This essay will challenge your commitment to the principles of the “This, I believe” series. Your first impulse will be to laugh it off. Your next will be to seriously doubt whether you could accept it, even if you wanted to.
I believe in National Public Radio.
All right, maybe not NPR per se. I’d be lying if I said I found every story on “Morning Report” or “All Things Considered” equally compelling, and the mildly constipated tone preferred by most NPR commentators can become tiresome. But I do believe in the principle that NPR represents. When I was a kid, it was taken for granted that the airwaves belonged to the people, and that those who were privileged to use that space had in return to devote a certain amount of time, and revenue, to educating and informing their listeners. To be sure, they did this with varying degrees of success, and their commitment always seemed to become stronger around license renewal time. But privatization and the Ipod have changed all that. This idea of a shared public space, a common forum where we learn to endure each other’s likes and dislikes, seems to be becoming a thing of the past.
I know the past. For 35 years, I have taught a course in Western Civilization at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Over the years, it has become a course on understanding who we are as Americans, and why we believe as we do. In that course, I present the civic ideals of Greece and, later, Rome, and try to match them up with the ideals that inspired our founding fathers. At the end of the course, I ask my students to consider the proposition that the lowly postage stamp may be just about the last surviving specimen of those civic ideals. Think about it: it costs the same for me to send a letter to a student in a campus dorm as it does to send one to another 3,000 miles away. This makes no business sense. Instead, it is one of the few remaining daily reminders that we as a nation have things we value in common despite the bottom line. We could do worse than remember one of the maxims of our first Postmaster General, Benjamin Franklin: “Sell not virtue to purchase wealth nor liberty to purchase power.”
The idea of a national discourse, pursued fully and fearlessly, beholden to none but the public interest, is what I cherish. Whether you air this essay or not, I just wanted to say thank you for being something that I still believe in.
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