I watched a presidential debate last week. The event needed a more precise name, as there was nothing presidential about it.
At a bare minimum, we’ve come to expect from our public servants the illusion of concern. Not everyone buys into the charade, of course, but at least there’s always been a charade. Not anymore. Many of those who seek the highest offices in the land no longer make any pretense of doing what is in the public interest. We have candidates who try to divide us and a senate that refuses — literally refuses — to do its job. These are strange times.
After the debate I spent a lot of time thinking about a word that was out of fashion before I was born: citizenship. What a corny, square concept that was back when I entered the world during the ’60s. Citizenship was Edsels and Eisenhower, not Mustangs and “Mellow Yellow.”
The counter culture didn’t begin in the Summer of Love. An anti-establishment thread has always wound its way through American life — it’s the core of our origin myth, after all — but for my purposes the flash point came after World War II, when the overwhelming majority of returning soldiers wanted to put the horrors of their experiences to rest in little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky. The uniformity of post-war suburban sprawl was tonic for the former troops struggling to recover from the chaos of war.
But a small number — one percent by their own accounting — of ex-servicemen missed the chaos and the moral ambiguity of the war years. These were the first outlaw motorcycle clubs, whose antisocial exploits (particularly the 1947 Hollister riots) transformed the pop culture rebel from James Cagney gangster to Brando biker. That in turn begat the fifties-era juvenile delinquent: James Dean, The Blackboard Jungle, Elvis.
Throughout the ’60s pop culture deepened the cultural divide. The romance of the Easy Rider one percenter held greater appeal than the square jobs and sensible talk of the parents whose suburban tract houses we still occupied.
Then the ’70s happened. More than one pop culture thread runs through the Me Decade, but with exception to a brief period of collective patriotism around the Bicentennial none of them scream “citizen.” Of these many threads the one in which I found myself entangled was punk, with its invocations of anarchy, nihilism and no future. We really mean it, man.
All of this came to a head during the 1980 presidential election season. America was 35 years into its romance with anti-citizenship, which is an eternity in terms of social trends. The Reagan campaign, along with their Moral Majority backers, read the tea leaves correctly. They knew that the electorate was ready for promises of new boxes on the hillside made of ticky tacky. These were my formative political years: The Reagan ’80s are synonymous with my teens. Good citizens in the era were the idiots who thought “Born in the USA” was a patriotic song, and here’s the thing: It was, just not for the reasons that those knuckleheads thought.
My point here is that “good citizen” in its modern context has equated to square, boring human since at least 1947. Given the choice between bad boy or Boy Scout, most people identify as bad boy. The only surprise in the 2016 election season is that it took this long for a presidential contender to call an opponent a pussy.
But good citizenship has nothing to do with Edsels and Eisenhower. It doesn’t involve waving a flag, wearing an enamel pin, or even picketing in a park. Being a good citizen comes down to simply this: Doing what one believes is in the collective best interest. This is a scalable concept: We are citizens of our homes, neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, and countries. We are citizens of our relationships and our offices. On the road we are citizens of the interstates and online we are citizens of the intergooglewebtubes. From the smallest microcosm to the planetary macrocosm, what is in the collective best interest should be our guiding principle.
This is the sort of simplistic notion that is easily misinterpreted or exploited. I’m not suggesting some kind of Utopian world where we all share our individual pudding cups. No, that’s your Snack Pack — bon appetit! — but when you’re finished, throw your trash in the garbage. That is acting in the collective best interest.
And what about you, makers of delicious individual pudding cups? Should you be banned from selling your plastic-wrapped chocolaty goodness because it’s both an environmental and nutritional nightmare? Heck no, but alternatives to that plastic packaging exist, and switching to them would be in the collective best interest.
In every aspect of our lives we have the opportunity to make such choices. Doing so defines a good citizen. When we view through the world through that lens, we find that some of the narratives we’ve been sold don’t hold up. The hippies, for example, end up looking like pretty damned good citizens for trying to achieve the collective good of ending the Vietnam war. Similarly, the London punks appear equally citizen-like in their efforts to bridge racial divides and shed light on the socioeconomic troubles of mid-70s London. Companies that exploit their workers, pollute, and hide their profits overseas? They can wave the flag all day long, but few buy it.
When I watched the less-than-presidential debate last week, I didn’t get the impression that the majority of candidates were sincerely trying to achieve what was in the collective best interest of the population. Never mind whether they could make anything positive happen, they didn’t seem to want to. I suspect that’s why so many have reacted so emotionally to Bernie Sanders. Whether he could make even a small fraction of his agenda happen isn’t the point: The man seems to sincerely be concerned with what’s best for the country rather than himself or his backers. That’s very powerful.
I’ve written myself into a corner here. What started as a random thought about the connotations of “citizenship” devolved into outlaw bikers and the Reagan ’80s. If I had a point it was something like this:
- We are citizens in many different contexts
- What makes a good citizen in any particular context is the sincere desire to at least not make things worse.
- Stop being so goddamned selfish.
You don’t have to save the world, just pick up your trash. Use your turn signal. Vote with your conscience. Be the best mom or dad that you can be. Think about what’s in the best interests of everyone in your house, neighborhood, city, county, state, country, or planet.
And enjoy your individual pudding cup. You earned it.