Saving American Democracy: Citizens & Citizenship

The previous column discussed the need to restore honor as a public virtue if American democracy is to survive and thrive. Understanding what it means to be a citizen and the obligations of citizenship are two more elements added to the list.

There was a time when being a citizen included obligations generally understood as citizenship.  Citizenship was taught in schools, championed by fraternal organizations, and important to Scouting.  The DAR sponsored an annual nationwide essay contest on citizenship; the winner made national news.  I think the contest still lives, but it garners little attention.  

In broad terms, citizenship meant having a basic understanding of democratic principles, knowing how government functions, being informed about local and national public policy issues, voting, and volunteering as needed for community service. Taken together, citizenship invoked loyalty to the community.  It didn’t diminish American individualism, but placed it within the context of healthy, interdependent communities where individual effort could flourish.  It’s a virtue of citizenship we’ve largely lost.

Friend and conversation partner Tom Davis puts it this way: “What has been lost in the notion of ‘citizenship’ is the internal relation between what it means to freely exercise your individual ‘rights’ and the larger and deeper context of obligation that is rooted in the authority of something more important than you. If nothing and no one is more important than you then the notion of ‘obligation’ is hollowed out and turns into the sense of ‘duty’ that is imposed on you from outside.”

There is worthy nobility in the old virtue of citizenship, but little evidence that it has much value these days.  What happened?  Citizenship appears to have been struck from K-12 education.  The role of fraternal organizations in community life has all but ceased to exist.  Scouting has its own problems.  Adding confusion and conflict, some activists conflate citizenship with conservative evangelicalism tainted with right wing libertarian politics.   

With citizenship shunted onto a siding, the status of citizen has become nothing more than status according to the law:  a legal convention that confers the right to vote, and access to certain benefits, nothing more than that.

Oddly enough, the concept of legally defined citizen status is relatively recent and very American.  Most ancient societies had a sense of those who were subjects of the monarch.  But rights were the possession of the monarch, subjects were never citizens in the modern sense.  Virtues that we define in terms of citizenship were expressed as loyalties to one’s place of birth and tribal membership.  Greeks and Hebrews were partial exceptions with more clearly defined rules for what it meant for one to be a citizen with rights and obligations to the good of the polis, tribe and nation.

To be a Roman citizen started out that way, but by the first century c.e. it had become a commodity gained by birth, purchase, or reward for service.  While it included benefits of social status, it inspired little ethical obligation to the good of others or the empire. 

Citizen, in the modern sense, didn’t reemerge as a legal status until the American Constitution of 1789.  Its authors relied heavily on the ancient Hebrews, Greeks and Romans in addition of Enlightenment political philosophies.  They also borrowed from English common law, yet the English didn’t codify the status of citizen until 1914.  The legal definition of citizen is the norm in all countries today, but the virtue of citizenship is less recognized.

The American ideal virtue of citizenship, understood in broad terms of ethical obligation to the good of the community, may have become a mere shadow of its former self, but it’s still worthy albeit with serious weaknesses that must be addressed if it is to be restored.

It was established from the exclusive perspective of privileged white men.  In time, it became the provenance of the very best of what the white middle class stood for.  It assumed that everyone else would want to to be American according to the accepted white middle class understanding of citizenship.

Most European immigrants did.  They came seeking freedom, rights and opportunity from places where they had little of any.

That wasn’t true for Black Americans whose ancestors had been brought here against their will, sold into forced labor, and defined as two-thirds of a non-person unable to ever gain citizen status.  The Constitution gave Black Americans citizen status in 1865, but it was a status subverted by Jim Crow laws and local prejudices not addressed until the civil rights legislation of the mid 1960s.  Sixty years later it’s being undermined  again.

American Indians were subject to wars of conquest, genocidal extermination, broken treaties, not counted in the census, and not given the status of citizen until 1924.  Even today their lands and rights are being ignored.

Asians came as laborers, but laws were enacted to stop further immigration that were not repealed until the mid 20th century.  Nineteenth century local and state laws prohibited Asians from owning property, and denied their 14th Amendment rights as citizens.  The U.S. imprisoned West Coast Japanese Americans during WWII simply because they were Japanese.  By contrast, German Americans were often monitored but seldom imprisoned.

Mexican Americans are another and more complicated story for another time to tell.

The point is that a white middle class understanding of obligations adhering to the status of citizen appear today as enigmatically hypocritical to those who were so long denied the right to enjoy the privileges of citizen status but were expected to adopt white middle class virtues of citizenship without question or hesitation.

The virtues of American citizenship are worthy and must be revitalized if democracy is to survive and thrive.  It will require that formerly excluded voices be prominent in constructing a new definition built on the worthy foundation of the old.  

