Democracy means governance emanating from the opinions of the people. And their willingness to serve that government.
To make that happen people must create a written system that gives them the freedom to establish a common good.
The written system is a social agreement that ensures permanency and continuity over time.
In the modern world, constitutions, bylaws, and other social contracts are created to maintain the system. An aura of allegiance becomes part of the culture, frequently referred to as patriotism.
“Service” therefore becomes prescribed in terms of what we patriotically do in support of the system we created. In our case, service embodied in the American Constitution.
Patriotism as an exercise of loyalty to the system differs from the authoritarian processes humans originally created. In which a strong individual who is highly respected by the tribe is given the right to make decisions about everything from individual behaviors to the expansion of the culture.
Such allegiance is loyalty to a monarch or dictator and that leader’s national priorities. Service is measured in terms of how well one defers to the will of a single person.
Great Britain found a way to combine democratic and monarchial systems into one. But that novel arrangement was made possible by the monarchy giving away many of its traditional powers. Today, constitutional monarchies exist because the authoritarian leader agrees to do so in ways prescribed by the social contract.
British citizens can serve both the monarch and governmental system because their merger is, in their minds, mutually compatible. Americans are asked to serve the Constitution first and foremost. While that is true with American military personnel, they must also serve the wishes of the president, their constitutionally designated commander-in-chief.
Many proclaim to serve a symbol such as a flag. But symbols are only as meaningful as the system they represent. While I am proud of the American flag, I do not serve it. I serve what it represents to me as a citizen.
I am fascinated with other cultures, especially those associated with indigenous tribes once isolated from developing regions of the world. Anthropologists like to study small civilizations. To gain insights about how human beings build their communities within isolated areas.
While not extensive, my interest centered on the indigenous people of the American Southwest. I found the cultures of the Anasazi (Pueblo) descendants like the Hopi and Zuni most interesting. Primarily because I worked with their schools in the communities of Keams Canyon, Arizona and Zuni, New Mexico.
The idea of service among the Pueblo tribes is interwoven with the spirit world. The sanctity of the earth as our home. A commitment to family welfare. Family is not limited to biological connections alone, but rather to everyone in the tribe. Service is at the core of their societies, necessary for all to survive.
Service is not voluntary, because it is the purpose of life. Service is also provided by kachinas, who come from within the earth to heal and support. They are not worshipped but are seen as an integral part of human existence. Kachinas serve so long as human beings strive to help themselves.
When visiting the village of Zuni, I occasionally went into the church founded in 1629. Priests accompanied Conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, making it one of the first Christian churches on the North American continent. As with other cultures in the New World, the Europeans allowed their beliefs to coalesce with local traditions.
Today’s Catholic priests refer to that kind of merging as “drawing Christ from the culture.”
Around the turn of the century, my education consultant organization was asked to work with the Zuni schools. To give them a model to locally control the content of their curriculum. Curriculum made difficult by the new federal mandate called No Child Left Behind.
Zuni children, like all American students, were to meet generic academic standards. And demonstrate their knowledge on standardized high stakes tests.
The NCLB model disregarded the values of the Zuni Tribe, even in the study of history. Unlike the church, our own government did not draw anything from indigenous cultures like the Zuni.
Instead, our nation tried to impose its values on people easy to dominate. A tradition that extends back to the mission of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ boarding schools that existed for a century.
I mention Zunis and other indigenous cultures, because a major difference between their cultures and ours has to do with service. For those groups service is the essence of life. Life is infinitely more than the possession of property and power over others.
Coronado, in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, went through Zuni and into what is now Kansas looking for material wealth. He never found it.
Gold and property eluded him, although he helped to open the door for Spain to gain more territory in the New World.
Which brings me to our culture’s penchant for overlapping political and economic perspectives. Propagated with the idea that democratic freedom is related to self-aggrandizing enterprise.
Politically, many Americans believe the perpetuation of our way of life depends on the fulfillment of economic opportunity. Like a modern-day Coronado who searches for gold and property for himself and his nation.
To those who hold such values it is important for ambitious people to be given as many opportunities as possible to acquire and hold wealth. Admired are the homes, lifestyles, and opinions of those who succeed in gaining wealth in a competitive free enterprise system.
Thousands of stories underscore this way of thinking and acting. As well as its frequently unfortunate outcome. A classic example of the failure of greed is The Great Gatsby, a 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Among many today, service is admired as being a kind of necessary sacrifice. For those inclined to offer it. People who forfeit riches to assist those less fortunate.
True or not, such charitable behavior is often accepted as a reason for a longer and more fulfilling life.
That was the message of a book written by Grace Halsell in 1976: Los Viejos: Secrets of Long Life from the Sacred Valley. The location is the village of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, in which people typically lived to be over 100. They served each other in their community. To quote one resident, they believed, “To live is to learn to die.”
Learning how to die means reaching the end of life with few if any regrets. Knowing that the giving of self is to serve others honorably. Similar to how our American society reveres its deceased veterans.
As a journalist and speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson, Halsell knew about American power and wealth. She was struck by the shallowness of capitalistic values and manipulative techniques to acquire more. And to dominate through aggressive competitiveness.
Being a good American citizen is working toward understanding the complexity of our society. Of our politics and economic system. And doing something to make both valuable in the context of service.
Finding ways to serve. To continuously celebrate our nation’s accomplishments in bettering human life. To be a model for other societies that attempt to exist with service at their core.
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