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Plenty of Patriotism, but Little Citizenship
January 8, 2003
By Diane E. Dees

About 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:

 
Bigotry

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.

Ignorance

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.

Passivity

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 about.

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.

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