The first college I attended had the motto, “Freedom with responsibility.” I flunked out, but I remember the motto. I thought of it when I read Jim Jones’s column (Daily News, April 27) on the value of civics education. It was spot on. Wikipedia calls civics “the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society.” That definition suggests a balance. Recent events within our citizenry seem to emphasize “rights” rather than “obligations,” or freedom without responsibility.
Many in our country exercise their freedom to assemble peacefully while ignoring their responsibility to remain peaceful. It’s no secret that injustices abound in our society. Nor is it a secret that many sworn to uphold and enforce the law do so imperfectly. But breaking the law in the name of justice is itself unjust, particularly under the guise of exercising one’s “Constitutional rights.” I would remind anyone claiming such rights that the Constitution has been amended, interpreted and reinterpreted for more than two centuries. Even a constitutional lawyer is rarely certain just how a judge might rule in a given case.
My introduction to civics was informal. I don’t recall any classes in it. Instead, in primary school we learned how to honor the flag: Don’t let it touch the ground. Don’t let it wave after dark. Hang it a certain way. That was during World War II. God wasn’t even part of the Pledge of Allegiance. (He was finally included on Flag Day, 1954.)
But I did learn about the three independent branches of government, and their powers, established in the Preamble of our Constitution — the legislative, the executive and the judicial — and the system of checks and balances preventing any one of them from becoming dominant. Much later I learned about the “Fourth Estate,” an informal branch of government that has served to keep the other three in check: the media. Politicians sometimes curse it as “the mainstream media.”
As Wikipedia explains, the Fourth Estate refers to the function of the media “both in explicit capacity of advocacy and implicit ability to frame political issues.” Although not part of the political system, “it wields significant indirect social influence.” In a democracy, that’s critical. I learned that in the early 1960s when I started reporting for a large metropolitan daily newspaper in upstate New York. Newspapers and magazines, radio and television were the only media at that time.
Regardless of their political leanings, media were generally respected. They carried considerable weight, and most were trusted. For decades, CBS evening news ended with avuncular Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” sharing his signature sign-off with millions of viewers: “And that’s the way it is.” We trusted him. How many contemporary broadcasters do we trust?
Enter the internet and social media. Today much can be broadcast in 280 characters or in longer posts. It doesn’t have to be true; only snarky, snide, or sensational to draw millions of followers — trusting believers. Besides honesty, what’s usually lacking is nuanced context, a backstory that provides information for better understanding.
The Fourth Estate still exists in a variety of traditional media spanning the political spectrum, but now the responsibility rests on the information consumer. That’s us. Our instantaneous access to the information tsunami also includes access to means of slowing, filtering and evaluating that uncontrolled flow.
I lived in China for 11 years under an autocratic regime in which such flow doesn’t exist. Neither does choice. The people can only obey. A friend in China, a businesswoman, last week told me the pandemic is under control and things are pretty much normal there. Might it be possible to achieve the same, and more, in our American democracy?
As citizens, as voters in the longest continuous democracy in history, we’re obligated to evaluate information, to train ourselves, to learn how to analyze and filter information before we consume and digest it. We consume a lot, but it’s important to digest information that nourishes and let the rest pass through for what it is. Good information will nourish our choices, will guide our politics and ultimately will lead to a stronger, healthier democracy. We have the choice. How we exercise that civic responsibility will determine whether we succeed.