Matt Simek - "Terrible duties" for Americans

Walt Whitman
The statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., from the National Archives.
Photograph of painting hanging in Office of the Chief Signal Officer, U.S. War Department of “Washington Constitutional Convention 1787” by Junius Brutus Stearns, licensed under public domain.
Guest writer Matt Simek earned a master’s degree in broadcast communications and communication theory from the University of Oregon in 1975. His work has included writing and producing award-winning national documentaries, creating physician training programs through his company, Pacific Standard Television, and teaching television production. He is a passenger rail service advocate in Yamhill County, and coordinates the Classic Fire Apparatus Show for the Newberg Old Fashioned Festival.

While the Great American Experiment of self-governance was still in the blush of youth, poet and author Walt Whitman wrote a brilliant treatise on the American spirit, “Democratic Vistas” (1872). In this work, he asked a critical question:

“We have had founded for us the most positive of lands. The founders have pass’d to other spheres but what are these terrible duties they have left us?”

Over time, that founding principle of citizen involvement in “self-government” has eroded. When I look around today, I see people avoiding those “terrible duties” that make government work, that improve the lot of mankind, and that would keep America “the most positive of lands.” We expect government to do things without our involvement, and we find ways to weaken the government created by the Founders by declaring government to be the problem rather than the solution to many problems.

We have allowed ourselves to wander far from Lincoln’s notion of government “of the people, by the people, for the people” toward a modern view of government “of those people, for some people, against most people.” We see government today as either a parent or an enemy, depending on our personal points of view. In our us vs. them notion of government, we are rapidly losing the sense that we are the essential part of its success. In the words of Walt Kelly’s famous comic strip character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

American education used to teach “civics” lessons about responsibility and duty, and how our experiment in self-government was designed to work. I remember taking a required course on the Constitution in seventh grade, with a wonderful red book that included the document with annotations in the margins about each Article’s meaning.

We have mostly given up on that teaching, preferring instead to focus on the insane pursuit of wealth, at whatever cost. We have largely forgotten about building a nation of citizens united in common purpose. Today’s vision of America, for many citizens, is a simple geographical boundary for autonomous individuals, where people are allowed to do whatever they damn well please.

The attitude is, “It’s all about me.” Is that what “freedom” is really about?

Long ago we strayed from a devotion to duty, to become a population devoted to entitlement. Part of this can be laid at the feet of liberals, who want to support and nourish all downtrodden souls. But conservatives are equally at fault, taking advantage of government roads and bridges, clean water and air, medical research, safe air travel, secure trade, business incentives, raw materials, tax breaks, and tens of thousands of other programs and services, while complaining bitterly that government regulation stands in the way of accumulating more wealth at the expense of others.

In our homes, few teach children about duty and responsibility, rather how to get the latest iPad, the newest video games, or the most wealth with the least work and at the cheapest price. We are a nation of privilege and expectation, liberal and conservative alike, and it gets worse with every succeeding generation. And we see government as both the source of, and the barrier to, our personal gain, all the while resenting our contributions to the good of all.

As a nation, we are approaching the moral edge. Many conservatives think of the moral edge in religious term. I think of it in terms of what we are as a nation of free people.

But what are we free to do? Free to pillage and cheat and buy cheap, or free to pursue the Great Experiment in which citizens take responsibility for their nation and everyone in it? Free to take the most for the least, or free to carry out their duties of citizenship? Free to dodge government while demanding personal “Freedom!” or free to make this a better, stronger, more generous nation through contributions for the good of the whole?

Free to brandish deadly weapons in public places, or free to preserve, protect, and defend the nation’s position in the world peacefully? What kind of free people do we really want to be?

I once met a young Ivy League law school graduate and asked her about modern legal education. She said most of the courses are now focused on how lawyers can serve their clients (and their own firms) in making profits; contract law, tort law, malpractice law, privacy law, product safety law, and so on.

