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Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. —J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, 1782 The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin … would be to permit it…

Who Are We?

imageHere individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.
—J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur,
Letters from an American Farmer, 1782

The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin … would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.
—Theodore Roosevelt, Autobiography, 1913

Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it.
—Jean-François Revel, 1970

The delicate task that faces our civilization today is not to reform the secular, rationalist orthodoxy, which has passed beyond the point of redemption. Rather, it is to breathe new life into the older, now largely comatose, religious orthodoxies—while resisting the counterculture as best we can, adapting to it and reshaping it where we cannot simply resist.
—Irving Kristol, “Countercultures,” 1994

Who are we? It’s a question posed in the new book of the same title by Samuel Huntington. The above quotes were part of an introduction to a book review by Roger Kimball in the June issue of The New Criterion (OK, I admit to being a bit behind on reading). The do a nice job of setting the stage to talk about Huntington’s subject matter, which to say the least is timely in our national debate.

If you are unfamiliar with Huntington, he is a Harvard political scientist know for his earlier work “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the New World Order.” Huntington seems to be writing ahead of the curve. The subject matter of his previous book seems to be playing out in front of our eyes. What’s on his mind now? How will the results of Sept. 11 affect us as a nation comprised of immigrants? What will it do to our values? What in our history as a nation do we seem to be forgetting?

“The widespread sense of condign outrage—of horror leavened by anger and elevated by resolve—testified to a renewed sense of national purpose and identity after 9/11,” writes Kimball. “Attacked, many Americans suddenly (if temporarily) rediscovered the virtue of patriotism.” However, as Kimball notes, there are anecdotes of our unity on the wane. (Just watch any footage from the presidential campaigns, and that should convince you should you disagree.) Has, as Kimball writes, our excess of flag-waving been “followed by a relapse into indifference”?

“Does it mean that the sudden upsurge of patriotism in the weeks following 9/11 was only, as it were, skin deep? Or perhaps it merely testifies to the fact that a sense of permanent emergency is difficult to maintain, especially in the absence of fresh attacks,” says Kimball. “Is our sense of ourselves as Americans patent only when challenged? “Does it,” Huntington asks, “take an Osama bin Laden … to make us realize that we are Americans? If we do not experience recurring destructive attacks, will we return to the fragmentation and eroded Americanism before September 11?”

America is a verb. (How’s that for a catchy slogan for a T-shirt? But stay with me.) I think to be an American, you have to want it. I think that each citizen must define what that means for themselves, and then act on it. I think you will have to agree that there have never been any great Americans who have not done this for themselves personally. Collectively, each generation must define what has gone before, and set the course for the future.

“To get a sense of what has happened to the institution of American identity, compare Robert Frost’s performance at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 with Maya Angelou’s performance thirty-two years later,” writes Kimball. “As Huntington reminds us, Frost spoke of the “heroic deeds” of America’s founding, an event, he said, that with God’s “approval” ushered in “a new order of the ages.” By contrast, Maya Angelou never mentioned the words “America” or “American.” Instead, she identified twenty-seven ethnic or religious groups that had suffered repression because of America’s “armed struggles for profit,” “cynicism,” and “brutishness.”

Surely, if we don’t sew up the divide in this country, our future could be at stake. As Huntington deftly puts it in his book: “The traditional ideal of a distinctive American identity, forged out of many elements but unified around a core of beliefs, attitudes, and commitments is now up for grabs.

“Huntington suggests, the United States is not only undergoing a profound identity crisis,” writes Michiko Kakutani in a May review of the book in the New York Times, but it may eventually find its very existence threatened: ‘’Historically the substance of American identity has involved four key components: race, ethnicity, culture (most notably language and religion), and ideology,’’ he writes. ‘’The racial and ethnic Americas are no more. Cultural America is under siege. And as the Soviet experience illustrates, ideology is a weak glue to hold together people otherwise lacking racial, ethnic, and cultural sources of community. Reasons could exist, as Robert Kaplan observed, why ‘America, more than any other nation, may have been born to die.’ ‘’ Sure enough, Huntington points out that “it is hard to avoid thinking that a people that has lost the will to reproduce or govern itself is a people on the road to destruction.”

