Democracy Means Getting Off the Couch

President Barack Obama pauses after placing a wreath at Arlington Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. (AP Phot
President Barack Obama pauses after placing a wreath at Arlington Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In our best moments, we Americans aspire to be the City upon a Hill -- not the imperious, narcissistic City upon a Hill claiming God-given rights to assert global hegemony, but rather the humble, ever-evolving City upon a Hill, spreading hope with our democratic experiment.

Recently, however, it feels like we're the City of Apoplectic People Yelling at Each Other and Stockpiling Weapons.

Upon a Hill.

And that's how the plutocrats like it.

In 1961, eleven days before his inauguration, John F. Kennedy said:

The eyes of all people are truly upon us -- and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill -- constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.

He proposed specific qualities he and other elected officials must strive to embody to maintain this great trust:

Courage -- judgment -- integrity -- dedication... [and here's the kicker] with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim [italics mine], but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest.

Wow. That sounds pretty good right about now. (And even better if you listen to that wicked awesome Massachusetts accent!) Note that in this soaring expression of our democracy's ideals, JFK did NOT recommend elected officials be "devoted solely to serving the corporate good and the private moneyed interest."

Which brings us back to Americans yelling at one another and stockpiling weapons. There's a reason "Orwellian" is a word and it's not just because "Blairian" doesn't sound good. While you were in English class reading Eric Blair, aka George Orwell's 1984 as a terrifying cautionary tale about what happens when there is too much power in the hands of too few, the kid next to you was reading it as an instruction manual. And one of the most effective techniques in 1984: A Step-by-Step Guide for Oligarchs! is "distract the Proles." Whenever Ann Coulter goes on a diatribe, it is not just red meat for the Right, it is a red herring for the Left. The ensuing outrage pulls another thread from the fabric of our nation's soul.

Other tactics Orwell warns against and/or suggests are historical revisionism (too much regulation caused our economy to collapse!) 24/7 propaganda (a certain cable news network), and perpetual war: Eastasia, Eurasia, Afghanistan, Iraq, "Terror," and most effective of all, Red and Blue. The ceaseless reminders of our differences in the Not United States have not only kept us distracted and on edge, they have served to squelch meaningful dialogue. The weather was once the least controversial topic possible, the go-to icebreaker with strangers. But then, because a few fossil fuel executives had a kabillion dollars, it became not-okay to mention that daffodils were coming up in December because that might offend someone.

Currently, the gun lobby is taking a turn at stirring the pot. But something is going wrong. It is not working as it has in the past. Maybe it's because Occupy Wall Street held the curtain up longer than ever before. Maybe it's because Mitt Romney kept opening the curtain himself by mistake. Maybe it's because, after Newtown, a nation's shared anguish and grief exposed manufactured outrage for the hollow experience it is.

Officials "at every level" are still bought and paid for, as you know if you've watched any episode of Bill Moyers ever. We the People must ultimately address this if we are to renew our democracy and again aspire "to be as a city upon a hill." We must refuse to be polarized. We must not permit ourselves to be cowed but must also resist being smug or self-righteous. We must speak respectfully and listen carefully. We must recognize that there's a very good chance your fellow citizen enjoys internet cat videos just as much as you do.

We managed to elect a president in 2008 who was not the first choice of the moneyed interests. We managed to re-elect him in 2012. And against all odds, this president seems to possess that rare combination of qualities JFK called for: courage, judgment, integrity, dedication.

Six days before his second inauguration, regarding proposed gun control legislation, President Obama said:

This will be difficult. There will be pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty -- not because that's true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they'll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.

... I will put everything I've got into this -- and so will Joe -- but I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.

This is the flip side of democracy's coin. This is the moral courage we celebrate on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This is Obama's "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." I'm pretty sure it means that instead of simply signing petitions or Liking One Million Moms 4 Gun Control, I'm going to need to march. The privilege of living in a true democracy, the City upon a Hill, might just mean I have to get up off the couch.