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.

Confused idealist to guarded optimist

A friend asked, “What’s the one issue you’ve changed your mind on significantly since you were younger?” I couldn’t stick with just one issue, so I wrote this up.

Below are a few of the things I can name as having changed positions on. Nearly all of them have been slow processes, and I’m not at ‘the end’ of those changes. I’m still uncovering bias that I didn’t know I had.

At 14 I was still a dedicated, born-again Christian. But I had a growing batch of doubts. By 18 I was a full-on atheist, but I was still convinced that the supernatural existed. It took me another 15 years to scrub that out. If things like telepathy actually do exist, we’ll eventually figure out the mechanism, and it will be comprehensible to scientific inquiry. Same for ‘spiritual’ experiences. I’m talking about things like overwhelming feelings of connection to the world, other people, and beauty. I now understand such experiences as happening in our brains as we process information about our relationships with other people and with the world around us. Doesn’t make them any less meaningful. I’ve come to see gods and demons as symbols our brains use to understand what’s happening to us. I’ve given up any need to find higher meaning. At our best, humans are our own higher meaning.

At 20, I thought that ‘the government’ (which I thought of as being monolithic and ‘out there’ somewhere, not as something that I was part of) was a bad thing in every case. I was convinced that people, given the right (non-governmental) organizing structures, would do the right thing. I was an idealistic anarchist-libertarian, probably. I no longer believe that. I think that people make rash decisions from greed and rage and fear and incomplete data. I’ve grown to realize that ‘the government’ is us working together to find a way to live together… it’s also, sadly, a way for powerful people to keep their power and wealth, which means that ‘the government’ doesn’t work well for the average person, but there’s no way that I can negotiate agreements with each person I deal with on a given day, so whatever happens, we need some sort of structure that we can use to set expectations and limit bad actors. I think that in every generation, some people are struggling to move our governing structures more toward fairness and others are struggling to keep those structures unfairly supporting them in their power and wealth. I don’t know what governing structure would be best, but I know that plutocracy, fascism, oligarchy, aristocracy, autocracy, and other forms of totalitarianism are not. I’ve seen that unregulated industry will poison the world, that unregulated bankers will rake all the profits into their own pockets, that, essentially, any group that can work in secret will eventually start doing bad things. Today I’m leaning toward some sort of utilitarian democratic socialism, something that may take another 500 years to figure out how to do properly, assuming there’s a human race in 500 years.

I used to think that I was one of the good guys. It took me a long time to recognize and admit that I was hurting people around me. It took me a long time to forgive myself for my mistakes, and realize that it’s not possible to go through life without hurting people. I’m still not good at admitting the harm I’ve done, apologizing, and asking for forgiveness. It was really hard for me to figure out that I’m easily swayed. I’ll do bad things if I’m surrounded by bad people. I’m closer to the guy I want to see myself as when I associate with people who are trying hard to be good people. It’s hard to admit that, because I’d like to be the true good guy, the upstanding guy, bellwether, the one leading the march toward fairness.

I used to believe that people could be just bad or just good. That’s part of the idealism I was raised to believe in. It took me decades to recognize that people are just people. Some really are bad people, but that doesn’t mean they kick every dog they see. Some really are good, but that doesn’t mean they never make mistakes or do selfish, harmful things.

I used to believe I was useless. I was always holding myself up against people I saw as icons, and was crushed to realize I’d never live up to those standards, whether they were successful with money, had physical skills, or did wildly creative things. Finding a way to still contribute and feel good about the contribution is hard when you’ve been told since you were a kid that if you’re not the shining son, the star athlete, the top earner, the leader, you’re nothing. I ’m glad that I can see my value now, and particularly glad that I’m not in much danger of overstating my value. I am who I am, doing what I can.

It seems I’ve gone from being a confused idealist to being a guarded optimist.

I’ve gradually learned to distrust idealism. To recognize that calls for purity are always misguided because humans are not pure. People have gone out in masses and killed other people for thousands of years under the banner of purity, and it’s all a lie. It’s an infinite regress of the No True Scotsman fallacy. But I didn’t end up in despair. That’s my guarded optimism. I keep finding people who struggle against cruelty and greed and rage, both in society and in themselves, who aren’t true believers, aren’t fanatics, and aren’t perfect, but who keep trying. They give me heart. They give me a bit of hope that we can find our way out of the dark and frightening forest of the childhood of humanity (if only we can keep from killing ourselves in the meantime).