To be a citizen: Part 1

There was a day when to be a citizen meant dropping everything at the clang of a bell or a rider shouting, “To arms! To arms! The British are coming!” Whether to douse a fire or grab the family flintlock and powder horn from above the mantle and fall in with his fellows in defense of home, family, and country, it was done instantly, without thought of cost to farm, business, or, in some cases, family or life.

  • Friday, May 30, 2008 12:41pm
  • Opinion

There was a day when to be a citizen meant dropping everything at the clang of a bell or a rider shouting, “To arms! To arms! The British are coming!” Whether to douse a fire or grab the family flintlock and powder horn from above the mantle and fall in with his fellows in defense of home, family, and country, it was done instantly, without thought of cost to farm, business, or, in some cases, family or life.

Citizenship was active involvement in the affairs of the day. Life entailed it, survival required it, and duty demanded it. The New England Town Meeting was just that: a meeting of the entire town – everybody showed, everybody participated, debate was vigorous, and democracy was practiced. No one worried what the boss might think since most everyone was his own boss.

Healthy one day, diseased unto death the next was as much a part of life as the sun or rain. People lived close to mortality and didn’t take it for granted. As such, the citizen fought hard to preserve his own always with the stark realization that the thin divide between here and gone was a constant presence.

Since life and liberty were always on the line, they were always in mind.

Along the way we lost our way. What was once most precious is now subsumed into what is, for lack of a better word, corrupt. In the pursuit of wealth or prestige we sacrifice values for valuables. By themselves valuables aren’t bad – after all personal ambition is a value of liberty. But when we exalt them to first chair in our lives we sell our civic souls to the devil.

Security is sought in comfort and an absence of conflict, which, in the natural world, is a false construct of life. It breeds a political correctness that stifles honest debate and a genuine search for truth. You see it at the city council level (take your pick among cities) all the way down to private organizations, even churches.

This isn’t new, of course. Patrick Henry denounced it in his day: “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace – but there is no peace. The war is actually begun!” Where liberty and truth are at stake, the war is ongoing – it never ends, nor should it.

Active and provocative have been replaced by passive and inoffensive. Civility, we are told, is a higher ethos – go along to get along. Being “nice” is now the ultimate civic virtue. Perish the thought.

There are two types of truth: universal – what Thomas Jefferson, in The Declaration of Independence, called self-evident truth – and personal truth, or what’s true for you. That men and women are, or ought to be, free is a universal truth. That I loathe cooked cabbage works only for me. But to enforce my personal truth upon others, all in the name of comity and “peace,” makes me as much a tyrant as any in history.

Isn’t that what’s done these days to foster a false sense of civic “unity?” The personal truth of those in power – do not ever rock our boat – reigns supreme over the broader, more important search for the truth of what is the right thing to do, the right policy upon which to embark.

A few years ago, I was nearly tossed from a Kirkland City Council meeting for guffawing a disingenuous and patently untrue statement by a council member. No sooner had “Harrumph” left my lips then one of Kirkland’s finest was on me like a hammer on a nail. I had committed the ultimate sin by failing to be obsequious. Polite falsehood trumped disquieting reality.

And we wonder why progress is so illusive. If we’re unwilling to take risks — including risking being tossed from a city council meeting — why should there be rewards?

In my next column I’ll offer some suggestions, of course.

Scott St. Clair plays his bagpipe and looks at the world from his Kirkland home. Learn about him at www.scottstclair.com. Reach him at scottstc@comcast.net.

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