Reading makes a country great
by Jesse Webb | firstname.lastname@example.org
September 13, 2016
George Bush sat still, legs crossed, in an elementary school classroom when he learned that America was under attack by religious extremists. I watched the video of this moment recently—the President’s drained face, the incongruence of reading exercises in the background, the teacher’s flash of awareness that something pivotal had just happened—but this time I noticed a detail I hadn’t before: a sign hanging behind President Bush with the words, “Reading makes a country great.”
Fifteen years later, citizens are mobilizing like never before to “Make America Great Again.” But the solution to their mission may not be the blonde businessman they support. The solution may just lie in the classroom where Bush learned of the attack on the World Trade Center.
National pride does not demand rational calculation. American patriotism is born the moment we learn about the sacrifices that have enabled our unique brand of freedom. But of course, the freedom protected by our government is by no means total, and it was arguably never meant to be. We can lie, but we may not perjure. We can hate, but we may not murder. We can communicate, but we will be monitored.
The only freedom granted to U.S. citizens without qualification is the very right that is never mentioned in our constitution: the right to read. The freedom to consume any information we want and interpret it independently is the cornerstone of American (and truly, any) democracy. True patriotism is the act of reading a story or the news, processing it individually, and then conversing civilly with others who may not have processed it the same way. This is the particular liberty that makes our nation the envy of the free world and, consequently, the enemy of the radicalized world.
Aaron Sorkin, acclaimed writer of The West Wing, responded to the attacks of 9/11 with an episode entitled, “Isaac and Ishmael” wherein senior members of the White House staff discuss religious fundamentalism and terrorism with high school students. The episode is certainly worth watching on Netflix, but I think its message can be summated in Josh Lyman’s response to a student who asked why Islamic extremists hate Americans: “This is a plural society. That means we accept more than one idea. It offends them.”
Reading makes a country great because reading engenders plurality. The act of reading insulates the reader, allowing us to decode information on our own before the inevitable assault of reductionist media noise. In this way, it enables individualism and independent thinking to a degree that televised news and biased pundits can’t.
There has been a lot of discussion on the Ole Miss campus about the traditions that make our University “great.” Some have argued that the removal of Southern symbols from campus—steeped as they may be in Confederate iconography—also removes a sense of cultural identity. This argument is flawed not because it is ignorant, but because it has too narrow a scope. Our community’s and our nation’s identities are not cultivated solely by the traditions we uphold. In fact, The United States of America was formed by men and women who rejected traditions, who buried the status quo and gave birth to a plural society—a melting pot of cultures and ideologies. It is this plurality that defines our nation, not our adherence to convention.
A well-read populous accepts more than one ideology because it’s been exposed to far more than one story. Great literature evokes empathy and open-mindedness. Great journalism informs the electorate of what they must know in the voting booth. Great criticism offers new and varied perspectives that challenge conventional wisdom. Great countries are made up of great readers.