Richard Dreyfuss:
a civil discourse

During his lengthy career in Hollywood, Richard Dreyfuss has taken on sharks, aliens, out-of-work actors and recalcitrant music students. But in Millersville, Pa., Thursday evening, the popular actor took on a far bigger foe: a disenfranchised American public that has forgotten its history and innate sovereignty.

"It is an honor to be an American and to cherish what I think of as the singular gifts that this nation has given to the world," Dreyfuss said. Sadly, however, many people across the United States "no longer know what I'm talking about," he said.

Dreyfuss, speaking to a packed house in Lyte Auditorium, gave an hour-long address to launch Millersville University's Center for Civic & Community Engagement & Research Project. The topic was civics, a social science that deals with the privileges and obligations of citizens.

Civics, Dreyfuss said, "is not taught any more in the American public school system. That is like running this country by luck or happenstance. It is an act of social suicide that we do not teach our young the foundations of what we have fought to achieve."

Dreyfuss -- nattily dressed and sporting unexplained bandages on both his left wrist and forehead -- spoke with quiet conviction as he stressed the need for civic responsibility and education.

America changed a centuries-old history of "darkness and blood and oppression" with the simple ideal that, "if you can get here, if you are lucky, if you are hard working and if you can take what life throws at you, you might rise" above the level of your forefathers, he said. "Not every nation in this world has meaning. But we have meaning. ... We have a significance in this world."

The gift of democracy is the sovereignty of the people, Dreyfuss said.

"We must learn and relearn what it means to be the people and the sovereign at the same time," he said. "Being American is hard, and they must teach it -- the younger, the better. Teach it as a myth, teach it as a reality ... and teach it as a narrative tale that is so thrilling that it beggars the imagination."

Unfortunately, he said, "we've relegated it under the word 'civics' and consigned it to boredom." Because they aren't taught how government operates, people think they are without power Dreyfuss said. And that, he said, "is an act of treason against our own future."

This generation, Dreyfuss said, "is accountable for the country we hand off to our children, and let me tell you, I take this personally. ... We have inspired the world to greatness, and we no longer teach it to our own kids."

Public debate, too, is a dying art, as evidenced by a recent forum for presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The media trivialized the debate by "promiscuously playing 'gotcha' " instead of focusing on issues, he said.

Civility, too, is a lost art that must be recaptured, Dreyfuss said. "If you hold your political opponent in contempt, you cannot analyze what he is thinking," he said, noting that modern politics is more a "drama of shouting and name-calling and worse" than an exploration of ideas.

"Civility is more than just manners," Dreyfuss said. "Civility is the oxygen that democracy requires, else it will become poisoned and die."

The foundation of democracy is "the willingness to share space with those with whom we disagree," he added. "It's easy to be Americans when everyone agrees."

It's even OK to disagree with the government, Dreyfuss said. "Every founding father you can name was a dissenter -- but we do not honor dissenters any more," he said.

Because the world has "achieved the unachievable -- we have technology that can kill us all," he said, "we have to learn to take our time. We have to learn to ruminate and contemplate ... or else technology will outrun our humanity. We must teach our children to think twice."

Dreyfuss reminisced about the simple power of the Jimmy Stewart film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which drew ire in this country and abroad for tackling corruption in government. "I want that America back," Dreyfuss said. "I want to know that the America I hand to my children stands for what it stood for when I was born, when my father was born and when his father was born. There is no such thing as 'them' in this country. There is only 'us' -- we, the people."

Dreyfuss concluded by asking citizens to advocate for an upcoming initiative to restore civics to schools. "Vote for it. Support it. Pay for it," he said. "It's worth it."

He scoffed at the suggestion the U.S. can't afford the program. "We are the richest country in the history of the world, and we can do whatever we damn want," he said.

"We are a nation that is held together only by ideas," Dreyfuss said. "We have no common ancestry, no common religion, no common caste system. Without these ideas, we have nothing in common. Case closed."

interview by
Tom Knapp

24 April 2008

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