Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Time to pay attention

   History and the founding fathers tell us that freedom is not free. All societies need some kind of organizing force, and that force is government. But government costs more than merely money. It costs in taxes. It costs us in bothering to register to vote and in taking the time to vote. It costs us time in paying attention.
    Some of America’s founders believed that citizens need education to be able to maintain what can be a complicated relationship with their government, but most citizens seem uncertain now about what is expected of them. It’s certainly not necessary to be a hands-on participant in a political campaign, or to watch the 24-hour cable TV news channels, but a big part of the cost of government is just paying attention.
    Subjects like math and science are highly valued in today’s high-tech world, but history and American government are too often treated as little more than unpleasant medicine to be taken in high school and then largely ridiculed as economically worthless in higher education. Ironically, immigrants seeking citizenship are required to pay a price in knowledge about the American political process that we as a society seem unwilling to exact of those who are native born.
    People do vote. Somebody wins; somebody does not. We like it when a candidate, like both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan did during their presidential campaigns, tell us how wonderful we are and how bad things are in government. The message seems to feed some deep-seated social need to believe that government is bad.
    The recent expensive and pointless government shutdown demonstrated that at least some of our citizens seem motivated not by a sense of responsibility to govern but by a huge amount of frustration and anger. Angry or not, shutting down the government, threatening to default on the nation’s debt, and allowing incredible amounts of money from energy oligarchs—who understand power and how to use it—to accomplish their political and economic goals, is also a cost of government that we will all pay if we do not take the time and effort to reinstate our own willingness to pay the cost of citizenship in a democracy.
    We all play a role in the government we have. Elected leaders and the government they create do not happen by accident or divine intervention or magic. More than anger is required for good and decent government.
    Elections do have consequences, and it’s election season again. Time to pay the cost of our individual attention for the government we need.

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