Even the very subject matter of our unity is surely to be a point of divisiveness. Some may use the argument to speak against diversity (as Kristol’s quote against counterculture implies). Some may use Huntington’s book as a call for a return to some fictitious “good old days"--perhaps in a couched argument against diversity-- when everyone believed the same beliefs, went to the same church. But many who believe this fail to understand that when and where many of these beliefs were formed, particularly in agrarian communities in the nation’s heartland, many individuals in such communities were in the same economic boat. (Maybe this is why this type of thinking plays well in the so-called red states). On the opposite side of the argument, some may correctly point out that our nation is made up of many voices, but that we often fail to define any mutual responsibility.

As I said earlier, you’ve got to want it. To me, in many respects, there is no more noble personification of an American than the recent immigrant. Often driven in search of economic opportunity, an immigrant has an idea of what America means long before setting foot on our soil. In return for citizenship in the land of freedom and opportunity, a bond between citizen in country is formed at the soul’s core. And communities are built with that kind of spirit. Perhaps those born to inherit what the Founders gave us take it for granted.

Some would argue that community, culture, etc. are certainly more easily created when we all look the same, go to the same church to worship the same God--settlers carving cities out of the open prairie. Perhaps. But it’s a bigoted world view to look to your neighbor of different heritage, religion or race and not reach out together toward what you have in common: American citizenship. A country where all are allowed the “opportunity” to raise a family, to earn a wage, to pray to God, or even to paint our hair purple if we like.

So how do we react? How do we assert ourselves? Maybe when we understand that what we cherish most is our freedom and opportunity we won’t work so hard, or vote, to define what shape it takes for others. By reaching out to others, we will preserve that opportunity and with any luck it will remain long into the future. Samuel Huntington surely has me thinking, and I haven’t even finished his book yet.

Maybe that’s why I liked so much what Barack Obama had to say at the Democratic National Convention this week. “If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.”

As Kimball writes in his review of “Who Are We?” perhaps “Benjamin Franklin got to the nub of the matter when, more than two hundred years ago, he observed that “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.””

Posted by Joel Schettler on July 31 2004 • Books

Swing Voters' Reading Habits

Predicting how the election will turn out based on reading habits is about as reliable as “shaking the Magic 8 Ball,” says Corey Pein in the current issue of Folio magazine. Still it’s fun to speculate.

“Looking at the upcoming election through the limited lens of the magazine business, the race looks good for the Democrats,” writes Pein. “Since 2001, subscriptions to three important anti-Bush magazines are up an average of 26 percent in the swing states, whereas subscriptions have stagnated among comparable pro-Bush magazines.”

In the article, Pein examines the reading habits of six magazines, which have left-right readership and little overlap in subscribers: The Nation and The National Review, The New Yorker and American Hunter, Forbes and Vanity Fair. “Plus one incredibly influential publication that, for now, remains on the fence — O Magazine.” The 12 swing states chosen were “Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin) all went for Gore/Nader or Bush/Buchanan in 2000 by a margin of less than 5 percent.”

If you believe you are what you read, perhaps predicting that outcome of an election based on such an analysis makes good sense. It will be interesting to see the results. It beats tea leaves, I suppose.

Posted by Joel Schettler on July 29 2004 • Journalism

Too Many Books?

imageHere’s an interesting twist to the report issued last week about the country’s reading habits, or lack thereof. American book sellers are selling fewer books. Can it be that there are just too many that are published?

In an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, authors Kevin Nance and Mike Thomas pose the question: can there be too many books, or at least more than is healthy for the industry as a whole? In 2003 alone, the authors write nearly 175,000 books were published in this country, “many released by an influx of independent publishers lured into the market by more accessible publishing technologies and distribution systems.”

According to the Sun-Times reporters, along with the recent study data, people are obviously reading less than they once did. Still, more than 20 books are published every hour in the day, every day.

Why the outpouring of books? “For some reason, everybody thinks they can write a book, and book publishing seems glamorous to them. But there’s no way the market can absorb all those books,” says Albert Greco, a Fordham University professor and publishing industry analyst.

