Matt Simek - "Terrible duties" for Americans
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.