There are a lot of people pointing to the failures of media in our politics. Many more point to the use of propaganda, hate radio, and the shrillness of discourse. How did we get here? Well, it's more complicated than just media, which is what makes it all the more difficult to solve.
In 2001, Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, about the collapse of our communities. Earlier sociologists described how the advent of air conditioning in the South changed the way people interact, or rather failed to interact. We are increasingly alone, insulated by neighborhoods of people who look like us, think like us, and we are increasingly unfamiliar with people outside of our social circles.
Perhaps it has been like that for a long time. As Paul Conkin noted in his book, Pilgrims and Pragmatists (1968), the freedom in America has been the freedom to find one's own intolerant community. While we are a people who admire the Statue of Liberty, we are also the descendants and heirs to the Salem Witch Hunts, the near miss of McCarthyism, and the Klan marches down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925. We have seen strife over racial inequality, but we also saw strife during the Gilded Age when unions and powerful industrialists clashed. Today, we are seeing a hollowing out of a way of life that brings its own pressures and strains to society as corporations rise again to control our politics.
Still, there were men and women who understood that these matters could not be allowed to divide us. Among the unsung heroes are people like Clara Ford, the wife of Henry Ford, who threatened to leave him if he allowed the violence to continue during the labor conflicts of the early 1940s. Later, those plants would employ tens of thousands of women as men went off to war. Other women, like Jane Addams, developed programs to ensure that immigrants and their families became the kind of citizens America needed and depended upon in the growing economy of the mid-20th Century.
Women have led change, forced change, and made their lives and those of their families and communities better. Why? They are the people who most bear the burdens of society in the practical, day-to-day operations of the households and are the the backbone of most churches and community organizations. They are pragmatic, unavoidably accountable, and the most critical part of society in the developing world and in well-governed corporations. They understand the risks of doing nothing and the advantages of working together. That spirit of cooperation is built into the movement that we see now. People are sharing time, effort, ideas, and the facts to support them. They are engaged in arguments about what our country should be and how we should treat people, the kinds of discussions and debates that might have occurred more often, with the experiences of an earlier age, when we weren't bowling alone.
Perhaps no other group in society has been more important in the struggle for economic and social justice than African Americans. The contribution of leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gloria Richardson Dandridge, John Lewis, and others with whom they worked in the struggle for civil rights cannot be overstated. They provide a blueprint for how a movement can be successful. We need to review what they did and take notes.
While no collection could ever be complete, the of books we have compiled are a good start and a reminder of how we got here, and of the ideas that used to bring us together. It begins with books about our current situation, our differences, explanations about how those issues came to the surface, and concludes with other visions of America and a few that remind us of the struggles of the Civil Rights movement, which provides lessons on how we could behave and what we should be ready to endure. Reading alone won't do it. We have to get out and meet people. Interacting online is great, but the physical presence of people in town halls across the country can and will change things. Read, then go to a meeting and write a well-written letter about your issue to your representatives.