Yet, how many is too many. “We’re publishing 175,000 books for a U.S. population of close to 300 million,” Andrew Grabois, a senior executive at R.R. Bowker, the firm that issues ISBN numbers in the United States, said in the reporters’ article. “In the United Kingdom, they’re publishing 125,000 books for a population of only 60 million. It’s hard to know what the American market can absorb, but we’re still lagging behind the British.”

Posted by Joel Schettler on July 27 2004 • Books

Election Year Fun

You have probably already heard about this site, but if not check it out. It is a funny election-year video, featuring the candidates’ rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s very funny.

According to the Boston Globe, the site has received more than 5 million hits since it was launched on July 9. Traffic to the site has been so heavy that at times the servers have gone down. The two-minute video has been featured on many news broadcasts, including NBC, Fox, and CNN.

Posted by Joel Schettler on July 23 2004 • Current Affairs

Nothin' Like a Dame

imageScheduled to launch next year, Dame magazine will be edited for “a a growing but somewhat overlooked cadre of independent women who have cash to burn.” Read Folio magazine’s interview, ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Dame,’ with Jennifer Reitman, a 34-year-old former marketing director who is starting the new publication.

“Women’s magazines don’t go into the kinds of financial details that these women need at this point in their life,” says Reitman in the interview. “A Dame reader, whether single or married, is independent. I wanted to give our readers a sense of how complicated and multi-dimensional independent women are, which is intensified by living in a city.”

Posted by Joel Schettler on July 22 2004 • Journalism

Early American Newspapers

imageAn excerpt from The Creation of the Media by Paul Starr: “Between 1790 and 1835, while the population grew from 3.9 million to 15 million, the number of newspapers in the United States climbed eleven-fold, from 106 to 1,258. For every 100 households, there were 18-19 newspaper subscriptions in the 1780s; by the 1820s, there were just over 50. That does not prove that more than 50 percent of households received a paper, since some families received more than on, but it does show a remarkably broad distribution of newspapers in an era when, according to some historians, newspaper readership was supposedly restricted to a political and economic elite ... By the 1820s, three-fourths of families included at least one adult who engaged in life-long reading, and that reading had become more varied, secular, and particularly focused on a “new activity"--keeping up with the times through newspapers.

“Nowhere in Europe was there anything like this profusion of newspapers and newspaper reading. In 1775, newspaper circulation per capita had been greater in England that in America. In 1835, after travels in America, the English writer Richard Cobden pointed out that despite a larger population, the British Isles had only 369 newspapers, of which only 17 were daily, while the United States, according to an almanac for 1834, had 1,265 newspapers, of which 90 were daily ... per capita newspaper circulation was six times higher in the United States than in the British Isles ... as of 1840, total weekly circulation in the United States, with a population of 17 million, had surpassed that of all of Europe, with 233 million inhabitants.”

Posted by Joel Schettler on July 19 2004 • Journalism

Johnny and Jane Need the Novel

Do the media have any responsibility in keeping fiction and poetry alive in America? That’s the question the Poynter Institute’s Book Babes ask in response to the recent report issued by the National Endowment for the Arts.

As I posted here on my blog, earlier this week the NEA issued a report that said the number of people reading novels and serious literature in America is off 15 percent from 20 years ago. “But it’s the youth ó our future who show the steepest slide,” writes Ellen Heitzel, a Poynter columnist. “Apparently the 18  to 24 group has gone electronic on us, because its leisure-time lit reading has dropped 28 percent.”

Reading literature is a different experience than consuming nonfiction or journalism. “Consider the argument for literature,” writes Heitzel. “As a reading experience, fiction and poetry are distinct from non-fiction, even the creative kind in which writers (journalists, even!) incorporate fiction techniques. Ideas and stories that spring from the imagination call on different tools of discernment. They cultivate intellectual qualities that are often underrated in our pragmatic, just-do-it kind of culture.”

More fron Heitzel’s article: “Although facts are the backbone of media communications, and rightly so, what springs from the imagination is not extraneous to our way of knowing. In a society that puts its reliance on science and technology, we’re just beginning to quantify the value of both kinds of learning. Howard Gardner with his theory of multiple intelligences and Daniel Goleman with his study of the emotions point to the essential role that fiction and poetry can play in our mental functioning.”

