POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Don't Be an Idiot

by David Trumbull

July 24, 2009

We have become a nation of observers and consumers. We buy (or illegally download) our music rather than entertain ourselves, we watch Dancing with the Stars rather than going out to the few dance venues for anyone over the age of 22. We vote in smaller numbers than before and when we vote we make our decision based on slick television advertisements, not on personal participation in political organizations. State and local political committees struggle to recruit members. Time was in America when attending political meetings and listening to “stump” speeches were highly popular leisure-time activities, just as was listening to, and critiquing, sermons. It’s time we take back control of our lives, make our own decisions, and learn again how to enjoy time passed with friends in conversation, active sports, or entertaining each other.

The just over nine percent voter turnout in the last election held here in Boston suggests that the “Athens of America” is far from the idealized democracy of ancient Athens. Under the laws of Solon, an Athenian could be stripped of his citizenship for failing to participate in public affairs. Fifth century Athenian leader Pericles, in his oft quoted funeral oration over the dead fallen in battle, said:

“Our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless.”

Or as a less literal translation puts it bluntly:

“Here each citizen is interested not only in their own affairs but in the affairs of the city…we do not say that a person who takes no interest in politics is a person who minds his own business; we say that this person has no business here at all.”

The Greeks even had a word for such private citizens who minded their own business while neglecting the business of the commonwealth; it’s a word still in use, although the meaning has shifted a bit—the word was IDIOT. Don’t be an idiot!

[David Trumbull is the chairman of the Boston Ward Three Republican Committee. Boston's Ward Three includes the North End, West End, part of Beacon Hill, downtown, waterfront, Chinatown, and part of the South End.]