BOOK REVIEW: ‘What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism’ by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

c.2017, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$22.95 ($34.95 Canada)
274 pages

The rift sometimes seems Grand Canyon-wide.

Blue on one side, red on the other with contentious policies, belief systems, and political stances in between. Can we ever move forward as a country, while also recapturing that which made us one? Read “What Unites Us” by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner, and see what could work again.

As you might expect, newsman Dan Rather travels a lot.

Because much of it happens on off-hours, he has time to ponder what he sees — which is often silence and “wide open spaces” from an airplane window. That makes him think: “Who are we? Where are we going?”

“Today we are a divided country,” says Rather, with “elected officials pounding their chests” on the subject of patriotism and indicating that their version is the only correct one. What we need, he says, is to separate patriotism and nationalism.

We need to ensure that every eligible American votes. That’s something Rather learned from his father as a child, and it was underscored when he was a young reporter on location. In addition to encouraging our fellow countrymen to vote, we need to ensure that they can vote freely.

There’s a reason our forefathers included an amendment to the Constitution about the press and it’s “even more relevant now than ever.” But the press is in crisis today and it’s up to us to remember that its job is to “ask hard questions and refuse to be deterred” and to hold “powerful institutions… accountable for their actions…”

We must preserve our rights to dissent. We must remember that America is more than just “white, Protestant, straight, nondisabled men.” We need empathy for the poor and mindfulness that “the vast majority of us are only a few generations removed from another land.” We need education, science, the arts, environmentalism; we need “audacity” and to “think boldly…”

“I remind myself…” says Rather, “that we have been through big challenges in the past, that it often seems darkest in the present. Our government is there to serve us, not the other way around.”

Part lecture-from-your-uncle, part history, part shake-your-fist-and-yell-YES!, and part illustrative biography, authors Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner have some serious things to say to American readers but gentle anecdotes scattered throughout tend to soften their tone. There’s a lot in here that you heard back in high school, but plenty to poke your thoughts, too.

What’s very interesting isn’t what they say, though — it’s what they don’t say. While well-known political names are used in this book — they are, in fact, dropped with impunity — they’re conspicuously absent in the scolding. The authors seem pointed in their observations, but no finger-pointing allowed; astute readers won’t have any problem taking whatever hints are here.

If you’re a fan of Rather’s Facebook page, you could argue that this book steps more to one political side than the other but, really, both sides will find things to think about in the authors’ words. If you want to know “What Unites Us,” this book has it all together.

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