Part of the reason for such a decline, suggests Heitzel, is that serious fiction hardly receives the media attention it once did. A few months ago, the New York Times revamped its Book section, saying that much of the current fiction it was devoting much of its attention to was garbage. And even Book TV, CSPAN’s weekend programminng devoted to authors and books, steers clear of fiction, writes Heitzel.

Still readers represent a large audience out there, says Heitzel: “For one thing, literary reading continues to be a popular pastime in the United States. In spite of the bad news about reading’s decline, in 2002, only TV watching, movie-going, and exercising attracted significantly more people than reading literary works, according to the NEA. For print media in particular, given its obvious synergy with anybody who likes to read, it would be a mistake to ignore a demographic this large.”

Yet, as the study points out, there is a strong connection between reading literature and becoming an actively engaged citizen. Are the numbers the “canaries in the coal mine,” indicative of the state of our democracy and civic health?

Posted by Joel Schettler on July 15 2004 • Books

Media Myopia

imageAn essay in today’s New York Times eloquently sums up the state we find ourselves in today with regard to American media. It’s written by Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

In his essay, Kohut writes, “Americans are often ridiculed for lacking knowledge of world news. In August 1997, for example, a Pew Research Center survey found that 79 percent of Americans were aware that the boxer Mike Tyson had bitten the ear of an opponent, while only 40 percent knew that Britain had returned Hong Kong to China that same summer.”

Yet, despite this information deficit, writes Kohut, Americans believe in public opinion’s ability to “fill in the holes and make rational choices” when it comes to important group activity such as electing the next president of the United States.

“Sam Popkin, a professor of political science at the University of California, calls it “gut rationality” - a sort of homing device that allows the public to quickly combine its bedrock beliefs with a smattering of new information and make, on the whole, reasoned decisions,” writes Kohut in the Times. “People learn from past experiences, daily life and the news media, and they flesh out their world view based on their default values, he concludes.

“This process may be threatened, not enhanced, however, by the explosion of shortcuts available.”

“Sources for information are more bountiful - and arguably more partisan - than ever before, says Kohut, “And this freewheeling bazaar of news choices has generated an audience that is increasingly self-segregating. Consider that a plurality of Fox News Channel’s audience is now Republican, while a plurality of CNN’s audience now consists of Democrats, according to Pew’s latest biennial survey of news habits. That poll also showed that perceptions of “media credibility” - that is, whether people think a particular news outlet can be trusted - are now more driven by ideology and partisanship than at any point in nearly 20 years of surveys.”

In citing work by Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, Kohut arrives at his central point. In his 2001 book “Republic.com” Prof. Sunstein wrote that the Internet’s ability to provide personalized news - to permit users to filter out those things they don’t care about - posed a threat to democracy itself.

“Democracy, he argued, depends in part on people’s being exposed to information they would not necessarily have chosen for themselves,” writes Kohut. “So, too, might the concept of gut rationality be endangered in a filtered world, where people see only what they want to see, hear only what they want to hear, read only what they want to read.”

Posted by Joel Schettler on July 13 2004 • Journalism

Champion of Truth

image"In 1803, [under the Sedition Act] a grand jury in Columbia County, New York, indicted Harry Croswell for seditious libel against President Jefferson,” writes author Ron Chernow in his wonderful new biography, Alexander Hamilton. As his defense lawyer, Croswell wanted Hamilton. The case generated intense political heat, and while Hamilton could not participate in the early stages of the trial due to prior commitments, he did agree to take part. “By the time the circuit court convened in the small brick courthouse in Claverack, New York, in July, Hamilton had agreed to join the defense team. Because the case touched on two momentous constitutional issues, freedom of the press and trial by jury, he waived any fee.”

It was a surprise for me to learn when I read the book that Hamilton was involved in such a landmark case involving freedom of the press. As readers of the book may know, Hamilton was treated horribly in the press of the day, which was much more vile than it is today (if you can believe that). Nonetheless, Hamilton thought it important that freedoms be protected, and that one way to do so was to ensure that publishers had the right to claim that truth in a published report, no matter how damning, is protection under the law. “The standard heretofore had been that plaintiffs in libel cases needed to prove only that statements made against them were defamatory, not that they were false,” writes Chernow.

