‘To be a citizen’: Part 2

How do we reclaim the title citizen? Last time, I lamented the loss of connection – the essence of citizenship -- between those who think of themselves as citizens and the community within which they live.

  • Wednesday, May 21, 2008 12:00am
  • Opinion

How do we reclaim the title citizen? Last time, I lamented the loss of connection – the essence of citizenship — between those who think of themselves as citizens and the community within which they live.

Having the right to vote no more makes you a citizen than riding a rocket into space makes a chimp an astronaut; citizenship is more active than that. And the principle applies to those elected to office; just because you got more votes than your opponent doesn’t make you a statesman.

What, then, does? It makes sense to break it down into two categories: (1) For those who lead, and (2) for those who are led.

Those who lead – A lesson elected types should take to heart: you are not at the top of the food chain despite what your sycophants say.

In all things, leaders should respect the people — leaders are in fact servants, not masters.

Many who are in public office forget, and are offended by efforts to remind them, that the people are sovereign – in a democracy, power and legitimacy flow from the bottom up, not the top down. Regarded as a collective goose laying an inexhaustible supply of golden eggs, the people as a caste exist to underwrite the schemes and grandeur of their ruling class betters.

What the people extend to you – power, resources, prestige of office – are not yours. You are stewards of what belongs to them. Accordingly, you owe them the highest possible fiduciary duty. Every freedom or liberty you restrict is one they can no longer exercise – every tax dollar you spend is one they cannot spend themselves. The operative question ought to be, “Is this trip necessary?” When in doubt, don’t.

And there should be more doubt. “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right,” said Judge Learned Hand in 1944. Unfortunately, this truth isn’t marching on in many city halls, county councils or in Olympia.

Don’t fear conflict, embrace it as a virtue. The Book of Proverbs teaches, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Hard objects struck together cause sparks to fly, but two better-honed pieces of iron are the result. Harry Truman’s dictum, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” has become almost unknown. No wonder the pot never boils – there’s no heat under it.

Dithering as governance strategy disrespects the people, yet it’s exalted as statecraft. Leadership requires stepping out and risking, not hanging back waiting for political cover to catch up with you. Those in public life should fish, not eternally cut bait.

We can’t get a new 520 bridge or the Viaduct replaced even after years of knowing they are unsafe at any speed. Locally, residents of Kirkland’s Proposed Annexation Areas are in limbo, slowly twisting in the wind while the City Council imitates the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus who was fated to forever roll a rock uphill only to see it roll down again. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “Can’t anybody here make a decision?” Study session advisory votes don’t count.

The great 19th Century Anglo-Irish statesman, Edmund Burke said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” When those in government abdicate their responsibility to exercise that judgment out of fear of becoming unpopular, they are just as craven as those who pander to become popular.

You in public office chose this life; nobody forced you on the ballot. Please, could you inspire some leadership?

Next time, I will conclude this series on citizenship by taking aim at us.

~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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