Lessons on Tyrrany — The Art of Charm podcast

I sampled a new podcast this week, The Art of Charm. The episode I listened to fascinated me, and although the guest was certainly charming, his subject matter was anything but. What’s a discussion of tyrrany doing on a podcast about charm? I don’t know, but I’m glad I heard it.

Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale, specializes in 20th Century Russian and Eastern European history. So he knows a lot about how societies descend into totalitarianism. He said,

“Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, and communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

To help that learning process along, he’s written a book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s priced to sell—under $4 as an e-book, under $7 in print—and if the book is half as informative as his conversation on the podcast, we need to get it into the hands of as many people as possible. In fact, just stop reading right this minute and listen to the podcast. It’ll take less than an hour of your time, and it might save your life. Or our country. Or both.

Snyder not only believes the slide toward authoritarianism has already begun in this country, he’s actually surprised democracy didn’t devolve sooner. He says the Founders expected the Republic would be challenged much sooner. While we’ve been lucky to escape authoritarianism in the past, our luck seems to have run out.

“We have people in the executive branch now who are indifferent and hostile, in fact, to democracy and the rule of law.” — Timothy Snyder

Snyder argues that we are on a steady path away from political life as we knew it. If you doubt that, see Vice.com’s “Trump Tracker” offers a running list of events and behaviors that defy the norms of political and social discourse. It’s a sobering, and head-scratching, read. The president’s bewildering behavior is one thing, but how can a third of the country—and nearly 100% of the Republicans in Congress—not care that Normal is shrinking to a speck in the country’s rearview mirror?

Can we do anything to stop the slide into tyrrany?

Yes, Snyder says. But we must act quickly. Get engaged politically—turn off your Netflix binge-watch and learn about the issues. Don’t just accept what the authorities say. Make up your own minds. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

And learn about the smaller acts you can take to stave off an authoritarian mindset. Talk to someone who’s not like you. Snyder says Jews in Germany in the 1930s wrote about their neighbors who stopped talking to them, people who used to be friendly and now crossed the street. Don’t let the authorities sow mistrust of any group—as they have started to do with people from Muslim-majority countries.

When you see a swastika—and I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase, but swastika graffiti is becoming more prevalent every day—wash it off, or paint over it. Don’t let signs of hatred become normal.

And don’t “obey in advance.” Don’t make decisions based on what you believe the authorities want, or might want in the future. Hold fast to your values.

The window for positive change is closing fast. Resistance has to hit in the early months, before an authoritarian regime has had time to consolidate its power. After that window closes…I don’t even want to think about it.

Listen to the podcast. Read the book. And do something before it’s too late.

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Declaration of Independence — history for our times

Today we celebrate the signing of one of the foundational documents of the United States. Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence holds no force of law. In fact, our founding fathers broke the law by signing it. They understood exactly what that meant, but they refused to be governed by an unjust authority.

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence may not carry the force of law in our country—we have the Constitution for that. But it surely serves as a kind of moral law. It sets forth the principles by which Americans expected to be governed. It rejects blind allegiance to an authoritarian figure, King George III:

He has excited domestic insurrection among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Sorry to repeat the racist stereotyping of Native Americans. But I thought it was interesting that our founders dealt with a ruler who was attempting to spark “domestic insurrection” and to use a group of what we might call “outside agitators” to stir up trouble with law-abiding citizens.

Can’t imagine the leader of a country doing that kind of thing these days, can you?

Independence & Revision

I found an interesting website comparing Thomas Jefferson’s “Rough Draught” of the Declaration of Independence with the draft that was sent to the Continental Congress and the draft the Congress signed on July 4th 1776.

Let’s look at a couple of passages and how they changed:

The History of his present Majesty, is a History of unremitting Injuries and Usurpations, among which no one Fact stands Single or Solitary to contradict the uniform Tenor of the rest, all of which have in direct object, the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be Submitted to a candid World, for the Truth of which We pledge a Faith, as yet unsullied by falsehood.

That’s 72 words. It lost two in the next version:

The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations, among which appears no solitary fact to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest; but all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this let facts be submitted to a candid world, for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.

Still really long and redundant. Here’s a passage from the final, signed version

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

It’s shrunk by a third: 42 words. We could certainly tighten it up further today, but for the 18th century this counts as pithy.