Hamilton lost his case, largely due to the fact that the judge, Morgan Lewis, “reverted to common law doctrine and otherwise told the jury to determine whether Harry Croswell had indeed published libelous words about Jefferson, not whether they were true or not. (Incidentally, or ironically, Croswell had published stories that Jefferson had hired a person to write slanderously about George Washington, calling him a traitor, a robber, and a perjurer; and that Jefferson has also led the charge against John Adams by calling Adams a hoary-headed incendiary. All of which were true).

In early 1804, Hamilton went before the state supreme court in Albany to plead for a new trial. On the bench were three Republican justices (Hamilton was a Federalist). Hamilton’s speech was so eagerly anticipated that the Senate and Assembly Chambers emptied when he spoke, writes Chernow. He did not disappoint. Said Hamilton: “The liberty of the press consists, in my idea, in publishing the truth from good motives and for justifiable ends, even though it reflect on government, on magistrates, or individuals.” Considering the press of the day, writes Chernow, Hamilton did not endorse a completely unfettered press. “I consider this spirit of abuse and calumny as the pest of society. I know the best of men are not exempt from the attacks of slander ... Drops of water in long and continued succession will wear out the adamant.” Hence the importance of truth, fairness and absence of malice in reportage.

An excerpt from Chernow’s wonderful book: “Only a free press could check the abuses of executive power, Hamilton asserted [in his six-hour speech in front of the court]. He never mentioned Jefferson directly, but the president’s shadow flickered intermittently over his speech. In describing the need for unvarnished press coverage of elected official, Hamilton reminded the judges “how often the hypocrite goes from stage to stage of public fame, under false array, and how often when men attained the last objects of their wishes, they change from that which they seemed to be.” In case any auditors missed the allusion, Hamilton added that “men the most zealous reverers of the people’s rights have, when placed on the highest seat of power, become their most deadly oppressors. It becomes therefore necessary to observe the actual conduct of those who are thus raised up.”

Chernow writes, “By spotlighting the issue of intent, Hamilton identified the criteria for libel that still hold sway in America today: that the writing in question must be false, defamatory, and malicious ... Hamilton showed how truth and intent were inextricably linked: “Its being a truth is a reason to infer that there was no design to injure another."”

Posted by Joel Schettler on July 09 2004 • Books

Dewey Defeats Truman

imageDid anyone catch this gaffe by the New York Post? I guess the final call on the cover story tip, according to an article in today’s New York Times, came from none other than Rupert Murdoch himself.

According to the Times story, Murdoch called in the tip saying for certain that the pick was to be Gephardt. At the time, the editors of the paper had a story prepared that stated the announcement was to be made the next morning. At the last minute, the call came in and the paper was changed. The Times reports that New York Post executives deny the accusation. The Post employee quoted in the story “demanded anonymity, saying senior editors had warned that those who discussed the Gephardt gaffe with other news organizations would lose their jobs.”

Here is a remaining excerpt from the Times story: “Howard Rubenstein, a spokedsman for the Post, said the paper “stands by its flat denial that Rupert was the source of the story, nor did he order the story in.’’ Mr. Rubenstein emphasized that his own source for this denial was Col Allan, the paper’s editor in chief.

“Mr. Rubenstein said that Mr. Murdoch did tend to call the paper “from time to time to find out how things are going.’’ Asked if Mr. Murdoch telephoned anyone at the newspaper that night, Mr. Rubenstein said, “I don’t know.’’

“Mr. Rubenstein said that Mr. Allan ordered the article rewritten Monday night and had himself written the headline for the cover of the newspaper. It said: “Dem picks Gephardt as VP candidate.’’

“Mr. Murdoch, asked by CNBC about the Gephardt article in a brief interview on Tuesday from a conclave of media and technology executives in Sun Valley, Idaho, seemed to point to others. “Everybody made a mistake and they are embarrassed and they have apologized for it and it happens even on NBC sometimes,’’ he said.

Posted by Joel Schettler on July 09 2004 • Journalism