What is a Good Citizen?

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Recently I have been noticing some of the old scars on my arms, hands, and fingers. They are reminders of old injuries. Who needs to be reminded? Most of them, I couldn’t remember what caused the injury. One on my left forearm is a reminder of my poor whittling skills.

A few nights ago, getting ready for bed, I was thinking about voting. When did I cast my first vote and for whom? What were the issues? Where was I? As I closed my eyes in sleep my thoughts drifted around about voting and then scars. They merged into a dream, and as usually happens, I woke the next morning remembering parts of my dream about my votes and my scars. Were my votes fruitful? Did my candidates win in those elections? I have scars left over because some of the issues I voted about were defeated. Voting scars. Do you have any voting scars?

What expectations do you and I have when we enter the voting booth? What is our vote worth? No, I don’t mean moneywise, or a fifth of liquor for my vote if I vote a certain way? I mean intrinsically of value — to our communities, our state, our country.

Have you ever felt let down because your candidate was not elected, or you didn’t get what you voted for? What are your expectations about your vote?

Of course, we all know that to be a good citizen, we are expected to vote, to be informed, to vote each and every time it is a voting day—national, state, county and city.

In order to refresh my knowledge of what a good citizen is, I googled the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). According to the website, “Citizenship is the common thread that connects all Americans. We are a nation bound not by race or religion, but by the shared values of freedom, liberty, and equality…”

It goes on to list several rights and responsibilities that “all citizens should exercise and respect.” According to the website, “Some of these responsibilities are legally required of every citizen, but all are important to ensuring that America remains a free and prosperous nation.”

Some of the responsibilities listed by the USCIS included supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution; participating in the democratic process; respecting and obeying local, state, and federal laws; respecting the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others; paying income and other taxes honestly and on time; serving on a jury when called upon and defending the country if the need should arise. 

Some of the rights included freedom of expression; freedom to worship as you wish; right to vote; right to a prompt, fair trial by jury; right to apply to run for elected office and freedom to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

Not such a bad trade.

I joined the U.S. Navy at 17, a junior in high school. The contract I signed, sealed, and delivered was that if I graduated high school, if I kept my grades up and actually graduated, the Navy would delay my active duty until then, and I would be released from active duty the day before my 21st birthday, a so-called kiddie cruise. If I didn’t like the Navy, no big deal. I would be home free on my 21st.

Surprise! I loved the Navy from day-one, and I re-enlisted 41 days later for the next four years while I was still in boot camp and kept shipping-over until I completed 20 years. Who knew, right?

I became eligible to vote when I was 21. For the next 15 general elections and 14 primary elections I voted while in the Navy. I kept informed as much as I could be, something made difficult about local issues as I was usually on the other side of the world from West Virginia. When I was unable to do so, I voted straight ticket for the party’s platform that matched my thinking, my values.  But I was a good citizen. I showed up either at the booth or with my absentee ballot. I voted, every time.

I am not claiming to be a perfect citizen. I lapse on my taxes, sometimes. I don’t quite stop at every stop sign. And, once in a while, my car isn’t inspected exactly when due, but I am lucky and get it done before I get pulled over.  I do get parking tickets once every decade or so, but I am all paid up. So, I do things that are expected of a good citizen.

But, what about the other end of the stick? I wonder, at times, about my government. Is my government doing what it is called upon contractually? What kind of government may I expect for my 60 years of being a good citizen? 

My values lead me to take a stand against separating young children from their parents anywhere in our country as unconstitutional. That is self-evident.

When the administration thumbs its nose at civil rights with rhetoric that supports hate, racism, division of our citizens, because they seem different from some sort of norm, I become very anxious. A house divided is one that cannot stand.

The minorities of our country have civil rights. Our minorities must have equality and justice. The minorities must be protected and respected.

When the administrative branch of government names the press as enemies of the state, to point out journalists at rallies, and call them the enemy, I have to say that such action by a branch of our government is indeed unconstitutional.

How is it with you when the administration attacks the judges in our judicial branch? How does a judge stand up for her/his self? How does the judicial branch defend itself from that? As far as I can tell the judges have no legal way to defend themselves from such attacks. It seems that you and I have to defend our judges and say no. We have to exercise our right of protest and say,

“Sir, you cannot do that! Stop, in the name of the law, stop!”

In the early life of the church, soon after Jesus’ execution, his followers began to gather in Jerusalem. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story. The early church was divided between the locals and the foreigners, people from tiny Israel, occupied by the Romans, plus immigrants from many other Mediterranean countries. They all pooled what they had with each other, sharing shelter and food. One day representatives of the immigrants came to the front and pointed out that they were being fed leftovers, not enough. Those who were from other countries were looked down on as not being good enough. The immigrant families were suffering.

What happened next is informative for us today. The leaders of the early church chose seven to serve table. The seven chosen were outsiders, so to speak. This assured two things. That those minorities got served the same as the locals, and that they were respected because they too were now of the leadership.

Slowly, the phrase we all learned and loved, the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, has been forgotten by many of our leaders, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  Somewhere along the timeline of our recent history, it seems to have been replaced with “a government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations.” It seems to be a new song being sung by those in the Supreme Court, those running for public office, those hawking their wares in houses of Congress and those in the White House.

The abuses by the executive branch all sound like enormous violations of the rule of law, contrary to our Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. This is our Bill of Rights, not the government’s Bill of Rights, but ours, we the people.  We have a guarantee by the first amendment that our government will protect our rights, not just mine, not just yours, but the rights of every family that stands anywhere on our soil, no matter how they got there. If they are in our country, they are protected by our laws. Period. I feel a great unease when a branch of our government attacks any of our basic freedoms.  What freedom is the next one to be attacked?

During my first four years in the Navy, I was honored to serve aboard the U.S.S. San Pablo (AGS-30), an oceanographic research ship out of Philadelphia with many ports of call up and down the eastern seaboard of North America, the Caribbean and Europe. We were in Scotland, Morocco, Portugal, Rock of Gibraltar, and the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. I turned 20the year we pulled into Antwerp, Belgium for a long weekend.

That Sunday, sixty some of us, all wearing dress blue uniforms, got into two buses for a day trip from Antwerp to the Brussels World Fair. We arrived at noon at a large restaurant full of diners in the round U.S. Pavilion. We de-bused on the wrong side, and we had to thread ourselves single file across the middle of the restaurant to our reserved tables. Spontaneously, everyone in the restaurant stood up and applauded us as we crossed to our tables. All of us sailors had goose bumps. It was such a thrill.

Also, notable to us, was that our money was no good in Antwerp where our ship was docked. None of us could spend money for food or drinks our whole stay in Belgium.  In the restaurants and bars, in Antwerp or Brussels, we discovered that our food or bar bills were paid for by Belgiums, who waved back smiling, as we thanked them. That was what it meant to be Americans in Europe in the decade or so after WWII.  Americans were considered heroes, no matter our party. We were part of something of global importance — freedom, integrity. We were a part of a world stage that trusted us. Us. U.S.

These days, the rest of the world doesn’t know what to make of us.  I don’t either.