“A Tyrant” is unfit to rule this country

Removing extra words makes your points stand out much more strongly. And what’s your aim—to impress people with your flowery writing or to make change  happen? This  passage comes from what the Continental Congress might call its “discussion draft”:

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms; our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injuries. A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free. Future ages will scarce believe that the hardiness of one man adventured within the short compass of twelve years only, to build a foundation, so broad and undisguised for tyranny over a people fostered and fixed in principles of freedom.

The final shrinks these 95 words by nearly half:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injuries.

A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

The final version carves out the most important points:

We asked you to help us; you only hurt us more. That’s the kind of stuff a bully does, a tyrant. You’re not fit to rule free people.

History. It can repeat itself, you know.

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Nora Bayes, the Beyoncé of the early 20th Century

Nora Bayes
Nora Bayes in 1912, Public Domain

What do Nora Bayes and Beyoncé have in common?  Vanity Fair included them both in this video celebrating the fashions of “top pop stars” of the past 100+ years.

No doubt you’ve heard of this Beyoncé. But what do you know about Nora Bayes, star of Broadway and vaudeville?

She made a cameo appearance in one of my recent blogs. Nora Bayes, née Eleanora Sarah Goldberg, introduced the world to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” She followed that with several other hit records. George M. Cohan personally chose her to record his morale-boosting song “Over There” during World War I. It became an international hit. Shortly after the war ended in 1918, she became the first woman to have a Broadway theatre named after her, the Nora Bayes Theatre, of course.

Bayes’s second husband, Jack Norworth, wrote some hit songs for her, like “Shine On, Harvest Moon”—probably their biggest hit. But Bayes also wrote songs in her own right—music and lyrics. In fact, most sources neglect to mention that she co-wrote “Shine On, Harvest Moon” with Norworth.

More than half a dozen Broadway shows—including Ziegfeld Follies of 1931—featured “songs by Nora Bayes,” according to her listing in the Internet Broadway Database. Several others bear the credit “additional lyrics by Nora Bayes.”

She died in 1928—but her memory apparently lived on, because in 1980 writer Garson Kanin used her as the central character of his novel Smash. If that title seems familiar, yes, the book served as at least part of the basis of the television series Smash. But the producers swapped out Nora Bayes for a more contemporary figure, Marilyn Monroe.

Who was Nora Bayes?

I could end this post right now and you’d have an interesting bunch of trivia about a star of the early 20th century. But Nora Bayes was more than “…one of those rare female triple-threats in vaudeville entertainment” and “easily the most popular female entertainer in vaudeville for much of the first quarter of the 20th century.” She was also a fiercely independent woman, unafraid to forge her own path. Perhaps the comparison with Beyoncé runs deeper than their fashion style.

The Jewish Women’s Archive profile of Bayes tells us:

“In…battles with male businessmen and in her unconventional personal life, Bayes provides some flamboyant, indeed extreme, examples of the broad social changes happening in the United States in the early twentieth century, namely the questioning of traditional roles for women as well as the challenges to male political and economic power that marked the women’s movement of the time.”

Florenz Ziegfeld banned her from show business after she walked out on his 1909 Follies. But she had the last laugh—audiences missed her. She returned to the stage triumphantly, with an even more lucrative contract than she’d had before: $2,500 a week—more than $60,000 in today’s dollars.

Several years later, she broke her contract with a vaudeville producer and set out on her own:

“…she launched her own two-hour, one-woman show in 1917, starred in the musical Ladies First in 1918, and then continued to perform in vaudeville in the England and the United States through 1927.”

Who knows what Bayes would have done if her cancer hadn’t been misdiagnosed early on? But she died in 1928, leaving behind three young children adopted with her fifth husband.

Story Safari

I love finding stories like these. How many other strong women have been all but lost to history? I’ll look for an opportunity to bring Nora Bayes back to life in one of my clients’ speeches.


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1947 Revisited — don’t let history repeat itself

We don’t have to imagine what it was like when Adolf Hitler and his goons came to power. The interwebs allow us to time-travel. We can see and hear what our counterparts saw and heard in the immediate aftermath of World War II—and it’s not pretty. Let’s not let history repeat itself.

don't let history repeat itselfThe little film below is called Don’t Be a Sucker. Made in 1947 by the U.S. War Department—not exactly a hotbed of radicalism—it reminds us how easily fascist regimes can take hold.

