The Good Citizen


On Tuesday voters in the USA go to the polls. Or rather, they don’t. Electoral apathy in the US is such that almost half of the potential electorate don’t bother to vote, don’t believe it can change anything. They correctly believe that to run for President (for Governor, Senate and Congress) you have to belong to an exclusive, impenetrable club – the millionaire society – which is bankrolled by big business interests and multinationals. In reality, the USA is a plutocracy – government by the wealthy - not a democracy. Unfortunately, all citizens aren’t equal.

There clearly are differences in a Republican or Democrat presidency, though on their approach to foreign policy many people have probably deceived themselves into thinking that Kerry would be more enlightened with regard to the war in Iraq. What engenders this view – to which I have also been occasionally susceptible - is the notion that no one could be as bad as Bush.

All societies and cultures change over time yet the irony in the USA is that those who claim to be upholding the traditional values of the nation’s founding fathers are those who have done the most to fracture and frighten society, destroy the principles set down in the Constitution and alienate the US from the rest of the world.

I was set to thinking about this the other day when, as a bit of a joke, my friend Bobbie Hanvey (Downtown Radio’s ‘Travellin’ Man’), gave me a present after I did a reading from ‘Rebel Columns’ in Downpatrick’s arts centre. The present was ‘The Good Citizen’s Handbook – a Guide to Proper Behaviour’, an illustrated collection of US government pamphlets, civic texts, citizenship and scouting manuals, published between the 1920s and the 1960s, and aimed at young people.

The book actually represents an important cultural artefact and – leaving self-deception and hypocrisy aside - sheds light on how the United States idealistically viewed itself domestically and internationally.  A lot of the advice in the book comes across as quaint, if not hilarious, and is clearly informed by that prevalent fundamentalist streak in US society which is so dismaying. Nevertheless, when one contrasts the striving for excellence it depicts with the obvious deterioration in civic culture and social values, and the ignorance of its people, it is clear that US society has been badly serviced by its political system and its leaders.

A Good Citizen, according to the book, is well-groomed and fun to be around. “They tend their yards, brush their teeth in a circular motion, vote in every election, and always try their best… The Government says that you will be helping to grow into strong, useful citizens if you can learn to eat some of the things like the skin of an apple, that you always use to throw away.”

A healthy Good Citizen takes “a bath daily, a cold bath in the morning if the body reacts satisfactorily” and “warm cleansing baths at least twice a week”; has “a bowel movement at a regular time every morning”; and wears “shoes of correct size and shape with rather low heels.” And to avoid infection, “Keep all articles out of the mouth that do not belong there. This includes pins, pencils, fingers, etc.,” (but, alas, makes no reference to Presidents).

There are chapters on how to be friendly and “why we must never poison the neighbour’s dog”. You have to be loyal to your school, learn its songs and cheers and protect school property. “Even if the artistic heart of a Michaelangelo throbs beneath your sweater, do not carve on your desk your initials or, ‘In memory of those who died waiting for the bell.’”

Good citizenship at home “ensures we fly the flag properly”, and, in the world, that “we must treat those from other countries as our neighbours, no matter how odd their beliefs may seem.”

The key words to remember if we are to be Good Citizens of our home and nation: SERVICE, OBEDIENCE and LOYALTY. Under ‘Spiritual Values’ we are told: “Everyone needs the strength that comes from knowing that there is order – and a power for good – in the universe, and that each one of us has a place and purpose in the scheme of things.”

Ironically, a lot of the guidance is reminiscent of the exhortations one use to associate with communist states: “I must be willing to follow the leadership and obey the commands of those who are in authority”; “I will save or spend as one of the friendly workers of America”; “I will try to do the right thing in the right way, even when no one else sees or praises me”; “the community whose doctrine is ‘one for all, and all for one’ is the community that is going to do the most work for its members and for other communities.”

“The very first duty of every citizen of voting age,” according to the book, “is to become a voter.” Compare that to the reports that thousands of Republicans have been mobilised to go out next Tuesday and challenge the qualification of Democrat voters in marginal states like Ohio. The BBC has reported a plan to disrupt voting in Florida’s African-American voting districts, and there are dozens of other accusations from both parties of dirty tricks, including the destruction of voter registration cards.

“In the US, everyone has certain fundamental rights that are guaranteed in the federal Constitution and in the state constitutions.” Not so, any more, by Bush interpretation.

“I have the right to a prompt trial by jury, if I should be accused of a crime.” Not so, any more, by Bush interpretation.

The international community despairs at US foreign policy, at its militarism and adventurism, at its refusal to sign up to international protocols on war crimes and the environment, at its protectionist attitudes on trade.

‘The Good Citizen’s Handbook’ boasts that the USA is a good citizen because it helps other countries, lends them money and sends its doctors and scientists to help them. Not so. US Vice-President Dick Cheney torpedoed a deal to allow poor countries to have access to cheap drugs. George Bush refused to contribute to the US’s fair share to a United Nations global fund to fight AIDS.

Tuesday’s election, with all its fascination, will come and go, and afterwards truly Good Citizens will have a monumental fight on their hands for themselves and the rest of the world.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison