“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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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://rant5k.blogspot.co.uk/ Grikmeer

    Also Troll management is something that the government has to do in Norway (I loved that film…)

  • Anonymouse

    I see a real disconnect from the conservatives around me regarding civic responsibility. They want it all, they want it now, and the don’t want to have to pay for it. For example; trash pickup is done by the county, paid for by taxes. However, years of caps on taxes have meant that several things the county used to fund are now out of reach, including twice-weekly trash pickup. When the county went to once-weekly pickup, the outraged screams reverberated for weeks. Why, their rights as American citizens were being taken away because the filth they surround themselves in was only being removed once a week (by the way, there’s nothing stopping these folks from bringing their own trash to the county landfill).

    We’re in the same position regarding snow removal equipment; after years and years of use, the snow equipment is starting to break down and there’s no longer any money to repair or replace, so snow removal has to be done with fewer machines. The outrage expressed when it takes an extra hour to reach the casino!

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      Only once a week??! It’s very different here in Spain but I think it’s partially because we live more concentrated (more flats, less spread apart in one family homes) and we have big common trash cans near (there’s one for each type of material (plastic, paper, …) and for normal garbage) which are picked up quite frequently instead of individual ones (at least that’s what I’ve seen in the Tv series :P). We don’t get to the level of Japan were they really police their own neighbours so they don’t put trash that doesn’t belong (they have different days for different trashes).

      • Anat

        In my corner of US suburbia trash gets collected once a week, but we don’t produce much of it – we recycle and compost. So for a discount we have our trash taken once a month. (Recycling gets taken every other week, for free.)

  • Angela

    One thing to keep in mind when comparing the US to Norway (or a number of other countries) is that compared to our melting pot culture theirs is relatively homogenous. A US historian once pointed out to me that there is a direct correlation between cultural uniformity and citizen satisfaction with government. That makes sense when you think about. The more similar the population the easier it is to resolve issues without so much public outrage and political deadlocking.

    • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

      I don’t think Canada is that much less diverse that the US, and there isn’t the same level of government-hatred here. I suspect there’s also historical myth-making at work, in this case the American myth of the frontier and the individual.

    • smrnda

      This might be true for Norway, but even Norway has had a lot of immigration, along with most other Western European nations. Most Europeans I know are quick to correct Americans who assume that the UK, France, Ireland, Germany etc. are still ethnically homogenous societies – they aren’t any more.

      • luckyducky

        This is true but as Europe has been experiencing far more emigration than immigration and maintained relative racial/cultural/ethnic homogeneity up until relatively recently, many if not most have just begun to deal with “us” being as diverse as it is. As fraught as the “melting pot” aspect of American culture is, we’ve at least been wrestling with this question quite openly for a couple hundred years.

        But as far as the Canadians go, well, they are just more polite* and seem to indicate that the “mosaic” approach to cultural diversity is more productive than the “melting pot” as the first attempts to accept and even celebrate diversity and the the second attempts to merge at best and assimilate at worst.

        *I love Sarah Vowel’s discussion of the differences between Americans/US and Canadians/Canada in the “Partly Cloudy Patriot” (she’s a Canadiophile).

    • Anat

      Counting by proportion of population that are first or second generation immigrants Australia surpasses the US, as does Israel, possibly many other countries too.

    • Angela

      Sorry I shortened my original comment and didn’t realize I’d cut out the sentence specifying that I’m mainly referring to national identity- not racial, ethnic, religious or other markers of diversity. National identity is determined by one’s sense of what it means to be a citizen in one’s country. According to the historian I spoke with Scandinavian countries have the most uniform ideas surrounding national identity in the world. The US is remarkably nonuniform for a developed nation with a stable government. He claimed that Canada is less uniform than most of western Europe but much more so than the US. I will ask him if he can link me to any studies or articles that back this up.