When we stand together, we’re too strong to beat. So the first order of business is to divide us—by religion, by class. The 21st century iteration adds sexual orientation and gender expression.

For me, the most chilling passage starts at around 9:00, when the narrator says Hitler and Co.

“still had trouble with their most persistent enemy: The truth. The truth does not die easily. And so they decided to abolish truth.”

I hope that sounds prophetic to you—uncomfortably prophetic.

We still have a chance to prevent Twitler from destroying our country. We still have a chance to stop a history repeat. Press play and learn what to watch out for. Share the video as widely as you can. And—please—#Resist.

“I know you believe that”—the wisdom of Hidden Figures

There’s a lot to love in the movie Hidden Figures. It not only tells the story of three remarkable African American women whose analytical skills enabled the space program to succeed. It’s also an eye-opener for anyone who doesn’t fully understand all that white privilege has handed us over the generations.


If you think police antagonizing African American people is a new phenomenon, feast your eyes on the opening scene, when the women’s car breaks down on the side of a country road. A police car rolls up, lights flashing, and tells them they’ve picked an inconvenient place to break down. As if they had a choice.

If you think the judicial system can settle anything without local support, feast your eyes on the “colored” bathrooms and water fountains, the segregated schools—heck, even the libraries were segregated. And if you wanted to educate yourself on something important, forget about finding the book you need at the “colored” library. As a judge helpfully reminds the audience, this happens after the Supreme Court outlawed “separate but equal” facilities in Brown v. Board of Ed. Also after President Eisenhower overruled the Arkansas governor and directed in the National Guard to escort nine black children into Little Rock’s Central High School. But none of it mattered in Virginia, not back then.

Dorothy Vaughan, one of the Hidden Figures at NASA
Photo courtesy of Dorothy Vaughan’s family, posted on NASA website

For me, the emotional high point of the movie wasn’t John Glenn’s pioneering flight; it was a short encounter in a newly integrated ladies’ room at NASA. The white woman supervisor looks at Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, and says, “I don’t have anything against you.”

And Vaughan replies, kindly, “I know.” She pauses. Is that all she’s going to say? It is not.

In the same tone of voice she adds:

“I know you believe that.”

Spencer has been nominated for an Academy Award. If you ask me, she deserves it on the strength of that line alone.

Hidden Figures and the banality of prejudice

Hidden Figures does an excellent job of not demonizing its main white characters. While they do and say some despicable things, they’re not mustache-twirling villains. They’re not neo-Nazis. They’re just office workers, trying to do something that’s never been done before under an impossible deadline.

But there’s nothing new about their behavior, and surely their parents and grandparents did even worse. They have no concept of how their actions affect the African Americans they work with (who they would never imagine as “colleagues”). In fact they barely even notice them, except by their absence.

Prejudice isn’t always easy to see. Oh, the people being discriminated against see it very clearly. But the rest of society may just mistake it for life. Sometimes prejudice is utterly banal—and that’s when it’s scariest.

So in 2017 when the nice people in what’s left of the United States of America start talking about LGBT people and people of color wanting “special rights”—when the good Christians start talking about how they “love the sinner but hate the sin” and that Muslims are free to practice their religion, elsewhere—when someone tries to identify any group of human beings as somehow less deserving of respect and dignity—let’s start by channeling our inner Dorothy Vaughans: “I know you believe that.”

And then what?

Then tell a story—a real story. If you can touch someone’s heart, you might be able to open their eyes. Hidden Figures does.

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Facts and history: Lessons at the dawn of the Trump era

Unless something drastic (or “unpresidented,” to quote our PEOTUS) happens in the next few hours, we will soon enter what historians will call “the Trump era.”

Since the election—heck, since halfway through the endless nightmare of a campaign—professional pundits and even mere scribes like me have written about the old saying that “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.”

Who said it? It seems like Irish philosopher Edmund Burke may have been the first, way back in the 1700s:

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

So welcome to our trip down Bad-Memory Lane.

The Trump era time machine

Have you ever wished you could climb into a time machine and spend an afternoon playing gallant knight to a maiden fair? Or sharing a turkey leg with Queen Elizabeth I (the Cate Blanchett version, please, though Glenda Jackson’s would do). Or trading writing tips with Winston Churchill?