To Save Democracy, Restore The Virtue of Honor

Do the words “honor” and “honorable” have useful meaning anymore?  That’s a serious question.

A friend who teaches at an elite college has observed that entering students for the last several year appear to be unable to articulate what honor means and are marginally interested in learning more. 

College honor codes, where they exist, don’t set standards to be lived up to, but obstacles to be overcome.  And why not?  It’s obvious to most onlookers that success in politics and business is based on deception, cheating, and manipulation for the benefit of self-interest.

New students are often introduced to the ancient foundations of honorable morality in the works of Plato, Aristotle and the like.  If they’re lucky, they also get more from the Bible, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. For reasons that escape me, faculty are increasingly unwilling to teach anything from the Bible, but not from other holy works.  I sat in on a lecture in political philosophy at another college where biblical references were met with blank stares of incomprehension from students who had not the least hint of what the Bible contains, but I digress.

Honor and to be honorable was an enduring moral value for thousands of years, although the meaning changed with the passing of time.  The Socratic understanding of honor, according to my philosopher friend, had more to do with clarity of meaning in what one said and did: what we might call integrity with a twist.  By that I mean integrity based on the thorough examination of what one means in the words one uses to verify that they are true and valid.

It seems like a reasonable place to begin, but it’s not obvious to many of us today that what some ancient Greek had to say has merit in the 21st century, especially if he can be lumped into the discredited category of old, dead white men. 

To be fair, the suspicious have a point.  We’ve used and abused the word honor, and beat it into the dust.  “It’s an honor to be with you.”  “You honor me with your presence.”   “Will you love, honor and keep her/him…until death do you part?”  “The Honorable…” (I’ve held an appointed office with the honorific). “On my honor I will do my best…”. I have the honor of introducing …”. We use the words honor and honorable in ways serious and trivial, sometimes as little more than filler words in a meaningless social ritual.

If Socrates was right about the necessity of thorough examination of meaning for words to have validity, then words that have been trivialized by their haphazard use and multiplicity of “meanings” cease to have validity.  Maybe that’s what has happened to honor.  

Does it need to be reclaimed?  If civil discourse and American democracy are to be preserved, then yes it does, but maybe by other names.

Trustworthiness, honesty, truthfulness, and integrity are possibilities.  But each has problematic limitations. 

Consider trustworthiness.  One can be trusted to be honest or dishonest.  Mr. Trump demonstrated that he can be trusted to be dishonest in almost everything he does, and yet his followers value his trustworthiness and surrender their moral souls to him. There can be no deception or obfuscation in the honorable trustworthiness needed for democracy to thrive.

An honorable person is a truthful person.  Truth, in this case, means that what is said can be reliably verified by available evidence.  According to the oath administered in court, truth comes in three sizes: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  How do they differ?  According to an old analogy the truth is that you are wearing a new tie.  The whole truth is that it is purple with neon pink polkadots.  Nothing but the truth is that it is the ugliest tie ever and you look silly wearing it.   Sometimes the truth is enough.  No more need be said.

Honorable trustworthiness and truth are closely related virtue of honesty.  To be honest is to engage with others without guile or deception; to be a person whose word can be relied on, who does not cheat even when cheating can be advantageous.

It all adds up to integrity.  Besides being trustworthy, honest and truthful, a person of integrity speaks and acts with the good of the other in mind.  Whoever the other is can rest secure knowing that persons of integrity will not intentionally do them harm, and will try to do them good. 

The predictably cynical response is likely to be, “What kind of sap-sucking, saccharine, do-gooder crap is that? Get real.  That’s not the way the world works.  It’s dog eat dog, and no one can be trusted, not really.  Look out for yourself the best way you can.”  If the cynic is right, there is no place for American style democracy, and the best hope for mutual safety is autocracy.  That was Hobbes’ conclusion, and it seems to work for Putin, Xi, and a few others.  But in most places it devolves into societies of corrupt rival camps violently dueling for primacy.

Not everyone is so cynical of course.  Some indifferently dismiss honor and honorable as old fashioned morality that’s nice to have around as long as it doesn’t interfere with whatever opportunities life might present.  They are the ones most easily seduced by authoritarians who promise to remove the burden of excessive morality from them.

We can’t allow cynics and the indifferent to dictate the future of our nation if we want to preserve representative democracy that encourages self-reliant individualism by building up communities of equitable justice for all.  It requires honorable leadership raised up from an electorate that values honor and knows what it means.

Will we do it?  The outcome is uncertain.

If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Right

My sisters and I were raised on fatherly aphorisms, the same ones he had been raised on: The best grease is elbow grease; If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right; Know what you’re going to do before you do it; Never say I can’t do it.  There were more, but you get the theme.

I was thinking about dad’s aphorisms while pondering the city road debates that have raged for decades in the community I lived in for twenty years.