I asked her, with all of the new courses being added, what is falling off the back end? She said — and these are her exact words — “Well, Constitutional Law is now an elective.” That was about 30 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. That gave me great concern. Does our Constitution apply only when it is convenient to us?

Unless we can put this total focus on personal gain aside and deal with Whitman’s “terrible duties,” I fear for what kind of future we have ahead of us as a once-great nation.

Guest writer Matt Simek earned a master’s degree in broadcast communications and communication theory from the University of Oregon in 1975. His work has included writing and producing award-winning national documentaries, creating physician training programs through his company, Pacific Standard Television, and teaching television production. He is a passenger rail service advocate in Yamhill County, and coordinates the Classic Fire Apparatus Show for the Newberg Old Fashioned Festival.




Don Dix

It seems as though the people are being shut out of the conversation when it comes to government, not the other way around. Politicians ( read partisan politics ) are only interested in votes during elections, and make all sorts of foolish promises. Otherwise, most of their effort is spent passing legislation to either extract more money from the citizenry, or please those deep pockets who financed their successful campaigns. The corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals control who goes onto D.C., and what comes out.

And the political parties control who represents the cause. Many might wish to participate, but unless one can adhere to the partisan drivel, there is no avenue.


For Don Dix:
You are correct but we can make a difference when we chose to. There are those out to represent us. Some are trying to repeal "Citizens untied". Also search Ellison-Lewis legislation and Warren-Rockefeller legislation. The key is getting people like this into office and supporting them.


This article is true but I believe there is hope. I got involved and made a difference, search Robin Zimmerman on the papers website. I just returned for the BCT&GM Union convention. The theme was political action. "Elections have consequences" both good and bad. As long as we keep informed and take the time to know who we are voting for we can change. I stress meeting those you are voting for and supporting the ones that you want representing you. When you can go to www.http://bctgm2014convention.org/videos/ . In particular On Day: one watch "securing our future through political action. And on day two "The truth about the demise of Hostess". As I said in the previous post Warren-Rockefeller legislation is working to help those workers victimized when a company is manipulated into bankruptcy as a way for investors to profit.
Keep up the good work


What is this article about? Can you translate the "terrible duties" into actual actions? Define devotion to duty. Do you mean enlisting in the military? Pledging allegiance every waking minute? How are "we" approaching the "moral edge?" This article seems far more appropriate for North Korea.
I maintain Civics was--mercifully--axed from the high school curriculum because it was a wasted semester, unfocused and amorphous.

Don Dix


When votes are cast based on the capital letter following a candidates's name ( and nothing more ), it's usually at the behest of the particular party. And many times the vote cast is to vote against the opposition. People just won't do their homework, which allows the particular party to dominate procedure. And straying from the party agenda is just not accepted, which in turn pushes the partisan attitude to even more extremes. That's exactly the plan -- keep the partisan divide alive and clear -- so the contributions keep rolling.


Civics gets the axe, yet electives such as Mystery, Mayhem, and Murder are offered for credit towards graduation. There's some valuable, life-skill learning, eh?


Never having heard of a class called Mystery, Mayhem and Murder, I'd still take it in a heartbeat over the Civics I remember.
Why do people fail to understand how boring, pointless curriculum is a major player in the abysmal dropout rate?
Civics encouraged robotic "group-think," dangerous in any society. It featured what I call heroes and holidays and never once mentioned human struggles or the shameful behavior by some of those heroes it revered.
I'd much rather live in an intelligent, questioning country than march lock-step into mediocrity with people dressed like Uncle Sam.


P.S. I still don't understand what this article means.

Don Dix

My interpretation is we have become numb to the size and reach of government. People don't participate because very seldom has government actually listened to the people. Maybe that's the been the plan -- ignore the people and maybe they will ignore government -- sadly, it could be working.


