Asking Not What Their Country Can Do For Them

Commentary

Is David G. Booth what I meant?

Last week's column suggested that for voters who wanted change, it's put up or shut up time. We're adults and shouldn't be waiting for Barack Obama to tell us in his inaugural address that we need to ask what we can do for our country. We should get started on own and look for our own ways, large and small, to pitch in. It's a big country, 300 million people, in a complicated global economy. One president, one administration, can only do so much. If you want change, roll up your sleeves.

The next day, Booth gave $300 million to his alma mater, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, now the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Booth apparently took his B-school lessons and started a hugely successful investment firm, Dimensional Fund Advisors. Now he wants to give back.

Bestowing such a grand sum on the education of future investment bankers, hedge fund analysts and C-level corporate executives, I confess, struck me as an odd form of charity. The young and wily wizards of the Chicago business school are destined to be among the most privileged in society. Perhaps their riches will trickle down.

But after reading the comments on my column, and the e-mails I received in response, I decided to lighten up. My point was we all have something to give, be it to our closest kin, our colleagues, our neighbors, a soup kitchen, a big charity or a business school. Readers got this loud and clear, and I thought some of their comments were well worth sharing.

"For too long have we voters exerted all our energy on getting our magical candidates to win important positions of political power and only to sit back awaiting their miracle-working powers," Shirley Atkins wrote. "The actions of a few politicians in Washington are sure to disappoint those yearning for a wave of action."

Exactly. Realizing that is called civic maturity. "We are not 'consumers' of democracy," Jennifer McLean rightly reminded. "We are the democracy. Why complain about the government when we are the government?" Now, some complaining and protesting keeps democracy working, of course, but chronic whining is another story.

Since times are hard, candidates — Obama included — use the word "sacrifice." Jon Revere thinks that's a mistake.

"It isn't a sacrifice. It's a contribution," Revere wrote. "With each contribution we receive, in turn, a better world for ourselves and our children. We're not giving anything up when we receive such great things in return." Social scientists have now proven Revere and that bit of folk wisdom correct: It actually is better to give than receive.

"People want to sacrifice, if you call getting involved a sacrifice," according to Bob Flynn. "Call it idealistic crap if you want, but people want to be involved. They want to have a stake in the success of their country." But this is no easy chore in a society where people are so mobile, so often unattached to the places they live, and where politics and civic life, as practiced on TV, is so unattractive.

The point, then, is to find personal, practical and meaningful ways to be "involved" or to plant one's "stake." From Christian Williams: "As a stay-at-home parent of an early teen and a pre-tween, I'm proud to contribute by continuing to limit screen time, emphasizing manners and reading."

But the way civic life is portrayed in all our media bothers many readers.

"What struck me the most was how much more divided we are in this country because of the level of communications we now have," Brandon Wilkinson wrote. "It is harder for regular folks to find common ground because we have all been drawn into these arguments in Washington and people feel they have to take sides."

Other readers found my pre-inaugural pitch irritating and biased. "A related question is, 'What did you do for our country over the past eight years, during which the left worked nonstop to demonize President Bush?' " Mark Clark asked me in an e-mail. "In contrast to the hatred and venom spread openly (and promoted in the mainstream media) in the past, I think you will find — for the most part — people will give President Obama a chance."

He has a point; the press tends to be kinder and gentler until the first pitch is thrown. That is true for most any new president. It was less true for George W. Bush because he lost the popular vote and there were a couple of problems in the state of Florida. But after Sept. 11, President Bush had his moment.

There are starting points and turning points in history. A new presidency is a starting point; we won't know if it's a turning point for many years. If people are inspired by this starting point, it is more likely to be a turning point: If not for the country, then for themselves, their families and their communities.

And if you're looking to give away $300 million, well, give me a ring.

[Note: The names of the readers came from e-mails and comments on NPR.org and have not been verified. Some comments were edited for spelling and grammar. If you prefer e-mail to commenting here, my address is editorial.director@npr.org.]

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.