Do we need a ‘Bill of Responsibilities’?

It’s popular in America to say that we support our troops. I agree! But I don’t think it’s nearly enough to say ‘thanks for your service’ or to buy a meal for a veteran or active duty service member.

I think we might need a “Bill of Responsibilities for Citizens of a Nation Contemplating Sending Troops Into Harm’s Way”

Here are some seed ideas we could consider adding to such a Bill of Responsibilities:

1) We as citizens have a responsibility to make sure that our President and legislators are as transparent as possible within the limits of national security about where our troops are being sent into harm’s way, and why.

2) We have a responsibility to ask our legislators to make certain that we’re using our military assets (who are our friends, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, nephews, and nieces) for vital purposes, and to hold those leaders to account when we feel that those soldiers’ & sailors’ lives are being put at risk for no good reason.

3) We have a responsibility to the men and women we’ve asked to serve, to give them the medical, psychological, & psychiatric support they need during and after their service.

4) We have a responsibility to support the families of these men & women while they’re serving and, if they’re wounded or killed in service, that we continue to support their families. Families of active duty service members should not be depending on welfare, food stamps, or charity to make ends meet.

5) We have a responsibility to service members who are being demobilized, and to veterans, to be sure they’re given support during the transition to civilian life. Not just a hot meal at the airport on the way home, but job training & help finding work. Most of the skills that people learn in the military can be used in civilian work, but it’s not always evident at first glance how those skills can be useful. I suggest that fully-paid tuition to any state college would be a nice benefit for anyone who completes their enlistment.

The most important of these responsibilities may be the first. We citizens need to be critical observers of our president & lawmakers, to ensure we’re sending troops into harms’ way for only good reasons. So many things are hidden behind the label of ‘national security.’ Let’s find out what’s going on.

Civics… without the simpering patriotism

After the resistance is, eventually, successful*, Americans of good will have to be ready to work hard — probably for many years — to rebuild our civic structures. I’m trying to imagine what a strong civic life would be like, stripped of the old adoring nationalism & of many of our old illusions… (like any hint of American immunity to dictatorships) …and I like what I see.

For one, I think that at the local level, it’s important to get everyday people involved in politics much more often. Seeing for yourself how hard it is to do the work of organizing & governing, while also learning where things can go sideways, would be incredibly valuable. I suspect that many people who end up corrupted by graft & favoritism don’t realize anything is happening at first, don’t think that they’re compromising their principles. Then your ability to frame whatever you’re doing as “not that bad” kicks in and… boom you’ve been corrupted. When you see it up close, you might then be more aware of — and wary of — the evidence of this happening at the state & federal levels.

Mandatory classes in civics might help. Make it part of the fabric of what kids learn. Science, technology, engineering, math, reading, critical thinking, writing/exposition/speaking, geography, history, philosophy; and how they all build on each other. A true liberal arts education, 1st grade through college.

If this sounds overly optimistic, I’ll only suggest that we don’t really have any choice. If we don’t do something different, we’ll not only never fully recover from Trumpism, we’ll have more Trumps forever.

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A note about the phrases “simpering patriotism” and “adoring nationalism.” I always associated enthusiastic civics education of children with the supposed civics classes that groups like the VFW held in my hometown. I shuddered at those, without examining why. Now I realize that whatever actual civics instruction happened there, was almost certainly swamped by the heavy-handed America First agenda. You know…  “America first, right or wrong.” It’s like what I said to an old high school buddy after I discovered that he supported the use of torture in the War on Terror that the US has been prosecuting for the last 16 years: If we’re acting just like the bad people, how are we good people? If we can’t see where the problems are in our systems, how can we fix those problems?

 

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*yes, I know I’m being insanely optimistic here.

Camouflage

I’ve been seeing posts on Facebook and Twitter this weekend saying things like “look at these heroic redneck guys who are rescuing people! But next week, media will be back to calling them Nazis and KKK.” Tell you what: if anyone in “the media” is randomly accusing guys with pickup trucks of being Klan members or of being Nazis, then they should be dragged through a metaphorical mud pit.

But I haven’t seen that happen. I have seen guys holding swastika flags accused of being Nazis. I’ve seen people dressed in KKK uniform shirts accused of being KKK members.

