A lot of the pain I am witnessing these days is connected to hurt feelings. People taking umbrage at being categorized and people categorizing. Be it Tsipi Hotovely noting how American Jews on the whole live “convenient lives” and don’t know the life of military service or so much of the vile name-calling I am seeing between the left and right in America. Calling someone “Libtards” and “Dotards” is not a way to open discussions or seek commonality, but a way to lash out.
Last week, I noted that I’d gone to hear Dan Rather speak at the MJCCA’s 26th Jewish Book Festival . The esteemed news reporter and social media influencer (his News and Guts Facebook page is so worth following!) was here in Atlanta to promote his newest book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism. All attendees received copies.
This past week, I had the opportunity to read the book. And I was blown away.
Dan Rather’s essays, organized by groupings of topics (each group – Freedom, Community, Exploration, Responsibility and Character – contained three essays) are the epitome of coherent well-reasoned expositions. Backed by his long view of (and front row seat to) history and his own personal story of growing up in Texas, Rather has made this book eminently relatable and readable. But what makes it soar is how it is grounded in the reporter’s love of this nation.
To be honest, the book’s optimism was at first hard to accept, given the world as it is, but it becomes more and more obviously necessary as he frames his essays with an abundance of patriotism and love of America. What comes through is his conviction that we can come through anything.
To me, several quotes all but jumped off the page. I’d like to share a few.
In “The Press,” the third essay in the Freedom section, Rather criticizes the news. “Simply put,” he says, “we have more people talking about news than original reporting.” And he is right. Please note, this is not a left or right issue. The fact is that business models have changed. People no longer want to pay for news. The internet, too, has complicated business models. It doesn’t help that anyone with an internet connection can offer opinions and claim followers. Social media’s lust for clicks only makes it worse. Ultimately it boils down to fewer paid reporters carrying out investigative journalism. And this hurts us all.
But to be fair, if consumers aren’t demanding factual information but are satisfied with unsubstantiated memes, then that is what they are going to get. In “Books,” an essay under Exploration, Rather makes that point, “We need to continue to teach our children how to read, not just to sounds out words, but also to read deeply and thoroughly.” Yes, true, but that is still not enough; we need to think. “…what I learned as a young child,” he continues,” and it’s a lesson I have seen repeated countless times, is that a democracy requires open access to ideas….If we become a country of superficiality and easy answers based on assumptions and not one steeped in reason and critical learning, we will have lost the foundation of our founding and all that has allowed our nation to grow into our modern United States.”
I don’t know if it is an issue with schools or just a contemporary tendency to not see history as the wellspring of knowledge and caution we need, but too much of the hate I see these days is wrapped in ignorance. Rather’s essay on Public Education not only contains a bit of his own childhood, but also looks at the history of the educational system, the lessons we could learn from other countries, and his belief that our educational system is the saving grace so many need.
Rather also makes the argument that politicians should only enter the public arena after having performed some kind of service. “People can disagree politically and philosophically on all the issues that confront our nation, but if more of our elected officials had served in causes other than their own advancement, I believe they would approach their jobs with less certainty in their own assumptions and more sympathy for the needs of others.” He elaborates, “It matters less whether it’s in the military, the Peace Corps, the many programs of AmeriCorps, social services, or legal aid. It’s about the values that drive a person to help by joining a mission that is bigger than they are.” This speaks to my heart.
Service is what ties us to our community, a topic I’ve written about before. In his heart, Dan Rather knows this country is capable of so much more.
Throughout the book, Rather voices his concerns but he balances them with his what he’s seen in the past and what he hopes for the future, what he loves of America’s checks and balances and its track record, and what he sees when he meets Americans in his travels even today. Part of the reason is because despite our historical low points, Rather has witnessed how we have recovered, the strides we have made.
At the end of the day, in this age of name-calling, the impression is that red, white and blue belongs solely to Republicans, but this is not so. Love of country, even a country with work to do, emanates from across the political spectrum. And in this collection of essays, Dan Rather’s shines. I truly wish that the book is read by everyone – not just those who lean to the left, because we could all gain from Dan Rather’s long view of history, the context he provides to the topics, and the greater understanding of the different forms love of country can take.
In the larger picture, love of country – and not name-calling – is what unites us and should form the basis of our conversation. And though Dan Rather’s book is specific to America, the overall lesson can be applied to Israel and to anywhere else where the abrasiveness of disagreement hurts.