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1agld1r.gifEntitlement, civics and civility in America (column)

Gary Merica 12:10 p.m. EDT October 17, 2016

Merica.jpeg

Although I have not traveled to every other country, I remain firmly convinced that we live in one of the best if not the best nation on the planet. Our form of government, the natural beauty of our land and the boundless opportunities for personal fulfillment and success are just a few of the attributes of this great nation that form my opinion.

Having said that, however, I fear that we as a people are falling prey to a sense of entitlement, which is defined as “belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.”

I was struck and informed by two columns in last week’s paper. One, written by Ismeta Jovicevic, was titled “This could never happen to us,” and describes the tragic war in her home country of Bosnia and Herzegovina that quickly changed her normal life into one of being an international refugee. The other, written by former U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, was titled “Is US next to fall from within?" I believe his title speaks for itself.

My concern, and in some respects the concern of these two columnists, is that too many of us believe that we are entitled to the benefits and privilege of living in America, without any work required on our parts. This leads me to the topic of civics, which can be defined as “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how the government works.”

I think it is very telling that “rights” and “duties” are linked in this definition, implying that we are not entitled to all that our nation offers, but that we as citizens have certain duties to fulfill to ensure our rights.

I would argue that a basic duty (also a right) that we have is to participate in a government of “We the People” by voting for government officials. The statistics in this regard are not encouraging.

Data from the 2014 general election revealed that voter turnout was the lowest in over 70 years – only 36.4 percent of eligible voters voted, which was the lowest rate since 1942. A presidential election typically draws a larger turnout, and was 58 percent in 2012, which still means that more than four out of 10 of us fail to participate in this basic right and duty. It is somewhat encouraging that voters in York County participate at a higher level – 45.3 percent in the 2014 midterm, and 68.3 percent in the 2012 presidential race.

Another aspect of civics is understanding how our government works. Data from Xavier University in 2012 paints a somewhat troubling picture of this aspect of civics: 35 percent of natural born citizens failed the civics test taken by individuals born in other countries and who are applying for citizenship. One need only answer six of 10 questions correctly to pass, and over one-third of us could not.

More detail reveals that 62 percent could not name the governor of their state; 71 percent could not name the Constitution as the supreme law of the land and 75 percent did not know the function of the judicial branch. Rep. Bill Kortz has introduced a bill in Pennsylvania that would require high school students to pass this same civics test noted above. Many believe that this will better prepare the graduates to understand and participate in government.

This leads to my final topic, that of civility in political discourse. Civility is defined as “politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.” Unless you’ve been living in a cave this past year, you know that this election cycle has been filled with more vulgarity, invective and disrespectful language than any in recent memory.

We need to understand that this is not unprecedented in American history. Abraham Lincoln was called the “missing link” and the “original gorilla” by his political opponents; in 1851 senator Charles Sumner was severely beaten on the Senate floor by a rival after Sumner engaged in name calling; and in 1884, James Blaine, the Republican candidate for president was labeled a “liar and a crook” (sound familiar?).  In a 2015 editorial for the Hoover Institution, Bruce Thornton defended incivility as protected by the First Amendment (which it is) and as a bulwark against hidden agendas challenging his view of limited government. I am convinced that when leaders substitute insults, lies and vulgar diatribes for objective and respectful discussion around the important issues, we all lose.

If you are not already knowledgeable about and participatory in how we are governed, I encourage you to take steps to do so.  And when you do, please do it with dignity, courtesy and respect – our children are watching. Renowned writer, speaker and social activist Parker Palmer said it best: “Political civility is not about being polite to each other. It is about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good, and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences.”

Gary Merica lives in Windsor Township

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