According to the National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach: “Citizenship is hard. It takes a commitment to listen, watch, read, and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another.”
While he’d be too polite to agree with me, by his own measure Jim Leach is the quintessential citizen.
We had the distinct pleasure to spend a day last week learning a thing or two about citizenship from this man who’s had a lot of practice at it, 30 years in Congress and all. Taking a page from Paul Revere – although with a gentlemanly preference toward intentionally less fanfare in the ride, possibly more of a William Dawes (who I admittedly would know nothing about were it not for Lea Marshall and Malcolm Gladwell.… bless them both…) – Leach is setting out to visit every single one of these United States to tell us a thing or two about the high bar that citizenship demands.
While he will be characteristically gentle in the telling, it just could be that a test of citizenship is coming, a test of citizenship is coming.
Leach served at a time when tense work week Congressional fights were followed by weekend signs of friendship across the aisle and probably a bipartisan backyard bar-b-que or two and then, in turn as a democracy demands, another round of philosophical fighting. He served when relationships among legislators were what Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart, refers to as “cross-cutting.” These public servants could be on one “side” here and another “side” there as they went about the business of building a country (which they understood to be their job)… leaving noticeably less room for the evil “they” that seems to have so effectively eclipsed the common “we” just about everywhere these days.
Except we isn’t common at all when it’s part of “We the People,” it is something we should treat with reverence and care. According to Leach, “[c]ertain frameworks of thought define rival ideas. Other frameworks describe enemies.”
It isn’t just anybody who can commit to our historical tradition of complex cross-cutting relationships to serve a greater end. It isn’t just any country that builds itself on such a challenging principle.
There are those who are bonded to our founders because our founders were angry, chafing at authoritarian British rule for freedom.
But the big audacious and nearly-insane-had-it-not-been-so-wildly-successful essence of our founders was so much more than angry. These were men of profound ideas who believed that, despite all of human history before them, “we, the (plain old average) people” could be the boss.
They were willing to sit uncomfortably at the crossroads of ideas, where the comfort of convictions stood regularly challenged and the luxury of entirely dismissing rival ideas probably edged you a wee bit closer to being hung by the king. They had to sit at a knife’s edge, weighing one idea against another in constant struggle for excellence and results. These men had to bring their “A” game to their revolution, and indeed they did. And by challenging ideas as they stayed connected to each other, they made something magnificent.
They made America the City on the Hill in the world no matter what anyone says (thank you very much).
And it is public servants like Jim Leach who carry on their tradition. Please listen to his speech. What is 20 minutes when a country you love may depend on it?
The bad news is that “We the People” cannot be the boss if we’re unwilling to do the hard work of citizenship. The good news is that we come by it naturally.
Like riding a bicycle I hope.
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org