What I take from the article is that we have lost the sense of duty to for our own self-governance and have become a nation of selfish individuals whose primary concern with the workings of government tend to be, "what's in it for me?". We are all accountable for those workings, but have abdicated our responsiblities to a professional class of politicians that are more easily motivated by money and power than they are with the essential elements of preserving the community.

We place the values of individualism above the community good; we are more spectators than activists; and when we are moved to activism, it is more often out of an interest in short-term personal gain than it is in long-term community- building.

The article paints with a wide brush, and employs large generalizations. While these concerns are much less pronounced at the local level, the spirit of the age is far more concerned with consuming than it is with sacrifice and giving. Too many parents have abandoned their role as the nurturers of the next generation by trusting the "rule of experts." It starts at home, and must be affirmed in the schools, and demonstrated in the culture. I fear we have fallen woefully behind in our duties.


I feel sorry for Lulu that her Civics class left her discouraged, but the value of such study cannot be dismissed. The current generation has no context for the world they inhabit. That we stand on the shoulders of giants cannot properly be understood without classical studies of history, music, art, literature, and science.

Our children are masters at navigating the wired world, but are easily overwhelmed by the knowledge gained by their forebears; knowledge that sought to explore and understand the full spectrum of the human condition, and to contemplate the meaning of life. The value of life itself is too easily diminished by the celebration of death that is prevalent in so many electronic entertainments.

We have only ourselves to blame for allowing this to happen.


The abyss is staring back at me.
By all means, let's beat some more dead horses.
Maybe I didn't appreciate Civics because we used the green book instead of the red one.


The system obviously failed you, Lulu. That was kinda the point of the article. I'm not sure what dead horses you propose we beat, but there are solutions. I home-schooled my five children for ten years, eventually sending them to public high school. All of them are now college educated and successful: one is the head of a university English department; one is deputy disctrict attorney; one is an IT specialist for the military; one is in the midst of developing a non-profit organization to work with disadvantaged girls; and the youngest works in international relief. We emphasized the values addressed in this article, and it is paying dividends to the larger community. I am no expert on any of this, but I shared the same views as articulated in the article and worked hard to counter the negative trend. It is up to each of us to try to do so, no matter what color our Civics book was.


How fortunate I wasn't in your class.
You may have shared your views until you were red, white and blue in the face, but that's certainly no justification for your offspring to feel imprinted by them.
Glad they're all so successful. It's surprising they left the nest in the first place.
I was valedictorian of Clown College, where a sense of humor was required.


In many ways, my children are successful in spite of me. My goal wasn't to "imprint" anything in them, other than to learn how to learn. I taught them to accept nothing at face value, but to test all received wisdom. At the same time, I encouraged them to not abandon the received wisdom, until they had examined it with due diligence. I attempted to use the classical quadrivium approach, so well defended, nearly eighty years ago, by the British writer Dorothy Sayers.

I did fail on one account, however: none of my kids can walk on water. And, a couple of them probably would have preferred Clown College. I can see why you were valedictorian, Lulu. These days, we can use the best and brightest in every field.


Actually, Sayers wrote her famous classical education essay in 1947. I prefer the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.
Honestly, Sponge, and this is not meant to sound belittling, but I would be far more gratified if an actual history teacher praised me on my grasp of the subject than my parent. Ditto English, science, geometry, etc. It's simply not a comparable situation.


Thanks for the correction on the date of Sayers essay, Lulu. It's been 30 years since I read it, and my recollection was foggy.

I would be the first to acknowledge that home-schooling isn't for everyone. It certainly didn't seem to damage any of my kids (that I can tell, from their occaisional recounting of the experience), but I felt it was important to provide the kind of intellectual base that I thought would be important for their educational growth, as they transitioned to public school. Establishing certain habits of the mind, and nurturing an appreciation for the value of their inherited culture, were my primary goals. I wanted them to learn how to think, rather than simply retain information. I wasn't convinced that the state's education establishment had these same goals. Fortunately, none of my kids seem to resent our efforts.

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