By Steven Specht
It is Veterans Day.
I will be thanked a few dozen times for my service. I will feel some combination of irritation and embarrassment as I mumble a thank you for the thank you. I am generally humble about what I did. It’s not that I don’t like to talk about it but that there isn’t much to say. Any pride is rooted in the crews and teams I served with. They are some of the best people I will ever know, and it was an honor to serve among them. Some of them are dead; some have moved on; some are lifers that will stay in the uniform until the government tells them to go home. Despite what I was told in briefings, I wasn’t that special. I was but a tiny cog in a giant war machine.
If you want to thank me and honor my friends, do so by being a good citizen.
I do not take the term citizen lightly, and I bristle when politicians and pundits refer to us as consumers or some “percent.” We are American citizens, and we deserve more than this. However, as American citizens, we owe much more than we have been willing to give.
Good citizenship entails more than standing for the Pledge of Allegiance or taking our hats off for the Star Spangled Banner. These are bare-minimum acts of citizenship. I won’t call them meaningless, because they do forge a sense of national identity, but they are akin to reciting the alphabet, something learned alongside the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten. When moving beyond the age of six, good citizenship is so much more. It is constant work that begins at the first moments of cognizance and ends only when our minds and bodies have failed us.
I write to point out what Good Citizenship means to me as a veteran and what a thank you looks like.
The first step is to read the U.S. Constitution. This remains the supreme law of our nation. So many are quick to thump their chests and assert what is constitutional, but so few people have ever bothered to read our founding documents; fewer ever try to understand them. At 4,400 words, it should take less than an hour to bulldoze through the content, but it takes much more time to explore its meaning. We must think in terms of years rather than hours. We must realize that there are multiple ways to view each clause. For everything that seems obvious, there is another clause which may counter that belief. The brilliance of the document is the necessity of interpretation and political growth rather than being locked into a single paradigm forevermore. The task of reading the U.S. Constitution is to be done annually, for understanding will likely change over time. That understanding serves as the basis of our legal system.
Once we are informed on our legal values, we must work toward being informed on a variety of issues. This does not mean establishing an opinion and finding information to justify it. It means learning over time through a wide array of sources. Cable news is a beginning, but it isn’t sufficient, even when consciously seeking out anchors with whom we disagree. Read magazines, newspapers, and blogs. Go to conspiracy sites and see what the fringe believes. View foreign sources to understand how we are perceived and the things that affect those beyond our borders but never make it to the front page of The New York Times. Just like reading the U.S. Constitution, learning is a lifelong process. What we know today may be irrelevant tomorrow.
We must test our knowledge through civic engagement. Good national citizenship starts locally, so join a lodge, or start a community garden. Meet with people in a book club. The greatest source of learning is through interacting with others, and while we don’t have to agree on the details, we can generally face forward and embrace our fellow citizens. Don’t just embrace the ones that agree with you. Despite what the pundits tell us, I seriously doubt any among us actually hate America. We may just disagree on what is best.
We must vote. I would like to say that voting is one of the bare-minimum acts of citizenship, but it seems most of us have missed that memo. I am embarrassed by a country which speaks on changes in Congress last week after only 37 percent of eligible voters voted. This is purportedly the lowest turn out since WWII. I say again, I am embarrassed, because I knew Afghans who risked their lives to vote in Afghan elections, but I know many not willing to spend a modicum of time it takes to cast a ballot in my own community. Voting has not always been something we could take for granted. There was a time when we only voted in local elections that often excluded all but white-male landowners. The scope of elections broadened with time to include national elections, women’s suffrage, and equal access for minorities. This change did not come easily as women risked their dignity and familial wealth to achieve their goals. Minorities faced down brutality and lynching to gain access to polls. With early voting and mail ballots, the process is easier than ever. What excuse do 63 percent of Americans have for failing to vote? Why have millions not even registered?
We must learn to question government. When I say question the government, I do not mean we should idle in a smoky room and wonder whether 9/11 was an inside job. I mean we must assert ourselves proudly and politely in front of elected officials who depend on our input to do their job effectively. Write a letter to your representative or call the White House. When that fails, we must take to the streets in protest. Protest does not mean looting and burning parked cars, but it may mean facing down tear gas and uniformed police wielding assault rifles. A great man once said, “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” Those who signed the Declaration of Independence all knew they would be executed if they failed in their treason. By no means am I using analogy to suggest sedition. I am saying that the revolution that began in 1776 has never actually ended and in each generation, we get better, only by being engaged citizens.
Finally, we must reject the notion of American Exceptionalism. I have no doubt that we are a great nation, but we are not this way through some external force. What makes America great is not an abstraction but angry people who wanted more than death and taxes. If America is exceptional, it will be only because we work to ensure America is continually improved as we lean in toward a more perfect union. We are not the best at everything. We don’t need to be the best at everything, but we do need to work toward constant betterment of ourselves and our nation.