Thoughts on Civic Responsibility
By Ken K. Gourdin
In a recent Deseret News column, John Florez talks about the values and virtues he learned as a third grader relative to our system of government. Florez goes on to point out that the current process underway to relocate the Utah State Prison ill befits a representative, participatory democracy. He may be right about that, but that’s another topic for another day; I wish to focus on the sense of civic pride and duty Florez says his elementary education instilled in him. (For Florez’s full column, see here (this and all sites linked herein last accessed May 23, 2015):
Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Ever since I was in grade school, I was taught that government belonged to the people and we could decide who could best represent our interests. . . . In my third-grade classroom at Riverside Elementary in Salt Lake City, on the walls along with the pendulum-swinging clock were pictures of men with wigs and funny shirts. I was told they were my forefathers, and as I looked at the color of their skin, I wondered how that could have happened. My teacher taught us that one should always tell the truth like George Washington. She even told me that someday I could be president. And I still want to believe her.
Each morning, we pledged allegiance to our flag, and I was chosen to raise the flag.
So, I grew up being proud and ready to defend my country, and I still stand a little taller when I see the flag. I learned that my civics lessons were about the study of the rights and duties of citizenship and that with privileges go responsibilities.
Unfortunately, the senses that responsibilities are inextricably bound up in rights and that duties are inextricably bound up in privileges are fading from our national consciousness, and have been for quite some time. One need only watch a handful of “person-on-the-street” interviews in which answers to the questions reveal a startling ignorance of U.S. government, history, political processes and institutions, and current events. Too many people take the rights and privileges they enjoy for granted without sufficient reflection as to how these blessings were won and what must be done to preserve them, both for current and future generations.
In another forum, I wrote (See Ken K. Gourdin (September 23, 2014) “Informed citizens are vital to a free society,” Tooele Transcript Bulletin A4):
Several surveys have been conducted of U.S.-born citizens using questions from the test immigrants must pass to become naturalized U.S. citizens, and the findings reveal widespread ignorance of American history and government.
This ignorance is startling and disheartening, because it is difficult to understand how one can be a responsible citizen, on the one hand, and yet be ignorant of government processes, affairs, and events, on the other hand.
Many of us also confuse liberty with license. We say that liberty is the right, totally unrestricted, to do as one wishes when, in fact, that is license. By contrast, to slightly alter a phrase from Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, with great liberty comes great responsibility – including the responsibility to be informed and to be engaged.
Former University of Chicago Law Professor and Utah Supreme Court Justice Dallin H. Oaks would seem to agree that citizens have responsibilities such as the ones of which I wrote. Many years ago, he spoke of the increasing emphasis on rights at the expense of emphasizing civic responsibilities. (See Dallin H. Oaks (July 3, 1994) “Some Responsibilities of Citizenship,” address delivered at America’s Freedom Festival in Provo, Utah. Available on line at http://www.ldsinfobase.net/liberty/DHO_citizenship.html). He said:
Some of the responsible personal conduct that is necessary to save America is the kind of conduct that is enforceable by law and legal process, but much of it can only be encouraged. In the end, many of our most important personal, family, civic, and church responsibilities are entirely voluntary. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell [then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] said in his address at this Freedom Festival last year, “Our whole society really rests on the capacity of its citizens to give ‘obedience to the unenforceable.'”
At a time when most of our public discourse concerns rights, it may seem strange to speak of responsibilities. But a democratic republic needs patriotic citizens who are fulfilling their responsibilities as well as claiming their rights. No society is so secure that it can withstand continued demands for increases in citizen rights without producing corresponding increases in the fulfillment of citizen responsibilities. Responsibilities like honesty, respect for personal and property rights, self-reliance, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good are basic to the governance and preservation of our nation.
Too many people are more than willing to complain—about “them” and about what “they” do. But in a representative, participatory democracy, there is no “they” and “them”: there is only “us.” Often, we are vociferous in our indictments, but are we content simply to let our complaints be the end of the matter? When is the last time we wrote our local newspaper, mayor, city council member, county commission member, representative, senator, or other elected official? Have we ever sought to join forces with like-minded individuals in an effort to effect any change we might say is needed? When is the last time we attended a city council meeting, a legislative session, or other meeting of a decisionmaking body? Have we taken the time to familiarize ourselves with the issues, positions, and arguments about which we say we care?
All of this having been said, there are those who believe—and such a belief is not wholly without foundation—that our political and governmental systems themselves are too corrupt and inefficient for such efforts as those I describe herein to matter. Too many public officials serve their own interests rather than those of the people they represent, as well as engaging in self-dealing and political patronage, and our society has become so tolerant of public and private misconduct among government officials that, often, such misconduct barely even moves the needle on the meter of social disapproval. Misconduct, it seems, has become less the frowned-upon exception and more the accepted (and even expected) rule. However, we need to expect (indeed, I believe we have a right to demand) more of our public officials, both in terms of public and private rectitude and in terms of holding them to the promises they make when we elect them, and we need to restore a certain amount of social disapproval as a deterrent from engaging in misbehavior.
In summary, the First Amendment to the Constitution, along with its analogues in state Constitutions, gives us the right to complain, formally or informally, however much we may wish to do so. But taking the time to mount a formal effort to effect needed change will at least ensure that our voices are heard, not just by the public at large but by those who are in positions to effect that change. If appropriate action isn’t taken in that event, then perhaps our voices deserve to stand out above the cacophonous din of those who do nothing more than complain. Until then, we have only ourselves to blame.