Yeah, that’s not the kind of history we’re going to be revisiting.

Science in the Trump era

The closest we’ll get to the knights-and-ladies is our return to the Dark Ages, when scientists got sentenced to death for, um, running afoul of religious beliefs. Remember Galileo? As the Indigo Girls put it so concisely, his crime, back in the early 1600s, “was lookin’ up the truth.” For the record, the Catholic Church did apologize…350 years later.

Did the Trump transition team ask for the names of scientists working on global warming because those scientists were “lookin’ up the truth”? Their colleagues aren’t waiting to find out. They’re working with Canadian counterparts to secure copies of the climate data, fearing the Trumpsters will purge it. Or as Stephen Colbert put it, “Now even our facts are moving to Canada.”

Good Queen Bess?

And the closest we’ll get to Queen Elizabeth I is—well, just how “good” Queen Bess was depends a lot on what side of the Communion wafer you were on. Beginning with her father Henry VIII (and interrupted only briefly during the reign of her Catholic half-sister Mary I), England engaged in what one historian called “Catholic genocide.” For a more considered, less sensationalized (and slightly denser) explanation of this period, try this link.

At any rate, we do seem to be headed for a time when conforming to someone’s idea of religion will no longer be optional. The proposed “First Amendment Defense Act” would legalize bigotry based on the bigot’s perception of his or her religion’s requirements. Got a “deeply held religious belief”? You can discriminate indiscriminately.

Still, the Trump era differs from the Elizabethan era in one important respect: Catholics will be much farther down the list of genocide targets. Today, they’ll likely trail Atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Mormons (sorry, Mitt). In fact, according to this Pew research, the only group evangelicals trust slightly more than Catholics is Jews. Though it doesn’t appear our country’s ersatz Nazis got that memo.

World War II: “Never give in”

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Winston Churchill’s orations provided much-needed transfusions of strength to his countrymen during their fight against the original Nazis. Although the spread of fascism in World War II may be the closest parallel to our situation today, I’m not sure anyone can pull off a similarly Churchillian feat.

Even if we had an orator as talented as Churchill—and we do, in Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber from North Carolina, to name just a few—our country is far more divided than Great Britain was during the war. Bombs falling on you nightly have a tendency to concentrate the mind. And it’s easier to unite against a foreign invader than against a perceived threat who’s “one of us.”

Plus, we have no way to reach a large number of Trump’s most ardent supporters. They have lost faith in the institutional media. They doubt facts, even when presented with evidence. As I’ve written before, many times, when words lose their meaning, how can we communicate?

I’ll leave you with the analysis of Hannah Arendt, who stared totalitarianism in the face behind the bars of a Gestapo jail cell and wrote about it so clearly after the war. Arendt will be an invaluable, if depressing, guide to us through the Trump era:

Hannah Arendt offers a warning fit for the Trump Era

Check your facts. Check other people’s facts. Fight for the truth. And pray we come out of the Trump era relatively intact.

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Ben Franklin’s sister: when women were an afterthought

Ben Franklin's sister Jane has a lesson for us todayToday is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday. This fact was drilled into me from a young age—long story. But let’s look past the Great Man and pay some attention instead to Ben Franklin’s sister Jane.

I first encountered her in the pages of The New Yorker, in an article by Jill Lepore that combined personal reminiscences of her childhood with stories of Jane Franklin Mecom, a woman all but forgotten by history. And she might have remained forgotten were it not for her relationship to one of our country’s founders.

Lepore notes:

“No two people in their family were more alike. Their lives could hardly have been more different. Boys were taught to read and write, girls to read and stitch. Three in five women in New England couldn’t even sign their names, and those who could sign usually couldn’t actually write.”

Jane owed her above-average skills to brother Ben:

“Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write with wit and force and style. His sister never learned how to spell. What she did learn, he taught her. It was a little cruel, in its kindness, because when he left the lessons ended.”

Ben ran away from home when Jane was 11; four years later, she married a man named Mecom and began the work of having and raising children. She would bear an even dozen altogether, with 11 surviving to adulthood—a far smaller brood than the one she and Ben grew up in, the two youngest children in a family of 17.

