My daughter called me yesterday morning to talk about a story she'd heard on NPR: Stumbling Upon Mini Memorials To Holocaust Victims.
The story tells of a movement in Germany headed by artist Gunther Demnig which seeks to remember the victims of the Holocaust by installing "stumbling stones" - small brass bricks bearing the names and death details of people murdered by the Nazis - in front of the homes where they once lived. It's an interesting story in itself, although that's not why my daughter wanted to talk about it ... her attention was drawn to a statement made by a man who told the NPR reporter why it was important to remember the Holocaust victims today, many decades after the horror of that time:
"Everybody in the first place is responsible, individually, for remembering. One can't pass off everything to the state. And we are the state anyway. All of us must continue to insist that Nazis are not welcome, that we must keep the memory alive and learn from our history so that it does not happen again."
The assertion that "we are the state anyway" was what caught my daughter's attention, as it followed a discussion she and I had in her car on the long drive back home from Pittsburgh last weekend about things that are wrong with America. She believes, and I tend to agree, that we have lost the sense of community that makes us understand that we are the state ... or part of it, anyway. There's a focus in today's America on the rights of the individual rather than the individual's responsibilities to the larger group.
Columnist E.J. Dionne wrote eloquently about this in a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post: Conservatives Used to Care About Community. What Happened? Mr Dionne writes about
"... Republicans in Congress who have abandoned American conservatism’s most attractive features: prudence, caution and a sense that change should be gradual. But most important, conservatism used to care passionately about fostering community, and it no longer does. This commitment now lies buried beneath slogans that lift up the heroic and disconnected individual - or the “job creator” - with little concern for the rest."
We are no longer the state. We're a bunch of individuals looking out for Number One, losing the sense of responsibility we each have for the larger good. In the place of a sense of community, we have an endless series of bumper-sticker slogans that focus on simple platitudes: government is bad, taxes are too high, immigration (not illegal immigration, just immigration) is ruining the country, etc. We used to celebrate a sense of American community ... now, we put the individual - particularly the wealthy individual (the job creator) - on a pedestal, and screw the rest.
John F. Kennedy once famously urged us to "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Of course, John F. Kennedy was an old-school liberal Democrat, and ideas like that are now anathema both to conservatives (who celebrate the individual and demonize the state) and liberals (who focus on what the state ought to be doing for individuals, whether it's rational and affordable or not).
We ought to remember that we really are the state, and we all have a vested interest in making it work for the common good. Because, as Benjamin Franklin once noted, "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
Have a good day. Hang in there ... together. Come back tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday.