I was once in a Latin American country that shall remain unnamed, when a fire broke out in the house next door. I ran out to see if anyone was inside — luckily the place was empty. After running back into my house, I brought out a bucket of water in a pathetic effort to try to put out the fire. Amazingly, it worked — or rather, after a spectacular beginning, the fire somehow sputtered out.
Early in the proceedings, I turned around to find the entire population of my neighborhood out in the street, looking at the fire, smiling and laughing as if it were a TV show. They didn’t know the house was empty, and they didn’t seem to care. They did nothing to interfere with my feeble bucket-carrying efforts, but they did nothing to help, either, prefering to observe the peformance, guest starring yours truly, as if from a great and unbridgeable distance.
Later, I asked myself why they had behaved so bizarrely. These were good people, but they lacked a sense of neighborliness. The country was poor. Extended families shared with each other the last crumb of bread. But the idea of assisting someone just because of an accident of geography — because he lived next door — never entered anyone’s mind. Helping strangers was the government’s job.
It’s hard to imagine such a scene here. Americans routinely help each other, and any exception makes the news. The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese became and remains famous because, according to the press, 38 neighbors watched the murder but refused to “get involved.” In fact, the New York Times story that pushed the Genovese murder into the national limelight was riddled with inaccuracies, not least about the witnesses. But the reporter knew what he was doing: murder is commonplace, but Americans failing to assist a neighbor is shocking, an assault on the very foundations of our way of life.
Liberal democracy, American-style, entails the limitation of government. To anyone acquainted with history, the justifying principle is sound: sooner or later, great power will be abused, and no power has ever been greater than that of the modern state. The counterbalance to state power is civil society: the voluntary association of individuals engaged both in public and private pursuits. These include school PTA’s and drama clubs, as well as advocacy groups, political parties, commercial enterprises, sports, the arts, church, charity, and pretty much everything that makes life worth living.
How does this vast array of associations function, absent the compulsion of the law? In writing about the virtues a people require to remain free, I have touched on self-rule and self-reliance. These are inward, defensive virtues that protect the citizen’s individual character. Civil society is borne on the shoulders of people who possess a different kind of virtue, one that is active, engaged, cheerfully outward-directed: public-mindedness.
The public-minded person is a natural aristocrat, who thinks of others’ needs ahead of his own. Without sense of sacrifice, he donates his time to organize and administer activities he considers important to the health of his community, whether as volunteer fireman, church elder, or Little League coach. He has no wish for power or status — if these are the motives driving him into civil society, he will become a drag on its progress, and a pest to his neighbors. The person who is truly public-minded just sees a job that needs to be done, and steps forward to do it.
The public-minded person is a good neighbor. He will organize block parties and the neighborhood watch, and keep an eye on your kids when they appear to be straying too far, and feed your dog while you are away. The probability that he won’t run to help if your house catches fire is exactly zero. He is also a good — and necessary — member of his community, supporting the schools and helping to run the activities that enrich the students’ lives, volunteering at the firehouse, raising the money to build the assisted living home, organizing the local orchestra.
The public-minded person is a good citizen, particularly at the local level. Now, the media often applauds a misconceived image of public-minded citizenship. The latter is identified with taking strong stands on national issues, advocating one position against another, and almost always participating in protests: against abortion, for example, or the Iraq war.
But that is zealotry, not public-mindedness, and among the Baby Boomers (I’m talking about my generation) it’s really just a matter of striking poses. Another misconception is that public-mindedness consists of reading a lot of newspapers and keeping up with world affairs. That’s a harmless hobby, but if pursued seriously it becomes a kind of lunacy, like that of the man who thought he was Napoleon.
Public-mindedness works only on home ground, where one’s feet are planted. The public-minded citizen navigates through the tangle of local laws and zoning regulations, identifies problems, and works harmoniously with elected officials to resolve them. The laws and regulations, no less than the problems, are rarely covered by our hopelessly ignorant media. This makes the value of the public-minded person that much greater.
Every American must share of this virtue to some extent, or the way of life we enjoy today will perish. To retain its strength against the push and power of government, civil society requires a lot of foot soldiers. Yet we are lucky to have among us, in every community, exceptional individuals — five-star generals of public-mindedness who happily lead the rest of us in building a future worthy of our past.
The very best give their lives to the occasion. The ordinary Americans of flight 93 who rebelled against their hijackers and prevented a catastrophe in Washington — they were of this class, the most courageous, the very best. And if the virtue of public-mindedness were to have a motto, it would be Todd Beamer’s words from that desperate moment, when government help was nowhere to be found: “Let’s roll.”