion­at­ed peo­ple who don’t fol­low scripts and Tufte’s detours all made a cer­tain sense to me. But then I’m a phi­los­o­phy major turned do-gooder writer/publisher. Your mileage may vary.