Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Bill of Obligations

Everyone seems to have a concept of rights.  Rights are fundamental, but too often they clash.  Obligations cannot be enforced, but can hold a nation together.  The author rather than just offering a list of obligations wants to stimulate discussion.  The concepts are not all unique, but are worthy of action,

A quote from the author, "The most urgent and significant threat to American security and stability stems not from abroad but from within, from political divisions that for only the second time in U.S. history have raised questions about the future of American democracy and even the United States itself".

Rights are too often in conflict, for instance, the rights of the unborn baby against reproductive rights.  Stephen Breyer, Supreme Court Justice claims that "...the most difficult cases are not right vs. wrong, but right vs. right".

The U.S. Constitution has built a tyranny of the minority through the Electoral College that allows small states disproportionate power that affects all sorts of issues.  Before setting out his bill of obligations, Haass draws our attention to inequality which is most serious with regard to economic opportunity.

The first obligation is to be informed.  Barrack Obama stated "This democracy doesn't work if we don't have an informed citizenry".  Seek credible information.  He suggests ways to keep informed and to understand the historical background.  PBS, NPR and newspapers with a good reputation help us to learn facts.  We need to be aware of misinformation so it is important to use more than one source. 

The second obligation is to get involved.  Voting is critical and learning back to the first obligation getting informed makes your vote more potent.  Corporations have been instrumental in many positive efforts.  To support democracy they could offer employees time off to vote, with-hold advertising from media that spread misinformation and of course where they donate their money.  Consumers can help steer these efforts.

The third obligation is to be open to compromise.  Compromise has become a dirty word in many circles and can be risky.  On the other hand negotiating compromises is an effective way of overcoming conflicts.

The fourth obligation is to remain civil.  Civility reduces the likelihood of violence.  Questioning motives or belligerent insults can inflame emotions.  Congressional members in recent years have tended to spend less time in Washington and thus cut down interaction with their opposition.

The fifth obligation is to reject violence .  The government is supposed to have an almost monopoly on violence.  Some feel violence is justified against a repressive government.  Civil Disobedience may have been initiated by Henry David Thoreau who refused to pay some taxes and allowed himself to be jailed as a protest against slavery and the Mexican-American War.  Other leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. found non violent protests could be effective to make sweeping political changes.  Showing restraint against provocative actions demonstrates a resolve that attracts attention and breaks down barriers.

From an earlier blog;  Satyaha is a word coined by Gandhi shaming some one by setting a moral example.  Protesting was done assuming the participants would be beaten.  I can appreciate it takes more courage than attacking someone even as you realize they might attack back.  Gandhi was not a pacifist, he was very proactive.

Richard Haass feels the January 6 insurrection should not just be attributed to those doing the violence, but also to those who encouraged it. 

The sixth obligation is to value norms.  Obeying laws is necessary for an orderly society.  Accepting election results (there are legal ways to protect against election abuses) is critical.  Winners must be seen as legitimate.  A norm that was violated was when Trump refused to release his tax returns.  It could be argued that the practice is an invasion of privacy, but voters need to know if there are conflicts and if there are any issues of character.  After all the voters will be granting power over them to a candidate.

The seventh obligation is to promote the common good.  We have all a stake in the well being of our fellow citizens.  John Donne:  "No man is an island entire of itself' every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main".  A more modern quote comes from Martin Luther King Jr., "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects are directly (felt) affects all indirectly".

An anonymous quote, "Your right to swing your arm ends where the other person's nose begins".  I would expand that there are many ways to harm an individual such as a bullet, fraud or a sneeze.  Here in Canada we had to deal with the Freedom Convoy who were adamant that vaccinations were harmful to them and reflect a restricition on their freedom.   People died as consequence of their message.  Going back a few years cigarette smoke was identified as harmful to the individual smoking and soon second hand smoke was revealed as harmful to non smokers.  Laws have enacted to restrict smoking from many public places. prolonging countless lives. 

Other examples come from driving where laws have restricted speed and coerced us to obey traffic lights.  Most can understand that otherwise we would have more (fatal) accidents.  Legislating seat belts was resisted with the thought only the driver would be affected.  Not only is control lessened without a seat belt, accidents would affect passengers and other people hit by an uncontrolled car.  The death of anyone causes extra expense that affects car insurance and productivity of those affected.  

Other issues deal with the lack of equal opportunities mean the most qualified are not positioned to help the rest of us.  Inheritance taxes are one way of evening opportunities for all our benefit.  The government chosen by the voters has responsibility for all its citizens.

The eighth obligation is to respect government service.  Ronald Reagan put forth the idea that it is the government that should be feared.  There is a lot of mistrust (some perhaps deserved) of voters and the government.  But we need to realize that the government is the entity that protects us whether from criminals or foreign governments.  Governments also are responsible for infrastructure such as bridges, roads and much more.

Haass thinks some of this distrust could be alleviated if young people could be incentivized to get involved with government services such as ameliorating climate change.  The military has encouraged people to join their forces.

An earlier blog dealt with myths about the government.

The ninth obligation is to support the teaching of civics.  We have many other bits of knowledge we need to learn to get jobs or even just to enjoy life.   Ideally civics should not be optional, but something basic needs to be mandatory.  Content is subject to dispute.  As a start the mechanics of local, state and federal governments, how they get elected and the judicial system up to the Supreme Court.  A lot of American (and Canadian) history is sensitive.  Displacement of the indigenous, slavery, Jim Crow, immigration restrictions are often avoided.  An understanding for today requires an understanding of our history.  I recall being told that Louis Riel was mentally ill, but I now suspect that view was tainted.

The tenth obligation is to put country first.  Perhaps it is easier to give examples of when this wasn't done.  A few years back Barrack Obama was given the duty to pick a Supreme Court Justice to replace Antonin Scalia who had recently died.  The Republican senate decided it was too close to an election and refused to co-operate.  A little over four years later the situation was reversed with the Republicans in charge of the presidency and and with even less time before the next election decided it was appropriate to appoint a new justice.  The result only a few months later was the reversal of the established national abortion policy despite the fact that the majority of voters were against this.

Another example from the author was when Trump made a phone call to Volodymyr  Zelenskyy and tried to trade military aid for a personal political advantage.

Haass left us with a good example of someone sacrificing a fairly certain political future in order to protest an insurrection.  That was Liz Cheney who did the right thing.

How can we pressure politicians to adopt the principle of obligations.  Those who accept the concept of obligations need to organize.  We are consumers and voters and need to articulate what we want.  There are a lot of people who are unconcerned, who accept misinformation or have their own vested interests.  We need to talk to them and try to understand their motivations (without judgment).  Our consumer choices can be directed to those corporations that share our goals.  Corporations, celebrities and religious leaders all have power that can be directed to our goals.

A last quote from the author, "American democracy will endure only if obligations join rights at the core of a widely shared understanding of citizenship...obligations are behaviors that should happen, but are not required as a matter of law".

We Canadians need not be self righteous as these obligations would make our procedures run more smoothly.  In Canada there are profound differences between the Alberta government and our federal government.  Regarding the oil industry, Albertans are protective and not perceived to be as concerned about climate change.  During the Covid pandemic Alberta was resistant to masking and vaccinations.  My wife and I picked up Covid during a trip to Edmonton, Alberta. 

A blog that helped to open me up to different views:

An earlier book by Richard Haass.

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