I’ve Been a Poor US Citizen
In his philosophical work, We Hold These Truths, Mortimer J. Adler has shaped my thinking on citizenship. One description that remains etched in my heart and soul is ‘…the office of Citizen is the only lifetime position in the US Democracy. It is not subject to an electoral process and thus the highest office one can attain. It is a Right (NOT a privilege) that cannot be abrogated outside the parameters established by the founders and then the framers.’ (1)
As a product of the 20th C., I’ve come to realize that the obligations of citizenship are often relegated to a distant 2nd place by many. It’s only in my advancing age that I’ve seen, in myself, how I treated the position as an inconvenience and far from a grand birthright. Every stage of my life; childhood, adolescence, young adult, adult, and now twilight years, has presented me with challenges that pulls my attention away from my civic duties. In nearly every case, I would convince myself that all will be well, until it’s not.
I’ve been having an internal struggle with my own perception of national loyalty, brought about by my long-term civic apathy and academic studies. As I pursued my undergraduate and graduate studies in History, I was exposed to thousands of years of human abuses. Since the earliest river valley civilizations (2), the vast majority of ‘civilized’ peoples have lived under conditions that demoted their needs below the needs of the few privileged groups running the state. Such subservience to the state was reinforced, over time, by economic status and religion. It wasn’t long before any challenge to state prerogatives was a challenge to faith.
Coming face-to-face with Man’s historical struggles with political and social equality, I had no choice but to revisit the aims and struggles of the founders and, subsequently, the efforts of Civil War era reformers. While I’ve been thinking about the philosophical concepts of Thomas Paine (3), Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Locke (4), Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln since I was a high school teenager, I never truly applied myself to an analysis of it. I was always called away by life’s interruptions and unable to cast off the shroud of laziness. I gave those historical figures ‘lip service’ and avoided doing my best to incorporate their thoughts into my daily routine. That began to change as I worked my way through an academic career and I had the good fortune to meet, and interact with, people who suffered and persevered under conditions that I never had to.
I could, of course, claim that all persons grow wiser as they age. My apathy toward my civic duties is normal and now I know better. Well, I’m not that forgiving. I’ve been a History teacher for 30 years and my students, who have and will inherit our nation’s reigns, need me to reveal to them how they carry a responsibility that requires much more attention than I ever gave it. For the first half of my teaching career I would energize my classes through the joy I had for the subject. That joy remains, but now I have to ensure that my students realize that this knowledge serves a greater purpose. By knowing what most people never had in the past, my students may better defend what they were given upon their birth (5)- citizenship.
I’ve gone this far and may have lost many readers by now. But, I’m on a roll and wish to complete my self-flagellation by enumerating my civic sins.
1. Failing to vote at EVERY opportunity (Local, State, and Federal).
2. Failing to volunteer as an Election Day poll worker.
3. Failing to involve myself in reform movements to correct an obvious wrong, even when I endorsed the reform. Lip service is not always enough. I had to ‘walk the walk’.
4. Coming to the vocal defense of other citizens when, clearly, their rights were being infringed.
5. Failing to organize and/ or participate in protests that challenged excesses of government (Local, State, Federal).
6. Kowtowing to School administration’s who emphasize content over Context, Action, and Meaning.
7. Finally, my failure to hold elected officials accountable for their actions.
I fully accept my complicity in the current state of our national government. The recent litany of charges of corruption against NY State elected officials is also a blot on my civic record. Others who have similarly ‘shirked’ their responsibilities wear a similar dunce hat to the one I now bear, but I will not “call the kettle black”.
This public self-immolation was long overdue, but I’m glad I finally did it. For the last few years I have elevated my atonement for past civic lapses, but never publicly admitted that I had this checkered civic past. I have been working on correcting the personal, public, and professional elements of my civic morality, but paying greater attention to my students, in these waning years of my teaching career. Perhaps, through their active participation in civic life, they will honor the memory and accomplishments of the founders and gain for me the redemption I now seek.
1. This is a paraphrase of Mr. Adler’s words. The distinction made between the founders of the nation (think 1776) and the framers (Think Constitutional Convention, 1787) is mine, though the difference is also noted by Mr. Adler. Many figures who participated in the former also contributed to the latter. The context and goals, however, had changed. Mr. Adler clarifies that the US government we are familiar with today didn’t come into existence until 1789. Additionally, that government was substantially modified during the Civil War era. The Declaration of Independence was an argument that proclaimed the birth of a nation, but that postpartum government is one that we, today, would not recognize.
2. Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus, and Huang He.
3. My favorite Founding Father.
4. Not a founder but an influential European Enlightenment thinker of the 17th C.
5. Or Naturalization.