“If his life is an allegory, so is hers.”—Jill Lepore

We know remarkably little about the life of Ben Franklin’s sister. She recorded the births of her children in a “Book of Ages” and we also see her handwriting on a copy of one of Ben’s books that he gave her. Other than that, she exists in her correspondence with her brother. Or, rather, in his correspondence with her—her letters did not survive.

As Annette Gordon-Reed wrote in an article about Lepore’s book:

“The very thing that tethered Jane and Benjamin then—their letters to one another—gives the greatest evidence of the gender-based chasm between them. Benjamin’s letters show his erudition and ease with the pen. Jane’s letters show the physical struggles of putting pen to paper and forming letters.”

What Ben Franklin’s sister has to teach us today

Jane Franklin Mecom was unusual in her time—not because she lacked education but because she had a brother, seven years older, who took care to teach her the rudiments of literacy.

How unusual would she be today? Gordon-Reed reminds us:

“Universal public education—amazingly enough, reviled in some quarters—has given girls the same educational opportunities as boys. Who knows? Had she lived today, Jane Mecom could have been a printer, scientist, revolutionary, ambassador and all around-know-it all. Her brother could still have been all these things, too.”

We take “universal public education” for granted in this country. But will we keep making the investments required to make sure it’s good education? I’m not willing to bet on it.

And certain elements around our incoming administration (dear God, I hope they’re fringe elements) seem to want to remove women from the workforce and consign us to the kitchen and bedroom again. How many generations does it take to transform a nation in which women receive more graduate degrees than men to a nation of 21st century Jane Mecoms?

That’s a question I hope we never answer.

Lepore reminds us of one of Jane’s brother’s famous quotations:

“’One Half the World does not know how the other Half lives,’” he once wrote. Jane Franklin was his other half. If his life is an allegory, so is hers.”

Many women around the world remain just as illiterate today as Ben Franklin’s sister was 300 years ago. That’s why my 5×15 Writing Challenge benefits Room to Read, a global nonprofit supporting girls’ literacy. The next challenge starts Monday January 23rd. Join us.

Precious resource: Technology & writing, part 1

I can’t imagine how nerve-wracking it must have been to be a writer in the ancient world. Papyrus doesn’t grow on trees, after all.

papyrus was a precious resource for ancient writersThat’s a joke, of course; it grows in swamps. But my point is that you couldn’t just toddle over to the Staples in downtown Alexandria and pick up a nicely packaged ream of it. Someone had to make it, sheet by sheet. Here’s an illustrated guide for those of you who’d like to try. It takes weeks, and no small amount of elbow grease.

Papyrus scrolls were a precious resource. Writers must have thought long and hard before dipping their styluses into their ink—which someone also had to make, crushing up carbon and mixing it with water and gum—and setting their words down for readers.

Paper: precious resource or creative roadblock?

I used to collect blank books—beautifully bound notebooks. A writer always needs a journal handy, right, in case inspiration strikes. But I found that the more beautiful a notebook was, the less I wanted to “mess it up” with my writing.

Ridiculous, right?

The truth is, I didn’t start writing seriously until the company where I was working installed a Macintosh computer on my desk, back in the penultimate decade of the 20th century.

Fun fact: Two nights later I dreamed that they were about to remove the computer. I woke up screaming Nooooo! That’s how fast you become a Mac person for life, folks.

Anyway, I quickly discovered the advantage of writing on a computer: No one sees your drafts. Those rumpled legal pads with sections angrily crossed out? Gone. The sea of half-typed sheets crumpled in your wastebasket (oh, who am I kidding) on the floor around your chair? You don’t have to hide them because they never exist. Only the computer knows about your many false starts and failures. And in those pre-NSA days, it wasn’t telling.

So I have a soft spot for technology in my writer’s heart. It helped me break through a creative roadblock and start writing regularly. And shortly after that, I started writing for a living, which has been wonderful.

But as a reader, sometimes I miss the old days when paper was a precious resource. More on that tomorrow.

What’s the secret of writing better? Write more. Join my challenge and start the new year with a win, and a new habit: Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge.

Not the usual business (writing): No words

Some events seem to stop the world: You just cannot go on with your usual business. [The gods of SEO won’t let me write “business as usual.” The gods of SEO hate prepositions.]