This isn’t difficult. No sensible observer is calling you a Nazi or accusing you of being a Klan member just because you’re a white person (if someone does that, they’re a troll, plain and simple). However, if your cousin is nice to you, but he dresses in a white hood and goes to Klan meetings on the weekend, guess what. He’s not a nice person.

“Rural white gun owner” isn’t a hypothetical or mythical group for me. I’ve hung out at shooting ranges with these guys for years, and lived among the New England variety. I’ve participated on their gun forums.

Most of these guys are upstanding citizens, many of them are military veterans, and most of them would give you the shirts off their backs if you were in need, or work half a day helping you get your car out of the ditch.

I also know a sweet-looking grandpa who interrupted a funny story about his granddaughter to point out the ‘mud puppies’ who had just walked into the restaurant where we were having breakfast (a young couple with their biracial children, if you’re not up on racist nicknames for people).

He once told me how much he wanted to move back to a farm in Virginia, where he could set up a firing range where he could shoot “darkies.”

But if you look at the larger view, some 80-year-old guy’s racism and bigotry isn’t the hugest problem. He’ll be dead in another couple of years. As hideous as his attitudes are (and as much as they’ve been on display in the news recently), I think (and hope) that they’re gradually becoming less common, less accepted.

There’s another reason that I get angry at the reactionary attitudes of my rural compatriots: They give cover for people doing even worse things. They’re used as human camouflage by industries and corrupt politicians.

The heroic veteran hauling his flatboat from Louisiana to Houston to rescue people makes great fodder for propagandists. They haul out photos of Buford or Cleat pulling people out of the flood and say “look, these guys just want jobs and to go fishing, but your regulations are killing their way of life.” Of course, Mr. Propagandist drives a Beemer and lives in a high-rise luxury apartment or in a gated community. He likely has a degree from a nice college and wouldn’t hang out with Cleat for good money (though he might hire him as a local guide on his annual luxury fishing trip). This marketing guy might work for a giant oil refinery which is fighting regulations because following those regulations would shave 0.0012% of profit off their balance sheets. Or maybe he works for a developer who can build housing estates a lot cheaper if he can do it in an area with no building codes.

Then you end up with a city like Houston, with refineries plunked down in poor neighborhoods where the residents don’t have the political clout to get the pollution stopped. A city where there’s so little permeable land left that there’s no chance for rain to soak into the ground before running into the streets.

Think about it. Most regulations aren’t enacted out of some spiteful attempt to throttle profit. Most of them come about because we’ve seen cities burn to the ground, so we come up with fire codes. We’ve seen people poisoned by water systems so poorly designed that the designers should be up on manslaughter charges. We’ve proven that cars with seat belts and airbags save lives and reduce injury. We’ve looked back at the early days of the packaged food industry and decided that “no, we don’t want contaminated ketchup on the shelves” (read up on this period if you want a really hair-raising experience; you’ll never look at food regulations the same way again).

Yeah, there are regulations that are monumentally stupid. Regulations that exist as protectionism. We should clean those up. But if an expert in urban flooding tells you that building a city in such-and-such a way will lead to massive flooding (and has strong evidence to back up her claims) yet your city fathers ignore that and build a sprawling, concrete city that ends up flooding every time you get three inches of rain; well… Please don’t haul out poor heroic Cletus and his flatboat and expect me to buy your shtick. Clete has had his head turned around so far (from listening to talk radio all day long), he’ll likely go back home and vote in people who will continue to create the conditions for more flooding, more pollution, more industrial explosions. And he’ll be convinced that he’s protecting his freedoms by voting that way.

I saw a quote yesterday that went something like “Americans are great in a crisis, but bad on the long haul.” Avoiding more situations like Flint’s water, or Norfolk, Virginia’s sinking waterfront, or Houston’s sprawl takes planning, regulations, awareness, spending, and long-term determination. It takes a concerted effort to fight political corruption and make sure that we know what’s going on, and why the regulations are important.

Private industry isn’t going to do that. They’ve proven that plenty of times over the last 200 years.

Yeah, I know the old chestnut: “the scariest phrase in the world is ’I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Funny joke. You know what? At its best, the government is us. It’s made up of citizens who want to fix things so they’re still working a century from now.

If we work really hard, find ways to mitigate the pollution, reduce greenhouse gases, stop the destruction of the oceans and the rain forests, then perhaps Clete’s great-grandkids will have clean lake water to fish in from their flatboat.