December 17, 2017
It would be fatalistic to think that we are powerless.
What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism
By Dan Rather & Elliot Kirschner
At 86 years old, with more than six decades' experience as a journalist, Dan Rather has lived the life I hoped to have when I decided I wanted to be a journalist—a life that's allowed his curiosity to guide him to places all over the country and world. As a result, he possesses great knowledge and is extremely optimistic—two qualities I appreciate and admire. He's also from Houston, which he mentions often; it's a city I've become more interested in [politically, especially] now that my mom lives here. And because it's now become the most diverse city in America and a glimpse of our country's future.
Each section and chapter evaluate topics that matter to me and I loved reading his perspective on them all: Freedom (The Vote, Dissent, The Press), Community (Inclusion, Empathy, Immigration), Exploration (Science, Books, The Arts), Responsibility (The Environment, Public Education, Service), and Character (Audacity, Steady, Courage).
"Amid all this, one truth cannot be ignored: The Detroit public schools are almost entirely African American, and the schools in the surrounding suburbs are overwhelmingly white. This is not an accident. In 1974, the Supreme Court heard a case that centered on Detroit's schools, both in the city and in the surrounding communities. In Milliken v. Bradley the court ruled in a 5-4 decision that a metropolis could in essence be segregated along district lines, just not within those districts. In other words, it was okay if there were real racial divisions, lines of exclusion, between suburbs and cities. And that is the system we largely have today. When you hear the term "inner-city schools," close your eyes and picture the student body. Now picture a suburban school. I am pretty sure that race was part of your mental image. This is not a mirage. Recent governmental and academic studies have shown increased de facto school segregation in the last few decades. In a blistering dissent to the Milliken decision, the first African American justice on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, predicted our current reality: "School district lines, however innocently drawn, will surely be perceived as fences to separate the races." We have become a less inclusive nation as a result."
("Inclusion," pp. 83-4)
"What sticks with me more than even that act of kindness was how my mother talked to me about it. I was an inquisitive child (perhaps not surprising considering my later path in life), and I was always asking questions. So I asked my mother why we gave those families gifts at Christmas when we ourselves didn't have much. I remember then answering for myself: "It was because we felt sorry for them, right?"
"We do not feel sorry for them," my mother said sternly. "We understand how they feel." It was a lesson that is so seared in my mind, I can see her face and I can hear her tone of voice as if it were yesterday.
What my family did was not heroic. I like to think of it more as neighborly. And it was in line with a national ethos in those dark days, repeated countless times in countless communities across the country. We understood that those who were suffering weren't lazy or lacking the desire to do better. Fate had the potential to slap any of us."
("Empathy," pp. 95-6)
"These states are two of the most marvelous and welcoming in our nation. Their natural wonders are matched only by the friendliness of their inhabitants, and I have enjoyed my time in both immensely. But when you look at the demographic trends of the United States, Alaska is more a throwback to the past, and Hawaii a glimpse of the future. We are destined to look and live more like Hawaii, a multiethnic society where racial lines are blurred through intermarriage, and cultural heritages combine into a new America. Even my hometown of Houston is now one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country.
Today we see an eagerness among some of our elected officials—buoyed by passionate segments of the voting public—to erect new barriers to immigration. But these efforts will not stop the demographic momentum already underway in the United States. If anything, I believe that demonizing the most recent arrivals to our shores will only, over time, galvanize the political will of the majority of Americans who understand the true legacy of our history.
When I walk around this great land, in small towns and big cities, bus stations and airports, baseball stadiums and art museums, I see an America that has expanded beyond the wildest dreams of its founders. We are a people of energy and purpose, a blended land of ever-increasing diversity that so far has proven the strength and wisdom of our great experiment. We must find a way to defeat the forces of intolerance. If we do, we will emerge a better, stronger nation."