  • wanderer

    This reminds me of a discussion I had with my very conservative family recently. They were bemoaning how “government” was trying to take away their freedom by passing legislation about nutritious school lunches. I was baffled. I could not see how WE THE PEOPLE passing a law saying we’re setting a higher standard for OURSELVES to feed our kids good food would be a bad thing.
    It’s not like a Obama is coming to their school to force-feed their kids. They can even still pack them a junk-food lunch if they want to.
    For them, it was the “principle” that government shouldn’t be involved in “our food choices”. For me, it was completely the opposite. The government isn’t doing this….I WANT to make sure that kids get decent nutrition. I WANT peace of mind that public school isn’t feeding them empty calories. I WANT to make sure nobody in the name of budget reduction gets to put kids’ health at risk. How is this some Washington entity taking away my freedom???

    • Anat

      The government isn’t infringing on the parents’ freedoms with such legislation. The government is forcing standards on the schools, which are a government agency.

    • luckyducky

      I was speaking to a high school social studies teacher who was ranting and raving about this (?!?). I was flabbergasted that he was complaining — without irony — that these were some of the only meals some of his kids would get and now they are going hungry. He was apparently unaware that many of the meals before the change actually had lower calorie counts than their healthier replacements and kids are supposed to be able to get additional servings of fruits and veggies regardless of the impact on calorie counts.

      I had a friend who was on SNAP all the way through high school and her mom was not reliable about using them so the only dependable meals she got were breakfast and lunch at school. While the rest of our group when through a t00-cool-for-school-lunch phase, she went to the cafeteria every day and ate a decent meal — I only recently recognized what it meant and how much better it would have been if the lunches had had a better nutritional profile. While I started and ended every day with a balanced meal and could grab a piece of fruit and yogurt on the way to a meet to make up for my totally voluntary Diet Coke-&-chips lunch (ehhh, I can’t believe I ate like that and managed to be a competitive athlete), she had meals of American cheese and mustard at home.

      I realize that this sounds a little authoritarian but when I saw a news report about how kids were throwing so much more of their lunches away now, my response what that it was not a reason to change back… keep offering it and eventually they will be hungry enough to eat it and/or their expectations will change. I thought that was pretty standard advice for developing healthy eating habits with kids.

    • Ms_Morlowe

      Kids can bring junk food to school in the States? Seriously? We don’t have school lunches in most schools in Ireland, but for the last 10+ years schools have issued regulations to parents about what they can give their kids for lunch at school. Even when I was in primary school before that, we weren’t allowed to only have sweets for lunch. My mother had huge problems with my youngest brother, because he’d only eat nutella sandwiches, and chocolate spread wasn’t allowed in his school. In general, all chocolate, crisps/chips, fizzy drinks, etc are banned. And even though we’ve no school lunches, we were given a carton of milk. There is no way we’d ever be able to have chips/fries and coke for lunch!

      • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

        Bring? My high school had pop and candy bars in vending machines and at the cantina, and I don’t think that’s atypical for Canadian/US schools. Even in elementary school we had ice cream on Fridays. The only regulation I remember having was a ban on peanut products.

  • smrnda

    I think the view of the government as some threatening Other might be a part of that privilege distress that was mentioned either on this blog or another one on patheos. Some groups of privileged people have always gotten what they wanted, so the moment the government actually starts doing things in the interests of the rest of the populace they start crying that it’s not fair. The problem is with most conservatives today, it isn’t true – most of them are not wealthy or powerful, though they may identify themselves as such and then the working-class conservative feels outrage when the rich get taxed more.

    Perhaps it’s just prejudice – the government advocates for women, minorities, and tries to make at least some small token gestures towards religious minorities. To some people it’s a zero sum game – either the government is for these other groups, then it’s against white guys.

  • Hilary

    FWIW, I grew up with my mother saying that taxes are a shared investment in a common future. I may grumble about paying them, but I’d rather pay taxes then not.


  • Kevin Alexander

    I think that the hatred of government is the success of decades of right wing propaganda. The aim is to separate the people from the only entity that has the power to protect them from those who really are out to get you.

  • Noelle

    You are the government and the government is you.

    It never fails to amaze me how many in the US don’t understand and appreciate this. Did Schoolhouse Rock not teach them anything? Or have they never even heard of such a thing? Civics and government classes were required in school in my day. Are they not now?