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America: On Becoming Better


Harry Nathan Gottlieb

Unlike traditional journalism where the overarching question is, “What is the story?” Our overarching question was, “What should we do to fix the problem?

My name is Harry Nathan Gottlieb. I am the founder of Unify America.  

Unify America is setting out to conduct a massive experiment in democratic decision making.  

So, if you look me up online, what you’ll find is that I founded and chair two software companies in Chicago. One does interactive communication for businesses – it’s called Jellyvision. The other does interactive party games, called Jackbox Games. I get that Unify America does not seem like a logical third act.  But there’s more to the story…

As I was growing up, the United States seemed incapable of solving big problems with ambitious solutions. We seemed hopelessly stuck, deeply divided and endlessly gridlocked. As familiar as this may sound, I’m talking about the 1980’s.

For example…in 1981, President Reagan was shot, and in the ensuing decade there was a flurry of efforts to control guns. What resulted was a political tug-of-war, which, as you know, still continues nearly 40 years later.

If you read the news at that time, it was easy to find coverage on the politics of the gun control battle: the play-by-play of the brawl between the NRA and gun control advocates, both in and out of Congress.  What was very hard to find was any source for the general public that laid out, comprehensively, the facts, research, and pros and cons of viable solutions related to the question of gun control…without bias.

I did not understand how, without doing a lot of research on their own, citizens in a democracy, could get the information they needed to find a rational path forward together.

Thomas Jefferson is credited as having said: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”  

So, back then, I thought, maybe to have an educated citizenry we need a different form of journalism.  A journalism not based on reporting the days’ events, and political rivalries as if they were football rivalries, but one that provides non-partisan information for the purpose of solving national problems.  

If a CEO asked her team to research and present a variety of options for solving a big company problem, she would not expect only “liberal” ideas or only “conservative” ideas, she’d expect ALL the ideas that might solve the problem with pros and cons on each.

The thinking was that news journalism would keep informing the public on what is new. Opinion journalism would keep arguing points of view. And this new form of journalism would pull together what the public needed to solve big problems.

So, in 1993, I brought together a wonderful group of young journalists and we started conducting interviews. We called ourselves “Forum America.” We interviewed cops and gang members, an official from the NRA and another from Gun Control Inc., a mom whose 10-year old son was shot by his best friend and a woman who shot and killed her rapist when he decided to murder her.  Unlike traditional journalism where the overarching question is “What is the story?” Our overarching question was “What should we do to fix the problem?”

Now, I grew up doing riflery and skeet and trap shooting with my father, so firearms were never foreign to me.  But the journalists working with me had no experience with guns, and I think they walked in the door at the NRA expecting strident protests about second amendment rights with little to say about gun violence.

It turned out that the NRA’s spokesperson didn’t talk much about the second amendment. But he shook his head about the signs that had just started going up on restaurants, schools and stores indicating guns weren’t allowed. You’ve seen them, the image of the handgun with the line slashed through it, they’re everywhere.  “What those signs are doing,” he said “…is telling the bad guys with guns that if they want to walk in and commit a crime, no one will be inside to stop them.”

He talked about the town in Georgia where every head of household, since 1982, was required by law to maintain a firearm, and how the town had one of the lowest violent crime rates of any municipality in the country.  In turn, we asked whether the universal gun ownership had been the cause of the low crime rate, or had there always been a low crime rate or might there have been other factors involved, and if not, was there evidence that this would have a similar positive impact on crime in cities or suburbs, and most importantly, could you help us get our hands on the data?  The NRA spokesperson looked at us quizzically:  He said it was the most unusual press interview he’d ever given, that no reporter had ever asked him questions like that.

After we left the interview, my colleagues agreed that, while one may or may not ultimately find the NRA’s data and arguments as persuasive as other data and counter-arguments, the points their representative made in our interview were rational and worthy of being included in an unbiased, comprehensive review on the question of gun control.

And, of course, that was exactly what we were trying to create.

But ultimately, we abandoned our efforts. The world wide web was barely 3 years old, the very first web browser for Mac and PC was barely 9 months old. We needed widespread adoption of the web to allow people to explore the content. And that was still five long years away.  We were too early.

Also: I had a suspicion that I was not yet wise enough to know if I was even asking the right questions.  And I wasn’t.  Having kept the flame of Forum America alive in my mind for a quarter century, it became clear that “What should we do about Gun Control?” was the wrong kind of question.  Because gun control isn’t a goal…gun control is a tactic. The goal is reducing violence.  It turns out that political talk is almost exclusively about tactics:  Obamacare, a border wall, school vouchers — these aren’t goals, they’re tactics.

The question we should be asking is not: what should we do about this tactic or that tactic? Instead, the first question is: what is our goal?

If we Americans can agree on a goal, then why would we ever demonize each other over tactics? We want the same end result.  Let’s look at all the possible solutions together that could help us reach our shared goal…and using facts and reason and empathy…find solutions that we can agree on. I mean, of course, the devil’s in the details.  But if we have the same aspirations, then we have every reason in the world to work together, to UNIFY around our shared aspirations.

That said, it’s very hard to envision how our politicians will be able to do this because of the overwhelming conflicts of interest they face. In order to get unstuck, we, American citizens, may need to deliberate ourselves directly, outside of the political arena.

And that is the massive experiment in democratic decision making upon which we are embarking.

Twenty-seven years later, Forum America has been resurrected as Unify America, with, I hope, better questions:  First, do we, Americans, have shared goals?  And if so, how can we find shared solutions to those shared goals?

What hasn’t changed in all these years, is a bedrock belief that there is a way, that there is an actual process, by which we can become better, and in so doing, our country can become better, and better live up to our highest ideals.