Not long ago, essayist and critic William Deresiewicz started a blog at the website of The American Scholar, the journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Deresiewicz is valuable not only for the answers he offers but the questions he asks, as in a recent post called “Words to Live By.”
“Who are we, anyway? Collectively, I mean — politically, as Americans. Whom do we believe we are?” Deresiewicz asks.
He observes that Americans seem most frequently described as consumers. “Which means what? That our main job, in this enterprise that we all share, is to use stuff up.”
When Americans aren’t being described as consumers, they often answer to the term, “taxpayers.” Paying taxes is important, of course, but as Deresiewicz suggests, if that is the only thing Americans are called, then it reduces government to a business transaction.
Americans can also be thought of as voters, but that term describes only those who bother to show up at the polls.
“The missing word, the word we never use, is citizens,” Deresiewicz adds. “Citizens are active. Citizens do more than express a preference every other year. Citizens don’t just look after themselves, they take responsibility for the collective good. … Maybe if we saw ourselves as citizens, then that is what we might become.”
We think that distinction is important to keep in mind as another national election season gets under way. It’s a reminder that as we seek more accountability for our leaders, we should seek equal accountability in the citizenry to which we all belong — or should belong.