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Holding the Office of Citizen

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

In A Song Everlasting, Ha Jin writes about a popular Chinese singer who visits the U.S. on a cultural tour, enjoys his stay, and decides to return to the U.S. without asking his government's permission. He gets into some very hot water, his wife's job as a university professor is put in jeopardy, and his daughter may be denied a college education.

On the other hand, if the singer had stayed in China and done what the government had asked of him, he would have had a relatively easy life. True, he might not have satisfied his artistic longings, but he would have lived well, had access to good food and health care, and received a pension when he retired.

The wonderful thing about living in an authoritarian state is that you are absolved of responsibility. You may vote, but winners are predetermined. The government may change policies, but you need not concern yourself with those changes. It is not your job. You can watch television, go to the movies, play music, walk in the park, and text your friends about what you had for dinner, but government affairs are not your worry.

A democracy is different. You hold the office of citizen. You are responsible for helping to guide your town, your county, your state, and your nation. You are changed with decision-making, and if you and your fellow citizens make bad decisions, elect the wrong people, or act in ways that harm your democracy, the burden of failure is on your head.

Living in a democracy requires a certain amount of public spiritedness. You can't simply demand lower taxes if that means necessary programs are cut. In a democracy even atheists must obey the biblical injunction to be their brother's keeper. You can certainly look out for your own interests, but not at the expense of harming others.

We have not been doing our jobs. We have not been living up to our citizen responsibilities. Our voting participation is abysmal compared to most democracies. Our knowledge of Constitutional provisions is minimal; many of us know about the 2nd Amendment but can't explain anything in the 14th. We don't know how the Electoral College works, or why Wyoming with fewer people than San Mateo County elects two U.S. Senators.




A major problem is that we are not doing our research, not doing the "due diligence" obligations we have as citizens. We are listening to quacks, taking advice from clowns, and getting our "news" from Facebook or Twitter. In the early days of the computer revolution a common expression was GIGO, short for "garbage in, garbage out." If the input was garbage, the output would be garbage.

Here are four steps to improve our performance as citizens. (They were developed by Professor Mike Caulfield to improve web literacy among students.) The steps go by the acronym SIFT.

Stop. Who shared this info with you? Is that group reliable? Does this pass the smell test?

Investigate. What do you know about the source of this information? What is their area of expertise? Do they have expertise, or is this a taxidermist in Flatburg, Arkansas, who has a sure-fire cure for pancreatic cancer? Who sponsored the site, and does the sponsor hope to make money or obtain higher ratings. (I'm looking at you, Tucker Carlson.)

Find more information. If somebody tells you horse wormer cures Covid, you definitely need more research. Before you get in a lather about "defund the police," find out what major politicians have advocated it and where it has been tried. You can get help from on-line fact-checking organizations, but make sure they are also reliable. I recommend <snopes.com>, but there are others.

Trace claims back to their original source. Think of all the grief and misinformation that could have been avoided had people traced the claim that vaccines cause autism back to the source.

When people gather in Dallas for the return of JFK, Jr., or are convinced that Bill Gates is using Covid vaccines to inject tracking chips, or believe the 2020 election was stolen, our democratic form of government is failing. WE are failing. We must behave better, and we better to it quickly.

~ Roy Christman





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