We should all take an oath
Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers, is a columnist living in Colorado. Scripps Howard News Service
One option for us citizens as this inaugural moment in Washington, D.C., comes and goes is to dodge the news, stay uninvolved in our communities, adopt cynical attitudes and curse those who disagree with us.
A fair amount of that is going around, and what the National Conference on Citizenship advises is that we change our ways by first doing something akin to Barack Obama's taking the oath of office.
The proposal is that we adult Americans take a citizen's oath, similar in some ways to the oath promising that the new president will faithfully execute his office and defend and protect the Constitution.
The citizen's version would involve pledges to embrace the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to stay informed about current events and work with others to address issues, to help the needy, to vote and to practice civic decency.
Of course, before you can embrace principles, you have to know what they are. As is shown by the results of those taking a 33-question civics test drawn up by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, many don't.
We are told that the average score on this very simple, basic test was 49 percent, and here's the kicker -- elected officials did worse than that.
How do we keep our rights alive, our government limited, our exceptionalism a thing of the future as well as the past, if we are ignorant of our foundations?
The answer is that the best of what we are would then perish, and that the idea of self-governance becomes a joke when ideas are formed overly much from TV gab -- the regulars on "The View" as our chief instructors? -- instead of people engaging with words in print, with ideas clearly stated, with facts and stories in newspapers, magazines and books.
There's a crying need for more civics education in schools, as the conference says, and for more heed to the sweep of American history in our colleges and universities, not just its negative aspects, not just a selection of whatever defames.
But news consumption declines, and so does the inclination of people to get out there and do something, to make a difference themselves, to join with organizations devoted to holding up this cause or defeating another, to be politically active, and here is what we get too much of: whining and bitterness as if we have nothing to say about our own fates and a distrust of government that we ourselves shaped either by commission or omission, such as a failure to try to understand the issues and get to the polls.
The nonprofit, foundation-funded Citizenship Group has data indicating that civic engagement has fallen since the 1970s, though it also points to some favorable factors.
I myself am hugely impressed with the way in which issue discussion permeates so much of cable TV, radio and the Internet, even if some of it is diminished by superficiality and, on the Internet at least, is overly given to vicious name-calling, as if ad hominem attack is equivalent to argument and vileness the way to win the day.
So why not utter to yourself a citizenship oath, coming up with your own language while understanding that our leaders are not the only answer -- that, in fact, they are likely to be the wrong answer if vast numbers of us are not paying attention, doing private communal work ourselves and shouting approval for what we agree with and disapproval of what we disagree with?
"Democracy," said the journalist H.L. Mencken, "is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard," and there's truth in the witticism.
If we don't take our responsibilities as citizens seriously, the country will suffer and we will have ourselves to blame.