An Anniversary Card for Jan 6

“Neither our national nor our local civil life can be what it should unless it is marked by the fellow-feeling… the sense of common duties and common interests, which arise when we take the trouble to understand one another, and to associate together for a common object.”  

                                                            – Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States

The notion of less government is inherent in U.S. politics. The founding fathers aimed for a government by the people, for the people, and Americans have always been radically individualistic as compared to many other developed countries. On another level, we also have been steadily aiming and moving towards a common culture and purpose – call it the American ideal – and politics and civic life, particularly at the local level, have played an important role in that… do they still do the pledge of allegiance in elementary school? (answers vary!)

In our most important relationships for which we have anniversaries (like marriage), we aim to commemorate and revitalize the things that matter most when that annual marker rolls around. What should we remember about the day a people’s (or some people’s) relationship to their own government and society went so far down a hole? No doubt there will be more than a little hand wringing, finger pointing and foreshadowing from multiple corners about the past, present and future aspects and impacts of January 6, 2021, at the U.S. capitol.

Certainly January 6 shows us that we are at odds with each other, and we are all the more encouraged to the negative at times by our politicians and by the media. One could argue that the ideal of American individualism has metastasized into the disease of “me”, making us all disconnected from each other in ways that not only cause us to care less for each other but repel us from each other – a lack of shared understanding leads to lack of trust… a lack of trust leads to dis-like and then hate… and hate leads to violence and killing. 

As in other times when citizens’ relationships with America have been strained – the Civil War, the Gilded Age, the 1960’s – today we are radically divided. Some would go so far as to say that our republic is at serious risk, and the future of our children has become less certain. As Americans, we sometimes assume that progress and development are a given. Travel the world, and history, and we know better.

While in some ways we grow more successful (wealthier) as a country – check out the stock market, housing prices, unemployment – we are failing ourselves and each other in different ways. We seem to be less civic-minded, less self-reliant, less accountable, and less connected. The “united” in our nation’s name is showing signs of wear and tear. Do we not have an obligation to each other as citizens, as members of a community? Can we really be a pure and “free” system where everybody is pretty much left to their own devices? 

Maybe this is counter-intuitive, but community and “community-mindedness” are actually key tools to preserving the hard-won gains of our quest for individual identity, liberty, and fulfillment. It’s part of “why we got married”, if you will. Yet much of what once ensured these values and our enfranchisement as citizens (other than taxes) does not seem to exist as much today – like the draft and broad military service – or has just become less prominent in public life – civic organizations, charity, various non-business associations. 

More than a few organizations exist to help foster our appreciation of and consideration for each other, but the shared general sentiment of “we the people” seems to be lost in general as a foundational principle on which we conduct our affairs and daily living — just watch the news, though I can only read it, so that I can at least try to filter things. Citizenship is like sport. It takes practice to get and stay good at it. For the sake of the American experiment, present and future, we need some exercise. 

For those of us concerned about the direction of our country and who seek ways large and small to revitalize America’s civic culture and re-validate the motto e pluribus unum, this is an invitation to a movement a plan that promotes the idea of advanced citizenship to match up to all the other ways in which this country is so advanced. 

The pace of change and the disruptive effects of technology will only accelerate the cultural tear underway among Americans. And it is a law of social physics that there is no such thing as a free lunch, so the important question then becomes, ‘What should be required from any one of us to be a part of all of us?’ Before we go there, here’s a metaphor for where we have gotten to as a country.

Take a family that has little material goods but a lot of pluck and perseverance. Now suppose that this family earns its way to a much more comfortable life, where meeting immediate needs has given way to great wealth, leisure and largesse.  It is probable that the parents of second-generation wealth can impart to their children the values that got them where they are. Their kids have chores, maybe get an allowance, and remain relatively grounded in ‘where they come from’ and thus balanced in their views of themselves and their place in the world. They have perspective.

Now fast forward several generations and, assuming the material wealth is still there, you will also notice that something has happened to the latest generation.  Over time a copy of a copy of a copy has meant that the foundation upon which success was built is lost on the most recent generations. They have forgotten where they came from and how they got there. 

If this seems like a plausible scenario, then expand that concept to communities and even entire countries and you will see where the United States is today. This is not to criticize our young people – each generation often ‘looks down’ on the next with “you don’t know how good you’ve got it” perspective – so much as to point out that we are in some sense victims of our own success.

So back to our question of, ‘What should be required from any one of us to be a part of all of us?’

The United States of America could change the game with a national service requirement. We could elect to impose upon ourselves – by our own free will – some period of service, in some way, from each citizen to society as a whole, as a requirement of all able citizens. As a forcing function, a national service program would provide the collective self-discipline to build better citizens because ultimately better citizens actually need less government. Could it be a way to save ourselves, from ourselves?

There are no doubt many reasons why this is a very challenging concept to take mainstream, much less carry out. Barriers range from a lack of historical precedent, to fierce individuality, to an all-time low respect of government leaders and institutions, to dis-agreements about how things are going and why we are where we are as a nation. Bureaucracies can often be poor agents for change when individual human beings with individual problems are concerned, but our problem is a group phenomenon, which calls for a group answer. 

Given the challenges of doing this at scale from the top down, we must also remember that community – including work, politics, worship and education – is really a local phenomenon. So, what if addressing divisive-ness and the need to develop ourselves as better citizens were local as well. That is a key goal of Community Corps, an initiative to build citizens for better community. The program targets younger Americans who really represent the future America to improve how we think and act as citizens and to reinvigorate our communal sense of civic duty.  Learn more, share your views and get involved at www.community-corps.com.

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