Saturday, November 8, 2008

Proud Progressives...and Americans Too!

Very sad to lose Studs Terkel and John Leonard. It got me thinking about how the world perceives the United States. 


I spent all of last year in Germany, mostly in Berlin. I was saddened to see the limited vein with which Germans view the United States. Some German papers, like the Suedeutsche Zeitung, have relationships with the New York Times to reprint excerpts from the Sunday Times. On one hand this is great...but the New York Times does not reflect all of America. 


It's hard out there in the world to be an ambassador to the United States. But Studs Terkel and John Leonard made it easier for me. I would remind my German friends, as I am reminding the international students I meet here at Ohio University, that the United States has a great progressive tradition. In fact, it was born out of the failed revolutions of Europe! Russian Jews starting unions in sweatshops of New York City; Scandinavian farmers running as Socialist candidates in Minnesota and winning (until the labor unions and the Democrats sold them down the river)!; Mexican activists demanding public school access for children of migrant workers. 


These two grew out of that tradition. Studs Terkel listened to the diversity of Americans and transcribed their experiences. History is not written by kings and prime ministers - Studs Terkel made sure of that. 

And John Leonard holds a special place in my heart. I knew him best as a film critic for CBS Sunday Morning when Charles Kuralt was still the host. He firmly believed directors had a social obligation to the audience, and his prose cut like a scalpel. I later read him in the Nation magazine when my grandfather bought me a subscription (he called it protecting his investment.) 


Progressivism still lives vibrantly in the United States, even before this presidential election. Look at how American cities are defying federal immigration law, telling their police officers to not inquire about immigration status. Look at how mayors are signing off on green zoning policies (and in Portland, Oregon, have for a very long time.) And my personal favorite is when Somali mothers in my adopted hometown Minneapolis started their own parent advocacy group because they felt like their issues weren't being addressed by the school board. These stories aren't getting to the world audience about the United States. 

Studs Terkel and John Leonard wrote about these things, in different forms. Eloquently, powerfully. If you have room on your book list, check these two out. And if you're a young European who's worried about leftist values in the United States, let these two put your mind at rest. 

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