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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Lesson from Jane Addams Revisited

I first posted the following item back in 2013, at the beginning of President Obama's second term in office.  I am posting it today for two reasons.  First, it is Jane Addams birthday.  Second, the lessons we can learn from her are as relevant today--if not more so--than they were in 2013:

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.