Words cannot express how privileged I feel to have the opportunity to speak to you today about interdependence. While interdependence is our reality, as a people we Americans have yet to acknowledge that and develop a culture of interdependence, which I believe should be our guiding principle in the 21st century. Enough—we must say—to the culture of combat and conflict, which leads us again and again to lost lives among the young and innocent, lost limbs, lost time and lost hope. I speak not as a preacher or a pacifist but as a realist. I ask myself, “Do the ends justify the means? Is what we call victory really victory? Are the ends, in and of themselves, appropriate ends? Or does war beget war and hate beget hate?” I don’t pretend to have the answers but feel impelled to ask the questions, as increasingly we engage in battles that have no winners—only losers.
Interdependence is not a new concept. John F. Kennedy saw it as a principle for our time almost fifty years ago. On July 4, 1962, speaking at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, President Kennedy had this to say: “As [the] effort for independence, inspired by the American Declaration of Independence, now approaches a successful close, a great new effort—for interdependence—is transforming the world about us.” President Kennedy was referring to the post World War 2 awakening in Europe of its economic interdependence and the measures being taken even then toward what we know today as the European Union. Further he promised that “the United States will be ready for a Declaration of Interdependence.” He predicted that it would not be completed within a year; though I doubt that he foresaw just how long it would take.
But let me hark back briefly to my delight in being here to speak to you today. I am deeply grateful to Gary Drapek for making that possible. Last year, when I asked Gary about a possible collaboration between the United Way and the Interdependence Project he immediately responded in the positive and then went on to bring the issue to the state level and to the national level as well. It was an important turn of events for those of us who are advocates of the culture of interdependence in American society to be joined by one of our most established and highly regarded institutions—the United Way.
My association with the United Way goes back to its pre-natal existence. I wrote my first check ever for one dollar to the Community Chest when I was six years old. It was my father’s idea that I should begin my philanthropic activity early—and continue it throughout my life. He was a struggling young lawyer at the time, with a limited clientele and a very limited income, but with an unlimited sense of community and social justice. He saw that, in a democratic society, we citizens are privileged to share in the responsibility for the public good. He understood that the united way (lower case) was the American way. He was an immigrant from Hungary who came to Old Forge, Pennsylvania with his parents when he was eight years old. Like many immigrants of his generation, he “inhaled” and absorbed the spirit of his adopted country very early on and never lost it.
Over the years the Community Chest became the United Fund and I was proud when my husband, Morey Myers, chaired the Lackawanna United Fund, or as we called it, LUF, also as a young struggling lawyer. And now there is the United Way—and I congratulate the leaders and especially the branders who chose that name—it speaks volumes–because helping one’s community is not just about annual campaigns—it is about a way of life—a united way of life and, in the best of times, the American way of life. The United Way is a perfect example of an institution that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I can’t help noting here that the United Way has adopted Alexis de Tocqueville as one of its heroes. Tocqueville really “got” America when he traveled here from France in the 1830s—he understood it better than anyone before him and arguably better than anyone that came after him. He had an uncanny insight into our virtues and our vices. Most particularly he noticed that we Americans like to fix things that are broken—something he had not encountered in his native land. We were, in a sense, born citizens. It was one of our outstanding virtues—only offset and often corrupted by our sometimes overbearing individualism that Tocqueville observed as a peculiarly American vice. When we keep those two traits—the civic spirit and individualism in balance, we are a truly noble people—but then balance isn’t necessarily one of our long suits. Tocqueville recognized all of this and attributed it in part to the exceptional if not unique way our country came into being. We were invented by some brilliant men of the enlightenment who devised an eminently workable system of government based on enlightened ideas. I don’t know another nation that can claim that birthright.
With your indulgence, I’ll turn back briefly to my own personal journey to interdependence. Following on a career which operated on parallel—and occasionally convergent–tracks in the arts and humanities, I turned in the early nineties, when the old world order was collapsing, and dictators on the left and right were toppling, to matters of democracy. I saw in that moment a greater opportunity for democracy than the world had ever seen, notwithstanding the obstacles along the way, which were and continue to be legion. I won’t go into detail but I had a couple of secular epiphanies about that and came to understand 1) the central role that citizens play in making democracy work and 2) how difficult it is to become a citizen when you’ve been a subject all your life.
We Americans—that is a good number of us, have enjoyed the rights and accepted the responsibilities of citizenship all our lives. In the course of my working in nations that have not had the opportunities that we have had, I’ve come to believe firmly that the most important, indeed the defining right that we have is the right to be responsible for the public good. That is, in my view, our most precious legacy, the one we should cherish and embrace by using it to the fullest- and then pass on to our children and grandchildren. There is nothing more valuable that we have to offer future generations.
Recently my husband and I had the pleasure of keynoting the 125th anniversary of the Salvation
Army in Scranton. My enthusiasm for the task blossomed when I realized they were giving their special honor to a dear and most deserving friend and that it was called the “Others Award.” The story behind that name is that the Army’s founder wired his fellow Salvation soldiers all over the world one Christmas with an affordable message. The message was one word—Others. I promise not to make this whole talk a lesson in semantics but I do think it’s worth thinking about how important words are. The United Way is more than the sum of its parts—it is a way of life; “others” may conjure up a wide variety of images and impressions, but ultimately we understand—cognitively and viscerally—that we are responsible for the “others.”
And let me turn now, semantically and substantively speaking, to interdependence. I said earlier that Interdependence is our reality; that is the good news and the bad news. It is particularly the case now, at a time when, thanks to the revolution in communications and information technologies, we are more aware than ever of our connectedness with all the world’s people. What is good news is that we can know of people’s problems, be they natural disasters or fatal accidents or wars, simultaneous with their occurring, empathize with them and can send help immediately. What is the bad news? Asian flu and swine flu, international terrorism—terrorists can be trained anywhere and travel anywhere—it is not so hard for them to navigate through security systems; international corruption—it travels with the speed of light; ecologically speaking, we know that our actions here can and do have a profound impact on the environment on the other side of the globe and even as we speak we see the impact of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico reaching far beyond its place of origin. Though unintended, it could be called metaphorically, a weapon of mass destruction. In short, with regard to natural phenomena and human error—the world is porous. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman told us the world was flat—but equally or perhaps even more important, I maintain, is the idea that the world is porous.
Still thinking about the reality of interdependence leads us to reflect on its moral and civic implications. What does it suggest in terms of others, for example? How “other” are “they?” Who are the” they” and who are the “we?” Where does our responsibility begin and where does it end—or does it end at all? Aren’t we all others to somebody? Doesn’t our expanded sense of community expand our moral responsibility at the same time? You know I believe that the answer is yes—and we certainly see in the responses to the Haitian earthquake, the Indonesian tsunami, the Rwandan genocide—as well as to hunger and poverty in our own back yard that, de facto we are living interdependently.
So forty-eight years after President Kennedy’s keen awareness that we had moved beyond independence to interdependence, why do we even have to address the issue of interdependence? Because even within our nation, we still have forces like the Arian nation and the Ku Klux Klan—media extremists who fan the flames of prejudice, tea partyers who hate government, birthers who don’t believe our president is an American– and more. We are grateful to have free speech protected under the Bill of Rights, but it leaves us citizens to discern what is destructive and what is constructive or neutral—what is fact and what is propaganda. We can never relax our vigilance, on the one hand, and on the other, we must reinforce, especially for the sake of the young among us, the values of liberty and justice for all—with the emphasis on “For all”– that have been our stock in trade for over two hundred years. Internationally, the porousness that I referred to earlier has paved the way to international terrorism, a lethal and insidious phenomenon that defies the rules of conventional warfare and creates a climate of fear that can lead to xenophobia—hatred of the other. So our challenges are greater than ever before if we want the center of this mighty nation to hold. And the way we can and must proceed to walk the walk of interdependence is through our institutions. And that takes me back to the United Way.
So let me propose to you who embrace and lead the United Way that you consider:
Celebrating Interdependence Day each year by creating an occasion for community wide reflection on the realities of interdependence and the attendant acts of community service;
Including the language of interdependence and a brief history of the creation of Interdependence Day, and perhaps the Declaration of Interdependence in your publications and on your websites;
Encouraging your constituents to organize in their own venues, throughout September, activities that honor interdependence;
Creating Interdependence Day committees in communities where they don’t exist, inviting civic, cultural, educational and religious organizations to take leadership in advocating the culture of interdependence.
Giving United Way Interdependence Awards for service—from local to global—to acknowledge individuals and organizations that best reflect the culture of interdependence.
We live in challenging times. Our nation has been confronted recently with some massive crises and challenges, almost as bad as the ones we experienced in 1929 and 1941. On September 11, 2001 we got a wake-up call about our porousness, and how those who hated and feared us could use that porousness to our disadvantage. We had rapid police and the military response—but we have yet to address the challenges we face educationally. We need to interpret the happenings of 9/11 and begin to understand the reasons for the buildup of hate and frustration that make suicide bombers and martyrs out of students and middle class workers from cultures that are different from ours.
We need education for an interdependent age. We must know more history and geography, and we must teach our children the values that we revere, if we want them to live in a world united—not homogenized but united in common cause—reaching beyond consumerism and excessive individualism, reaching beyond ourselves and our families to embrace others who are very different from us, preserving the future of our children now that we know that the impacts of our actions are far reaching not only in space but also in time. Returning, if you will, to the adage upheld by the world’s foremost religions and cultures—of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
We who have the power not only over our own personal destinies but the destiny of our nation and world must exert that power for the sake of the world. The task is daunting in scale and it is an ongoing task. But it is our task. The United Way is the only way that we can move forward.