In a skit he calls “Jaywalking,” Jay Leno goes around southern California, asking people simple questions like, “Who is the president right now?” Much to the stupefaction and entertainment of the audience, the person will give some off-the-wall, totally incorrect answer.
Occasionally, Jay will take the most inept of these morons into his studio for “Battle of the Jaywalk All-Stars.” A recent epic battle of these minds of unparalleled genius presented a picture of President Jimmy Carter with the question, “Who is this?”
Not one person could answer this question, a feat of absolute hilarity to the audience. For me, while funny, it was also disgusting and even a little scary. While they aren’t representative of the whole population of Americans, there are many people who are totally clueless when it comes to political history and current events.
Could you tell me who’s secretary of state or in charge of the FBI? Could you pick out Iraq on a map?
If you could answer any of these, I applaud you. But could you talk about, in an educated conversation, the issues facing our country today? The vast majority of Americans, I’m sure, could not.
America has lost something. Instead of going out and voting we say, “My vote won’t do anything,” or, “I don’t have time to register and vote.” When we are presented with two candidates, we scoff and say, “They’re both criminals; what’s the point?”
This isn’t how it always was. True, there has never been a time of 100 percent voter participation. But at one time, people voting knew what the issues were.
What has America lost? Its civic virtue. When I speak of civic virtue, I mean being knowledgeable citizens, but also being active members of a community. There was a time when our sense of civic virtue was what set our nation apart from all others. One of my professors relayed to us a story from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.
De Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, describes how, in America, if a tree falls on a road, citizens would come out with saws and remove it. In France, he contrasts, the people would simply wait for the Ministry of Tree Removal to come take it away.
Today, we would wait for county workers to come take the tree away. We sit in our houses, glued to the television or Internet. Neighborhoods that resembled the ones in Leave it to Beaver turn into neighborhoods like The ‘Burbs with neighbors looking over each other’s fences, but without the comedy.
This loss of civic virtue is best reflected in politics today. Political scandals and political scoundrels, most recently the soon-to-be-former senator, Bob Torricelli, have alienated the average citizen from believing in the ability of the government to do good.
The Democrats and Republicans put up candidates, and like lemmings, we run in a pack to the person with which we most identify, even if that identification is only marginal.
De Tocqueville, nearly 170 years ago, theorized on what would happen if we ever lost our civic virtue. He said that a large unfeeling government would rule and that special interests and big businesses would buy out politicians.
It’s doubtful, many would argue that, while not there yet, America is well on its way to this odious reality.
Joe Roma is a senior majoring in political firstname.lastname@example.org