In last week’s column I referenced Richard Haass’ new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, in which he writes that the greatest threat to our democracy comes not from foreign adversaries but from within as we as citizens support or dismiss our form of government. The new constitution gave us a form of government, but for it to endure requires citizens to recognize not only the rights enumerated in the amendments to the document but also the obligations of citizenship that come with our government.
The first of his ten “obligations” of citizenship he suggests is to be informed. Being informed is not a passive action but is one that requires frequent nurturing. Studying the documents of government at whatever level of schooling is but a beginning. Events over time have shaped and reshaped the interpretations of what those documents provide. As a former teacher of history and government I felt it necessary to teach my students about the stories of how our form of government came about but also the skills of the social scientists and historians that they could use to understand our government and its meaning and impact throughout their lives.
While in the earliest days of our republic it was difficult to find information about the daily operation of our government because of the lack of media, the opposite is the case today. We are saturated with all forms of media from the traditional to the twenty-four-hour broadcasts to digitized media from endless sources. There is an abundance of “information” but a serious question as to what you can believe. Evaluating information as to its biases, truthfulness and value is an important skill we need to ensure that all citizens acquire when there are numerous individuals and organizations in the political arena who specialize in misleading and misinforming others as a way to promote their point of view or cause.
Supposed quotations from the Bible were used by slave owners to justify their ownership of another human being and by opponents of slavery to end slavery. The Bible is often quoted to support a myriad of causes and actions. The United Christian Parish Church of Reston, of which I am a member, has a summer series of sermons examining commonly used expressions that are attributed to the Bible to support their perspective. The series is called “The Bible does not say that … or does it?” It is rather surprising the number of supposed biblical quotes that are not in the Bible after all. A recent Washington Post article was entitled “Be careful when you quote a famous person from history — it could be fake.”
Public officials have an obligation to provide accurate information to citizens. I have been particularly concerned that the Youngkin administration has taken down a website that contained important health information on being transgender that could be invaluable for persons needing it and have adopted a policy statement on the same subject that will lead to confusion and bad conduct in our schools.
Individuals have an obligation to be informed as citizens, and our government and political leaders have an obligation to present truthful and helpful information to our citizens.