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Herb Rothschild Jr.: My parting gift to readers

This is the last column I’ll publish in the Ashland Tidings.

In this season of gift giving, I’ve decided I no longer want to make this gift to Rosebud Media. Since Bert Etling’s tenure as editor of the Ashland paper ended, I’ve received no expression of gratitude or appreciation from anyone in the organization. If I resume writing Relocations, I’ll publish the columns as a blog and find a way to notify you about it.

This is my 256th column, close to 150,000 words. They’ve been my gifts to you — most of them carefully selected — and you thanked me by reading them. I could afford to get them for you because I was gifted with a strong intelligence, a superb education, many years of engagement in human affairs both personal and public, and the leisure to reflect on those engagements. In all the important ways I am a wealthy man.

My abiding intention has been to model a public discourse that advances understanding, promotes wise decisions, and strengthens solidarity. The first requirement is to assemble relevant information and take care to present it accurately. Very few factual errors have slipped past me or Gary Nelson, my skilled editor. The second requirement is a degree of humility stemming from the recognition that right understanding is often hard to come by and that one’s own is always partial. Its corollary is to state differing views fairly, choosing the best rather than the worst expressions of them. Good public discourse has other hallmarks as well, but these strike me as indispensable.

Broadly speaking, the subjects I’ve most frequently taken up are those that put me at odds with two deeply embedded and, in my view, terribly destructive traits of our national character. One is violence, the other devaluation of civic life.

The collective violence required to wrest territory from Native Americans and Mexico, and to keep millions of Black people in slavery, never ended. The imperial project went global beginning with the Spanish-American War, and law enforcement is still tasked with subjection of African-Americans. During my lifetime, the self-assertions of non-white nations and of peoples of color within our own borders have diminished the scope of our violence, which has always been linked to a belief in white entitlement. They have not, however, diminished its cultural appeal. We are all tasked with promoting nonviolence at every level of social organization.

Both Calvinism and Roman Republicanism, the most influential ideologies of early American life, prized civic engagement. The former maintained its influence much longer than the latter, but neither could withstand the corrosive power of capitalism, for which a vast exploitable continent proved the best breeding ground. Unhappy with social obligation? Light out for the territory. Success became an individual aspiration and, as such, mainly material.

Thus, our overall measures of well-being — nutrition, health, education, safety and now even socio-economic mobility — place us low in the ranking of developed countries even as our Gross Domestic Product places us first. Because justice is a collective virtue, economic activity cannot generate it. Only civic activity can. The goal of politics is justice. The unfamiliarity of this understanding explains the chronic disfigurements of our public life.

The Tidings has been publishing Inner Peace as well as my column. In human life as well they are complementary and, I would contend, intertwined. Violence inflicted on others must disturb our peace if it’s authentic, and justice is the public expression of love.

Herb Rothschild’s column has appeared in the Ashland Tidings on Saturdays.

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