It was the first year of the Greek Civil War, a conflict that would destroy the nation from the inside out. Pericles, Athens’ elected leader, was giving a eulogy on winter’s day in 431 B.C. for a number of fallen soldiers. He spoke of Athens’ citizens as “fair judges of public matters” and stated that, “unlike any other nation, we regard the citizen who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless.” He went on to say Athens’ system of government, the political activism and patriotism, made them exceptional. He spoke, of course, of civil responsibility. “In short, I say that as a city we are the School of Hellas.”
It is a speech I read every election cycle and I think about the School of Hellas: a collective belief in democracy, critical thinking and an active citizenry. I always try to remind myself that a democratic republic does not run itself. It takes work and not the work of the few but the work of the many. It is the responsibility of the citizen to take care and keep his or her country’s set of democratic ideals. Unfortunately, many Americans do not feel the weight of this responsibility or share a sense of actual patriotism (somehow flying a flag on the back of your car passes for it these days). Many Americans do not want to care for their own citizens with social welfare programs, and less than 1 percent of Americans join the military.
If the United States’ 2016 election turnout matched that of our French counterparts, it would have been our best since 1896. We have not even passed the 60 percent margin since 1968. Voting is an essential democratic duty not carried out by half the country. Free speech finds itself under attack at college campuses and only around 30 percent of Americans believe it is essential to live in a democracy. One in six believe military governance would be “good” or “very good.” An accused child molester lost by a paper-thin margin in Alabama, and Georgia’s 6th district was lost to a woman who supports voter suppression. The School of Hellas finds itself at risk, but do not let this make you cynical. Almost 70 percent of Americans now read a newspaper. The Women’s March last January was one of the largest in United States history and an unprecedented number of women have reached out about running for office. Americans are paying more attention. This success is due to a national recognition of civil responsibility, but don’t let this make you complacent. There is still work to be done, and we always need people to do it.
The School of Hellas did not fall with the Athenian Democracy. It declared independence in Philadelphia, stared down Confederates at Antietam, passed the New Deal legislation, landed on the beaches of Normandy, marched over the bridge at Selma and followed this writer marching with a full bladder on Central Park West at this year’s Women’s March. We are now the headmasters of the School of Hellas. It is not time for us to be cynical or complacent, lest we become useless. In a way, it’s the same job we’ve always had. “You, their survivors, must determine to have as unaltering a resolution in field,” said Pericles over the Athenian dead. “My task is now finished.” As citizens we must pick up the baton of Pericles and run with it, because the most essential office in a democracy is an active, motivated and participatory citizen. However, make sure to always pee before you march.
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