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A Civic Obligation

by William McGaughey

 

One of the duties of citizenship is to vote in elections. Another, I think, is to do whatever one can to expose wrongdoing in government where one has direct knowledge of such things. This second obligation requires clarification.

Let’s suppose that government officials have abused me in some way. Ideally, there would be a place where I could complain and the wrong would be corrected. But the world does not always work that way. In fact, it seldom does.

A problem is that it may not be to my personal advantage to complain. In many people’s eyes, I would be a whiner. Unless given a compelling reason, people tend to believe the government.

The winning posture for a comer in any field or situation is to be someone with an aura of success who can attract other people’s support. People like to support winners. Complainers are losers. They are self-pitying nobodies.

Nevertheless, my opinion is that people who are abused by the government ought to complain. Otherwise, how would anyone know that the government has done anything wrong? The first step toward ending abusive government is to let the public know why and how the government is abusive. There must be credible, first-hand testimony.

This is the principle upon which Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee operated. We would hold monthly televised meetings and sometimes testify at public hearings. Our ideal guest at the monthly meeting was someone who had been abused by Minneapolis inspections, the police, or another government agency and was willing to talk about it. Witnesses with first-hand experience are the most credible kind. You can read some of their stories at http://www.landlordpolitics.com/horrorstories.html.

Unfortunately, it was hard to find such guests. Plenty of landlords in Minneapolis had been abused by city government. Far fewer were willing to talk about it. Therefore, it was a treat when we did find someone with the courage to be on our show. We assumed that the others were afraid of city officials. They were afraid of retaliation by city inspectors. However, it may simply have been that they did not want to become involved. They put their personal comfort and reputation above the possibility that government wrong doing might end if they and, hopefully, others testified.

Abusive government perpetuates itself by intimidation as much as by force. People are afraid of sticking up for themselves and thereby antagonizing the powerful officials. But each of us has the power to do that; and sometimes government will be forced to back down.

Recognize, however, that there is a difference between what one perceives as abusive government and just punishment. I may think I was unfairly treated though I did something wrong. Yet, I have the ability to be honest with myself. If the fault lies with me, there is no use in wasting other people’s time with complaints. If I lie to myself, why would anyone else be interested in what I have to say? Still, government on all levels is becoming increasingly abusive. If I can honestly claim government abuse and through its exposure hope to improve community life, there is no point to blaming myself.

The right thing to do is to speak out. Tell your story. Risk letting other people see what you have done. Let them also see what has been done to you. Ultimately, we all answer to ourselves or to God.

Realistically, it takes a long, protracted struggle to thwart government corruption. It takes the testimony of more than one person. Otherwise people will tend to believe the government and think you are lying. Yes, unless they have compelling evidence to the contrary, people will tend to believe the elected officials. These people have impressive communication skills as evidenced by their election to public office.

Therefore, I prefer to view this situation in terms of a civic obligation. I say to myself that I must tell others of what I have experienced even if they may not believe me. They may believe the next person who comes along with a similar story; or, if not that person, the next after him. I cannot control whether or not people believe me; and I certainly cannot control whether others in a similar situation are willing to talk. I can only have faith that our democratic system of government has the capacity to correct itself if people give personal testimony regarding abuses they have witnessed or experienced. My responsibility for civic decency is limited to what I myself can control.

This has become my own principle of good citizenship. I have seen how people testifying at meetings of the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee turned public opinion around in Minneapolis so that different people were elected to municipal offices in the 2001 election. So I know that personal testimony, if offered, can be effective.

The proof of the pudding has been that I have been willing to risk my own reputation. For instance, I have written a complete and detailed account of my two arrests for domestic abuse. (See http://www.billmcgaughey.com/domesticabuse.html.) Domestic abusers are not respected figures. I have also written a detailed narrative of a messy divorce that I have just completed, reflecting upon judicial practices. (See http://www.billmcgaughey.com/divorcebook.html.) And, of course, I have written about my problems with city housing inspectors and police when I first became a landlord (See communitypolicing1.)

Sometimes I wonder if, from the standpoint of advancing myself in this world, it is a good idea to risk my personal reputation by complaining of government abuse. The answer is that, while it may not be, I no longer care. I am a 74-year-old man of reduced personal ambition who feels better about telling the truth than burnishing my reputation. I simply tell myself that it is my civic duty to let people know if I have experienced or witnessed government abuse. I want to believe there are honest and decent people who will respond to such disclosures in the same spirit. Otherwise, how can I expect the abuse ever to be corrected? Accurate and complete information is a prerequisite of good government.

Sometimes people will not believe you. You risk being shunned by the herd. I am not suggesting that people go on a suicide mission for the sake of better government. But I do suggest that each one of us has a civic duty to give it a try. Tell your story and you have done your duty. Have at least a modicum of faith in your fellow citizens. Then, if your initiative is rebuffed or ignored, let go. You know what you have done; and that's all that counts.

To tell the truth about government abuse involves a certain degree of self-sacrifice or, as they say, demonstrates belief in something bigger than yourself. But let me suggest there are selfish reasons, too, for doing this. If someone has wronged me, I naturally become angry. I have an ongoing internal discussion about the injury with an eye to revenge. However, there is no realistic way that I alone can gain revenge against the government. It is just too big. (But for all its power, government cannot stop people from thinking their real thoughts.)

To tell the truth about government abuse to one’s fellow citizens, deliberately and thoroughly, purges oneself of anger and frustration. I know that I have done all I could. Either my message resonates with others or it does not. And so, I gain closure on the injury and the anger. I can objectify the situation. I can regain emotional control. My remaining life will not be wasted in bitterness. I can be at peace with myself. And that’s all that counts.

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