("Immigration," pp. 120-1)
"I believe the public is hungry for better science reporting; it has been my experience that people of all backgrounds tend to be naturally curious and eager for knowledge about their world and the place in it. Several years ago, I did a report on neuroplasticity, the ability of our brains to keep changing even as we age. We included an interview with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Eric Kandel, who helped pioneer the field, and his mind, keen and imaginative well into his eighties, seemed to be living proof of his discoveries. We also interviewed the Dalai Lama. It turns out His Holiness is a science enthusiast, and we learned that researchers studying Buddhist monks have discovered that their deep meditations actually alter the structure of their brains. We got a wonderful response to the program, but one viewer's email stood out. It came from a woman from Oklahoma whose job it was to work heavy construction on highway repairs. This is not the demographic that news executives think would be interested in a subtle examination of neuroplasticity, but this woman was effusive about how much she had learned. She ended her appreciative note with a phrase that has stuck with me ever since: "I always knew my mind could grow.""
("Science," pp. 132-3)
"But while the library's physical charm was impressive, it was what was inside that made it truly magical. I was a voracious reader and spent countless hours in what became a sort of second home. I was following, in my own small way, the path laid out by Jefferson, Carnegie, and all the others who believed in the power of books. And I had a wonderful guide, the librarian Jimmie May Hicks, who served at the Heights branch library from the year of my birth, 1931, until her death in 1964—more than three decades of quiet but consequential service to her community and nation. Like all the best librarians, Ms. Hicks would suggest, question, and prod my reading into new and unexpected directions. The library now has a memorial plaque in her honor that reads, in part, She dedicated her life to her profession and sought always to impart to others joy in acquiring knowledge and pleasure in the art of reading. She was a true patriot."
("Books," p. 147)
We also owned encyclopedias and I remember how special and exciting it was to look up anything I wanted to learn more about. Pre-internet days!
"The importance of curated knowledge was encouraged at home as well. During my last year of elementary school, our principal called in all the parents to prepare them for the challenges of junior high. She talked about not only the looming physical changes of adolescence but also the mental growth that would be required for us to thrive in a more rigorous and less protective academic environment. My mother was a good listener, and she came back determined that what the Rather household needed now more than anything was our own set of encyclopedias. This caused a bit of a disagreement with my father, who insisted this was a luxury we couldn't afford. But my mother insisted that if we bought them on an installment plan, we could make it work. Ultimately, she prevailed with the winning argument that "just having them in the house will help Danny" (and my younger brother, Don, and sister, Patricia).
When boxes packed with the many volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia arrived at our doorstep, it was a momentous day. If memory serves me correctly, we had the choice of ordering the set with either red or blue on the spines and my mother chose red because she felt it would stand out more on the shelves. The books were wonderfully bound and you could feel the weight of knowledge simply by opening them up in your lap and flipping through the pages. My mother was right; just having those books on our shelves transformed our home. Whenever any of us had a question, there was the promise of an answer, and an excuse for more learning."
("Books," pp. 147-8)
"These days it is easier to occupy young minds with mobile phones and tablet computers, but I have a special respect for the mothers and fathers who continue to lug around the bags of crayons, markers, and paper. It brings a smile to my face when I see a child drawing. And while I know there are museum- and concertgoers who are irritated by sharing the spaces with sometimes unruly children, I am encouraged when I see generations of the future engaging with the arts. These pursuits are central to our American identity. Patriotism can burst to the surface through many geysers of expression."
("The Arts," p. 155)
"When I met Jean, we were in our early twenties and she had an enthusiastic thirst for the arts. She loved to paint and go to art exhibits. I wanted to impress her, so on our second date I took her to the Alley Theatre, which has since become one of Houston's most cherished institutions. The Alley was the brainchild of Nina Vance, who gained a national reputation for proving that a town like Houston could handle serious works for the stage. The play Jean and I saw that night was The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. I was transfixed by the production onstage, and by my date sitting next to me. I knew I wanted to accompany Jean on a lifetime of performances, and over our six decades of marriage, we have done that."
