Huffington Post- Citizenship 101

Huffington Post- Citizenship 101

It seems many Americans have lost an understanding of what constitutes “responsible citizenship.” We’re really good at demanding rights, but we don’t seem very interested in taking responsibility for them. Too often self-interest trumps the obligation we share to care for each other and our democracy. 

The result can be disheartening. 

A government that should be the shining beacon of democracy is paralyzed by elected leaders who routinely forgo sound public policy in favor of partisan advantage — yet we keep sending them back to D.C. While 50 million of our neighbors live in poverty we attack the programs they rely on to get by. We look the other way while 22 veterans take their own lives each day. Americans are dying in Afghanistan with scarcely a peep from our elected leaders or the media — yet no one seems bothered by it. In the midst of the Giving Season, Americans assault each other over parking spaces at Wal-Mart. Our youth are so devoid of character they amuse themselves by playing the “Knockout Game”. 

Are Americans really OK with this? Or do we simply need someone willing to hold us to a higher standard? 

For most veterans, service to others and commitment to duty are fundamental parts of our identity. These values are ingrained in us from the moment we take the oath of enlistment. They are what make it possible for someone to ignore his or her survival instinct and willingly run toward the battle. Even when we take off the uniform, the warrior remains. 

I currently serve as a Leadership Fellow for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) a national veteran service organization dedicated to empowering our returning servicemen and women (iava.org). In my hometown, local IAVA members are also modeling the warrior ethos for a nation that can use a healthy dose of it. Through our civic leadership, we’re setting a standard that demands more of our countrymen — and promises to reshape our community. 

What does our brand of citizenship look like? The rights are the same, but we know they come with certain responsibilities. For example: 

Engagement. Responsible citizens understand that democracy only works when its members are engaged and informed. It is essential to a healthy republic. Playing fantasy football won’t make our country a better place. Informed voting will. 

Compassion. Responsible citizenship means recognizing that despite our strengths as a nation, there are fellow citizens who are vulnerable and in need of our help. Compassion does not make us weak. It makes us better Americans and better human beings. 

Sacrifice. It should be a condition of American citizenship that every one of us devotes a measure of our life to public service. Consider it the cost of doing business in the greatest country on Earth. 

Respect. Disagreement doesn’t give us license to attack another’s character. Decency and civility are the hallmarks of respectful behavior. When fellow Americans comply with the above conditions of responsible citizenship, they deserve your respect — whether you agree with them or not. 

Accepting these responsibilities will bind our nation together. Simply exercising our rights is driving us apart. 

This is not a revolutionary idea. Patriotic Americans throughout history have embraced their civic duty and willingly sacrificed for the good of the nation. But previous generations had a social contract that included both rights and responsibilities. This common understanding of citizenship was a logical outgrowth of a population full of veterans. We don’t have that today. Instead, a tiny sliver of America has assumed responsibility for everyone else. 

This needs to change. The New Greatest Generation of veterans is leading the way. But we all have a part to play. 

Citizenship is a gift and a sacred trust. When we uphold the covenant between ourselves and our country, we keep faith with the generations that came before and set the standard for those that will follow. A real patriot understands and accepts this responsibility. Not as a burden to bear — as an honor. That is Citizenship 101.

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