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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Call Me Irresponsible

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A number of years ago, during another Presidential election cycle I was talking to a co-worker about the impending vote. She was explaining to me that she always votes and that she is very serious about it, taking all the candidate’s positions into account before making up her mind. The one issue that trumped all others for her however, was a candidate’s position on abortion. No matter what else a candidate stood for, if he or she was not in favor of abortion, did not support Roe vs. Wade, they would not get her vote. On this, what was obviously to her the great moral issue of our time, she would stand her ground come what may. On a hunch I decided to examine her thinking on this just a bit and asked her what she actually thought would happen should the “worst case scenario” happen and Roe vs. Wade were to be overturned? She looked at me a bit suspiciously before regaining her poise and moral haughtiness and responded, “Abortion would become illegal.” I had thought that’s what she would say. Just to make sure I’d gotten her right I asked, “You mean all abortions in America would immediately be banned?" Without hesitation she confidently replied, “Yes”.

Her composure began to slip as I told her, “That’s not what would happen at all. If Roe is overturned, nothing would happen immediately. The issue would go back to the states where each one would decide it. The ultimate result would probably be that it would remain legal in some states, illegal in others and legal with some degree of restrictions in yet others.
You have based every vote you’ve cast on an issue you don’t understand at all, which means every vote you’ve cast has been uninformed.”

At this point her composure had disappeared altogether to be replaced by a prickly defensiveness and the assertion that I was wrong. I told her to research it and she’d see that I was right. I knew she wouldn’t bother and dropped it.


My little encounter with my morally righteous but factually impaired co-worker wouldn’t be particularly compelling if it were just an aberration, one woman’s lack of civic preparedness. But it is not. In America today, with (thanks to the internet) mountains of information literally a finger-tap away there are still millions of people stepping into the voting booth without a clue.

In 2006 only twenty-eight percent of Americans could name two of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Other recent polls reveal similar findings: Only twenty-four percent knew the names of two of the nine Supreme Court justices. One third of us can’t name a single branch of the Federal Government. And disturbingly, almost fifty percent of Americans under thirty have late night comedy shows as their major source of news.

Try an experiment: ask some relatives, co-workers, friends to name the US Attorney General; if pollution is getting better or worse in the US (correct answer: better), the difference between Congressmen and Senators, what does the Federal Reserve do? The likelihood of getting a large number of correct answers is small, very small.

The public is forever complaining about government, about how it is inefficient, expensive, wasteful, etc but the gross ignorance of the electorate calls into question who deserves more of the blame for the deficiencies of the government; the people’s elected representatives or the people themselves?

The founding fathers were aware of the importance of a well informed electorate. James Madison wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." "The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents," Thomas Jefferson said. "There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information."

Voting is a right but all too frequently when people exercise that right they do so without the recognition that nothing comes free, including their constitutional rights. Attendant to our rights is our responsibility to exercise them responsibly. My pro-abortion co-worker was very eager to vote, but she did so like an overweight person who orders the most caloric selection on the menu, showing no responsibility and obliviously complaining about the unpleasant results of her actions.

So when next you hear someone complaining about the “mess in Washington” you might want to ask them a few simple civics questions. When they come up dry, you could remind them that as Shakespeare said, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…”. But if you do be ready, because you may have to explain who Shakespeare is, too.

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