The long running complaint was their poor condition. Today’s city leaders were held accountable for poor decisions, made long ago, to overlay as cheaply as possible deteriorating streets and unused streetcar rails on the grounds that cost conscious conservative leadership was saving the people from higher taxation.  As the decades rolled on, the cheap solution began to fail, aided by city councils that kept maintenance overhead as low as possible.  Huffing with disgust, morning coffee conversations and letters to the editor blasted incompetent city leaders and staff, demanding to know why it was allowed to happen, and asserting that, had they been in charge, it would have been done right the first time.  

About ten years ago the public discontent with road conditions rose high enough for the city to implement a decade long plan to repair and replace aging infrastructure: water and sewer mains, bridge and streets, doing it right this time.  It was widely supported and very popular – for a while.   As predictable as fog in December, public voices began to complain about road construction all the time everywhere.  It was inconvenient, hurt some businesses, and costs were “out of control” – they weren’t.  The usual voices began to sing a new tune: “Our streets are good enough. We don’t need the best in the west.  Good enough is good enough.  A few bumps and potholes are OK.  We don’t want to pay for infrastructure we may not live to use.”  

In other words, some portion of the current tax paying public was willing to repeat the short-sighted, do it on the cheap mistakes of the past, laying the burden of doing it right on some future generation.

It’s one small example from one small city, but it exemplifies the attitudes of members of Congress who think spending as little as possible to patch together a deteriorating national infrastructure is good enough.  To them, new ways of understanding what infrastructure is, along with the technologies that define it, is an unaffordable boondoggle.  While not in the majority, they have the ability to stop more ambitious plans for doing it right.  Their patch it up to be good enough mentality heralds the predictable decline of the nation’s ability to compete in world markets, provide citizens with greater economic opportunity, and erode overall quality of life, all in the name of conservative fiscal responsibility.  

They seem unable to comprehend the idea that it’s a guaranteed high return investment to spend generously repairing and replacing old infrastructure, while building new infrastructure to meet new needs of the nation.  

The do it on the cheap crowd has been aided by answers to an annual Gallup Poll question: Is the government doing too much or not enough?  Fifty-two percent of respondents say the government is doing too much, which is about what they say every year.  Which government?  What is too much?  What is not enough?  Those are not questions that get answered in the media, and for good reason. They’re difficult to dig out of the data, if they’re there at all. 

I’m a tad pessimistic about the outcome.  Biden’s infrastructure plans are much needed and almost too late in coming.  Initial popularity is too easily undermined by scary stories about debt and taxes that have little merit.  The nation has struggled since Reagan  and the Silent Majority (that was neither silent nor the majority) with two incompatible ideas.  One is that small government and low taxes are the most important  protections of American individualism, defense spending excluded.  The other is that the United States is and must remain the strongest, most advanced nation on earth.  

The two ideas cannot both be right any more than cheap street repairs in small cities can serve the needs of a thriving economic and cultural future for generations to come.

Once upon a time America claimed it had a continent spanning manifest destiny to become One Nation with liberty and justice for all.  Fingers were crossed behind the back to reserve to  states the right to act as independent countries as much as possible (as in Texas, A Whole Other Country). It never worked well, and works not at all today if we want to have a strong United States of America.  In the 21st century we are either going to be One Nation in which national needs are met with a federal response, or we begin the slow decline of every preceding empire until we go down in history, not as Rome, but as the Ottomans: too decadent, too cheap, too politically corrupt.  Trump set us on that path.  His enduring presence and faithful followers suggest  the process may be accelerating, aided by McConnell, Manchin and the like who put lust for personal power above the good of the nation.

Dumping Throw Away Society

We live in two kinds of throw away societies.  One began in earnest around 1950, but the other is thousands of years old.  The more recent version began with the advent of single use convenience items advertised as “use it and toss it” combined with aggressive advertising for each year’s new car model, and social pressure for the newest of new fashions.  It was quite the thing for a while.   Television ads featured the time saving convenience of using and tossing in favor of the new and improved.  That was sixty or seventy years ago.  We didn’t give much thought to what it meant to dirty our own nests.  Our hands and houses were clean and neat, our lives renewed with new cars and trendy clothes.  The trash just disappeared.  What seemed like a marvelous convenience became a tidal wave of environmental destruction threatening lands, waters, and air.

There is more awareness now of our foolishness, although awareness has not seemed to have been translated into different behavior by much.   

When what is convenient to the individual becomes so important that it subsumes individual responsibility for the good of the community, what makes community possible itself becomes a case of use it and toss it.  That’s what extreme libertarianism, exemplified by Trumpism, has come to.  It isn’t simply a threat to American democracy, it’s a threat to community itself.  

