You Wanted Change? It's Time To Help Civic improvements are accomplished by individuals, not primarily in a "top down" manner. Why not ask — or at least ponder — what we can do to help?

You Wanted Change? It's Time To Help


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The Obama Moment

Held Nov. 6, 2008.

NPR's Dick Meyer hosts a live Web chat discussing the historic presidential election.

If you're not in the mood for earnest, this column is going to bug you: Fair warning.

Remember what John Kennedy said in his inaugural address in 1961: "My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

I think this is a question Americans should be asking of themselves in the wake of Barack Obama's victory. Let's not wait until Obama puts the question in his own words when he's sworn in on Jan. 20.

And, for the record, I would be writing the exact same column if John McCain had won.

If the political history of America for the past five years teaches anything, it is this: What voters give, voters taketh away. Often quickly. A mandate doesn't come from an election; it is earned and built with governing and leadership in office. For all the glow of this moment, the path ahead is uncertain.

So we ask: Can Obama deliver? Are expectations too high? Who will be the chief of staff? Will he be able to balance the party's left wing as well as its conservative Blue Dogs?

Why not ask — or at least ponder — what we can do to help? Let's get out of citizen-as-victim mode and think of giving as well as taking.

I am not talking about joining the Peace Corps or the Marines, or volunteering to pay higher taxes.

I am talking about striving in our own professions and civic lives for what we ask — what we demand and expect — our elected leaders to deliver: more integrity, less phoniness and more consideration of the community.

I'll volunteer my vocation as an example. Perhaps 95 percent of the American public thinks the news media are "part of the problem." The other 5 percent work in news or don't own televisions. Our craft is seen as tabloid, divisive, serially obsessive, gluttonous for the trivial, argumentative, biased in sneaky ways and distorted. And the market seems to be saying to us, "Go away, we won't pay!"

Is there a meaningful way for practitioners and leaders in journalism to "ask what you can do for your country"? After all, most news outfits are struggling just to survive. Doesn't that justify doing whatever it takes to grab an extra buck? Doesn't that justify MSNBC going liberal, CNN going with attitude and Fox going conservative?

These are all complicated equations, and I am simplifying. But all I am suggesting is that there are tough and unselfish questions that need to be asked in my field. Should we fight the rise of argutainment? Will we cover government with the same resources we threw at electioneering and horse-race politics? Are we using new technologies with integrity, or just looking to exploit them? I don't know any of the answers. I do know that not asking the questions is wrong. I said this was going to be earnest.

You can go through this exercise with virtually any profession, any slice of the economy and culture.

The law: Will a Democratic regime friendly to trial lawyers, combined with colossal economic wrongdoing, lead to a destructive boom in litigation? Finance: Will society's most well-compensated professionals find new ways to bottom-feed? Medicine: Will managed care continue to strangle common sense, caring care? Political parties: Will they reform themselves and the 23-month-long election process?

Parenting: Will parents be more careful rationing the time kids spend with gizmos and screens, and think more about manners, sportsmanship and reading? Being a citizen: Will we all think twice before posting angry epistles online, before complaining about politicians while being disengaged from our own smaller civic life, and before continuing to see the country as red/blue and divided — even though few people experience their communities that way?

In a nation of 300 million people with intricate, dizzying global connections and information networks, it is juvenile to think that "change" that endures can come from one man, one administration or one coalition. It is naive — not earnest — to think that civic improvement is primarily "top down."

Margaret Thatcher once said, "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

I don't quite agree, but her point is profound. Right now, despite the extraordinary economic conditions, the election of a new president should inspire us to ask small questions about big matters. Because it is the small stuff of people and families that do make and direct that big thing called society.

Sorry if that's too corny for you.