("The Arts, p. 158)
"Our art has been, like our country, boisterous and courageous and gloriously distinct. It has expressed euphoria, shame, and outrage. It has been exalted and it has felt the sting of suppression and marginalization. It has been misunderstood. Perhaps most important, our art has been wonderfully diverse. Our corporate boardrooms do not represent America; neither does our Congress, Supreme Court, nor certainly those we have elected to the presidency. But our artistic community represents the United States in all its multiple wonders.
Any list of great American artists would be woefully incomplete if it did not celebrate the broad democratic stirrings of a diverse nation. Consider one idiosyncratic sampling: Louis Armstrong and Mark Twain and Martha Graham, Emily Dickinson and Ella Fitzgerald and Edward Hopper, William Faulkner and Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, Langston Hughes and Jackson Pollock and Charlie Chaplin, Johnny Cash and Georgia O'Keeffe and Frank Lloyd Wright, Miles Davis and Willa Cather and Ansel Adams, Willie Nelson and Maya Angelou and Martin Scorsese, George Gershwin and Marlon Brando and Prince, Elvis Presley and Carlos Santana and Stephen Sondheim, Maria Tallchief and Robin Williams and Ernest Hemingway. The list could go on and on. American art is proof that people from all backgrounds and corners of this country have something important to say."
("The Arts," pp. 160-1)
"Nature wasn't something that you drove to, or planned on seeing, or for which you bought a fancy outdoor wardrobe. I worry now that it is an activity that must compete with soccer practices, homework, piano lessons, and all the other responsibilities that fill up the calendar of a family with children. All those are surely wonderful and rewarding, but so too is just letting your legs wander through the trees and meadows, and having your mind wander as well.
Today most of us encounter few animals and plants in our daily lives, and most of what we do see are either the ones we have domesticated or the vermin and weeds that can thrive in the cracks of modernity. Growing up I was enthralled by the night sky. But now most of us can see only a few faint stars at night, the ones bright enough to make it through the domes of light that enclose our metropolises. For all of human history, the night sky told stories, delineated time, and guided voyagers. Now 30 percent of the people on the planet can't even see the Milky Way from their homes. And in the United States, 80 percent of us can't."
("The Environment," p. 184)
"Despite all these injustices, I still had the sense for most of my early career that by and large public education was on a steady march of progress, fueled by a spirit of bipartisan support. Recently I have begun to despair, as I see the very notion of public schools under threat. Instead of a national will to make free and open education a priority and strength, I see insidious forces overtly and covertly undermining our public schools.
The crisis of our schools, especially public schools, is complex. And difficult questions abound: Does the general school tax system need to be reevaluated or not? How do we assess the impact of charter schools, and are some voucher systems worthy of consideration? What about Wall Street's increasing involvement in for-profit schools? What is the optimum role for teachers' unions? The list goes on. But there should be no dispute that if American schools don't improve, America will lose its world leadership. And I believe that whatever system emerges in the future, it must hew to our ideals of public education; It must be open to all, free of charge, and of the highest quality."
("Public Education," pp. 200-1)
"How many politicians could you imagine approaching their accomplishments with this level of humility, especially among our current leaders? That is the benefit of service: It tends to humanize you. 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. 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."
("Service," p. 222)
"It is difficult for a young boy to remain still in bed when the sun is shining and the world seems to be passing him by outside his bedroom window. I sometimes whimpered at the injustice of my fate, and my father would come into my room to stand over me, lovingly but firmly. "Steady, Danny," he would say. "Steady." The words were clear and deliberate, and they were soothing. At the time, I was too young to fully absorb his simple lesson."
("Steady," p. 248)
"However, it would be fatalistic to think that we are powerless. Maybe we cannot change the equation at the level of the universe, but life is about creating order out of chaos. In the natural world, cells come together to form complex living beings. That's pretty orderly, and inspirational. And we can do something similar by bringing order to our own lives for the betterment of our community."
("Courage," p. 266)