By my husband, also in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Guest Columnist: Redefining citizenship
Take a new, liberal president and Congress. Add an economic crisis, assorted international woes and a general lack of confidence. Next, dust off the usual-suspect proposals to reinstate the draft, institute mandatory national service, or just give people opportunities to volunteer. Now lard it well with calls for sacrifice, service and unity in hard times.
Then note that nobody’s listening. America’s Crisis of Citizenship goes on.
When President Barack Obama began his inaugural address by calling us his fellow citizens, he used a word that seems to have little meaning anymore. How could it? The issues before us are too big, too many, too complex. We’re all too selfish, too self-obsessed. Everybody says it. Everybody says it because everybody says it. The surveys, the academics, the pundits say it, too.
But we’re not. At least, we needn’t be. However, to restore citizenship to its vital and honorable place, we need to redefine it. Forget “sacrifice.” Whenever you hear someone demanding sacrifice, somebody else is probably collecting sacrifices. Forget “unity,” that code word for “Do it my way.” Above all else, forget “service.” Citizens don’t serve. They participate.
But what exactly is a citizen these days?
Obviously, citizenship is a legal status. Beyond that, a citizen is a responsible member of this civilization. A responsible member of this civilization adheres to three general guiding principles.
In the political realm, the recovery of respectful reason. We have much to argue over. But ranting and hissy-fitting do not avail. Time for us all to adopt a simple principle regarding our political views. If you can’t explain it, rationally and respectfully, best you rethink it. Whether it’s the narcissistic antics of a Code Pink or the sneering-off of climate change because you don’t like Al Gore, or some bilious blog or TV yakathon, it’s the same mentality: a mentality we never should have indulged and can no longer afford.
Politically, citizens are serious.
Economically, citizens live by a simple axiom. To borrow from Lincoln: As I would not be exploited, so I would not be an exploiter. This leads inevitably to the realization that “cheap” is something we can no longer afford. Cheap food that wrecks the environment and destroys local agriculture. Cheap imported products made by underpaid workers. Cheap immigrant labor here.
Our economic crisis is also a moral crisis. It is immoral to live as we have, gluttoning (on credit) the products of exploited others while wrecking our own capacity to produce and blighting the lives of millions of our fellow citizens. We cannot gimmick our way out of it or return to our former ways.
Culturally, citizenship begins with a simple realization: They want you stupid. The “Dumbing Down of America” is a producer-driven phenomenon. In America, everything gets reduced to entertainment and, more and more, entertainment gets reduced to porn: the pornographies of sex and violence, the pornographies of stupidity and disrespect. The corporate producers of our culture prefer it that way. So do our media and our educational bureaucracies. The sterile, the banal, the formulaic are always easier to produce than the challenging, the original, the meaningful.
Try this. The next time you encounter some particularly hideous commercial or tabloid or whatever, don’t dismiss it. Just tell yourself, “This is what they think of me. This is what they think I want. This is what they think I am.”
Cultural citizenship begins when you realize that, just as your body can’t subsist forever on junk, neither can your mind or your spirit.
So there is indeed a Crisis of Citizenship in this country. But it’s not about sacrifice or unity or service. It’s about a nation that, for far too long, has gorged on political, material and cultural garbage. And perhaps it’s not too much to suggest that the recovery of citizenship begins when enough of us decide:
We’re better than that.