Books for the News, Politics and Current Events

Talk to strangers

jacket imageEchoing his own previous speeches and the hopes of countless predecessors, Barack Obama called in his inagural address for more meaningful civic participation. “As much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies,” he argued. “It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break; the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.”
But, absent such extraordinary and heartrending situations, how might we most effectively wield the civic “instruments”—which Obama, for one, identified as “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”—with which we are supposed to meet the myriad challenges we face?
In an attempt to begin to answer that question, we’d like to close out this week of Presidential posts by pointing out that Danielle Allen’s Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education is a thought-provoking place to start. An extended essay that Toni Morrison deemed “a profound meditation on citizenship, race, and the astonishing transformative power of true democracy,” Talking to Strangers outlines the possibilities inherent in “a citizenship of political friendship.”
Arguing that sacrifice is the key concept that bridges citizenship and trust, Allen uncovers the ordinary, daily sacrifices citizens make to keep democracy working (perhaps this is what Obama had in mind when he invoked “the price and promise of citizenship”?). And, usefully, she offers methods for recognizing and reciprocating those sacrifices.
Combining all this hopefulness with well-reasoned nuance—she notes in this excerpt that her “argument is neither Pollyanna’s nor Hollywood’s”—Allen offers a manifesto of sorts for a revitalized democratic citizenry.
Appropriately, we talked to her about it.