Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

On the Basic Duties of Citizenship

A couple of weeks ago I got into a minor dustup on a friend’s Facebook page because I dismissed as irrelevant to me a piece by a writer (who has a reputation as a fairly antagonistic reviewer–I’ve never worked with him and likely never will) who was talking about politics and yet who, in his opening section, acknowledges that he doesn’t vote. I didn’t flesh out my response beyond that at the time because 1) the discussion was happening on a friend’s Facebook wall and not my own, and I hate it when people do that to me, and 2) there was no way to really dig down into my feelings on the matter in that format. And I’ve avoided it since then because, well, I had more important things to deal with. But it’s been nagging me ever since, so I’ve got to get it out.

A little background: I was raised in a faith which believed some curious things about the world we live in. They believed that the kingdom from the Lord’s Prayer would have a physical manifestation on earth at some point in the future, and that at present, it exists in heaven, and further, that true Christians (which consisted of them alone, naturally) owed sole allegiance to that kingdom, and no earthly kingdom. They were required to show obedience to earthly kingdoms so long as those laws didn’t violate heavenly law, but not allegiance, so no saluting of the flag, no serving in the armed forces, no belonging to political parties, and no participation in government, whether voting or running for/holding political office. The trade they made was that they didn’t criticize government policies or decisions, the idea being that if you’re not taking part in a system, you don’t have the right to criticize it.

I want to be clear about something up front–I don’t feel that way. I think the right to criticize is fundamental, and I resist any calls to silence protest and dissent in our society. However, I do think that criticism that comes from a person invested in their society is of greater value than that of a person who stands outside the system and rails against it, especially in one where citizen input is (at least in theory) a necessary part.

So what do I mean by “invested in”? At the most basic level, I’m talking about voting, because that’s the most visible way that the majority of individuals can take part in governance. And it’s a right that a majority of people in the world still don’t have in any real way, and which more than half of the citizens in this country didn’t have at the federal level until 1920. Let’s go farther with this. African-American males had the right to vote after the passage of the 15th Amendment in theory, but were regularly denied the vote after the end of Reconstruction until the federal government stepped in with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and even then, it’s not like a switch was flipped and people of color suddenly had an easy go of it at the ballot box. Even today, we see attempts by the Republican party to suppress the votes of people of color at the state and local level. Obviously, the vote matters if one party is trying to limit who wields it. It’s incredibly arrogant, it seems to me, to brag about deciding not to vote, given the sacrifices that certain groups of people still undergo today in order to have their voices heard. It strikes me as the kind of thing a person who’s never had to worry about disenfranchisement might do.

But when I talk about voting, I’m talking about more than just big elections. Local elections–for city council and school board, for state senate and judge–these affect our day-to-day lives in substantial ways, so even if you believe (mistakenly) that there’s no real difference between the two major party candidates for President in any given election year, you have a responsibility to the people in your community to not only know what’s going on around you but to help make decisions about what’s going to happen. Are you worried about whether teachers will be able to sneak creationism into your child’s curriculum? Then you need to vote in school board elections. Do you want a better public transportation system or less urban sprawl? Then you need to vote for the people who control zoning. And you need to vote for your state legislators as well.

And mind you, this is the least you need to do to be a good citizen. Voting, as Howard Dean put it, gives you a D for Citizenship. It’s passing, but only just. You have to do more in order to be a good citizen–you have to aggravate your elected officials, talk to your neighbors about issues that matter to you, organize and agitate both in person and online, protest if you need to, and call out the powerful when they offend you. That gets your grade up. But voting is the most necessary part of that process of being a citizen, because unless we’re going to simply give up on democracy as a fundamental part of our governing structure, that’s the way we pick who’s going to hold office, whether we’re talking locally or federally.

When you vote, you send a message to your fellow citizens, even if the candidate you support loses–even if you’re writing in a protest vote because you think all the people running stink out loud. You’re saying to them that you care enough to at least do this much. Maybe you’re not willing to do more, but you at least give this much of a shit.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this piece, where I said I found this particular writer’s opinions on politics irrelevant because he bragged about not voting. I actually should have said, “irrelevant to me,” because that’s what I meant. His arguments are relevant to him, and to the editor of the piece, a dear friend who I respect tremendously, and to the number of other people who praised and shared his piece around the web. They don’t matter to me, not because I find them repulsive or even disagree with them, but because I can’t bring myself to care what a person who refuses to take part in the merest part of our form of self-government has to say about it. If you, as a citizen, can’t bring yourself to do the bare minimum of citizenship, why should I care what you have to say, no matter how erudite or well-thought out it might be? You’re not involved. I’m more interested in hearing from people who actually do things that impact this society on the local and global level. I’d rather talk politics with my neighbor down the street who only took down his Ron Paul 2012 sign a month ago than argue policy with a non-voter who agrees with me on pretty much everything, because that neighbor? He’s involved. I’d rather talk with the woman four blocks away who had a Michele Bachmann sign in her yard, because she’s invested in her community, and maybe we can find common cause on some local issue in the future.

Like it or not, this is the government we have, and I’d sure as hell rather have a representative democracy than a lot of the other crap out there (though a parliamentary system might be interesting). I’m sure not looking for a dictatorship–and if you’re of the mind that we’re living in one now, I suggest you speak to people who have come here from places that have had real dictators, and then please to be shutting your mouth–so as long as I have the ability to cast a vote, I’ll be doing so, and I’ll be engaging with the other people who are doing so, because I’m not up for a coup at my age, and that’s about the only other way you get a change in government. And those of you who can’t be bothered to get involved, well, I can’t be bothered to care about what you have to say on politics.

I’ll be happy to talk about beer or poems or the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation or Aston Villa’s chances of staying up next year though, by which I mean to say that I don’t have any personal dislike for people based solely on their lack of political engagement. I’m sure there’s something we have in common. I just don’t want to hear about how taxes are too high (or low) or the problems with the schools or potholes or immigration or abortion or anything political, not if you don’t vote. On that subject, your views are irrelevant to me.

June 6, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment