These are complex times in America. From the continuing aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, to the military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the impending presidential election, citizens have a lot of information and conflicting opinions to weigh, and critical decisions to make.
Yet few would deny that there is a strong element of cynicism in American politics. Many voters-and non-voters-ask themselves, do politics really matter? Has the tone become worse? Were there ever really "good old days" of noble statesmen and civilized debate? And what responsibility do all of us bear for helping create "a more perfect union"-and how can we do it?
These are a few of the questions the Wisconsin Humanities Council and its fellow members of the Cultural Coalition of Wisconsin are seeking to address in a new initiative called "A More Perfect Union."
This initiative kicks off on Sunday, Oct. 26, at the Wisconsin Book Festival. Author Tim O'Brien, winner of the National Book Award, will read from his best-selling novel "In the Lake of the Woods," an exploration of the Vietnam War's legacy. O'Brien will also discuss the nature of political campaigns, the consequences and necessity of partisan politics, and the responsibility of an educated public to understand and critique its governmental ideals.
The event promises to be a lively and engaging conversation, featuring not only O'Brien but also activist and former Wisconsin Assembly member Mary Lou Munts, newspaper editor and political commentator John Nichols, and Baruch College professor Dr. Carol Berkin. Wisconsin Public Radio personalities Jim Fleming and Norman Gilliland will add an element of historically enlightening entertainment with their portrayals of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The event starts at 3:45 p.m. at Madison's Orpheum Theatre, located at 216 State St. The kick-off is free and open to the public, and no tickets are required.
The Tim O'Brien event in Madison is the launching pad for an initiative that will span the next year and the entire state. "In the Lake of the Woods" is one of four books selected for "Wisconsin Reads," a book discussion series that will engage readers around the state. The other books are "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation" by Joseph Ellis, "The Oresteia" by Aeschylus (translated by Ted Hughes), and "The Children's Story" by James Clavell.
A reading guide for the four books will be available on the Wisconsin Humanities Council Web site. Readers can form their own book clubs and talk about the issues with friends, or they can look for events at their local library or educational institution.
"A More Perfect Union" aims to help Wisconsinites explore issues critical to our democracy and apply some of their observations to the 2004 presidential race. The initiative's organizers plan to end with a bang, with a capstone event around the time of the election. More details will be available on the Wisconsin Humanities Council Web site and PortalWisconsin.org as the yearlong project progresses.
For more information about this initiative, call Wisconsin Humanities Council program officer Jessica Becker at 608-263-3155.