The attacks on 9/11 stopped the world like that, seemingly in an instant. At least it happened in an instant for those of us in New York. As the twin towers smoldered downtown, my friend Lauren, safe in a midtown office, saw a press release come across the wire (or whatever internet-thing press releases come across) from a company in a distant part of the country. The PR flak who wrote it had made a last-minute adjustment in light of recent events, so headline began: “And now for some GOOD news…”

No, the fact that Ridiculous Corporation has just announced a new product does not qualify as “good news.” Not today—if ever. After 8:46 in the morning, 9/11 stopped being a day for the usual business. No new product release could trump (note to self: must find a new verb) the horrific news the country was struggling to grasp.

I thought about that 9/11 press release yesterday morning, on 11/9—the universe has a twisted sense of humor, right?—while dealing with the inconceivable election results. I intended to write about concession speeches and victory speeches, but just in case that didn’t pan out for some reason, I had queued up a post about how to introduce speakers.

In the wee hours of the morning, I went online to reschedule the post for a later date, but instead it looked I’d managed to post it immediately. Oops. It seemed unwise to goad the technology gods further, so I went to bed.

But I had neither rescheduled it nor posted it immediately. It hit the blog and my subscribers’ in-boxes right on time on Wednesday morning. And in doing so, it immediately became the most trivial thing I’ve ever written.

Words/no words

It’s become cliché to say “There are no words.”

I hate clichés, almost as much as I hate bigots. But really, dudes, I got nothing more for you today.

Whichever side of this election you were on, be good to the humans you share this country—and this planet—with.

Peace out.

Surprising origins: a Story Safari in Kansas

I thought I was going on a business trip, not a story safari—but the hotel I checked into had surprising origins.

The surprising origins of the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, Kansas
Undated photo from The Eldridge Hotel website

Turns out the wood paneling in the lobby isn’t all that’s lovely about the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, Kansas. And if I’d been visiting here in my capacity as a speechwriter, I definitely would have told the story of its surprising origins.

The hotel’s first guests, over 160 years ago, were abolitionists coming to settle in the Kansas Territory. Kansas wanted to enter the Union as a Free State; the more like-minded citizens it could import, the better.

Even in those long-ago days before Twitter, branding was everything: The owner, Colonel Eldridge, named his new establishment the Free State Hotel.

Only a year after opening, the Free State had some unwelcome visitors. In 1856, five years before the start of the Civil War, pro-slavery marauders burned it to the ground. Of course, the determined Eldridge rebuilt it—bigger and better than ever. Literally: He vowed to add another floor to the building each time the someone tried to destroy it.

Just seven years later, Confederate troops burned down not just the hotel but much of the town as well. They also killed 150 people—which had to be a significant percentage of the population.

Eldridge rebuilt yet again. But (perhaps with an eye to his insurance rates) he renamed the property. The Eldridge Hotel was born.

Surprising origins make great metaphors

Now, some people may read that story and see an interesting piece of history.

I read that story and see a rich metaphor that resonates deeply with our current times. Colonel Eldridge and the good people of Lawrence, Kansas, held strong convictions. And they stood by those convictions, despite hardship and great personal loss.

So it’s a story about courage. Holding firm in the face of even violent opposition. That’s not such an easy thing to do. How many times have you bought the candy at the grocery story checkout just to shut your kid up for five minutes? Hey—I’m not judging. In fact, if I’m standing in line behind you and your kid is annoying enough, I’ll even front you the $2 for the extra large candy bar.

My point is, we all cave in under far less pressure than the citizens of Lawrence felt. How much fortitude and conviction does it take to do the right thing when you’ve got a gun pointed at you?

You could segue this story into a discussion about ethics. Because what is “ethics” but doing the right thing, holding onto your personal beliefs? Even if they cost you your client, your job…or your hotel.

On a more literal plane, you could talk about Abolitionists as the #BlackLivesMatters allies of the 19th century. (And yes, I know the Abolitionist movement contained racists of its own. Stories are all more complex than we can articulate in a speech or a blog post.)

But today’s world needs to hear more white voices standing up for the people of color in our communities. Silence implicates us all. As AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said in a remarkable speech recently,

“Tolerance” is for cowards.

Thanks to the historic Eldridge Hotel for this inspiration. And a fine night’s sleep, too.