Star-Spangled Music Week: ‘Old Glory’ versus … a Panda?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Star-Spangled Music Week

Bao Bao the Panda at the National Zoo in Smithsonian videoIf you had to pick the most iconic symbol of America, what would it be?

Would it be ‘Old Glory,’ the Stars and Stripes that was raised at Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became our national anthem?

A portrait of George Washington, the father of our nation?

Something or someone else?

All summer long, the Smithsonian Institution has run its Summer Showdown, asking Americans to vote online for the most iconic symbols from among the Smithsonian’s collections. The contest has four categories—science, art, culture, and history—and six contenders in each one. More than 90,000 online votes were cast. After three rounds on voting, the finalists in each category are:

  • Science—Bao Bao, the giant panda cub born at the National Zoo.
  • Art—a portrait of George Washington.
  • Culture—A photo of Woody Gutherie.
  • History—Old Glory, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814.

Of these four, the finalists were—Old Glory and Bao Bao. In the final throwdown, I predicted that Old Glory would win. After all, this September is the 200th anniversary of the birth of our national anthem.

But it’s hard to beat an adorable panda. When the Smithsonian announced its winner, it was Bao Bao. The cub was born in August 2013, and is one of fewer than 2,000 pandas in existence. Here’s a Smithsonian video about Bao Bao’s first year …

How would you rank the 4 finalists?
Do you agree with Bao Bao as the #1 iconic symbol?
Is there another symbol that stands out for you?

Civil Dialogue: When I met Aslan in Chicago…

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue

WBEZ Chicago at Navy PierI met Aslan.

No, it wasn’t Aslan, the fictional lion in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. There, Aslan is the wise and benevolent Lord of Narnia, generally meant by Lewis to be an alternative form of Jesus. No, it wasn’t that Aslan.

The Aslan I met is a cab driver in Chicago. I met him right after I was interviewed last Thursday on WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio, about my new book, United America. (You can listen to the interview here.)

The WBEZ studios are located about halfway out on Chicago’s Navy Pier. To hail a cab, you have to walk west to the beginning of the pier. I took the first cab in line.

The driver, a young man, was curious about what I did. I told him a little and he asked more questions. I opened up a bit more and mentioned that I was just coming from WBEZ.

“The 10 values!” he exclaimed, turning around to look at me. “I just heard you on the radio! But I had a customer so I couldn’t hear about all 10 values.”

I reached into my briefcase and pulled out a small poster of the 10 core values. I gave it to him. Curious myself, I leaned over to read his license, and saw that his name was Aslan. Aslan is Turkish for lion.

“Where are you from, Aslan?”

“I’m from Kazakhstan. Do you know where it is?”

“I do.” Kazakhstan is a large, oil-rich, landlocked country in Central Asia. It was part of the former Soviet Union.

Aslan went on to tell me that he has been in America for only three years, recently married, and has a baby. He is studying computer programming at night, driving a cab during the day to support his family.

As we drove through Chicago, I remembered that I had a copy of United America with me. “Aslan,” I said, “would you accept a copy of my book?” He was thrilled and thanked me several times. I inscribed it to him and his family.

Now, you may be thinking that I gave a gift to Aslan. I see it the other way around. Last Thursday was International Pay It Forward Day. I had blogged about the topic all week, and I was beginning to feel like a hypocrite—I hadn’t practiced what I was preaching. Aslan gave me the opportunity to pay it forward—and right on the day itself.

And, our chance encounter was a moment of civil dialogue.

Can you recall a time when a hot topic came up—and you were surprised at how calmly people discussed the issue?

What tips do you have for encouraging civil dialogue?

Civil Dialogue: ‘A Republican, a Democrat and a Buddhist walk into a room …’

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue
United America and Sojourners

Click on this image to visit the Sojourners site and read my entire story about the Belfast Dialogue.

Is civil dialogue across the political divide possible?

It may seem impossible in today’s uncivil political environment—but I know it is possible. Why? Because it actually did happen. I call it the Belfast Dialogue, named in honor of the Maine town where it took place.

Could you use it as a model for civil dialogue in your community?

Today, I’ll give you a quick summary of what took place in Belfast. For a more detailed account, see my article in Sojourners. All week, we’ll talk about the real possibilities of changing the national narrative from divide to dialogue.

Judith Simpson, a practicing Buddhist, and Dorothy Odell came up with the idea of doing something about the political divide rather than just complaining about it. Both are residents of the seaside town of Belfast, Maine. Belfast is on Penobscot Bay, about halfway up the Maine coast.

