of Patriotism, but Little Citizenship
January 8, 2003
By Diane E. Dees
a week after the horrors of September 11, I was driving in
heavy traffic on the main highway of my city. As I slowed
down to accommodate the flow, I noticed that the car in front
of me had an American flag waving from its door on the driver's
side. The driver then opened his window and tossed some litter
onto the highway.
Then it happened again. A driver with a American flag decals
all over his SUV tossed a cigarette out the window. I have
witnessed this scene several times.
All around me, my neighbors have American flags affixed to
their cars, hanging from their mailboxes, and standing in
front of their houses. These same neighbors burn leaves during
questionable weather conditions, drive their vehicles beyond
the speed limit, violate the noise ordinance, and allow their
unprotected pets to wreak havoc on the community
What does it mean to "love America" and have little or no
regard for its land and its inhabitants?
Citizenship is a forgotten concept, one that brings to mind
images of elementary school children holding hands and learning
about the pledge of allegiance and the importance of safety
crossing guards. But citizenship is the expression of one's
ability to live with others. Unlike patriotism, it is organic,
it requires commitment. It is not a feeling, but a pattern
of behavior that acknowledges that none of us can live without
the cooperation of others, and that all of us need to behave
with decency and compassion.
Our government leaders don't like to talk about the down-to-earth,
hands-on obligations of citizenship. There is nothing emotionally
rousing about such a discussion because it does not include
words like "God," "the evil-doers," "wake the sleeping giant,"
and "(fill in the blank) or the terrorists win." In short,
it requires more than cheerleading skills to guide people
toward the work of being decent citizens. It is sad that Americans
need such guidance, but the need is glaring.
Since so many traits of good citizenship involve the qualities
of kindness and thoughtfulness, it appears that the Bush White
House's much-touted "Judeo-Christian values" of America have
failed us. And since part of being a good citizen involves
vigilance and judgment, social education has failed us, too.
The television networks provided a running commentary on
the escapades of Enron and WorldCom, and Americans are justifiably
furious over the damage done by these companies. But the Enron
and WorldCom scandals are symptoms of a much greater disease,
and it is one that can infect all of us. The germs of poor
citizenship breed when these conditions are present:
If we believe that other Americans are not as good as we
are, then we will not be bothered to afford them the courtesy
and respect that we think is our right from birth. At the
very least, we will not intervene when we know that others
have acted to deprive them of their human and civil rights.
The government needs to do more, but destroying bigotry is
the job of all Americans. It is a job we do as individuals-in
the workplace, the neighborhood and the community.
The White House tells us not to consider all Muslim Americans
as evil, and it condemns the loose lips of Trent Lott. But
this is the same White House that is steadily appointing and
nominating individuals who have made careers of destroying
the rights of women, people of color, and gay Americans. And
it is the same White House that transmits a clear message
that Christianity-and a certain type of Christianity, at that-is
the favored religion.
It results not only in tragic gaffes within the FBI and CIA;
ignorance is responsible for the failure of thousands of ordinary
American citizens to do the right thing. "I didn't think to
call Child Protection"…"I didn't study her background, I just
voted for her"…"I didn't know he was breaking a law"...are
statements I hear on a continuing basis from people who are
intelligent and who allege to be concerned about their community
and those who live in it. Whether it stems from fear of having
our long-held assumptions challenged, the delusion that reliable
information is available on television, or just plain laziness,
ignorance is as dangerous in America as it is anywhere else
in the world.
With the Bush White House in power, ignorance is even more
dangerous than usual. Are Americans in favor of government
spying, the mixing of religion and government social programs,
and the launching of an attack on a country who has not attacked
us? Some are, to be sure, and that is another issue. But there
are many who are not, yet they have not bothered to read the
fine print in the Patriot Act, or to explore the ramifications
of the so-called "faith-based" initiative. And they have not
taken a glimpse at the big picture, which is, to turn a phrase,
an "oil" painting of dreadful import.
Taking a stand is not fashionable. Last year, the teachers
in my area went on strike to protest their horribly low salaries.
Instead of cheering them on, many parents called for their
dismissal because they "should have been in the classroom."
But where, in this culture of weighing the boat down so it
can't possibly rock, are children to learn about courage?
The teachers-long subjected to low compensation and broken
promises- took a stand, and they went to the legislature to
make their stand known. This action isn't irresponsibility-it
is the proper exercise of the rights of citizenship. And it
is a better civics lesson than any to be found in school textbooks.
Now, when Americans protest against the Bush White House,
they are told to stand in a "free speech zone" or they will
be arrested. Taking a stand has never been very fashionable,
and now it is becoming dangerous, just as it was during the
Eisenhower and Nixon eras.
Bigotry, ignorance and passivity are enemies within that are
just as frightening as any "axis of evil" or other external
monster upon which we might focus. If we fail to practice
simple good citizenship, we will continue to be overwhelmed
by everything from corporate fraud to child abuse to environmental
danger. The White House is counting on our negligence, and
so far-we are, as a nation, not giving them much to worry
Not long ago, one of my neighbors stole our "This Home Votes
Democratic" sign. When it was time to put up signs for the
Democratic candidate in a state election, we had to nail them
high in the trees, where they would be seen but not taken
down. Our house is surrounded by American flags and "God Bless
America" signs, yet we fear exclusion from this blessing because
we do not support the current political machine.
So what does it mean to "love America" and have no regard
for its resources and its people?
It means nothing, and there is no flag large enough to cover
the absence of the social decency that is known as citizenship.