Just after the election last year, I started what I hoped would be a series of letters to my daughter documenting this moment in time. Every time I sat down to write, what came out of me sounded pessimistic, helpless, and hopeless, so I never published any of it. Today, the little one was pulling books off of a shelf and when I went to clean up hours later, I got sucked into a book I bought purchased 20 years ago. It’s a collection of belief statements collected by the esteemed journalist and radio broadcaster Edward R. Murrow for his broadcast series This I Believe which aired 1951-1955. In short essays read on the air, people across the country talked about their beliefs, hopes, and dreams for a country in the early stages of the Cold War and gripped by the activities of a man named Senator Joseph McCarthy.
NPR revived the Murrow program several years ago. Here’s the written text of The Mountain Disappears by the composer Leonard Bernstein. For my daughter…
I believe in people. I feel, love, need and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety, or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me. One person fighting for the truth can disqualify for me the platitudes of centuries. And one human being who meets with injustice can render invalid the entire system which as dispensed it.
I believe that man’s noblest endowment is his capacity to change. Armed with reason, he can see two sides and choose: he can be divinely wrong. I believe in man’s right to be wrong. Out of this right he has built, laboriously and lovingly, something we reverently call democracy. He has done it the hard way and continues to do it the hard way – by reason, by choosing, by error and rectification, by the difficult, slow method in which the dignity of A is acknowledged by B, without impairing the dignity of C. Man cannot have dignity without loving the dignity of his fellow.
I believe in the potential of people. I cannot rest passively with those who give up in the name of “human nature.” Human nature is only animal nature if it is obliged to remain static. Without growth, without metamorphosis, there is no godhead. If we believe that man can never achieve a society without wars, then we are condemned to wars forever. This is the easy way. But the laborious, loving way, the way of dignity and divinity, presupposes a belief in people and in their capacity to change, grow, communicate, and love.
I believe in man’s unconscious mind, the deep spring from which comes his power to communicate and to love. For me, all art is a combination of these powers; for if love is the way we have of communicating personally in the deepest way, then what art can do is to extend this communication, magnify it, and carry it to vastly greater numbers of people. Therefore art is valid for the warmth and love it carries within it, even if it be the lightest entertainment, or the bitterest satire, or the most shattering tragedy.
I believe that my country is the place where all these things I have been speaking of are happening in the most manifest way. America is at the beginning of her greatest period in history – a period of leadership in science, art and human progress toward the democratic ideal. I believe that she is at the critical point in this moment, and that she needs us to believe more strongly than ever before, in her and in one another, in our ability to grow and change, in our mutual dignity, in our democratic method. We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observer taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. we must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people.