I feel privileged to speak to you today on civic engagement. I am particularly pleased that this critically important topic is the focus of your capstone course in communications. In my view, if there is one thing that should be at the front of your mind and at the top of your agenda as you leave here in May it is that you have an enviable job to do in this world that is as important or arguably more important than the work you have been educated to do during your years at the University of Scranton. That job is enviable because so few people in the world have it—it is the precious right to be responsible for the public good; in other words, to be a citizen. The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said that “the most important office in our democracy is that of private citizen.”
Let me tell you why I agree with him. I’ll confess shamelessly that I am neither a super patriot nor a sentimental American exceptionalist—it’s just that through my work in strengthening democracy at home and abroad, I have come to agree with Winston Churchill on the one hand that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest,” and that is because it is messy—as we notice every day, and that nothing is ever fully resolved; but on the other hand, democracy is a sacred legacy because in a democracy we are citizens, not subjects, enjoying the rights and assuming the responsibilities that citizenship carries with it.
I maintain that the most precious right that we have is one that is not explicitly referred to in the Bill of Rights, but implicitly it is the very essence of our American democracy. It is the right to be responsible for the public good. It is the power to be in charge not only of our own personal destinies but of the fate of our society. Very few people in the world have that power.
In the past thirty years we have been drifting away from the importance of the public good in our nation, lapsed into a kind of “me-ism”–and it has resulted in some of the very crises we’re facing today. Greed has trumped the public good—we see it in the economic crisis, in the aversion to regulation and the absolutely allergic reaction that so many Americans—and rich Americans at that—have to paying taxes. I urge you to leave this university in May cured of any notions along those lines that you may have. I’ll be happy to discuss that further if you wish—not just as a partisan—I am an unrepentant Democrat—but as an American citizen.
In glaring contrast to this syndrome that I call me-ism, let’s look at the historic events that took place in North Africa, particularly in Egypt, earlier this year. In less than three weeks, Egyptians, hundreds of thousands of them, took to the streets of Cairo and other major cities to demand the freedoms that you and I enjoy every day. Peacefully but with fierce determination, they insisted that their president of more than 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, leave office.
They stayed on message, “Mubarak must go.” And Mubarak, indeed, had to go. Like many elected officials in developing countries, Mubarak ruled as a dictator, ignoring laws or changing them to ensure his absolute power, ignoring or dissolving parliament when he found its decisions, shall we say, inconvenient, and arrogantly and ruthlessly continuing to rule with an iron hand. If not for social networking as well as television, the peaceful revolution could not have occurred—and so I bring this message to you particularly as communications majors. By your skills and understanding of both the public and private value of social networking, you have a great deal to contribute to the continuing democratization of our own society and of the world.
Your society needs you and you need your society. There are those who have the false notion that we go it alone; that we can do without government and politics and just climb our own personal ladders to success. But life doesn’t work that way. We are part of a family, a community, a nation, a globalized, highly interconnected world, and a highly interconnected planetary system. There are some worries, at the personal level, that as interconnected and as interdependent as we are, we are sometimes “alone together.” We are connected by cell phones with others as we walk up and down the common with colleagues and friends. We sit alone and connect with Facebook friends, in some instances thousands of them, while often ignoring the people with whom we live. I urge you to beware of being so connected on the Internet that you neglect face to face everyday relationships.
With regard to interdependence, the environmental movement was the first in recent times to recognize that in the physical world, that, for example our actions in Scranton, Pennsylvania affect the climate in the rainforests of Brazil. It sounded rather exotic when we first learned of such things, but now most of us accept the fact readily and many of us accept the obligations that that knowledge bestows upon us—that we must reduce the excesses of our use of limited resources; that we consider as our responsibility people in remote lands who are deprived by our excesses, and those who will be deprived in the generations that follow ours—including our own children and grandchildren.
It turns out that environmental issues are actually political and economic issues—civic issues. They are issues based on laws and public policies that we citizens will make, accept, reject or change. In short, whatever else we do in our careers, we are citizens—responsible for ourselves and our society.
The environmental movement didn’t coin the term sustainability but it made it a household word. I propose that we expand its use to include socio-political—civic– sustainability. Just as the excesses in our use of limited resources make the physical environment unstable and its ecology unsustainable, so policies that do not remedy the widening gap between rich and poor—between haves and have nots— make our democracy unstable and unsustainable.
And so enlightened environmental, social and economic policies are all critically important to the sustainability of our very privileged way of life—a way of life that permits us to make choices—literally to choose our future.
Democracy is not a spectator sport. It is important to know the central role that citizens play in making democracy work. Autocratic and dictatorial governments do not need or want an active and engaged citizenry. It only gets in the way of their absolute power. Our democracy can only remain robust and, yes, sustainable, by our deeds—by our words and actions that promote and ensure the wellbeing of all members of our society.
Let’s look at all the above from the perspective of communications. Do you know how critically important communication is in our world? I’m sure that you chose this field of study because you do know that. I just would urge you to use the skills that you have acquired over the past three years to serve the public good—at least some of the time.
You may plan to use your skills for marketing, for promotion of commercial products and projects; of course, that is fine. But you have that other job to do as citizens—and that is to use your powers of articulation and persuasion for the public good: to advocate for those public goods that are closest to your hearts and minds—for education, for narrowing the gap between rich and poor, promoting research for particular diseases, for civil rights or women’s rights or men’s rights, or gay and lesbian rights, and for the big American project of offering the promise of “liberty and justice for all.” All of those involve building and strengthening the capacities of all members of society. Whatever your particular passion is in the bigger picture—I urge you to use your innate talents, your values and ideals, and the excellent education that you are receiving– for the public good.