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The Reinvention Of America

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Second is emphasizing engagement, of almost any kind. I’d always known about this as a platitude, or as the academic concept of “social capital.” Now I understand it as a tangible thing. Early in our travels I received a note from a young man who had moved from a big coastal city to a town in North Texas. “If you want to consume a fabulous community, you could move to some place like Brooklyn,” he said—or San Francisco, or Seattle, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or any other glittering site with restaurants, parks, vistas, and public spaces to enjoy. “If you want to create a great community, you move someplace that needs your help,” like his new hometown. Creating in this sense means taking responsibility for the invention and sustenance of the community in which you’d like to live. The idea of engagement, then, boils down to sharing responsibility for the world outside one’s individual household. Any step in that direction—as modest as voting or attending PTA meetings, as dramatic as running for office or leading a group to deal with local problems—is a step that encourages civic creation, not just consumption. And the evidence of past waves of reform, from the labor-rights and women’s-suffrage movements of the early 1900s through the civil-rights and environmental movements of mid-century, suggests that national transformations must start from local roots.

Third is correcting perceptions and dealing with what is already recognized as a national emergency: the distorted picture of events beyond our immediate experience that comes through the media, professional and informal alike. The strain on local media, whose effects we saw everywhere, is an important part of this distortion. One to-do step for citizens: Subscribe to local publications while they still exist. A to-do step for plutocrats and philanthropists: View news-gathering as a crucial part of the public infrastructure of this era, just as Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Mellons viewed libraries, museums, and universities as part of the necessary infrastructure of their time. The most urgent place to start would be with local and state-capital newspapers, which have been even harder hit than national publications by the evaporation of journalism’s late-20th-century economic base.

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The challenge of journalism is always to make what’s important interesting. This is hard enough in the best of circumstances. It’s harder when the reality you’re conveying involves a mixture of developments both encouraging and alarming, rather than a stark exposé or a success story. It’s harder still when the reality involves TV and video. And it is nearly impossible in the case of cable-news channels, above all politically driven ones like Fox. What 24-hour cable news introduced and Fox perfected in the modern news consciousness is an unending stream of horrors from … somewhere else. The natural result of well-meaning liberal media is thus a kind of pity for the heartland, and of conservative media, a survivalist fear about what people Out There are trying to get away with.

The problems of journalistic proportion hardly began with the last presidential campaign. You name a decade from the 1700s onward, and I can show you an essay on the failings and pernicious effects of the contemporary press. But those defects crest in certain eras, and Americans’ inability to see clearly the state of their nation represents one of those dangerous peaks now.

A clear view of the America of this era contains serious perils, like always, but also more promise than at many other times. Through the long saga of American reinvention, the background question has been the one Benjamin Franklin is said to have pondered at the Constitutional Convention when looking at a painting of the sun on the back of George Washington’s chair. Franklin said that he had “often and often” looked at that sun “without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting.” As the Constitution was being signed, Franklin declared that he had “the happiness to know” the sun was rising. It can rise again, and across the country we have seen rays of its new light.


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Source : https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/05/reinventing-america/556856/?0uqkrh3rlvh8

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