Thoughts on the death of community

On a recent evening, as I was driving home, I saw a man walking on the side of the road.

It was cold and getting dark, and the thought crossed my mind to stop and ask him if he needed a ride.

After all, I was driving in the direction he was walking. Shortly after that thought, though, my mother’s warnings against strangers flared up, and I kept driving, because this person was outside of my circle, and it is easy to be afraid of unfamiliarity.

As I kept sped on, however, the initial thought stayed with me. At the same time this scene was taking place, the news was broadcasting on the radio. It seemed to me that every story, in one way or another, with talk of the various ways in which the world is changing, dealt with the challenges facing the community, and, more importantly, the changing terms by which we define community. Needless to say, the conflict over the exact definition is some cause for contention, and, in my opinion, the most important issue that we currently face.

Most of current American political discourse is, at its core, a conversation about what defines the United States as an idea, and the ways in which this idea manifests itself at the material level of daily life. Take, to draw on one of this evening’s news stories, the issue of the border wall and the larger but connected topic of immigration. Congress right now is in the midst of a discussion regarding the national budget, and the ways in which your tax dollars will be used to define the process of becoming an American. One group argues that it is imperative to construct a physical barrier to prevent the incursion of foreign influences, while another insists that any conversation must involve a solution presented by the case of the Dreamers, who are enveloped in bureaucratic limbo. The larger issue, though, is the question of who is entitled to be an American and exercise the constitutional right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The decisions that are made to resolve these issues will reverberate through the rest of our continued existence and through every action that we as a nation will pursue in the future.

Another important issue facing our society today is the wavering faith in American institutions and a growing tendency towards the systematic disenfranchisement of people who don’t neatly fit into a certain predetermined category that is the archetypical American citizen.

Examples of this include the drawing of congressional districts to favor a specific electoral outcome, the suppression of the possibility for disadvantaged communities to access the right to vote for their own congressional representatives, or the growing general distrust of the institutions that frame our republic at a structural level and the necessary information that allows those integral democratic engines to fire. I frequently hear as justification for this breakdown that situations like this are common in the rest of the world, and that the United States should not be held to a different standard than the rest of the international community.

What I often feel is missing from these conversations is the realization that the United States of America is different than the rest of the world, because we were the first nation to exercise government of the people, for the people, and by the people, and there was a time when that was really something special. If we give up that ideal, the world will lose its guiding star.

What defines a community? How do we define who is one of us, and, more importantly, who we ourselves? There are various ways to approach these questions, although each response precludes significantly different solutions to them. European history, to which we largely owe our existence, and which some wish to reinvigorate, suggestions a definition based on shared cultural traits and physical attributes, but that history is also full of devastating wars largely a result of that exact arrangement, and is, in my opinion, two short steps away from the lingering specter of blonde hair and blue eyes.

Is there another way to define a community?

The constitution of the United States of America provides, at least in theory, an alternative, with its assurances of the freedoms of expression and self-determination and the equal consideration of everyone before the law.

What has made the United States an exceptional nation from the beginning of its existence, and the standard by which the rest of the world is judged, is the fact that the founding document of the nation guarantees to each individual, regardless of who they are or where they come from, certain inalienable rights, which are not to be violated under any circumstances provided that individual upholds the responsibilities owed to the nation as a member of the community.

The Constitution is not a declaration. It is a contract between every person who takes part in public life to keep sacred the freedom to pursue the American dream at any cost, so long as that cost does not impede the possibility of other members of the community from pursuing their own version of that dream.

What makes this contract work is that it is based on, if nothing else, mutual respect and the trust that all involved parties hold true to the values enshrined in the compromise, because if faith in the contract is broken, the entire compromise collapses to the detriment of all parties involved.

While we as a nation throughout our history have only partially realized the true potential of our constitution, we are now asked, as have people been asked in every moment in history, to define what it means to be a part of our community.

We are asked, in short, to decide whether or not the compromise made by our founding fathers still has any valuable contribution to make to the world in which we live, and whether or not we wish to live by those principles in our daily lives.

History will judge us by our choices.

Wilson Riccardo is a freelance writer based in Lock Haven. Email him at wilsonriccardo@gmail.com.

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