Idealism's fine, but actions speak louder than words...

Eleanor Roosevelt and Fala at Val,Kill in Hyde Park, New York. Photo taken by FDR, November 1951 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

Tomorrow is NowTomorrow is Now by Eleanor Roosevelt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am involved in a research project focusing on the four pillars of women, peace and security, emanating from the United Nations' Security Council (UNSCR) Resolution 1325. So I have been doing a number of courses by UN Women and learning about the UN's "gender mainstreaming" project. The basic premise is that gender matters in how people experience their rights, and from here, I decided to read some of Eleanor Roosevelt's work because she was instrumental in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without Roosevelt, the document that has become so important as a guiding principle for much of the UN's work may not have come to fruition.

There are many critiques of the universality of the declaration, because it starts with a liberal premise, as in the individual is key. I have Roosevelt's autobiography to read at a later stage, but this work intrigued me as it has an introduction by Bill Clinton, and Roosevelt (effectively) stayed alive to finish the book, and died soon after it was completed. (The book was published a few months after her death.) There is much that will make the "Yay, Democracy" crowd happy, and it is clear that the examined life is her idea of the right life:
Self-government requires self-examination, action by the individual, standards, values, and the strength to live up to them.
This is not too far from Mortimer Adler's idea of The Great Conversation. Roosevelt was sceptical of science, and no doubt would have disapproved of the "I f*#king love science" crowd, channelling Huxley and Orwell (p. 123):
...each provided us with an appalling picture of the future of mankind, a life dominated by scientific method in which the humanities and the human spirit had been destroyed... [rather than] use science as an enlightened tool to make this world closer to a Utopia than man has ever dreamed.
Nothing for me to disagree with here, but I attended a number of research presentations lately looking at post-colonial African politics, and the findings were disturbing. So much of the liberal tradition does not readily apply to the rest of the world. I recall Theodore Roosevelt's Autobiography (he was Eleanor's uncle) where the politics of the United States were so corrupt at the beginning of the 20th century, more than 100 years after democracy had been instituted. How are poor, post-colonial countries meant to transition to democracy (which assumes that in itself is a good thing) in a few years when it took the world superpower over a century? These are the questions that concerned me as I read Roosevelt's ideal future. But it certainly fits with my own liberal ideals, for example (p. 124):
I have emphasised in this book two areas in which we must begin preparation today: education and the essential need of sparking in a new, deep, and fervent sense of responsibility in every individual.
Yet I immediately think of Margaret Thatcher and the extreme ends of individualism - all extremes lead to the same rot. That is not to say that Roosevelt's work isn't important, or that it isn't timeless. But is is certainly worth questioning from a non-liberal perspective. The ideas of the United States are seen as a panacea for the ills of the world, and I just can't see how that idealism means much today.

In her life she achieved so many things and many of these were of benefit to those who needed it most. She saw the benefits of education and travel, and was impressed by her grandson's education in the Peace Corps - he learnt that systems of manners are as important as fast access to clean drinking water, and that honouring one's culture enables collective action, so she was certainly not an individualist in the modern sense. Rather than find value in this work as a program for the world, I found value in the program for the self, or, to quote James Allen (1921, p. 48)
...he who has conquered self has conquered the universe.
For Seneca Daily Stoic, p. 241):
Many words have been spoken by Plato, Zeno, Chrysippus, Posidonius, and by a whole host of equally excellent Stoics. I'll tell you how people can prove their words to be their own - by putting into practice what they've been preaching.
Eleanor Roosevelt personifies this idea: actions speak louder than words.

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