Why I am complaining about rights this 4th of July
In the tapestry of our democratic society, the rights we hold dear form the vibrant colors that paint our lives with possibility. Every day, I embrace these rights, acknowledging their profound influence on who we are and what we can become. They are the pillars that uphold our shared existence and shape our collective destiny.
Yet, on this 4th of July let us not forget that with rights come responsibilities. Just as nature relies on the interplay of sun and rain, the delicate balance between rights and responsibilities nurtures a thriving democracy. The true strength of a nation lies not only in the breadth of its rights but in the wisdom and conscientiousness with which we exercise them. It is through the delicate interplay of rights and responsibilities that we forge a society of shared prosperity, compassion, and progress.
One of the most famous quotes from an American politician is “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy called on citizens to address the challenges facing the nation by embracing their responsibilities.
Kennedy’s call to our citizens rings as true today as it did in 1961. More than ever we need people willing to take up the responsibilities of citizenship.
Recently my organization, Earth Force, hosted a group of young environmental activists in a discussion of why they are working to tackle the enormous issues facing us. To a person these young people said that they are committed to being involved in environmental policy making because it is their responsibility. They said things like, “It is really important that young people be equipped to play a role in policy making” and “It is important for youth to be involved in environmental action because we are the generation whose future is going to be shaped by the decisions made today”.
It is probably not a coincidence that I am reading a new book by Richard Haas entitled The Bill of Obligations. Haas argues that one of the challenges that we face as a country is our almost cultish focus on the rights bestowed by our founding documents, with little consideration of a citizen’s obligations to a country. His cure is “to place obligations on the same footing as rights”. The point is that while rights are incredibly important, as Haas reminds us, democracy only works if we also recognize our responsibilities.
I believe that the bedrock of democracy is active participation. By engaging in civic activities, citizens exercise their rights and influence the decision-making processes that shape their communities and the nation as a whole.
In particular, citizen participation allows individuals to have a voice in shaping public policies and determining societal priorities. By expressing their opinions, concerns, and needs, citizens contribute to the democratic deliberation and decision-making processes. This helps ensure that policies reflect the diverse perspectives and interests of the population and address the most pressing issues facing society.
Nowhere is this more important than in addressing climate change. Civic participation plays a vital role in influencing policy decisions related to climate change. By actively engaging with policymakers, attending public hearings, and advocating for sustainable policies and practices, citizens can shape the political agenda and push for stronger, more equitable climate action. Through collective action, citizens can bring about policy changes at the local, national, and international levels.
Maintaining a delicate equilibrium between rights and responsibilities is essential for the effective operation of a democratic and inclusive society. Focusing exclusively on individual rights without considering citizen responsibilities can pose challenges to the long-term sustainability of American democracy. Active citizen engagement, collective decision-making, and a shared commitment to the common good are essential for democratic institutions to thrive. Balancing rights and responsibilities are crucial to maintaining trust, accountability, and representation in a democratic system.
On this 247th anniversary of the birth of our nation, let our celebrations ignite more than fireworks. Let us instead ignite a blazing commitment, a dedication to our shared responsibilities. Stand tall, embody the essence of an active citizen, and let the very principles that define our great nation be the catalyst that inspires you to contribute relentlessly to the forward march of progress and the unyielding pursuit of equity in our society.