OP-EDS

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January 12, 2006

Balancing the past to change the present

Often, when we want to make sweeping conclusions about the past, history affords us a much more complex picture than we would like. In biography, when we think we have finally found the man, a new fact dashes the portrait we’ve painted. Indeed, part of the present is always spent retelling the past.

For years, those who have sought to stop anti-poverty efforts employed many different weapons in their rhetorical arsenal. One of the most conventional is the idea that there is something inherent about America—something unique to the American experience—that precludes collective responsibility. That something is rugged individualism. Those who seek to stop anti-poverty efforts claim that the history of America is the history of individuals making their own lives, and thus, government should get out of the way of those who are willing and able to determine their own destinies. The callous corollary to this logic is that those who cannot help themselves cannot be helped at all.

Now, I fervently believe that there is something exceptional about America and being American, but I cannot abide by such a narrow interpretation of my country’s history. I have two objections. First, if those who advocate this interpretation did, in fact, believe that there is something in the American experience that precludes any social policy that goes beyond equal opportunity, then they must get serious about ensuring equal opportunity. But they never do. Rarely do I find someone who advocates this interpretation and then, with equal force and equal conviction, fights for the opportunity that that interpretation demands.

After all, even if Americans cannot accept any policy that goes beyond achieiving opportunity for its citizens, we still have much work to do. In my next article, I will focus on the plight of the working poor as as reason for a renewed focus on opportunity.

But I will focus on my second objection—namely, that this interpretation ignores, to the detriment of our nation’s future, other traditions in American history.

Do Americans really lack the nobility to be committed to fighting poverty? Do Americans honestly care about themselves alone? If Americans do believe that they are not their brothers’ keepers, then why would a speech by a relatively unknown senatorial candidate in which the man unabashedly asserted an American interdependence catapult that man to national fame? I am thinking, of course, of Barack Obama. In that deservedly famous speech, Senator Obama said, “For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there is a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child.”

There is another former Illinois senatorial candidate whose entire body of writings and speeches reads as a testament to the overwhelming connections that exist among Americans. That man, Abraham Lincoln, eventually saw the Civil War as a trial that the young nation had to endure, and the only way the nation could endure would be for Americans to take increased devotion to a commitment to the American experiment, and their fellow Americans. In his second inaugural address he said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Even the ideas of icons of individualism like Teddy Roosevelt and Benjamin Franklin are not so simplistic. Roosevelt said in this city in 1912 that “this country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”. Franklin was convinced that the self-made man could only exist within and with the help of the community, hence his insistence on civic organizations and charitable efforts. These are cursory examples, but cursory examples are all that are needed to expose the fact that the narrow interpretation of individualism is, at best, a flawed.

I am not interested in promoting, as others have done, one aspect of American history at the expense of another. Part of the story of America is the story of remarkable individual initiative. But it is not the whole story. Self-reliance is American, but so is generosity. Ambition is American, but so is magnanimity. Working for oneself is American, but so is working for others. I do not want to swing the pendulum to the other extreme, but rather, bring it into balance. Today, we live in a country where there is a dogmatic insistence on self-interest, but that will change. It is a not a timeless fact but a specific political moment. The only reason it seems perpetual is that it remakes the past in the image of the present, in effect, claiming a simplistic continuity that is, in reality, an artificial one.

This interpretation, however, is not reserved to academic debate. It is a rhetorical tool used to undermine anti-poverty efforts, and other attempts to encourage the generosity and discourage the self-interest in Americans. Part of reclaiming the poverty agenda is about getting honest about past. Then and only then, can we begin to fight the present.