Dorothy used her local network to recruit a diverse group of people, ranging from libertarians and Tea Party Republicans to liberal Democrats and Progressives. They met for an evening at Dorothy’s home. Judith, an expert in the practice of Dialogue, facilitated the conversation. Dialogue with a capital “D” is a group process governed by several principles. One is that everyone must put their assumptions on hold. Another is that the process must be facilitated by someone with training in Dialogue.

And it actually worked. After a simple meal, the participants sat in a circle, spoke, and listened to one another. They spoke about their greatest fears for the country, and discovered a lot of common ground. They spoke about their greatest hopes for the country, and here, too, discovered that they have a lot in common. The event lasted about 3 hours or so.

The group didn’t debate, said Judith. Rather, “the group had spoken, listened, and thought together.”

Dorothy said, “People left the evening changed. They were affected positively by the experience.”

As I travel the country, talking about my latest book, United America, I tell everyone that we are united by 10 core values, but we often fall short of living these values. The Belfast Dialogue is an example of how to live the core value of respect for others—people of different faiths, races, and political affiliations. It is a model of how to put this core value into practice.

What do you think of the Belfast Dialogue?

Are you surprised to learn that real dialogue across the political divide is possible?

How could you adapt the model for use in your community?

American Images: Star-Spangled Banner & a Flag on the Moon

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series American Images
Click this photo to see our entire Images of America gallery.

Click this photo to see our entire Images of America gallery.

A single image can evoke emotions, memories—and entire eras.

As part of the unfolding United America book launch, we’ve assembled a magnificent gallery of over 100 images of America. I love them all, but today I picked my favorite one—Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. flag on the moon. My reasons are biographical and scientific, as I will explain below.

Take a look at our new gallery: What’s your most meaningful image of America?

First, a few words about the gallery itself and how you can use it. Every image comes from Wikimedia Commons, which means that you can freely download and use the gallery images. We’ve used these images in small groups as an effective ice-breaker to begin discussions about our core values, based on my new book United America. However, the exercise doesn’t require anyone to have read the book beforehand. (We also provide free downloadable instructions for running this exercise.)

Why is this image my favorite?

I was 15 years old in 1969 when the first lunar landing took place. I was enthralled. I read everything I could find about the astronauts and the mission. Neil Armstrong took this iconic image. It symbolized so many positive American attributes and was of historic significance for all humankind. Years later, I met Michael Collins—the command module pilot—and I thought I had met a rock star.

This image is also my favorite because it represents the core value of symbolic patriotism—an emotional attachment to country evoked by such national symbols as Old Glory and the national anthem.


TONIGHT, Monday February 17 at 8 PM Eastern time, you can tune into the musical performance of Poets and Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Organized by University of Michigan music historian Mark Clague, this performance presents “a musical history of the U.S. national anthem to celebrate the release of a U-M funded recording project that tells the story of an English tune becoming America’s anthem.” The event is part of the elaborate celebration of the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s writing of what became our national anthem. (The performance tonight is open to the public and will be live-streamed.)

What did The Star-Spangled Banner sound like in 1814? Quite different from the tune we know today!

You can hear the 1814 rendition at the performance tonight and on YouTube right now. The 2-CD set includes the 1814 rendition, the English drinking song on which it was based, and 35 others tunes from early American history. (To learn more and to access a wealth of resources, visit

Does seeing the American flag flying or hearing the national anthem make you feel good?

What are your reactions to the image I selected today?

What is your favorite image of America?

Capitalism: What values should guide government policy?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Capitalism
An area of the National Mall closed during the government shutdown. Photo by Reivax, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

An area of the National Mall closed during the government shutdown. Photo by Reivax, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Government economic policy is now hostage to the ideological battle in Washington, D.C. If we can set that dispute aside for a moment, this is a timely moment to ask:

What values should guide government policy? Here are several values the government should promote. Which of these do you think are the most important?

  • Encouraging people to live more responsible lives.
  • Promoting freedom and liberty.
  • Promoting equality and fairness.
  • Providing a public safety net for people who are facing hardships.
  • Supporting private charity for the poor.

The economic values that government should promote is an area of broad agreement among the American people, according to the recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). A majority of Americans says that each of the above values is important for government to promote.

But some values are more important than others. I listed them above in the order of support. An overwhelming majority say that the value of encouraging people to live more responsible lives should guide government economic policy. Support declines slowly for the other values as we work down the list, but—still—a majority endorse even the last value, supporting private charity for the poor.

What values do you think should guide government policy?

Is the value of encouraging people to live more responsible lives at the top of your list?

If not, what is?

