Down River – June 1, 2017

DownRiverby John Lipez

He’s Absolutely Right:

Please read this first item and think about it.

Every now and then you come across something about who we are, where our country is, and you say, ‘this makes sense.’

That was the case recently in a magazine interview with James Mattis, the Trump administration’s choice for Secretary of Defense. Pre-Senate confirmation reviews on Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, had been generally flattering from all quarters, an absolute rarity in this age of raw partisanship.

And after a recent backgrounder in The New Yorker, you can see his appeal to so many. What was most striking in the story was his response when asked what most worried him in his new position, ISIS, Russia, the defense budget?

He responded instead with, “The lack of political unity in America. The lack of a fundamental friendliness. It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from local community school districts or from their governments.”

Mattis then talked about the “tight-knit” Marine Corps he was part of for decades and talked of Benjamin Franklin’s description of how the Iroquois Nations lived and worked together. He contrasted that to America today and veterans returning home from foreign wars: “They’re more and more just slapped in the face by that isolation, and they’re used to something better. They think it’s P.T.S.D.— which it can be—but it’s really about alienation. If you lose any sense of being part of something bigger, then why should you care about your fellow-man?”

What a telling couple of paragraphs. If you look and listen, you see and hear the alienation. Look no further than the public discourse from politicians and media types, it’s too often about name-calling (“pinheads, snowflakes” a couple recent examples that come quickly to mind). Read the letters to the editor; listen to people at town hall meetings, at school board meetings, both close to home and all across the country.

Too many of us have lost the ability to talk to one another, to listen to the other side. Watch the opinion shows on Fox News and MSNBC; all too often two or three talking-heads are badgering at the same time, making no effort to listen to what others are saying. These exchanges might make for healthy ratings but don’t further a responsible public discourse.

This “us against them” mentality adds to the alienation more Americans are feeling. And that alienation can lead to fewer candidates for public office on the local level, fewer blood donors, fewer church attendees, fewer and fewer people paying attention to the world around them. Secretary Mattis sees the problem. Anyone out there have any suggestions on how to solve it? If you do, don’t wait too long. (And read on)

Speaking of Perception:

Ex-Gen. Mattis looks to have a pretty strong insight as to where we are as a people these days. Better than a hundred years ago there was a noted American writer who added to his luster on the lecture circuit.

He was Mark Twain and Twain’s story, his insights are kept alive today by Hal Holbrook who, at the age of 92 (92!) continues to travel the country presenting his one-man play in which he depicts Twain through sharing his long-ago writings. And as Holbrook notes, Twain’s remarks are as relevant today as they were better than a century ago.

Down River brings this up for a couple reasons. A Lock Haven native was in town over the Memorial Day holiday and told of seeing Holbrook and his one-man presentation at a theater in Denver.

Our visitor noted (and, if you’re part of the “older demographic,” you may recall) that Holbrook first presented his Twain offering at Price Auditorium on the then-Lock Haven State Teachers College campus in 1954. Holbrook has performed Twain over 2,600 times since then in all 50 states and 20 countries.

And just as Twain “got it” better than a century ago and Mattis gets it today, so does Holbrook. He told a Denver interviewer this spring the problem is us: “The onus is on the real and regular people of America to start talking to one another again.” At the dinner table, in churches and at taverns. More important, he told a Denver Center journalist, “We have to learn all over again how to listen.”

Let’s get Hal Holbrook back to Lock Haven, back to his Mark Twain roots. Here he is, at the age of 92 (interestingly his alter-ego Twain passed away at the age of 75), still out in the hustings, Holbrook said he has never tired of the Twain show. “It gives me a tremendous feeling of moving forward. It gives me energy. I love doing the show and I love the challenge of trying to talk to people today about what is going on,” he told the Denver publication.

This country, this county could use a little dose of Secretary Mattis and philosopher/lecturer Holbrook/Twain.