Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Lesson from Jane Addams

Back in 1919, at the end of the first World War, Jane Addams published an article called "Americanization" in the Publications of the American Sociological Society.  She focused on the different ways in which the idea of "Americanization" was perceived before the War and after it.  Before the war, she wrote,
"Americanism was then regarded as a great cultural task, and we eagerly sought to invent new instruments and methods with which to undertake it.  We believed that America could be best understood by the immigrants if we ourselves, Americans, made some sort of a connection with their past history and experiences."   
However, after the war, she notes, "there is not doubt that one finds in the United States the same manifestation of the world-wide tendency toward national dogmatism, the exaltation of blind patriotism above intelligent citizenship . . ."

There is a lesson here for our times, when our national politics on almost every front (including, still today, immigration) has become weighed down by dogmatism, leaving us little space to find the middle path that makes democracy work.  As Addams herself noted,
"When we confound doctrines with people, it shows that we understand neither one nor the other.  Many men, not otherwise stupid, when they consider a doctrine detestable, failing to understand that changes can be made only by enlightening people, feel that they suppress the doctrine itself when they denounce and punish its adherents."
 Too often, these days, our elected representatives feel themselves morally bound to adhere strictly to a dogmatic vision, either the one they campaigned on or the one held by the people who funded their elections.  As a result, we have seen a virtual paralysis of government.  American democracy is performed through argument and discussion, but ultimately achieved through negotiation and compromise--finding a common ground on which we can all agree to work together as a community. 

As a first step, we need to ask our elected representatives to see their colleagues not as adherents to a different dogma, but as fellow citizens.  In turn, they need to educate the public--and lobbyists--that their job is to advance the total community, not just their partisans.   One place where that job can be engaged is in the news media.  Too often, as has been said before in this blog, the news media serve to reinforce the differences in dogma rather than to help viewers find the middle ground where good policy can be developed.

We just began a new four-year political cycle.  Let's hope that Congress and the Administration can find a middle path and that the news media, rather than simply inviting the dogmatic extremists to butt heads on every issue, will foster a fair analysis that will help everyone educate themselves about what can truly be done to find common ground solutions.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

More Memoirs

A while ago, I wrote a piece on "Reading Memoirs" that focused on remarkable memoirs by Joan Didion and Patti Smith.  This month, I want to focus on two memoirs by men.

The first is Along the Way, a dual memoir by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez that focuses on their father-son relationship over the years and, as well, their relationship as actors during the production of The Way.  It is enlightening to see these two talented men talk about themselves and each other, revealing their own weaknesses and regrets, strengths and hopes and discussing the impact that the other's strengths and weaknesses had on their lives:  grown fathers and sons talking about each other and themselves in a way one rarely experiences.  This is a powerful book about life, about acting, about relationships.

The second is Elsewhere, a memoir by novelist Richard Russo about his lifelong relationship with his troubled mother, from the day she decided to accompany him on his cross-country journey to college and the rest of her life, as she alternated between living near him and returning to her own home town.  As Russo (author of Nobody's Fool, Empire Falls, and Straight Man) writes, "What a next of thorns the past can be."  For me, having grown up, like Russo, with a single mother who never quite realized her dreams, Elsewhere was full of insights.

These are both powerful, personal, revelatory books by people whose work I admire greatly.  It is wonderful that they, like Didion and Smith, have been brave enough to share their experiences and insights with us.