Guide for the Civilized

Lately I’ve been watching controversial documentaries. I love documentaries. It’s like a miniature lesson on all sorts of topics in a living room turned classroom for ninety minutes. The perspectives, the visuals, the ideas. I ingest them like ice cream, each flavor delicious in its own way, but even better with toppings.

Lately I’ve been watching controversial political documentaries. I like politics. So much I’m adding a minor in political science. So much I’ve considered running for office or working in government at some point. I’ve aspired to teach to change the world, but hey, I’ll say, maybe I can make a bigger difference somewhere else.

In one such documentary, someone commented with distaste how, after 9/11, President Bush told the people to go shopping. Although it seems this statement actually originated from media commentary on his speeches (and therefore, is more likely rumor than fact), when I heard this, I shut my eyes, ruffled my brow, and shook my head. Such a stupid thing to say! I thought, and thinking further, I wondered

What would I have said?

Knowing now that quote was, as parlance goes, misquoted, I’ve taken a few minutes to read some of President Bush’s comments following September 11 and, though I may be somewhat surprised to admit this, they were rather inspiring. I’ve never been fond of his accent, and I was only twelve when it happened, so I’m certain I wasn’t thrilled or even interested in listening to him in the contemporary era, but now, reading and not hearing his words, I’ve gained a new reverence for his leadership–at least his vocal leadership–following the attacks.

Nonetheless, if I had been in his shoes, what would I have said? All things considered, he probably said what was demanded of him as a national figure–give hope, vow to avenge, and thank our allies and supporters. But me, I’d rather give a charge to my people–and since I’m looking back at this in a “what if” scenario, over ten years later, I can’t say for certain that this is what I’d have wanted to say in the moment. But this is what I’d want to say now–this is the message, if I became President today, I’d share with our nation.

Stand up and don’t back down.

Don’t settle. We are the United States of America–and if the US is the freest and greatest nation on earth, then as an American, you need to personify that principle. There’s no need to be cocky or arrogant, but confidence and aspiration can take you as far as you want to go. Exercise your personal freedom, exercise your right to achieve greatness–and don’t be intimidated by those who would do you wrong. By caving in, by being ruled by their hand and not your own, you are waiving your right to freedom and greatness–and since America is no greater than its people, if you give up on yourself, you have given up on your country.

Read the news.

Open the paper or find a trustworthy and unbiased source online. Keep apprised of current events–local news, national news, global news. Information is your greatest weapon and your greatest source of empowerment. Being aware not only opens your mind, but also fortifies your strength and integrity. An informed public leads to an informed nation–and when we are armed with intelligence, our enemies lose the element of surprise. They lose the edge that propaganda gives them and the advantage of an uninformed, misinformed, easily misguided, and divided public. We are a nation–but without information comprising a steady part of our intellectual diet, we are but an aimless herd waiting for the shepherd to lead us–and then, what then is our freedom and greatness?

Get an education.

I know a higher education is not the best fit for everyone, but while you are in school, commit to it. Be passionate about it. It is your future–it is your present and instead of wasting this precious time, make the most of it. Learn arithmetic. Learn spelling and grammar. Learn history and civics, economics and government. This knowledge will lead you through life whether you move straight to the workforce or pursue further academic credentials. As important as keeping close to the news is, keeping committed to your education is a hundred times more important. An educated society is a society that advances. A society that stops advancing only perishes.

Be involved in politics.

You’ve followed the news, you’ve invested your time in education, and now you are informed and your opinion matters. Get to know your representatives. Call them. Email them. Meet them in person if you can. Keep an eye on legislation up for vote–and then give them your opinions. The lobbyists and the corporations with millions of dollars behind them will drown out your voice–unless you use it. If you speak up and speak out, if you let your representatives know how you feel and how you think, you will have a hand in shaping what this country becomes–and what greater freedom is that, to not just direct your own life, but also the life of our nation?

Vote.

Never miss an opportunity to let your opinion go unheard. Research the candidates and learn who represents what you stand for. Don’t resort to voting by partisan marksmanship–vote for who you believe will lead our country more strongly, whose views match your own. It isn’t merely your right, but your obligation to lend a hand in leading this country–and being politically active is all you need to do.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

This world may be ours now, but in a decade, in two decades, in a century, it will belong to our children and our grandchildren–and if we take this country to the edge of life support, will our future prodigy be able to bring it back? Our children follow our examples–our friends and families follow our examples–and if we can make small changes today to ensure the continuation of our country tomorrow, that is not only a necessary sacrifice but also an honorable undertaking. And it isn’t even sacrifice! It may be a tumultuous change at first–any change of habits is–but the prosperity upon the other side is even greater and the fulfillment in leaving a legacy of life-making will enrich your days till death.

Invest in renewable energy.

Not only will this encourage scientific and technological advances on home soil, it will also reduce our dependency on foreign energy sources. Once more, you will be sowing the seeds for future generations, ensuring a world in which they can live peacefully without worrying about blackouts and brownouts and shortages of fuel supplies. Let the sun and the wind guide you. There is more energy in this world than we can ever consume–we merely need to invest in harnessing this power and our oil IV will vanish.

Most importantly, be a part of our country.

Be a part of your state and your city and your neighborhood. Community, in its many forms and fragrances, is the foundation of our nation. Community comprises the strings that are woven into the fabric of our flags. Volunteer–donate your time and if you’ve got pennies to spare, donate your money to causes you support–but never just donate your money. Get out there and meet the people who share your enthusiasm. If you donate to help the homeless, volunteer in a soup kitchen. If you donate to save the animals, volunteer at the shelter. If you donate to protect the environment, volunteer cleaning up roads in the city. Join clubs and organizations. If you write, find a writer’s guild. If you’re religious, find a faith group. If you cook or paint or build things, find communities where you can share your skills with those who most appreciate them . Build relationships. Make new friends and partnerships. Network. Through the bonds of society, the musculature of America is strengthened and our resolve is fortified. Through the unity of our many layers of community, the heart of America can be seen.

September 11 was over ten years ago and I’ve gotten goosebumps every time I’ve thought about just how many people alive today, how many children and young adults today, were either too young to remember the attacks or hadn’t been born to witness them. This message is not just for those of us who were there–this message is for all of us, for all time, because only when we espouse each of these ideals can our country truly prosper.

I complain a lot about the US and especially about Americans–but I complain because I know we’re better than what we’ve become and because I’ve seen firsthand the raw potential we all possess. If we each do our part to become good citizens, if we each do our part to become a part of the whole, our whole will be greater than our sum and our product will be more amazing than the factors comprising it.

We are the United States of America.

It’s time we stand up and personify our freedom and greatness–because if we don’t, who will?

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