A Review of Dan Rather's 'What Unites Us'
It seems like when it comes to politics and public discourse, we Americans are prone to exaggeration. For example, I like how every time there is a Presidential election it is "the most important election of our time." After a while, it all feels like 'crying wolf'. Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about how polarized we are as a country, that we are perhaps more divided now than ever. Is this another example of our proclivity towards over-dramatic and inflated claims? Well certainly a little something called the Civil War might have us beat when ranking our most conflicted moments in the history of 'the great experiment' of American democracy. But can we say that this is another significant period of time in our nation's history where we are straining to yet again determine our identity and achieve a closer realization of the ideals we claim to corporately affirm? I believe that it is. In fact I would argue that the controversial issues that are being discussed are actually symptomatic of stubbornly historical divisions; the political polarization has done nothing but surface them again. There is a resulting deep heaviness running through the hearts of many of us who call this place home. Beyond that, some are truly suffering as a result of our identity crisis. Who are we as 'Americans'? What do we hope to become? Any conversation that looks to answer those questions will inevitably lead to the discussion of another term and topic of heated debate: patriotism. Enter Dan Rather and his long time collaborator, Elliot Kirschner.
an iconic journalist and his '2 cents'
In the history of American mass media, there have been a handful of journalists that have taken on an iconic role. While certainly not to the level of his predecessor Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather certainly became a household name for a good period of time, especially for my generation and older. He, like others, have not been immune to controversy, but that is not the focus here. Rather it is to share my brief thoughts on his and Kirschner's 2017 book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, especially as it relates to the highly polarized time in which we live.
From the beginning, a distinction is drawn between true patriotism and that of nationalism. In his own words, Rather's basic thesis on 'patriotism' is dependent on nationalism being a foil.
It is important to not confuse "patriotism" with "nationalism." As I define it, nationalism is a monologue in which you place your country in a position of moral and cultural supremacy over others. Patriotism, while deeply personal, is a dialogue with your fellow citizens, and a larger world, about not only what you love about your country but also how it can be improved. Unchecked nationalism leads to conflict and war. Unbridled patriotism can lead to the betterment of society. Patriotism is rooted in humility. Nationalism is rooted in arrogance. (Pg.15)
The rest of the book consists of him and Kirschner discussing our nation's aspirational values as they are applied to specific issues. So for example, under the value of 'freedom' they look at voting and the role of the press, or under the value of 'responsibility' they examine the state of public education.
The Dog-Eared Review
In many ways, the book feels more like a memoir, with each topic finding a connection to a personal or professional experience. In doing so I definitely learned some new things about Mr. Rather that I had not known before. But how useful was it to furthering dialogue on the broader topics of patriotism and identity? Personally, I would recommend it as an excellent discussion starter of sorts. It feels like the kind of book that is best dissected in a reading group. In an era in which families, communities, and ultimately a nation is becoming more and more a complex of confused identities, What Unites Us and a discussion around it could be one of many tools to help draw people back together. So in conclusion, I give it two dog-ears.