BRACK: Push back on dumbing down of American citizenship

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher  |  If you periodically read commentaries like this one about public policy, you are probably considered a pretty good citizen – somebody who cares about how our society operates and is governed.  You probably vote, fret about tax rates, get roused by bureaucratic incompetence and care about issues of public importance.

But what about people across our state and nation who don’t read much, pay little attention to what’s going on in neighborhoods and towns – people who tune out, not tune in?   What about other people, liberals and conservatives, who have perverted American principles for their own ends to make America less than what it has been?

With everything from another mass shooting, this time in Texas, to a United States senator attacked on his Kentucky lawn, something odd is going on in these United States.  We may be, I fear, experiencing the dumbing down of American citizenship.  Consider this quote:

“It looks as if some large groups of citizens may be undermining our government right now, without fully realizing what they’re doing.  They put their own selfish interests ahead of the country. They don’t care what happens to you or me or anyone else, just so long as their own group gets what it wants…

“They try to steamroller everyone who criticizes them.  In order to get more money, or more power, for their own group, I think they’ll whittle down our system of government, if they can.  They are willing to take away your chances to say what you think or to run an honest business of your own.  They want to rig the laws and the officials in their favor, against the rest of us.”

Sound like it is describing what’s happening today?

Actually, it was written 45 years ago as part of a Boy Scouts’ booklet for the Citizenship In the Nation merit badge. It outlines ways to be a good citizen.

New citizens being sworn in during a 2013 ceremony in Mount Pleasant. (CC Archives)

Pretty surprising, huh?  Rereading this 1972 guide to citizenship reinforced something bubbling in the background of the Statehouse – how schools need to focus more on civics so tomorrow’s leaders can start understanding how government works today.  There have been some advances in South Carolina schools, but more needs to be done, particularly by adults.  The Boy Scout merit badge book has some good suggestions for all of us, such as:

Read the Declaration of Independence to understand why America was founded.

Read the U.S. Constitution and its amendments to better understand our system of governance and your rights.

Talk about public affairs to better understand problems of the day.

Some other ideas:

Learn about issues though newspapers, television and other media. (We suggest you read sources outside of your comfort zone to understand more than one viewpoint; social media might not be the best source for non-partisan information.)

Learn who your elected representatives are and communicate your views with them by mail or email. (Old-fashioned, written letters tend to have more impact.)

Attend public meetings, join group discussions or do something to get involved.

Attend a citizenship ceremony to understand why people want to become naturalized as U.S. citizens. It will make you appreciate your citizenship more.  (You can take a practice civics test here:  https://my.uscis.gov/prep/test/civics).

In 2013 after attending a naturalization ceremony for 111 people in Mount Pleasant, I concluded, “The people who became new Americans this month don’t take their new freedoms for granted.  They worked hard to get them.  And that’s something that all of us born here should remember more often than we usually do now.”

Clark in 1960.

Too many people have worked too hard to make America what it is.  But if citizens are not vigilant enough to protect the democracy, it could disintegrate, as suggested by the late Charleston civil rights leader Septima Poinsette Clarke, who helped register hundreds of thousands of African Americans in the 1960s at citizenship schools across the South (the first one was on John’s Island):

“Freedom has always been lost by a people who allowed their rights gradually to be whittled away.”

Let’s not let that happen.  Let’s thwart any dumbing of American democracy.  Let’s engage more in our public sphere – and make it stronger.

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