The older form of throw way mentality is more entrenched; it’s been with us for thousands of years. It’s our willingness to throw away other people with little moral compunction.  Humans in every age and culture have used others and thrown them away.  It’s barbaric.  Surely, our modern minds protest, that was a long time ago; we’re not like that anymore.  I wonder.  Our nation was founded in part in the belief that exterminating and subjugating its indigenous people was morally acceptable.  They were throw away people.  Chattel slavery was ended not even two hundred years ago.  Slavery is the ultimate use it and toss it scheme in which slaves are disposable commodities.  In the absence of slaves, we’ve done much the same with immigrant and wage labor.  Truth be told, we’ve done the same with newly minted professionals, perhaps most obviously in higher education.  In our own time we face the problem of throw away children bounced from one foster home to another until they reach eighteen when they are thrown away. 

Too much of what is acceptable in contemporary American society is an offense against our most cherished American ideals, but the throw away infection is not ours alone.  There is no country, nation or culture that isn’t affected in the same way.  The human capacity to inflict inhuman violence on one another knows no limits and respects no borders.

It’s hard to understand how something so obviously and morally wrong can endure with the complicity of those who know it’s wrong. 

What I know is this: it’s inconsistent with everything Jesus proclaimed, and incompatible with what it means to follow Jesus in the company of the body of Christ, the Church. 

If following Jesus is something Christians want to take seriously, their words and deeds must show some degree of discipline in respecting the dignity of every human being and the sacredness of creation.  What could that mean for Christians in the United States in these times?  I suggest it means moving toward more simple and sustainable life styles. It doesn’t mean giving up convenience or living like monks.  It does mean making responsible use of possessions as stewards who try to balance the good provided to them with the good the same possessions might provide to others.   As a simple example: less buying online and more shopping locally while remembering the wisdom of Lake Wobegone’s Pretty Good Grocery Store where “if they don’t have it you probably don’t need it.”

Frankly, that’s the easy part.  The harder part is separating one’s self from thousands of years in which throwing away other human beings has been tolerated, even by self-proclaimed Christians.  To proclaim the dignity of every human being is to reject all that demeans other persons. Today, that means not only children and the usual menu of racial prejudices, but also refugees, immigrants, and undocumented residents.  It will invite the raging ire of caterwauling voices obsessed with secure borders as an excuse to fortify America against any further diversification of the population.  So be it.  Following Jesus always involves the way of the cross, which is none other than the way of life and peace. 

The Eyes have It: Part II

My first trip as a person with impaired vision was a success, albeit not without some anxiety.  Being able to see but not see is surreal .  It’s not that I couldn’t see the highway and traffic on the way to the airport, but not clearly, and certainly not able to help navigate as Dianna drove. At the airport I wasn’t able to check myself in and being unable to see clearly, needed a paper boarding pass, rather than using my airline app with an electronic pass. The more crowded the airport got, the more difficult it became for me to discern where I was, or where I was going.  My scope of vision changes with the amount of ambient lighting and background colors.  Outside on a clear day, I can see most everything, if not anything in particular.  Inside the airport concourse, my scope or field of near blindness expanded to cover all but peripheral edges. As long as I followed Dianna, all was well.  

The first leg went well.   Richmond’s airport is laid out in simple straight lines.  COVID has limited the number of flights, and our early morning departure was one of the first.  We flew to Newark for a change of planes.  There is nothing simple or uncrowded about Newark, especially in one of the old concourses that end in tight circles of gates and waiting areas, with commercial kiosks in the middle.  The airport’s interior is not well lighted.  Gate numbers in black letters on large yellow background were all but invisible to me.  We picked out a place to sit, and with a little instruction on where to look, I went off to the toilet.  I found it OK by following the line of men walking into it.  Finding Dianna on the return was more difficult.  It began with the wrong gate number followed by moving along looking for the familiar landmark of silver hair. It wasn’t quite like a little kid having lost his mom in the super market, but not that different either.  Anyway, there she was, right where I left her.    

We made it.  I don’t think I could do it on my own yet, but I’ve seen completely blind persons traveling on their own, and I’m not completely blind, just a bit impaired, so why not?  Time with family was a delight. The return trip was not as anxiety producing as I knew, more or less, what to expect.  Dianna led the way, checked us in, and we were off. Transferring again in Newark, I once more made it to the men’s room and back without mishap…

Traveling and moving about in unfamiliar locations, I have learned a bit more about the limits of my vision.  After a long day of intense effort to “see” things, my eyes tire out.  They refuse to do the hard work and beg for rest, after which they are willing and able to give it another go.  So what’s next?  In December, we are taking a train trip to New York and in January, the long flight to Maui.  As long as it’s the two of us with Dianna in the lead, it should be a snap.