“We Are the Government” and Other Thoughts

This post is an installment in Forward Thinking: A Values Development Project. Forward Thinking is an invitation to both readers and fellow bloggers to participate in forming positive values and grappling with thorny questions. Click here to for the introduction, or here for the current prompt.  

What does civic responsibility mean to you?

“Why do you view the government like this, like it’s something out there, something separate, an enemy?” The speaker was Norwegian, the location a conference workshop. “In Norway, we see it differently. We are the government.” As her words settled over me I knew I would be remembering what she had said for a long, long time. See, I grew up with the oppositional view she was talking about. I saw government as the problem, and firmly believed that the only positive thing to do with government was to shrink it. I saw taxes as akin to theft. What changed between then and now was an attitude shift, and the speaker that day gave voice and words to that shift.

In the debate over the fiscal cliff last year, a friend made a fascinating observation on facebook. “I use my tax money to hire the government to do certain things,” he said. “I don’t want it to refund my money, I want it to use my money to do what I’m hiring it to do!” You know, things like roads. National parks. Fire departments. Schools. Welfare for the down and out, and social security for the elderly. His status update also got me thinking, because as a child, teen, and young adult I never thought about everything we for all intents and purposes “hire” the government to do, and also because his status update built on the “we are the government” message of the Norwegian professor.

For me, civic responsibility is about an attitude. It’s about things like paying taxes and voting, sure, but it’s also about how you do those things. Do you pay taxes grudgingly and while talking about tyranny, or do you do so with the knowledge that you are contributing to the common welfare? Do you vote just because you’re supposed to and leave most of the local races blank, or do you research the candidates from president to county coroner and make informed choices?

I think too often in this country we talk about our rights while ignoring the fact that in addition to rights we also have responsibilities.

“Every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.” ~ John D. Rockefeller Jr.

We talk all the time about freedom, but the reality is that living in a first world country like the United States isn’t free. We have rights, but also responsibilities, and if we forget that we have responsibilities we risk jeopardizing our rights.

Civic responsibility also involves looking beyond yourself to the society you live in. It involves remembering that we aren’t going it alone, that we can’t go it alone, that this web we call society is interwoven and interdependent. It means realizing that we are part of something larger, whether we like it or not, and it means being willing to embrace that rather than resenting it.

All of this is very abstract, yes, so I’ll take a moment to make it more concrete. In my own life, I hope to become more involved in local government and with civic institutions like the public school.

If you’re like me, you spent a lot more time thinking about the presidential race this last November than you did thinking about the candidates running for state representative in your district, but the reality is that your vote – and your volunteering – have a great deal more effect on that smaller race than on the presidential race. And, believe it or not, who you vote for at the local and state level does actually affect people’s lives. Think, for example, of the rash of anti-abortion legislation passed by state legislatures last year. These votes matter, and yet we often hardly think about them. In my own life, I want to change that.

I also plan to be very involved with my local public schools once my children reach school age. I intend to volunteer and help out, to meet and get to know the teachers and other parents. I might even consider something like running for school board. I hope to find ways to be involved with other civic institutions as well, and to volunteer for various causes. Sure, I only have a limited amount of time, but I don’t have to do everything at once. I have my whole life ahead of me.

Like it or not, we exist within a wider society. Civic responsibility, for me, means realizing that we are not alone in this world, and that we are not so independent as we might like to think. It means looking up from our own lives and embracing all of the connections we have to everyone else. It means remembering that rights come with responsibilities. It means remembering just how much we have living in the country we do, and being willing to give back with our time and money. On some level, it means expanding our family circle to embrace our local community, our state, and our nation. And that, my friend, is revolutionary.

If you would like to write your own response to this prompt and be included in this Monday’s roundup of responses, either leave a comment with your response on the post containing the prompt or write your own blog post in response to the prompt and email a link to lovejoyfeminism (at) gmail (dot) com. 

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