Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jane Addams on Class

From pages 124 and 125 of Elshtain’s Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy,
In an interview published in the Chicago News on April 10, 1899, Addams extolled the bicycle as a form of exercise.  When asked if this was particularly beneficial to the poorer and middle classes, she said: “There is where I wish to make an exception. I object  to that word class. It is un-American. There are no classes in this country. The people are all Americans with no dividing line drawn. But I think the the bicycle is a good thing for the workingman…. It gives him recreation and exercise and while riding to and from his work he enjoys the open air.” Whatever one thinks of Addams’s hope that tired workingmen might find their health improved by bicycling, the most interesting moment is her truculent dismissal of the word class. Of course, there were dividing lines in America. It was one thing to acknowledge an empirical reality that separated people; it was another to use  collective category to classify hundreds of thousands of people, and in so doing, to obliterate their distinctiveness. Americans should think of one another as neighbors and fellow citizens who have had vastly different experiences. We are obliged to interpret ourselves one to the other and to do all we can to ease the situation for those who are hard-pressed. Jane Addams practice what she preached when it came to being attuned to the uniqueness of each and every person, however insignificant he or she might seem.
It’s not Jane Addams’s America for many UUs; at least of the blogging sort.  Categorizers abound, plopping fellow citizens into buckets perhaps unfamiliar, and foreign to those plopped.  Our distinctiveness obliterated… the 99% in long lines with the new comer’s blue cup waiting for a welcome.  My guess is most won’t wait for the categorizers wordy greeting: You say I'm what? It’s a vision unintelligible to Americans not willing to give up their distinctiveness.

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