March 16, 2017
I’ve been reading Eleanor Roosevelt lately. For a while now, I have considered her the standard-bearer of twentieth century American morality. Her uncle Teddy and her husband Franklin had more actual power, and they each helped make the United States a better place through policy and example, but they each made blunders and enacted patently immoral policies as well. Eleanor never had to make the hardest decisions on behalf of her country, but I have no doubt that if she had been President, she would have made them with at least as much decisiveness and somewhat more compassion.
For me, morality is not just about goodness, right, and justice, though those are all key components. The trouble is that they are also slippery characters. Determining what is good, right, and just requires normative judgments, and norms are constantly changing. The key thing, then, is for the moral person to never stop seeking. The moral leader should always be asking questions, proposing answers, soliciting feedback on those answers, and synthesizing the views of others. If the moral leader must stand firm on points of morality, she should make as many of those points relate to process as to product. Show the rest of us how to find morality in our own lives, not just what we must do to be considered moral.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the ultimate seeker. She had an unremitting drive to make the world better, to help each person find the best way to make his or her own life more livable and to help others in turn. She never stopped asking questions and seeking answers. As a public figure, she repeatedly put her reputation on the line to take unpopular positions and call out the agents of repression and regression.
Decades after her death, many of Eleanor Roosevelt’s political writings and speeches were collected in a volume called Courage in a Dangerous World (1999). Flipping through this book the other day, I told my wife that any random page in this book was wiser and more humane than the sum total of everything our current President—or any of his cronies—has ever said. I decided to put that declaration to the test. What follows are selections from five randomly chosen pages in Courage in a Dangerous World. Just so you know, I skipped two randomly chosen pages to get these five: page 138, which did in fact contain wisdom but also some antiquated paternalistic views on African-Americans, and page 95, which continued the ideas cited below from page 94. Other than that, my only manipulation of this “Random Eleanor” task was to find the most concise expressions of wisdom and humanity from each randomly selected page. (The page numbers were selected by an online random number generator.) For each selection, I’ve provided the essay from which it is excerpted and the year of its original publication.
See how you think these observations of Mrs. Roosevelt stack up against those of today’s political “leaders.”
- Page 213, “What Are We For?” (1959)
“Less than fifteen years ago the United States stood on top of the world, its reputation as unrivaled as its power….In the years since World War II the initiative has slipped from our grasp…Why this decline in our world stature and prestige?…The major responsibility for the decline in our world position lies with the way we have conducted our foreign affairs.”
- Page 183, “U.N. Deliberations on Draft Convention on the Political Rights of Women” (1951)
“Article 3 [of the U.N. Draft Convention on the Political Rights of Women] specifies offices are to be held ‘on equal terms with men.’ This is also an inclusive phrase, covering such matters as recruitment, exemptions, pay, old age and retirement benefits, opportunities for promotion, employment of married women. All these are important matters on which women have sought equality for many years.”
- Page 94, “This Troubled World” (1938)
“Human beings…must recognize the fact that what serves the people as a whole serves them best as individuals and, through selfish or unselfish interests, they become people of good intentions and honesty. If not we will be unable to move forward except as we have moved in the past with recourse to force and constant, suspicious watchfulness on the part of individuals and groups toward each other. The preservation of our civilization seems to demand a permanent change of attitude and therefore every effort should be bent towards bringing about this change in human nature through education.”
- Page 307, “The Social Revolution” (1963)
“The issue of [racial] intermarriage is used as a stumbling block in the path of human justice…[T]he use of this fatuous question to prevent the development of the Negro race is essentially an act of dishonesty. It is used, like sleight of hand, to distract our attention from inequality in wages, in living quarters, in education, that are an ineffaceable disgrace to us as a people. It often seems to me that prejudice so blinds us that we see only what we expect to see, what we want to see.”
- Page 130, “Civil Liberties—The Individual and the Community” (1940)
“[A]s I travel through the country and meet people and see things that have happened to little people, I realize what it means to democracy to preserve our civil liberties. All through the years we have had to fight for civil liberty, and we know that there are times when the light grows rather dim, and every time that happens democracy is in danger….[H]ere in this country we have a grave responsibility….[W]e have to guard the freedoms of democracy….Here in a democracy the government still exists for the individual, but that does not mean that we do not have to watch and that we do not have to examine ourselves to be sure that we preserve the civil liberties for all our people, which are the basis of our democracy. Now you know if we are honest with ourselves, in spite of all we have said, in spite of our Constitution, many of us in this country do not enjoy real liberty. For that reason we know that everywhere in this country every person who believes in democracy has come to feel a real responsibility to work in his community and to know the people of his community, and to take the trouble to try to bring about the full observance for all our people of their civil liberties.”
If you find solace, inspiration, or food for thought in these passages, I encourage you to pick up Courage in a Dangerous World and give it some more time. There’s also Mrs. Roosevelt’s You Learn by Living: Eleven keys for a more fulfilling life, which is short and more cohesive. The first chapter, “Learning to Learn,” is especially insightful. Maybe I’ll take a random walk through that book soon. After all, I came away from this jaunt feeling empowered by one of history’s most powerful voices for goodness, right, justice, and the need for lifelong seeking—and I could use more exercise like that these days.