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…And he is us

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There’s an old story which comically identifies what could be the problem facing our country today.

A man standing on the corner of one of the busiest intersections of a major city holds a clipboard in hand. When a well-dressed, obviously intelligent individual approaches, the man steps forward and says:

“Pardon me, sir. I’m conducting a survey for a national firm and I’d like to ask you a question. Do you think the problem with our government and politics today is public ignorance or apathy?”

Without hesitation, the individual questioned replies, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

There’s no doubt a very large percentage of we, the great unwashed, feel the same way. And that may be, according to The Bard, wherein lies the rub. What we know and what we care about where our government and those tasked with its operation are concerned seems to be shrinking each day.

In fact, a recent test shows that what many Americans know about the government’s history and its operation falls in a category somewhere between ignorance and apathy. The little test administered is that which anyone wanting to become a citizen of this country must pass. It’s a little sad that those who want to call the United States their country know more about us than many of us know about ourselves.

Some time ago, Newsweek asked 1,000 Americans to take the test. Sadly, 38 percent of those failed. Sure, that also means that 62 percent passed but it is a rather sad commentary on what we know about this land we call home. An even sadder statistic: How many local, state or national elections have had a 62 percent turnout? Whether it’s voting or passing a general knowledge test on our country, that’s not impressive.

Perhaps we should cut those who did not pass a little slack. Maybe the questions were simply too hard for anyone with less than a PhD in history. Well…

33 percent of those taking the test did not know the significance of the date July 4, 1776.

When asked what happened at the Constitutional Convention, only 35 percent knew it was conducted to write the Constitution. Allegedly, eight percent thought it was an IRS annual meeting.

Only 27 percent taking the test knew that Communism was the major concern during the Cold War. Sources say 18 percent thought the Cold War was combating climate change.

Just 39 percent knew U.S. Senators were elected to six-year terms while only 14 percent knew the U.S. House of Representatives had 435 members. Congratulations to the five percent who said Senators served “too long” and the House had “too many” politicians.

Finally, only one-third of those tested knew the United States operated under a capitalist or market economy system. The remainder thought the country’s economic system was “a mess.”

The once popular quiz show “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader” proved that even some of the most intelligent among us are not. Your humble observer doesn’t think it’s an indication the national IQ is on a downward spiral. I do think it shows our priorities are more personal than collective.

In other words, we are concerned with only our little sphere surrounding immediate family and self, which means if it doesn’t pinch my booty it does no harm. And with this attitude, we grant unto others the power to influence our lives to the very core.

Nothing brings about change and ensures the fruits of democracy more than an informed public. Thomas Jefferson understood this when he said democracy demands an educated and informed electorate. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Jefferson said.

As we Americans watch and listen, we would do well to remember a couple of other quotes from individuals whose contributions to our nation are matchless.
Jefferson: “The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits,” and “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Are you listening, hired hands?

Benjamin Franklin: “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”

Last, but certainly not least, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Complain as we will, the problem really isn’t in D.C. It is, as evidenced by the Newsweek test of a couple of years ago, our seeming lack of interest in from where we have come and who we are. We are Americans. Nothing should be impossible, and that includes exercising our right to govern those we choose to govern.

Again, Jefferson: “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

Pat Culverhouse is a journalist and political columnist who lives in Minden.