Please, take a moment to add a Comment, below. And invite friends to read along. Use the blue-”f” Facebook icon or the small envelope-shaped email icon.

Trust: Do you trust … thyself?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Trust

Ralph Waldo EmersonMany Americans no longer trust the institutions that govern our lives. The failure of the Congress to reach an accord and the ensuing government shutdown is Exhibit #1. As one commentator said, America is starting to look like Italy—always in a state of crisis, always teetering on the edge of chaos.

So, who can we trust?

Are we left with just one source: ourselves?

Self-reliance is one of 10 core American values. According to my national surveys, more than 80% of Americans agree that “I would rather depend on myself than on others” and “I rely on myself most of the time.”

The value of self-reliance goes back to the founding of the nation. It was given eloquent form in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s classic essay, Self-Reliance, published in 1847. Consider the three main points from the Sage of Concord’s essay.

The self-contained genius: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.”

Ignore the world: “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance, that imitation is suicide…”

Trust yourself: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

Do you trust yourself?

Do Emerson’s words ring truer now than ever before?

Are we left with just one source to trust: ourselves?

Please, take a moment to add a Comment, below. And invite friends to read along. Use the blue-”f” Facebook icon or the small envelope-shaped email icon.

Five Guilty Pleasures: COLD COFFEE

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Five Guilty Pleasures
tall iced coffee with Rodney Curtis column photo by Kenny Louie used courtesy WikimediaFrom Dr. Wayne Baker: This week, welcome author Rodney Curtis, whose first two books chart his course from a career in traditional journalism through survival of cancer—and an upcoming third book will cover his life in the crumbling of America’s newspaper industry. Thousands of readers have followed his long-running blog, The Spiritual Wanderer, drawn to his style of laughing even in the face of fear.  As Rodney usually does, this week, he is considering American values from an entirely fresh perspective—looking at those moments of joy that surprise us and keep us going day after day.
Here is Rodney’s first column …

Cold coffee.

Even the phrase instills distrust. Who would sip something icy cold that should—in its natural state—be hot?

I distinctly remember when my wife and I made the conscious decision to jump into the coffee craze. It was the early ’90s and it seemed like coffee was hip and happening (though the phrase “hip and happening” has never been hip and happening). Starbucks had burst onto the scene but since our little town out east wasn’t “sophisticated enough” for one of those joints, we settled on Dunkin Donuts.

First, though, we had to get over the fact that coffee tasted really bad. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but on its own, coffee is bitter and scalding hot. That’s why God invented cream and sugar. Put yourself in our shoes: We were young journalists chasing politicians all over New Hampshire and a molten hot beverage sitting in your cup holder doesn’t always make the best traveling companion. Neither really, did journalist John King—whom I ferried from the airport, all the while hearing nothing but a tapping on his computer—but I digress.

Enter iced coffee. On the very same trip where John King ignored me (something about being on a deadline) we swung through Quikava, a drive-through joint next to the airport. I could keep my eyes on the road while my lips were plastered to a rich, sweet, succulent—chilled—brew shooting through my mouth and veins. Life was incredible.

Then, like a strung-out junkie who finds a full bag of Cheetos, I somehow fell in with an even worse crowd, the chosen frozen. I think it was Coffee Coolattas at first or—wait, no, no, it was definitely Frappuccinos! I catapulted through space and time, ending up first in Midland, where I would actually call ahead at Zero Dark Thirty to the local Dunkin Donuts and order their special homemade version of a Coolatta before work. Then I landed here in the Detroit area, where an evil Cappuccino Blast from Baskin-Robbins was so intoxicating, I devoted an entire chapter about it in my first book, Spiritual Wanderer.

It didn’t stop there, oh no. In the book’s dedication, after mentioning my wife and daughters, I said they were: “The three things in my life better than Cappuccino Blasts!” What the #@! is wrong with me? I openly and publicly admitted to loving my family as much as a caffeinated beverage. I have a disease.

Thankfully, dear reader, my predilections have slightly altered again and the vastly caloric frozen drinks have somewhat given way to the milder, decaffeinated calm of a certain large Tim Horton’s iced coffee. And usually, I walk with my wife down the block to procure one, so there’s at least a modicum of exercise involved.

It’s still cold and it’s still coffee, but for now I think I’ve finally gotten the monkey off my back.

What’s one of your guilty pleasures?

What reliably gives you a moment of joy in daily life?

Share this series with friends. Especially if you’re a regular reader of The Spiritual Wanderer and you want to alert friends to this one-week, temporary home for Rodney’s stories. You know what to do: Click any of those buttons above the cold coffee picture.