The Responsibilities of Being an American Citizen

We talk a lot about our rights as American citizens, but what about our responsibilities?

In his May 9, 2017 Time magazine article, “Andrew Jackson is the Perfect Icon of Selfishness for Trump,” Tavis Smiley offers a point of view that I think is worth repeating.

He reminds us of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ declaration that “the most important [political] office… is that of [the] private citizen.”  He then goes on to cite five responsibilities he believes are attendant with being an American citizen.  What follows are excerpts from Smiley’s article that outline those five responsibilities.

Make sure that your definition of citizenship doesn’t begin and end with voting. Yes, voting is our most precious right as citizens. Each of us must accept that the kind of government we want depends on what kind of citizens we intend to be after we’ve cast our ballots.

Make sure that your definition of citizenship includes understanding and empathy for the plight of other fellow citizens. Our destiny as a nation is inextricably linked together. You will never experience the fullness of your own humanity if you cannot respect and revel in the humanity of all others.

Make sure that your definition of citizenship doesn’t diminish or consign others to second-class citizen status, especially those who are already living in communities wrestling with third-world conditions. If freedom was a commodity that only money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die. Our democracy either works for all of us, or it works for none of us. In which case, we ought to stop lying to ourselves about living in a democracy, and just call it what it is — an oligarchy, a plutocracy.

Make sure that your definition of citizenship isn’t just about resist, but also about resolve. I’m all for resisting that which I am against, but I also resolve to advance an agenda of what I’m for, and to fight for what I believe. Right now, America needs visionaries, not mercenaries.

Finally, make sure that your definition of citizenship is also accompanied by a dream. A dream of what our nation can become at its best. We have to imagine the America that we want to live in, and, while refusing to surrender our agency to be outraged, we must align our vision with our values and strive to turn our vulnerabilities into victories.



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